Hello, comrades! This is our video for Week 12. Our subject is the documentary film My Perestroika, and our teaching assistant is Dante.
As a reminder, this is our ONLY video for Week 12. I canceled one “day” of class this week to give you more time to work on your final papers. That means we are not going to discuss the texts by Alexeivich, Holland, and Kurchatov together. They are still up on the course website, if you’d like to take a look at them on your own. Speaking of your final papers, thank you to everyone who has submitted an Introduction and Outline. I’m looking forward to discussing those with you on Thursday and Friday!
Our primary source today, the film My Perestroika, focuses on the experiences of a group of friends who were born in the 1960s, grew up under Brezhnev, and reached adulthood at the moment when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power and implemented his signature policies of perestroika and glasnost. As you saw, despite their common beginnings, the couple Borya and Lyuba, Olga, Andrei, and Ruslan end up in very different situations. This is an example of the kind of primary source we use in social history. As I hope you’ve gathered from this class and others you’ve taken, there are different ways to approach historical analysis. Last week, the essays written by Andrei Sakharov and Alexander Solzhenitsyn gave us a taste of intellectual history, while Gorbachev’s speech “Gorbachev Challenges the Party (Glasnost)” directed us toward political history. And next week, we’ll analyze a couple of music videos through the lens of cultural history. In fact, you might find it interesting to look back through your syllabus and identify the type of history that each source serves best. Anyway, social history is the study of everyday people and how they live, and I think this documentary gives us some good insights into how average people experienced perestroika.
The historical context I gave you in my last video serves us well for this source, so I won’t say very much else now. I’ll just note that after Gorbachev resigned, Boris Yeltsin became the first president of the new Russian Federation, which we’ll discuss in more depth next week. Yeltsin was elected to two four-year terms, the maximum allowed under the new constitution, in 1992 and 1996. His successor was (and still is!) Vladimir Putin, who was elected in 2000 and 2004. This film was made in 2010, and the final event it covers is the 2008 presidential election. In this election, Putin stepped aside, while his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, ran for president. As you can see from the political posters, they promoted themselves as a team or “tandem,” and when Medvedev won the election, he appointed Putin as his prime minister. If you are wondering how Putin ended up being president again—stay tuned! We will cover that next week.
Leah’s Discussion Questions
1. The film begins with Borya and Lyuba, who are history teachers at the same school they attended as children. They live in the apartment where Borya grew up, which was part of the wave of new housing construction instituted by Khrushchev. They’re certainly not wealthy, but they’re doing okay. They seem to feel that they have lived well and made good choices. Consider their experience, as you learn about it throughout the film. Do you think they are right to feel satisfied with their lives? Would you consider them a “success story” of the post-Soviet transition? Why or why not?
2. Andrei and Ruslan present sharply contrasting cases. Each one feels that he has captured the high ground and looks down on the other. How has each of their paths been shaped by the political events they have lived through? In what way is each of them a “winner”? In what way is each of them a “loser”? Who do you think has the stronger claim to the high ground and why?
3. As you watch these characters interact and tell their stories, consider the roles played by women and by men and the outcomes for each gender. What does Olga’s story reveal about the particular difficulties women faced in the collapse of the Soviet Union? Lyuba has an easier life than Olga, but does she have it as good as the men? What similarities and differences do you find between their lives and that of Olya in “A Week Like Any Other”? What does this tell us about how gender has or has not changed through these political events?
4. The theme of nostalgia comes up quite often. Though none of these friends wants to go back to the Soviet Union, they all catch themselves missing it in different ways. Analyze one or more scenes in which characters talk about nostalgia. You may find it helpful to consider Soviet footage here, as well. What exactly is it that they miss? Were they in some ways better off under Brezhnev? If so, how? If not, then why do they feel a fondness for this time? If our country experienced a major political upheaval, do you think you would feel nostalgic for your childhood and teenage years?
5. Borya and Ruslan identify themselves as non-conformists. Consider the scenes where they talk about this issue (especially 18:00-24:00 and 32:00-34:00). What does “rebellion” mean to them? What does Borya mean when he calls it “romantic opposition” rather than genuine opposition? How do you understand the two friends dismissing their children’s generation as obsessed with money and not reading enough books? Do you think they posed a political threat to the Soviet system under Brezhnev? Why or why not?
6. Lyuba was not a non-conformist growing up. But when she talks about her time as a Komsomol activist and a believer in the “struggle for peace,” she bursts out laughing and mocks herself. What do you make of this laughter? How does it fit together with their common feeling of nostalgia? Why does she feel compelled to mock her former beliefs?
7. Perestroika was implemented as these friends reached adulthood. For Andrei, Borya, and Ruslan, this meant that it occurred while they were doing their two years of compulsory military service, as all male citizens did after high school. Lyuba and Olga were at home, going to college. How do their reactions shape your understanding of the effects of perestroika and glasnost on Soviet society? How do they reveal the excitement and the problems created by these policies? Is there a gendered component to their reactions? What do you make of Lyuba’s argument with her mother about Lenin?
8. Beginning at 49:00, the friends each describe their experience of the August 1991 coup, which played a big part in the rise of Yeltsin and the collapse of the Soviet Union. What do their stories reveal about the lived experience of this moment? How did their different choices in that moment shape the way they remember it nearly 20 years later? Why does Andrei feel the need to make excuses? Why does Ruslan think it could have all been fake? How might that experience have shaped their expectations and perspectives going forward into the Yeltsin presidency?
9. None of the friends is a fan of Yeltsin. In fact, they seem to be very disappointed by his presidency. We’ll talk about that more next week. But from what you can gather from context, what were some of the problems Russia faced in the 1990s? Why did Ruslan, Borya, and Lyuba end up so disappointed? How does Andrei explain his success to himself? Why does Olga focus on personal issues and stay away from larger statements? How have their experiences since the 1990s shaped the way they remember it?
10. The film ends with the 2008 presidential election. Clearly, none of the friends believes that Russia operates as a genuine democracy, and they’re all angry about it. Interestingly, the only one who votes is Olga, and she makes a protest vote for a fringe candidate. How would you characterize this generation’s views of the Putin Era? What are the consequences for a country when people like them don’t vote? Or will the country be fine without their votes?