Q & A: Robin Hessman on 'My Perestroika'

The cars were clunkers as soon as they rolled off the assembly line. Soviet-made clothes, food and entertainment were equally shabby. Moscow was hemorrhaging its worthless rubles in an arms race with Washington, and Soviet mothers were angry that their sons were dying in a senseless war in Afghanistan.

When Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and launched his campaign for perestroika — Russian for "reconstruction" — he gambled that taking an honest look at the country's problems and urging citizens to speak truth to power would steer the Soviet Union off its collision course with economic collapse.

It was a gamble he lost. Pulling at the loose threads of the communist-ruled monolith caused the Soviet empire to unravel, leaving Russians facing a future they never imagined. That daunting prospect of a reversed revolution piqued the curiosity of Boston-area teenager Robin Hessman, inspiring her to witness and chronicle the transition of Russians of her age group, the last generation of Soviet youth. Hessman this week sat for an interview with former Times Moscow bureau chief Carol J. Williams, who covered the Gorbachev era, to discuss her documentary film, "My Perestroika," recounting the old and new lives of five young Muscovites, now, like Hessman, pushing 40.

Hessman's documentary, which opened Friday at Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood, follows five longtime friends from Moscow. Two, Borya and Lyuba Meyerson, are history teachers, retelling the political dramas of the last two decades that they themselves are still grappling to comprehend. Their friends Olga, Ruslan and Andrei also struggle to take advantage of new opportunities while guarding the values of solidarity, equality and camaraderie still infusing their souls.

What drew you to the Soviet Union at age 18, the journey that extended for most of a decade and resulted in this portrayal of ordinary Russians thrown into the turmoil of such profound change?

When the Berlin Wall fell in my senior year in high school, I couldn't imagine what it was like to live through such incredible changes. So much was changing so quickly, especially in the Soviet Union, where there was all this euphoria about the end of the nuclear arms race. I wanted to go and see it for myself. I couldn't wait.

Your archive footage shows children in the early 1980s talking about the arms race and the threat of nuclear annihilation. When you see these images today, do they make you think that children were used for propaganda purposes during the Cold War?

No. As a child, I was very interested in and concerned about the arms race, but it had nothing to do with the American government wanting to use me as a tool. It was very real for children on both sides. They [Soviets] were told that it was [President Ronald] Reagan's policy to threaten war, and we were told that it was all the fault of the evil Soviet Union. It was just a lot more structured in the Soviet Union, as kids were all in the same after-school program — the Young Pioneers.

The sudden changes in the late 1980s brought on by perestroika confronted young Russians with an identity crisis. They had been prepared for one life, then thrust into an unfamiliar world. How did they cope with that, and how much more difficult was it for their parents' generation that had years invested in the old system?

For those of my own generation, this was a really wonderful place of straddling both worlds. They were cognizant of what adult life was like in the Soviet Union, but never having had to work yet, they were more able to imagine a different life. But for their parents, it was a much more difficult situation that depended entirely on what their profession was. I had one friend whose mother was in charge of ideological purity at the factory where she worked. That position just ceased to exist, as did many others when the Communist Party ceased to exist.

How did you pick your subjects, the five people profiled in the film?

I spent 15 months talking to thirtysomethings before I happened on the first one I felt had to be in the film, Borya, who led me to the rest. All along I was thinking that it would be good to look at the experience through the eyes of history teachers. As Lyuba says, Russia has a very unpredictable past. This generation would have been taught one Soviet history and would have been in the pedagogical institute just at the time when the history exams were canceled, when the archives [of the Stalin era] were opening up and nobody knew what the right answer was anymore.

Andrei's life as a successful businessman accords him a more luxurious lifestyle and economic security for his family than the others have. Do they all still socialize despite the economic disparities that didn't exist when they were growing up together?

In their particular case I don't think it's the economic disparities but simply that they don't have time. Andrei works all the time, as do Borya and Lyuba. They just don't manage to get together as often as they would like. I think this is something that people in New York and Los Angeles can relate to.

You begin and end with the first day of school, back when your subjects were students and now that they are teachers, going through the rituals that seem to have changed little over the years. What message were you trying to convey with these visual bookends?

I think the ritual of the first day of school is a very beautiful one. For me, it's about the cycles of life and how regardless of whether Brezhnev or Yeltsin or Putin is the leader, children go to school for the first day with flowers for the teacher, and one child will be carried in the air to ring the bell as they are all led in. It says something about the enduring nature of humanity, regardless of the political ideology in power.


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