School 57, Where Are You?

My Perestroika catches up with Russian classmates — 20 years later

You don’t need Facebook in Moscow. Keeping track of classmates is easy — you simply stomp up the stairs to the cramped apartment where your old friend used to live and, odds are, they’re still there. What’s hard is keeping up with the capitalist pace of new Russia while having grown up back in the U.S.S.R., or feigning surprise when a documentary sheds light on this problem. In My Perestroika, director Robin Hessman’s first full-length documentary, she interviewed five former classmates of Moscow’s “School 57” in an attempt to better elucidate how life has changed for Russia’s shrinking middle class since the fall of the Soviet Union. What Hessman found out isn’t surprising — despite immense sociopolitical change, nothing has really changed. Hessman filled her documentary with healthy doses of mild period propaganda and grainy, spotty, flickering black-and-white early 1980s newsreels featuring fashions so ambiguous that they could be from the 1960s. It’s pretty easy to guess which one of her subjects, Borya and Lybia (married teachers), Olga (the single mother), Ruslan (the former punk rocker) and Andrei (the successful capitalist businessman), no longer lives in his or her childhood apartment. (Hint: It’s the guy selling $150 French shirts while chowing on caviar.) As this quintet describes it, life was good back in the olden days. You and a few friends could run to the empty lot down the street and play “kick the kopek” or “burial of Breznev.” (The latter actually being a real game.) As they got older, they watched in awe as Gorbachev threw away the official party script and spoke freely on television, introducing glasnost, a new era of Soviet rule. And they were entering college and forming their own opinions when the USSR crumbled, leaving long bread lines and an uncertain future where a massive union of republics once stood. Hessman’s driving thesis is interesting: How has this generation, now reaching its mid to upper 30s, been affected by the momentous political events that occurred during pivotal points in their lives? What’s less interesting is the answer to this question: It was jarring. Soviet rule was bad, perestroika was better, but the democratic process in modern Russia is kind of a sham. To quote a song by The Who that has become cliché in these situations: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” While’s it’s interesting to meet these formerly indoctrinated youth, as subjects of this narrative, they leave much to be desired. They’re disaffected, passive and they lack insight into their country’s turmoil l— there’s still a lot of confused child left in these adults. In that way, they’re perfectly representative of Russia’s quickly shrinking middle class. With the exception of Andrei, the businessman, the rest have slowly slid into near poverty, crammed into tiny nondescript apartments. “I’m called a manager, but that’s what everyone’s called these days,” says Olga. As it turns out, the trappings of yesteryear’s communism are never far away.   Grade: B-

posted at 01:09 pm
on Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

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