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Robin Hessman's documentary film offers a remarkably intimate look into the lives of five intelligent, average Russians, considering the changes they have lived through over the past 20 years, and how each has all adapted.
Her subjects are members of the last generation to grow up under Soviet rule. Lyuba, a high school teacher, says, "the hardest thing to teach kids is what it was like to live under Soviet power." Segue to her husband Borya lecturing to uncomprehending students about mass deportations to Siberia. Indeed, this could be the central theme driving Hessman's narrative: the difficulty of explaining what exactly Soviet power, and the escape from it, meant. And rather than tell us, she shows us.
Hessman follows the lives of five students of a single Moscow school. And these five subject's stories offer a surprisingly rich representation of the millions of souls who endured perestroika. There is the "prettiest girl in the class" whose banker husband was assassinated during the besporyadok of the 1990s, leaving her a penniless single mother; now she manages a billiards business. There is the pair of teachers at the center of the film, and their precocious son Mark. There is the idealist, coarse-talking rebel punk rocker turned subway busker who can't understand how musicians can sell out. And there is the disillusioned Komsomol star turned successful businessman (selling upscale shirts and ties).
With brilliant editing and wonderful editorial restraint (there is no voice over or commentary by knowledgeable historians), Hessman lets the subjects speak for themselves. They allow us into their lives, and we join them around the dinner table for tea, vodka, a meal. And through their stories we begin to understand what it meant to live through those difficult times, why it is, despite all the awful aspects of the Soviet system, they still long for the more settled, predictable times of their childhood.
Reviewed in Russian Life: Mar/Apr 2011