In 1985, while Sting was singing smug songs about whether the Russians loved their children, actual Russian children were watching Mikhail Gorbachev on TV for the first time, and wondering if that strange middle-aged man talking about openness would be shot before he finished a sentence. Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika offers a series of intimate interviews with five people who were teenage classmates when the glasnost era began, and were young adults trying to start their lives when the political upheavals of the early ’90s transformed their country. Each describes what it was like to grow up indoctrinated with a rigid ideology, then see that ideology crumble before their eyes. Hessman supplements their memories with home movies and Soviet-era newsreels, giving a glimpse of a semi-totalitarian state where people lived lives not too far removed from our own, with school, jobs, families, dating, and teenage rebellion between the regular rounds of enforced public service.
The adults in My Perestroika talk about how they feared Ronald Reagan, and how liberating it was when, post-Gorbachev, punks and hippies were allowed to roam the streets openly. But they also talk about how nervous they were when the TV stopped reporting all the trumped-up news about farm productivity, and say they can’t understand how someone who grew up as a patriotic Soviet could wake up one day in a new capitalist society and immediately start selling $100 shirts in an upscale shopping mall. They lament—as all parents do—that in their day, kids stayed busy with useful tasks, while today, they kill time watching South Park on the Internet and scarfing food from Pizza Hut.
My Perestroika is fairly foursquare as documentary filmmaking goes; it isn’t stylistically snazzy, nor doggedly vérité. Its closest kin in the genre is Michael Apted’s “Up” films, which are similarly focused on how people change over time. The difference is that My Perestroika is also about how a country changes, and what parents—including a husband-and-wife team of history teachers—try to tell their children about what life was like just a few decades ago. Do they accentuate the positives of the present, or the past? Or do they admit that neither is ever as rosy or as bleak as historians and politicians make them out to be?