Twenty years ago, as Mikhail Gorbachev was battling to accelerate the reforms that, in the end, proved fatal to communism, he needed all the help he could get. Some of that help came from an unexpected quarter: a highly controversial film directed by Stanislav Govorukhin, Tak zhit' nel'zya (You Can't Live Like That), which chronicled the sordidness of daily life in the Soviet Union, the pervasive poverty and petty nastinesses, and the way the system forced ordinary people to lie and cheat to live anything like a normal life. What he painted was an endlessly depressing picture of a discredited and degenerate society. It also happened to be true.
Instead of being banned, or savagely censored, as early rumours suggested it would be, the film became the programmatic statement of Gorbachev's twin policies of glasnost and perestroika. It was screened, at Gorbachev's insistence, to the party's ruling Politburo; attendance was mandatory. Then the whole of the Central Committee was summoned to a screening, then the Soviet Parliament, then the media, and finally the film was released nationwide. Cinemas were packed.
You Can't Live Like That became one of the reformers' most powerful weapons. Here was proof that the Soviet system as it currently operated had lost all credibility and, instead of creating a bright future for everyone, was producing the absolute opposite effect.
Last night, to mark the 20th anniversary of its release, the film was broadcast in its entirety, on a widely accessible domestic satellite channel, to a Russia that, for the most part, looks and feels a world away from that depicted in Govorukhin's film. Maybe historical significance was the chief reason for the broadcast, but it is hard not to suspect an ulterior motive. At a time when Russians, despite almost two decades of rising living standards, still face a long slog to approach the relatively comfortable lives enjoyed by, say, those in the Baltic States or, still more, Western Europe, Tak zhit' nel'zya was a reminder of how dreadful it used to be and how far Russia has come.
And when I write far, I mean far. When the film came out, women were getting up at the crack of dawn to queue at shops for basic necessities. All over the country shelves were bare. Even bread and milk were in short supply. Western countries had vast quantities of emergency food stocks in Finland and elsewhere, anticipating a major refugee crisis, if – as was feared – Russians fled across the border.
It did not come to that – quite. The regime fell; unofficial supply chains re-established themselves. Prices were "reformed" and goods miraculously reappeared on open sale, at a price. But Govorukhin's film, descending as though from another planet that no Russian under 25 can remember living on, gives the Russian government something to take credit for. It's hard not to conclude that this was an evening of negative nostalgia that served quite a few different interests.
Smooth landing: an airport to write home about
Like many regular travellers to Russia, I suspect, I spend the last hour of the flight steeling myself for the ordeal to follow: most of all the impenetrable queues for passport control that continually change their form, while always leaving you further back. Well, something extraordinary happened at St Petersburg last week – the plane was hooked up to a sky bridge, the escalators were working and what looked like a sort of pre-check for passport control turned out to be the real thing. Every booth staffed, no queues worth speaking of and more than a hint of a smile from the – clearly civilian – official, in a smart blue uniform. The luggage arrived almost at once, and the whole process of entering Russia had taken less than 10 minutes. St Petersburg says it wants more tourists and more investors. It may have figured out one way to get them.
A lively testament to how much has changed
Only two years ago, Vasilievsky Island, across the river from the oldest part of the city, had derelict dockyards, outdated factories, dilapidated housing and the main buildings and institutes of the university – all of which had seen better days. The whole area is now in the throes of an expensive facelift with what is called "elite housing" being built, more and more small shops opening and a dozen or more up-market restaurants along the embankments. Recently opened – so recently that you can still smell the paint, and they haven't stopped the enormously heavy front doors from sticking – is Russia's largest private museum of contemporary art, starting mostly from the mid-1980s, the perestroika years, and going up almost to today.
The variety of the work, the use of colour, the mix of styles – figurative and abstract, folkloric naif, decorative and spare – is a delight to behold. Gone is the bitter satire that characterised much late Soviet-era art. There is all of the energy of the Khrushchev Thaw – though much of that art was kept underground after K took against it – and a bursting sense of joie de vivre. The bleaker canvasses tend to religious themes, or allude to the death throes of communism. If you really worry that nothing has changed in Russia over the past 20 years, an afternoon at Erarta might cheer you up.