Thursday, April 14, 2011


Olga Durikova in My Perestroika.
Cold war and pieces

By John Esther

During my undergraduate studies as a Russian and Soviet Studies major I had the opportunity to witness the tumultuous transitions of the latter days of that experiment known as the Soviet Union. From the comfort zone of a university campus in Tucson, Arizona to ground zeroes in major Soviet cities, I witnessed the "evil empire" as it openly embraced perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness).

As anger, frustration and hope mounted in the streets of Moscow and Leningrad (St. Petersburg), friends and strangers spoke openly with westerners during those days. Those English-Russian conversations over vodka, bread, butter and caviar were some of the concise I ever took part in. The Russians of that generation often had a gift for being direct and to the point when they spoke (or drank) -- whether it came to the necessary dismantling of the brutal Soviet Union political system, U.S. President Ronald Reagen's doublespeak about the USSR or personal friendship.

After years of failed Party propaganda and populace hardships these Russians could see the inevitable turning of the tyrannical tide and how hard it would be for the President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev to push against entrenched interests in order to create a new Soviet Union. They also viewed the boisterous speeches of Reagen (and subsequent U.S. President George H.W. Bush) at once counterproductive, because it fed the Soviet Union hardliners who wanted the friction that kept the people afraid and them in power, as well as disingenuous brouhaha because the United States government needed the bear in the east as an enemy to justify its military industrial complex (which had given the US a clear superiority in arms) just as much as those right-wingers back here in the USSR.

Regarding friendship, Russians did not play games when it came to camaraderie. It was very serious and very endearing. It was also something Americans needed to mind. If an American said to another American, "We should do lunch sometime," it remained open ended. If you said this to a Russian, it was an invitation to be taken up immediately -- the next day if they knew where you were staying. Accordingly, late sleepers did not dare to casually suggest meeting for breakfast. 

(I occasionally wonder how Russians treat friendship these days. I have not been back for many years and no Russian films I am aware of have really explored the subject.)

It is some of that generation, alive and dwelling today, which is captured quite impressively in Robin Hessman's documentary, My Perestroika.

Today Borya Meyerson and his wife, Lyuba, are now history teachers with a son; single-mom Olga Durikova sells pool tables (and seems to chain smoke); and single-dad Ruslan performs in public places for money. Scraping by to buy into capitalist Russia, none of them would be any poorer under Soviet communism (America, on the other hand…). A little luckier is Andrei Yevgrafov, who owns a successful men's clothing boutique and lives in a nice condominium. These five Muscovites were among the last generation to wear the anti-riotous red scarf of the Pioneers and leave the Komsomol for the stampede into the western promise. Their insights offer a microcosm of a nation that moved from totalitarianism to kleptocracy – sometimes unsure which was or is the bigger evil.

Some of the more precious observations in the documentary are when Durikova laments the hard work for insufficient wages and the fact she will probably work long past the Soviet retirement of 60 or when Borya quite accurately damns the jingoistic rule of Vladimir Putin's Russia. Without effort or consciousness they are honest. They have that gift. On another hand, when Yevgrafov disdains the popular risings of 1991 as a wave of insecurity about food rather than a demand for change, among the other reasons he did not participate in them, is laughably incredulous. 

Engulfed in a bittersweet symphony of getting what one wants and losing what one once had, the documentary's personal conversations manifest themselves into something greater than a few Russians weighing in on current affairs. That My Perestroika takes a view of history from the autobiographical testimony of ordinary people and splices it with greater mass-ive historical events such as a 1977 event saluting the new Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev (the first in his position to open up trade with the United States and the one who started the eventually disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s), seems to be, albeit less grand in scope, something in the tradition of, perhaps a response to, Leo Tolstoy's War Peace, especially Book III, Part One.

Running a smooth 87 minutes, the interviews of My Perestroika remind me of my perestroika. For others the documentary offers a basic, insightful and sound introduction to life in modern Moscow. And for Americans who lived during the cold war, the similarities between living here and there hits home.

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