My Perestroika documentary screenshot

Not my perestroika: Shades of might have beens

Last updated on February 19, 2024

Every year, on September 1, Russian children start their first day of school. All of them, en masse. And before them, it was Soviet children. My mother went to school in pinafored uniform, braids and bows in her hair, flowers in her arms. Twenty years later, a carbon copy photo of my cousin doing and wearing the same thing.

It’s a ritual I never participated in, because once upon a time, my parents got the right set of stamps on their papers and managed to leave the country. But I watched it tonight on screen, in My Perestroika – an amazing documentary that follows five very ordinary Musovites, former classmates who grew up to become the last Soviet generation of children.

It was like watching a highlights reel of might-have-beens and never-wases. The televisions that switched to Swan Lake whenever anything of import occurred, be it Brezhnev’s death or the 1991 coup. The cramped apartments where people live from birth to death, yes, even still today (do you know anyone, anyone, who hasn’t moved dozens of times?). The drills for nuclear attacks – donning masks, running in formation, assisting “fallen” comrades (err, classmates). The nationwide Communist Clean-Up Day. The line-ups and the dachas.

Our history is unpredictable. – Borya, in My Perestroika

My (limited) knowledge of the Soviet Union growing up ended at about 1979. I was busy with the business of growing up in the west. But of course, the country didn’t disappear, and this film captures the “what happened next,” after the Soviet story that I’ve always known.

It turns out that the Soviet collapse was much like the immigration experience. You went to bed in one country and woke up in another. Without ever leaving your apartment, without ever asking for it.

When I talk to Soviet émigrés, they often say some variation of “I couldn’t have imagined I would end up here, that this would be my life.” That same phrase was repeated in the documentary – by people who’d never left, but couldn’t have imagined they’d grow up to own a business or play in a punk band.

It’s an amazing film, and if you have a chance to see it, do. In between the interviews and the chain-smoking and vodka-drinking, the filmmakers also include a lot of archival footage, including personal home videos, and music. It’s received all kinds of glowing reviews, which are listed on their site.

Oh, and when Ruslan, Mr. Punk Rock, arrives at the apartment of Borya and Lyuba, Mr. And Mrs. History Teacher, he is offered slippers. So very Russian. I, for one, felt right at home.

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