Historical Memories of a Sovietophile

As a Russian Studies major employed in an organization that works with the Former Soviet Union, I am almost embarrassed by how long it took me to see My Perestroika.  My chagrin stems mostly from the publicity the film received, but was also the result of the fact that my (perhaps not-so-representative) group of friends is composed of jaunty Russophiles, most of whom saw the movie before me.

The film, a documentary by filmmaker Robin Hessman, is a juxtaposition of the personal narratives of five Russians in their 40s.  It explores their experiences during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and checks in with them on the eve of the 2008 Presidential election, which resulted in a Medvedev victory.  Hessman’s film focused on the mentality and outlook of its subjects in a post-Soviet world, and made vague implications about the promise of the era of Perestroika having somehow devolved into a resignation to western chain restaurants and increasingly authoritarian politics.  This is hardly a new idea in Russian-Area Studies – many have taken note of the widespread cultural ambivalence and political indifference one finds in Modern Russia (including myself).  My Perestroika did, however, capture some very special personal moments of the subjects’ pasts.  The film is woven together by home video footage, news reels and class photos pertinent to the biographies of these five Muscovites.  These vignettes are very effective. At its best, the film drew the viewer into the sense of hope that marked the era while also forcing them to contend with the human implications of the historical situation that inspired it.

I found thoughts raised by the film’s topic especially interesting in light of the fact that I am currently reading Lenin’s Tomb, the Pulitzer Prize winning book by David Remnick.  The book famously relates his experiences as a writer in the USSR for the Washington Post as the state was crumbling.  Lenin’s Tomb reads similarly to some of the stories told by the subjects of My Perestroika, nostalgically recollecting the time before they had grown cynical about the direction of their independent state.  Paging through Remnick’s work, I find myself feeling crushed by the declarations of countless sources about the triumph of democracy and a new order.  When the book debuted, I am sure it was the sort of exciting, meaningful tome you’d want to hug tight against your chest and shout about.  In 2011, like the subjects of My Perestroika, I evaluate the giddy sense of promise after the fall of the Soviet Union much more critically, with a sense of opportunities somehow missed.  It is that very disparity – the historical chasm between dreams and reality – that has always attracted me so strongly to Russia and its border states.

Throughout My Perestroika – and, I can’t recall if the film itself included a clip of it, or if I am just inserting it into my memory – I couldn’t stop thinking of Gorbachev’s 1991 resignation speech.  Within the course of twelve minutes, history’s final President of The Soviet Union recited the very end of a nation’s story.  I am too young to remember the Soviet Union as a player in current events – it has always been a relic of history.  I have read plenty of accounts of the collapse of the USSR, and even read snippets of this exact speech embedded in the paragraphs of survey textbooks.  The last term of my senior year of college, we were covering the Soviet break-up in a class taught by my very favorite professor.  Dr. Sylvester wanted us to hear Gorbachev’s words, the way a Soviet citizen did. Speeches are meant to be said.  Perhaps she’d rehearsed the pauses, the tone of her voice – or perhaps it came naturally.  I was able to suspend my reality for the duration of it and hear Gorbachev himself – and I was captivated. I think the bored marketing majors taking the class as a Gen-Ed would have laughed if they’d noticed I had tears in my eyes.

Mikhail Gorbachev, winner of the 1990 Nobel Prize for Peace, was a true believer.  During his political ascent, he was comparatively young and vibrant.  He assumed the Presidency after two brief back-to-back terms of two hard-lining septuagenarians, and took office with a genuine desire to democratize the country.  But he was a lifelong socialist – he wanted to make the system better, because he really did believe in its ability to make a better world.  Six years later, his democratic reforms had not only failed to save socialism, but had provided the very blueprints for its demise.  His farewell speech was a blend of confession, sorrow, regret, caution and hope.  Terrible mistakes had been made by the state throughout Soviet history.  He candidly admitted it, and offered no denial or rationale.  He deferred to the massive will of the people, but not without an admission of his own sorrow.  In a final, more personal act of democratic reform, Gorbachev stepped away from his post, and the Soviet Union went with him.

I was so moved by this moment – listening to a great teacher teach well – because I was overcome by the sense of nostalgia and narrative that draws me to history in the first place.  The story of the Soviet Union is littered with examples of atrocity, corruption, injustice and waste.  It had to fall. It was broken.  It didn’t work. I do not grieve the fact that it happened, but I do grieve what it means.

Any child, if given 100 pieces of candy to distribute amongst a group, would do so by dividing 100 by the number of children (provided that he already knows his times tables).  Kids invent that idea before they even know about division. Socialism argues that once people have their basic needs, they are free to pursue loftier goals.  According to Maslow’s famous hierarchy, of course, self-actualization cannot happen without food, clothing and shelter.  On paper, it is a very humanizing system.  It asks people to contribute what they are able, and to withdraw what they need.  If socialism is an honor system; capitalism is a declaration that people are dishonorable.  It encourages the proverbial child to incentivize the others in his group to compete for candy, because they have no inherent right to it.

The historical record, of course, has shown that capitalist societies function holistically better than socialist ones.  The Soviet Union may well have been based on some wonderful ideas – but it was horribly marred by ruthless authoritarian leadership, massive defense spending and running a welfare state alongside lavish expenditures abroad.  It was inefficient.  It was cruel and corrupt.  Capitalism rewards selfishness.  When asked why socialism failed, many people would shrug and say it was inevitable.  It was naïve and unrealistic.  They’d say socialism was taken down by human nature.

They are right – socialism was a casualty of human nature.  But I don’t conceive of that as a human inevitability – I regard it as a human tragedy.  When I think about the collapse of the USSR, and the way that Gorbachev read that speech – with solemn, heavy eyes – it strikes me as a moment in time that humanity closed a book.  The world had moved beyond the idea that a Utopian system could work.  But there were people, like Gorbachev – old believers – who lost something at the moment the Soviet Union drew its last breath.  Until that moment, it may have felt reasonable to hold onto the last shreds of socialist idealism.  One could have easily believed that the system could really work – if only it were tweaked.

That moment, though, came and went.  There remain very few people who retain the belief that a socialist system could ever function properly.  The fifteen republics of the USSR are each developing their own stories now.  I celebrate every way in which their lives have become freer since 1991.  I hope they do, too.

Watching My Perestroika, and re-reading Gorbachev’s final speech, I was reminded what it is about history that excites me more than anything else.  It gives our stories meaning.  The Soviet Union is a story about the disaster that ensues when perfect ideas are put in the charge of imperfect people.  Socialism will never work.  But the fact that it doesn’t, and what that says about all of us? That breaks my heart.

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