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Jewish Journal

A peek at ordinary lives in modern Russia

by Tom Tugend

April 5, 2011 | 6:38 pm

Olga smoking in her kitchen in Moscow, from the documentary film “My Perestroika,” by Robin Hessman. Photo courtesy of Red Square Productions.

Olga smoking in her kitchen in Moscow, from the documentary film “My Perestroika,” by Robin Hessman. Photo courtesy of Red Square Productions.

What happens to members of a generation when all the seemingly immutable verities of their childhoods are turned upside down?

Suppose you are in your late 30s or early 40s and are suddenly told that everything you learned in school about American democracy and its Founding Fathers was a lie.

Such abstract questions seem ready-made for a seminar at an American Psychological Society meeting but come to vibrant life in the documentary “My Perestroika.”

The film deals with the mind-bending reversal confronted by the generation of Russians who grew up under the communist regime, then saw the breakup of the Soviet Union, followed by capitalism run amok and now a milder form of the old authoritarianism.

Credit for the film goes mainly to Robin Hessman, a triple-threat as producer, director and cinematographer, who lived and studied in Moscow during eight of the stormiest years in modern Russian history.

She tracks the lives of five Muscovites, classmates from first grade on, through extensive black-and-white home movies of their childhoods to probing color interviews in the present.

Her primary subjects are Borya Meyerson and his wife, Lyuba, both history teachers in one of the city’s best schools; Ruslan, a former punk-rock star in the band NAIV; Olga, the prettiest girl in class and now a single mother working for a billiard table rental company; and Andrei, a self-made capitalist who owns a national chain of stores selling expensive menswear.

All of them recollect their childhoods as happy and secure. They played together, joined communist youth organizations and believed that they lived in the best country in the world. Like their middle-class parents, they looked forward to assured lifetime jobs — as long as they kept their political noses clean — and modest but safe retirements.

But when the five friends reached their early 20s, the Soviet Union’s foundations began to crack. Gorbachev introduced glasnost (openness), and later the political and economic reforms of perestroika (restructuring). In 1989, the satellite countries of Eastern Europe rebelled against Kremlin rule, and the Berlin Wall came down. Borya, Lyuba and Ruslan joined tens of thousands of demonstrators to foil a coup by Communist Party hardliners, and then corruption and food shortages pervaded Russian society under Boris Yeltsin’s rule.

Whether living under Brezhnev’s rule or Putin’s, the pony-tailed, intellectual Borya is the most rebellious of the lot. His surname, Meyerson, gives him away as Jewish, but not much is made of this fact in the film, with one exception. When his future wife, the non-Jewish Lyuba, tells her parents of her intent to marry a man named Meyerson, the father grumbles, “I knew a Jew would latch on to you.”

Perhaps the most lasting impression of “My Perestroika” is the contrast between the normalcy of daily life in Moscow and the Cold War headlines in the American press of the “evil empire” about to drop nuclear bombs on Washington. It is not so much that the American media (at least the more responsible ones) distorted the facts. Rather, journalists and their readers were unable to fit the saber-rattling headlines within the context of daily life in Russia, before and after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

That kind of dichotomy is a universal phenomenon, which I first discovered while experiencing the birth and growth of Israel on the ground, on one hand, and reading about the Jewish state more than 7,000 miles away in Los Angeles, on the other hand.

The contrast between the two perspectives is illustrated in a short anecdote:

Two brothers living in Europe decide to emigrate, one to a kibbutz in Israel, the other to a small town in Northern California.

In the early 1960s, the California brother reads about a terrorist attack in Jerusalem and telegraphs his kibbutz brother, “Stay if you must, but send the children here for safety.”

A few years later, the Watts riots broke out, and to foreign readers with no real grasp of the size and geography of Los Angeles, it seemed that all of California was in flames.

So the kibbutznik wired his brother in Northern California, “Stay if you must, but send the children here for safety.”

These observations led to what I have modestly dubbed Tugend’s Law, to wit: The perception of a crisis intensifies in proportion to the distance from the actual happening.

By sticking to the human experiences of its subjects, “My Perestroika” illustrates the ultimately reassuring lesson that whatever the scary headlines, people on the ground adjust, and life generally goes on.

“My Perestroika” opens April 15 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. For additional background information on the film, visit www.myperestroika.com.

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