The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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APR 2011 Issue

BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN: ROBIN HESSMAN in Conversation with Williams Cole

As a rebellious and idealistic teenager in the mid-1980s I was obsessed with figuring out why the USSR was called the “Evil Empire” since it was also a place that—I was told through other channels—guaranteed food, health care and education for everyone.  Films like Red Dawn and TV series like Amerika only added to this interest, something that led to me even writing a paper in high school about “American anti-Communist Propaganda.”  Of course, those “other channels” misrepresented the place as well, and the reality was that by the ’80s, the Soviet Union was unsustainable and on the verge of massive change. 

By telling the stories of a variety of Russian individuals who were in their youth in the 1980s, Park Slope-based filmmaker Robin Hessman’s documentary My Perestroika gives much needed perspective on the complicated feelings of many Russians who experienced the great upheaval.  Not unlike it was in the 1980s, the Russia of today is still painted with broad strokes in American news and popular culture (think the resurgence of the Russian villain in many action movies for example).  Hessman’s film effectively opens up the past and present culture and politics of this superpower, doing so in a portrayal that is notably intimate.  –W. Cole

My Perestroika opens Wednesday March 23 at the IFC Center. 


Williams Cole (Rail): As a piece about generations, I think the film will or should strike a chord with many in their 30s and 40s who remember how Reagan and company spoke of the “Evil Empire.”  Was that part of your motivation to make the film?

Robin Hessman: I myself grew up as a child hearing Reagan talk about the “Evil Empire,” and remember quite well the heightened fear of nuclear war in the early 1980s.  (It was curiosity about this mysterious country that, in the end, resulted in my living there throughout the 1990s.) The images I remember on the news in childhood were tanks on Red Square, and soldiers marching in step, or people in bread lines.  And after living there, having gone to film school there, and worked there for many years (producing the Russian Sesame Street), when I got back to the U.S. in late 1999, I thought a lot about how to provide a window to the world behind the Iron Curtain that we never saw here during the cold war.  

At festivals, the film has really struck a chord.  Audience members have said that the film has been eye opening and challenged some of the images and ideas they had about the Soviet Union for so many decades.  I’ve also been fascinated by the reaction of people who aren’t of this generation, and for whom the Cold War wasn’t a significant part of the world in which they grew up.  

Rail: From your experiences what do you think is the perception of Russia in the American mainstream today?

Hessman: I’m probably the worst person to answer this question, since my experiences are very personally involved with Russia, and I know many Russians, and many Americans I know also have Russia connections.  But I would guess that most people don’t have a very good idea about what is going on in Russia today at all. There are so many other things happening right now in the world that are on the front page, and changing every day. Since Russia stopped being portrayed as our mortal enemy it naturally hasn’t consumed the public imagination as much.  Of course, geopolitically, it still has a very important role to play.  

Rail: Do you see the film as complicating the Reagan-era vision?

Hessman: Absolutely.  I think there was very much the perception that Russia was a grey monolith where everyone believed the same thing.  As the film shows, even in the USSR, people held very different views.  For example, Borya and Lyuba, who are now married and teach history in a school in Moscow, grew up across the street from each other and went to the same summer camp and kindergarden.  Yet Borya was from a family that would secretly listen to Voice of America and the BBC, and Lyuba was from a very patriotic family that was grateful to Soviet Leadership for everything they had.  For Borya, Perestroika and Glasnost was the truth finally being revealed.  For Lyuba it was a shock that what she had been taught to believe as the truth turned out to actually be very different.

I think any in-depth portrait of individuals is going to complicate a subject about which our knowledge is limited.  The more we know about people, the more complicated they become.  

Rail: What do you think Americans can learn from the insight provided in the film by individuals that were young during the Soviet Union, who went through Perestroika to the Russia of today?  

Hessman: I think it shows how enormously complex it is for an individual to be in a particular moment in their life, coming of age at a moment of enormous societal upheaval in one’s country. For better or for worse, it’s not an easy process.  The people in this film had typical Soviet childhoods, with no inkling that the USSR would one day cease to exist.  They were teenagers as the fundamental ideology of their country was coming into question. And they graduated from college just at the moment that their country collapsed and so became adults in the new world with no models to follow.  

Being at these moments in our lives, in these sweeping waves of politics, affect us in ways we can’t even begin to understand while they are happening.  Had I not been a child at the end of the Cold War, I would never have gone off to spend so much of my life in Russia, and my life would be completely different today.  

Rail: How do you think going through that political and ideological upheaval affects society and individuals in it?

Hessman: Going through such an upheaval affects different individuals in different ways.  Often, even within an individual, there are conflicts and contradictions. The USSR was a society that didn’t value money.  I remember, in my first years of going to Russian film school in the early ’90s, wanting material objects was judged very harshly by my classmates.  When someone on our floor bought a CD player, the height of new technology, they were very critically judged as a “new Russian” who had no soul and could never amount to anything artistically. Values that are deeply held struggle to find their place when society’s rules change so quickly.  When the people in the film were children, if you bought a shirt at one price and sold it for a profit, you could go to jail.  And then one day it becomes a respectable way of becoming a member of society.  

Children growing up today in Russia are growing up in a very different world from their parents.  And that transition is an evolving process as generations change.  

Rail: Much of the time it seems like the social, cultural and political history of the Soviet Union is forgotten when looking at the modern state of Russia.  How much do you think it’s been retained in the Russian culture itself?

Hessman: Russian cultural history is much larger than the Soviet Union, and I think even during Soviet times people would more identify Tchaikovsky, Chekov, Pushkin as cultural touchstones more than political writers.  As Lyuba quotes the famous adage, “In Russia, it’s the past that is unpredictable.”  And, as the film shows, the relationship to the country’s Soviet past, and the way it is thought about and talked about, is still continuously changing.  Soviet past has certainly not been forgotten.  If anything, in recent years it has come more to the forefront of the dialogue.  

Rail: In present-day Russia is there nostalgia for part of life in the Soviet Union?  If so, how would you characterize it?

Hessman: I think people often have nostalgia for their childhood regardless of what political landscape it took place in.  When Borya is nostalgic for his childhood, he’s not saying he’s nostalgic for Brezhnev.  But as Olga says in the film, whether it was better or worse, it was certainly a lot simpler.  And I think people can be nostalgic for a time when they didn’t have to struggle so much for the basic securities in life.  Your apartment was provided by the state, your job was guaranteed, and there was less worry about day-to-day survival.  But feeling this kind of nostalgia doesn’t mean that the other changes aren’t important.  Even feeling nostalgic for these things doesn’t mean people would want to go back to it, if it would mean sacrificing some of the changes they are not willing to give up now.

Rail: Are there Soviet-era patterns that are repeating themselves in Russia?  

Hessman: Unfortunately, there is a degree of censorship in the news that didn’t exist in the ’90s.  And there is a public narrative of Russia as a mighty power and an anti-Western sentiment that has returned in some spheres that was much more rare during the late ’80s and early ’90s.  But Russia is a very different country today from the Soviet Union.  Today people freely travel and have access to information from around the world via the Internet.  So despite some similar recurring themes, Russians today exist in a completely different environment.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2011

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