By Kelly Raftery
In my lifetime there have been enormous sweeps of history, most notably the Collapse of the Soviet Union, which I wrote about in a previous post. A number of years ago, I used to torture my undergraduate students by pretending that all the work they had done in class was being thrown out and a new teacher would be arriving with an entirely new syllabus and would be assigning them new grades based on completely different material. Once we got through the shouts of “No fair!” and “We will protest!” I asked them to write how that exercise made them feel. Then we started our unit on the end of the Soviet Union.
How I wish I could have shown them “My Perestroika,” a documentary film about five classmates from Moscow School Number 57, who came of age in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Intimate interviews of each of the film’s subjects trace their histories from idyllic young childhoods to adulthoods in a nation on the cusp of change and to their lives today, over twenty years after the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The film is, at its essence, the sweep of history told through the lives of five people who were childhood friends.
|Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader|
of the Soviet Union
We are first introduced to Lyudmila (Lyuba) and Boris (Borya) Meyerson and their young son, Mark, in the small Soviet-style apartment where Boris was raised. The Meyersons are both history teachers at the school they attended as children and are thoughtful and philosophical about their own histories in relation to the political change that their country has seen. What is most striking at the start of the film is Lyudmila saying that as child she would watch the news from America, see the shootings, the violence and think to herself, “Oh my God, I am so lucky I live in the Soviet Union!” You know at this moment that this film is going to make you see the other side in a very real way.
|Boris Yeltsin in an iconic photo during the Moscow Coup.|
image by www.kremlin.ru
Boris’s best friend Ruslan was anti-establishment as a young man, forming a punk band, and today is a bohemian musician who lives outside the system, teaching and playing music for cash. Olga, the “prettiest girl in school” had her life turned upside down when the banker she was supposed to marry was killed via car bomb. Olga was left with her young child homeless, jobless, and with no resources. Today she lives with her sister in their childhood home and services automatic vending machine style pool tables for a living. Andrei was the true believer as a child, wanting to be a border guard when he grew up, until he was refused membership in the Community Party (the only way to gain success under the old system) on the grounds that he “might commit a crime” after they admitted him, and that would be bad. It was at that moment that he understood how corrupt and ridiculous the system was. Today, Andrei is the owner of a chain of prestigious clothing shops that sell imported shirts and ties from France.
While the portraits of the lives lived against a backdrop of dramatic historic events are fascinating, what is more compelling about the film are the home movies and archival footage from the Soviet era that are constantly juxtaposed against the footage of Russia today. The end of the film features modern footage of young Mark Meyerson playing badminton alongside home movies of his father doing the same. The images cut back and forth as the birdie sails across the net in different eras, a game seemingly being played between father and son.
The Soviet footage shows a Moscow devoid of advertising, with limited traffic, whereas Moscow today is awash in billboards and neon, and Olga opines that her dream is to have someone else do the driving for her. Whereas all the children started from essentially the same equally Soviet place, the economic divide of today’s Russia is evident in the apartments shown in the film, from Andrei’s spacious, modern Western-style apartment to the Meyersons’ small but comfortable living room, which also doubles as a bedroom.
There is so much for Americans to learn from this single simple understated film about the last twenty years in Russia that I cannot recommend it highly enough. Take the time to sit down and watch the fascinating stories of these five people who lived through some of the most dramatic moments of history of the 20th century, you won’t regret it.
Watch “My Perestroika” on Netflix, or visit the website at www.myperestroika.com to find out if there will be a screening near you soon.