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Remembering the first kiss and the last commissar

Andrei Yevgrafov remembers it vividly, the way an American kid might recall the moment he realized there is no Santa Claus. Except this was Russia, not the United States, and Andrei was no kid.

He serving in the Soviet army and had just applied for membership in the Communist Party. Regretfully, the membership committee turned him down. Andrei’s record was spotless, an officer told him, but who could tell if he might get in trouble sometime in the future? And then the membership committee would be up kakashka creek for admitting him.

“That was it,” he recalls in the lovely documentary “My Perestroika.” “The moment I understood that this whole system was rotting.”

Just a couple of years later the party called him back. “By 1987, they were begging,” Andrei remembers with a laugh. “I said, ‘To hell with you and the party and Gorbachev.’ By that time, you could be rude like that.”
Young Soviet Pioneers assemble in Red Square in 1977 in a scene from “My Perestroika.”
Young Soviet Pioneers assemble in Red Square in 1977 in a scene from “My Perestroika.”

“My Perestroika,” which airs Tuesday as part of the PBS series “POV,” is a warm, gorgeous quilt of such memories from the last generation of Russians to have grown up under communism. Director Robin Hessman blends the stories of five childhood friends, now in their 40s, with a stunning collection of old snapshots, home movies and Soviet propaganda films. The result is an exquisite human resizing of an epic chapter of history, the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.

“My Perestroika” is not a Stalinist horror story in the icy vein of “Darkness at Noon” or “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” Its five subjects -- two teachers, a musician, a businessman and a vending-machine technician -- grew up relatively privileged and well past the era in which the dominant image of Soviet power was the Siberian work camp.

What they endured was not torture or horrifying deprivation but the terminal dullness and endemic corruption of a society that everybody knew was headed for the dustbin of history.

They roll their eyes as they recall the idiotic blather of television propaganda -- “all that constant Soviet nonsense about the farm worker who set a new record for harvesting or the milkmaid who milked a million tons of milk,” as one describes it. They smile in embarrassment at the endless hours making posters supporting Nicaragua’s Sandinistas or singing “peace songs” excoriating the gangster Ronald Reagan.

Not that they necessarily were conscious of that at the time.

“I was completely satisfied with my beautiful Soviet reality,” confesses Lyuba Meyerson, now a schoolteacher with a brutally harsh perspective on communism.

Olga Durikova, once the prettiest girl in school, now rounding into middle age, even confesses to a nostalgic twinge for the smart neckerchiefs and officious committee work of the Pioneers, the Soviet version of scouts.

Some of their memories, without much retooling, could easily have come from kids the same age in the United States. Lyuba still winces as she recalls her mother‘s reaction to the news that Lyuba was dating a handsome classmate, Boris Meyerson. “I just knew some Jew would latch himself onto you,” her mother groaned as she slumped into a chair.

As engrossing as these conversations are -- “My Perestroika” often feels like an intimate chat over a late-night drink with a friend -- they might have become a wearisome parade of talking heads if not for Hessman’s utterly spectacular ability to match them up with images from home movies and official archives. Recollections of Soviet schooling, for instance, are illustrated with a clip from a propaganda film showing kids reading aloud their essays on their favorite communists: “My grandma is a communist. She is kind, strict, fair and she loves work ...”

The contrast couldn’t be sharper when “My Perestroika” accompanies Boris to the high school where he teaches history. His lecture on the forced collectivization of agriculture in the early days of the Soviet Union -- a policy that led to millions, perhaps tens of millions, of deaths -- is blunt and merciless.

“Just try to make all of you pool together everything you own,” he says as the kids titter nervously. “Can you imagine that? We’re taking over all your apartments and turning them into one giant dormitory. ... Everything was taken from them. Their land, their cattle, their homes, and then they were deported.”

That lesson plan would have been impossible 25 years ago. And it may be again in the near future; the government of Vladimir Putin is talking about “reforming” the way history is taught, part of a wave of revisionism that all the characters in “My Perestroika” say makes them nervous.

Meyerson, however, is optimistic that a generation of Russian kids raised outside the totalitarian box will be impossible to force back inside. “They’re all young,” he says as he watches his son play with friends. “Potential hackers. They can get around any firewall.”

He’s not talking about computers.

By Glenn Garvin

(McClatchy Newspapers)

(McClatchy-Tribune Information Services)
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