I arrived in Leningrad in January, 1991. I was 18 years old and in my first year at Brown University. Men in huge fur hats stood waiting on the snowy Tarmac to welcome the American students. We were issued with food coupons and driven to a dormitory that would be our home for the next five months, past a neon hammer and sickle perched on top of what looked like a giant factory, glowing through the overcast winter day.
Despite the lack of food, there was a sense of optimism in the air. People discussed politics with intensity – a fervour that would have been unthinkable a few years earlier, the Russians I met told me. It was less than a year after Mikhail Gorbachev had been elected the first president of the USSR, a position independent of his role in the Communist party. There was a sense that world peace was actually at hand; our friendships had a heady, euphoric feeling as if we were snubbing our own countries’ pasts.
Growing up in Andover, Massachusetts, in the 1970s and early 1980s, I had been curious about Russia and the Soviet Union for as long as I could remember. Even as a child watching television and movies, it was impossible to miss the fact that the USSR was considered our enemy and probably plotting to destroy the planet with their nuclear weapons. In the second grade we played USA v USSR rather than cowboys and Indians. When I was 10, even though our family had no Russian links, I begged my parents to allow me to subscribe to Soviet Life magazine, an English language magazine put out by the Soviet foreign ministry.
I can’t say I read Soviet Life closely. It was filled with poorly translated articles about Soviet technological achievements and grain harvests but the photographs fascinated me. They were a far cry from the images on the news – that of missiles and tanks parading through Red Square, or lines of people dressed in grey waiting for bread. The photographs of children were especially intriguing. Like me but different, they wore red handkerchiefs around their necks or stood in deepest Siberia in dark glasses, getting vitamin D from glowing green lamps. They didn’t look evil.
I continued to read about Russia as I got older. When Gorbachev came to power as general secretary of the Communist party in 1985, I could hardly believe his talk of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (changes/restructuring). In 1989, in my senior year of high school, the Berlin Wall fell, and I began to study Russian, sure now that I would be able to go to the Soviet Union myself.
I had only planned on staying in Leningrad for a term before travelling on to London for a summer Shakespeare course. But the first Gulf war was in progress and there were concerns in London about Americans attracting terrorist threats, so the course was cancelled. Realising I could stay in Leningrad, I found work at the Leningrad Film Studios on an American horror movie about the first ballet school to welcome foreigners to the USSR, thanks to Gorbachev’s changes. (One by one, international ballerinas were being murdered in a variety of gruesome and fascinating ways; the main role was played by the actor who was Freddy Krueger on the A Nightmare on Elm Street films.) We filmed in the Yusupov Palace, where in 1916 Rasputin had been slowly killed. Then one day in August, when I arrived at work, I was told to go home. The reason? “Military coup.”
Instead of going home, I wandered the streets of the city. The coup was taking place in Moscow; where we were – in a city which only two months before had been renamed St Petersburg – there were no tanks to climb on or soldiers to yell at. There were just people, talking and arguing, worrying and waiting. I worried about borders closing, that I would be deported, I would never see my Russian friends again, and the cold war would resume, probably continuing indefinitely. But then, in Palace Square, I was surrounded by thousands of people, crying and yelling with joy: the coup had failed. We knew that things could never return to how they had been. The euphoria and optimism about the future was overwhelming. In December of that year, the USSR dissolved.
In 1992 I moved to Moscow, where I eventually graduated from a five-year directing course at the All-Russian State Institute of Cinematography, and made my first short documentary films, before going on to work as a producer on Ulitsa Sezam, the Russian version of Sesame Street, where we revelled in the new ways of doing things. (Yes! We could hire writers who were not members of the Union of Soviet Writers. Yes! We would have open auditions when casting our Russian Muppets. Yes! It was OK for a children’s show to include rock music.) My community of friends included people who had grown up all over the USSR and I found myself integrated into a world that once had seemed so foreign to me. Russia was now simply my home.
When I returned to the US in 1999 I was often asked to explain how Russians felt about the changes happening to their country. Despite the fall of the wall 10 years earlier, information about contemporary Russia was still not widely available and many Americans I spoke to were either amazed that I had not been murdered by the mafia or believed that there were no longer any problems there, now that Russia was a democratic country and not our arch-enemy.
While struggling to describe the complexity of the situation, I thought a lot about my generation of Russians. They had had Soviet childhoods, growing up in a world no one had imagined changing. But, as they were teenagers, everything that they had been told was true was suddenly questioned. And then, as they graduated from college, the USSR collapsed. Of course it was a change that affected all Russians but I couldn’t help thinking about the unique position my generation was in, straddling both worlds.
Back in Boston, I found work with WGBH, the local public broadcasting station, as a co-producer of documentaries on such all-American topics as Tupperware and Julia Child, but my thoughts kept returning to Russia and I began to think about making a film about this generation of Russians.
By spring 2005, I was back in Moscow. The city had changed quite a bit in a few years. Construction was everywhere, and everyone had cellphones hanging around their necks. The number of cars on the road seemed to have multiplied tenfold; designer clothing stores were replacing the state-owned shops selling stationery or dumplings.
But I was too busy to mourn dumplings past. I spent hours in the state film archive outside Moscow watching newsreels of the 1970s and 1980s and interviewing dozens of thirtysomethings. I thought about how I could bring the human aspects of life in the USSR alive for a western audience and searched for home movies of the period. Unlike the Soviet and western propaganda, these films had no agenda beyond preserving family memories. The children on bicycles and playing with grandparents were a far cry from the parades on Red Square I had seen on television in the US.
As I continued researching, I found myself thinking about the constant rewriting of Russian history. Of course, if I were to look at a textbook of US history from the 1960s, I am sure I would find some perspectives horribly outdated, if not offensive, but in Russia there is a particularly rich tradition of reinventing the past – there is even a saying, “In Russia it’s the past that’s unpredictable.” During the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, for example, “enemies of the people” risked not only imprisonment and death but also being erased from photographs and history books. What, I wondered, would history teachers of my generation make of their own histories: they would have been taught one kind of Soviet history as children, but then could have been in teacher training in 1988 – the year that history exams were cancelled throughout the entire USSR. (The archives were opening up, previously secret documents coming to light, and no one knew at that point just what the right answers even were any more.)
I sought out history teachers, curious about their perspectives, and met Borya and Lyuba Meyerson: a married couple in their thirties both teaching history at School #57 in central Moscow. Although they grew up across the street from each other, they had completely different childhoods. As a pupil Borya had often been in trouble for trying to subvert the system; once his parents were called into the principal’s office when he refused to wear his red Pioneer neckerchief on the grounds that it made poor fashion sense when worn with a turtleneck. Lyuba came from a family that was grateful for all that the Soviet regime had done for them. When she was alone in the house, she would find her red scarf and try it on secretly in front of the mirror, which, since she had not yet been inducted into the Pioneers, was a crime akin to blasphemy.
The Meyersons still lived in the same apartment where Borya grew up and we met there to talk about the idea for the film, ordering pizza and talking for hours. As historians, and people passionate about history, both were keenly interested in how to make the past alive in a film and were completely unselfconscious, with a wonderful way of tying their larger understanding of what had happened in their country with small, personal details of the effect on their lives. Their nine-year-old son, Mark, was precocious and funny and even attended the school where they taught. The icing on the cake was when I asked, as I always did, if they knew anyone who had home movies from the 1970s or 1980s. Borya opened up a closet stacked with 8mm film cans – his father had been obsessed with making home movies. He had even followed Borya into school to film him with his classmates.
Meeting the Meyersons led to meetings with others of those classmates. Ruslan Stupin, a close childhood friend of Borya’s, is a non-conformist who thumbs his nose at society’s dictates. He had been part of one of the first big Russian punk bands, NAIV, but left the group when he felt they became too establishment. He now plays banjo in a punk bluegrass band called Boozemen Acoustic Jam. Olga Durikova had been the prettiest girl in their class, said Borya, and was now working as a manager servicing billiard tables around Moscow. Andrei Yegrafov is a businessman – the only one who has moved from his childhood apartment. He has a chain of shops selling expensive men’s shirts and ties, imported from France, where his older child is in boarding school. They had such different perspectives on the past, and on their lives. I was thrilled when all five agreed to the project and I began filming them at home, at work, and with their families.
I spent the next three years shooting almost 200 hours of material, spending three to seven months in Moscow each trip. I had not intended to shoot the film myself when I started out but, after two days of working with a cameraman, I saw how differently they behaved when he was present. I also had not expected the film to take so many years to make. Mostly, it took so long because of the difficulties in funding independent documentary films. I was constantly putting production aside to apply for grants or to seek out generous individuals who gave tax-deductible donations to the non-profit I am part of, as a means for me to finance the next trip back to Moscow, or cover the costs of filming or clearing rights. Yet, as it turned out, the years I spent filming gave a greater depth to my relationships with the five protagonists, and also allowed me to incorporate events I would otherwise have missed.
Weaving these different kinds of footage, of people’s personal stories, and of Russia itself over the past 40 years, was a challenge for me and the editors. I wanted to bring the audience into the homes, the kitchens, and the memories of these childhood schoolmates – to share the complexities of their experiences, their triumphs, their disillusionment and their dreams. In a sense, My Perestroika is about how politics and government – the headline events of history that happen during particular moments in our lifetimes – have profound effects on each of us. While the film is really “their” perestroika, I know it is mine too.
‘My Perestroika’ has its British premieres on Monday May 23 at the Frontline Club in London (www.frontlineclub.com/events/2011/05/screening---my-perestroika.html) and on Tuesday May 24 at Rich Mix as part of the London International Documentary Film Festival (www.lidf.co.uk/film/my-perestroika/).
There will be an additional screening on Friday May 27 at 7.30pm at the Frontline Club in London (http://www.lidf.co.uk/event/my-perestroika-2/)