Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for My Perestroika (Week 12, Day 1)

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?

8 Replies to “Comrade Chat! Leah’s Video for My Perestroika (Week 12, Day 1)”

  1. 10 – Russian democracy

    I think that the general views of this generation of the Putin era is one of disdain and begrudging compliance. The fact that Olga went and voted for a fringe candidate shows that they are not afraid to at least voice their opinion through voting. I understand the reason why one would not vote when it feels like the government is way too corrupt to take your needs to heart, however, it is still disappointing to see. Unfortunately, without voting, you can’t have any kind of change. It all starts with showing politicians what you believe in, if nothing else than to at least scare them into thinking there’s a lot of people who dislike them in that position.

  2. 1.
    I think they most definitely have the right to feel satisfied with their lives. From what I was able to understand, the were both history teachers with a fairly intelligent son. They seemed happy with their jobs, apartment and family. Borya still has a strong relationship with Ruslan as seen with them drinking and talking in Borya’s apartment. Lyuba was smoking her cigarettes and doing her own thing. I would consider them a”success story” of the post-Soviet transition. They transitioned well, and are able to teach their students about the good and bad that the Soviet Union did. Even though, their whole childhoods revolved around the Soviet Union being wholly good.

  3. Question 1
    I believe they have the right to feel satisfied with their lives. They both can say they have important jobs in teaching children, and can provide for their son. From watching the film, it seems as if their son will grow up to be just as successful, if not more successful than his parents when he grows up. I think that alone can be seen as a reason to feel satisfied with their lives. I consider them to be a success-story of the post-soviet transition. They both have jobs, and an apartment with their son and are still very much connected to Russian, drinking vodka, smoking, and teaching others about the past times of the Soviet Union which I believe it sounds like something that many Russians would consider successful.

  4. Late to the party again (although not as late as last time)! I would like to discuss question 10:

    I think this generations view of the Putin era would be poor at best. This group has a unique situations as none of them want to go back to the Soviet Union. I think the most telling aspect of their feelings towards voting is that it is almost a running joke. All of say things along the lines of “either voice isn’t heard here ” or “Like we don’t know who is going to win”. It really highlights the knowledge they have about their lacking democracy. That being said, I think their overall ill-feelings towards the Soviet Union make this a better reality to swallow.

    I think the danger of them not taking their voting duties seriously is that they are allowing the practices that they complain about to continue. At least voting might further expose the realities of the “democracy” that they are living. Their voices could be heard as the collective group who voted against the men in power and exposed the corruption of their “democratic” system. Without their voices, there is no change to the status-quo.

  5. 3.
    I think that Olga’s story reveals that women are not given opportunities for occupational advancement outside of marriage. Despite dedicating herself to her career and earning the title of ‘manager’, she seems very overworked. Based on the comments Olga made about her apartment, she is embarrassed of her socioeconomic status compared to her married friends. Her inability to properly provide for herself as a single woman is deeply unfair and causes her unnecessary stress. The film creates the notion that Russia has made women feel that they are more valuable as wives than in the workforce.

  6. #5

    Rebellion seems to center around individualism–a break from the collective monotony of Soviet life. The rebellion described by Borya has more to do with authority than the Soviet Union. His form of rebellion can be seen in just about every culture that will allow it. He cites the miswearing of school uniforms and “USA” t-shirts as teenage rebellion with little knowledge of or opposition to Soviet oppression.

    I do not find this rebellion to be a threat to the Soviet system but it is emblematic to Westernization and the weakening of the system under Brezhnev. His individual rebellion takes place in a larger cultural context and is influenced by it even if he was unaware of it at the time.

  7. I would like to respond to Question # 10. I think it is pretty obvious that this generation is not favorable towards the Putin Era. They do not agree with how the government is currently being ran; however, they do not try and voice their opinions for change because they feel like they will not be heard. Therefore, only Olga is seen to vote while the others do not for they see it as useless. I disagree with their thought process though, because if people do not vote then they do not express that they want change and things will stay the same. Although Olga votes for a fringe candidate, this is a move in the right direction for if more people did that then it would show the nation has interest in different types of political ideas. So no it is not fine for people to not vote in a country like this, because voting gives them a voice in how things are ran; thus, without a voice the opinions of the people will never be heard.

  8. In answer to #6:

    I believe she feels compelled to mock her former beliefs because in light of what was occurring at the time, and how closed off Soviet society was from the rest of the world, she realizes how meaningless the actions of the Komsomol were in actually carrying out solutions to the issues they sought to end and in how they inspired hope in young people, which now could almost be considered indoctrination. I have seen similar interviews (but obviously quite different with regard to the actions of the state) with Hitler Youth children who laugh at how idiotic their little errands were in that organization, and how it was all meant to actually be a stepping stone towards towing the party line, which in Lyuba’s case was the Communist party of the USSR. This could also be a form of nostalgia not for the past or a government, but for youth and the age of innocence where as children we could care less about what was going on around us and instead were more focused on being a part of things and having fun, the world and its issues seeming so far away.

    In answer to #10:

    I would characterize this generation’s view of the Putin era as a disappointment. After all, they had grown up when Russia was not a democracy during the Brezhnev years, and with Yeltsin, despite how much of a disappointment he was to them, came a promise of something new that was only pictured as a far away dream: Democratic rule. However, when people such as them become disillusioned with democracy and do not take part, it makes the ruling feel like they can do whatever they wish without being held accountable by the public for their actions. Even though political activity in the form of voting is likely illegitimate, if more people voted, the government, and Putin, could look at the real numbers and see a rising tide of disapproval with their policy and face the decision of feeding that tide more with inaction, or reforming to meet the demands of those who feel left behind. Regardless, without voting the country will continue on its current path and nothing will change, as even though there is a pretty strong protest movement against Putin and his government, they cannot tell that sentiment is changing without seeing how many people are willing to brave the danger and come out to vote for the opposition.

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