Appellate Judge James A. Stewart wants to know if the Russians are preparing for the zombie menace.
"You think we were thinking of Lenin every day? Of course not."
Director Robin Hessman was really interested in how the Soviets lived when she grew up. She didn't just beg her parents for a subscription to Soviet Life, a magazine put out by the Soviet government. Hessman actually went over to Leningrad to study in 1991, her freshman year of college, and stayed until she was twenty-seven, seeing the Russians adjust to their new freedoms firsthand. Eventually, she went back and filmed My Perestroika, a documentary that talks to several middle-aged Russians who were youngsters during the transition.
My Perestroika, which ran on PBS's POV, opens with shots of a Soviet children's rally, where all the tykes were soooo thankful that they "live in the country of Happy Childhood," rather than, say, the United States, which they were told was really, really into armageddon. Such footage feels like kitsch now, but back in 1977, it was the only stuff that got fed into your head in the Soviet Union. There's more of it interspersed through My Perestroika, showing students reading essays on great Communists, doing some not-quite-voluntary work, and speaking directly to President Reagan.
From there, Hessman talks to several of the former students. One now has a chain of clothing stores, while others live in the sorts of tiny apartments that you would associate with the Soviet Union under Communism.
Part of the message of My Perestroika is that freedom isn't perfect, and that it might not be permanent. Footage of school nuke attack drills back in Soviet days is juxtaposed with shots of a "How to Behave During a Terrorist Attack" poster in a contemporary Russian school. A Soviet woman says jobs didn't pay well, but job security was assured for the sober. More ominous are comments on Vladimir Putin's push for standardized textbooks and debate over election fraud. Of course, there is a difference now, because today's Russians know freedom, warts and all. At other times, the now-grown Soviet children talk about rather ordinary things, like reading books or going out to play.
Picture quality is, of course, variable, with lots of grain, flecks, and scratches on the vintage footage. Extras include an hour of deleted scenes, some of them quite interesting. During that hour, you'll learn that "Rubber Product #1" was a gas mask, while "Rubber Product #2" was a condom; tour a Cold War bunker that's now a museum; and hear Soviet campfire songs. There are also two interviews with Robin Hessman, one in English and one in Russian. In the English-language interview I understood, she's engaging as she talks enthusiastically about her interest in Soviet and Russian culture.
By following students from one Soviet class, My Perestroika provides a fascinating snapshot of both Soviet and modern Russian life.
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