In “My Perestroika,” the children romping behind the Iron Curtain seemed no different than children romping elsewhere. They seemed happy, well dressed, well fed. Is that because children are just innocently happy, or because propaganda is the political norm everywhere?
The documentary follows five ordinary Russians living in extraordinary times -- from their sheltered Soviet childhoods, to the collapse of the Soviet Union during their teenage years, to the constantly shifting political landscape of post-Soviet Russia.
Niteside caught up with Robin Hessman to ask how propaganda figure into both cultures.
“Certainly, growing up in the late '70s and early '80s in the US, the only images I ever saw of the USSR on TV were tanks or soldiers on Red Square, or people dressed in gray standing in lines for bread," she said, "but I suppose I was skeptical as a child that there really could be an entire country where everyone was evil and they wanted to destroy the planet with nuclear weapons."
Hessman said she became so curious that at the age of 10, she subscribed to Soviet Life Magazine -- much to her parents’ horror.
"It was actually put out by the Soviet Foreign Ministry and of course wasn’t an objective view of the USSR by any means -- nor were its articles that interesting for a 10-year-old... but I found the photographs fascinating," she said. "Especially the photographs of kids, like me."
Hessman said it was important to her to include clips of 8mm home movies from the subjects' childhood. "...[H]ome movies are a beautiful, intimate and direct glimpse into their lives growing up," she said. "Home movies have no hidden agenda, as newsreels or even fiction films can. Their only purpose most often is to simply preserve memories for a family for future generations."
Those images of childhood in the USSR, of a little boy learning to ride a bike, or playing with his grandfather, are images we never had access to during the Cold War.”
Life in the USSR changed drastically during Glasnost, influenced by the West to such a point that returning servicemen were surprised to see punks and hippies, or artists selling their work on the streets. A good takeaway line from the flick: “By that time, you could be rude like that."
If you watched “Black Swan” at the Oscars, you will appreciate that in the movie, when anything major happened they would play "Swan Lake."
“Since, in the Soviet Union, all news outlets were state-controlled, it was very easy for the government to hold back information when it wanted to," Hessman said. "Often classical music or a ballet would be broadcast on every television channel, which is a surreal sight. Sometimes it would happen while the Politburo needed more time to decide just what to inform their citizens, and how. I’m actually not sure if they did it when the accident at Chernobyl happened, although they suppressed the news for several days, but I remember this happening during the 1991 coup."
Ultimately, what we learn is the more things change, the more they stay the same.
“For me, it’s more about the cycles of life, and how regardless of whether Brezhnev or Yeltsin or Putin is in charge of the country, children go to school on September 1 with flowers for their teachers,” she concluded..
“My Perestroika” opened at the West End Cinema (2301 M St. N.W.) on Friday. Watch the trailer here.