Russian Nostalgia – Part of the Imperial Myth

Svetlana Bunina

July 7, 2022

Soviet writer Isaac Babel wrote from and about Paris in 1929: “And the country – strangely – is terribly backward and very provincial. To live here in the sense of individual freedom is excellent, but we – from Russia – yearn for the wind of great thoughts and great passions”. As it goes, Babel was killed in the USSR during the Great Terror, 10 years later. His shortsighted words, so similar to the paradoxical recognitions of many other Russians, pushed me once more to peer into the phenomenon of Russian nostalgia. What do we learn about this unforgettable Russia with its “great thoughts and great passions”?

At first glance, the case seems very irrational. Well-known Russian emigrants in the XIX-XX centuries could fully recognize the benefits of European civilization and freedom. But they also believed that can’t exist without Russia – its air, language, community, and nature (the notorious image of the Russian birch tree, but it could also be a few other symbols like a rowan tree or poplar tree for Moscow). This plot is well developed in Andrey Tarkovsky’s movie “Nostalgia”. Russian writer Gorchakov (even his surname is meaningful, talking about bitterness), moves to Italy in the late Soviet years. He studies the biography of the Russian composer of the XVIII century Sosnovsky, who lived in Italy in his youth. Like many Russian talents, the musician was too homesick – that’s why he returned to Russia and died there from hopelessness (possibly killed himself). From his side, Gorchakov experiences a strong nostalgia, and a subsequent untimely death in Italy while feeling deep family guilt and lonliness. “My Lord, why did I do this? These are my children, my family, my blood. How could I do it? Not to see the sun for years, afraid of the daylight? For what? For what this trouble is?” – Gorchakov says these words in the movie climax (1’29 – 1’32 min). The scene begins with Gorchakov gazing into an old mirror on the cabinet door and concludes with him staring at the bright handle of this door, magically calling him home… A big dog, the symbol of loyalty, becomes a reappearing image throughout the movie.  

The pattern of guilt is a rational, historically conditioned key to the phenomenon of Russian nostalgia. Since the time before Peter the Great, leaving Russia was considered a betrayal. Peter “cut a window to Europe”, but the cruel imperial state, which he created at the same time, viewed people as building material. Most Russians never had freedom of movement, because the comparison with the level of freedom abroad could be dangerous for their inhuman state. Historians know, what an impression was made on Russian soldiers by their meeting with Europe during the war with Napoleon or WWII – just new cruel repressions could return people to their habitual living. Patriotic education in Russia always includes as a main part of its thesis the inseparable connection to motherland. This connection has many components, but all of them were successfully used by Russian power and then Soviet propaganda. Even the aformentioned birch tree becomes in this case an official symbol of loyalty.  Now, in 2022, Russian TV channels predictably blame new emigrants for a betrayal – but the most shocking is that even a significant part of the liberal opposition discusses the topic with similar sentiments. It shows how deeply this pattern pervades the consequences of Russian society.   

Here is one more classic case of the Russian nostalgic complex. Husband of famous Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, Sergey Efron, was recruited in Paris by Russian secret services in the 1930s because of his nostalgia and feeling of guilt. “Specialists on human souls” from NKVD easily found his weak place – traumatic connection with early dead parents, who professed left, revolutionary views on the border of XIX and XX centuries. Making Efron feel guilty in front of the parents’ faces (my family, my blood) they involved him in Soviet terroristic operations in France. After the grand exposure in Paris, Efron ran back to Russia and predetermined the tragedy of his family – Marina Tsvetaeva, their daughter Ariadna and son Georgy – and his own death after torture in Stalin’s prison.

Russian power still uses the same method, when saying to people “grandfathers were at war” and “we can repeat”. This means that Russian citizens have to be ready to repeat the deeds of their fathers – or they are unworthy of their memory. In 2012, two years before the Crimea annexation, Putin’s power started a patriotic movement “Immortal regiment”, making every year May 9 demonstrations with portraits of dead veterans of WWII. The pride for grandparents-winners and the victory cult became a calling card of the Putin regime before the big war with Ukraine in 2022. The state does everything to force dissidents and even more – those who are leaving to feel them as betrayers, who forgot their history and blood. No wonder a large number of Russians, who successfully lived abroad since the 1990s, now (under the influence of Russian TV propaganda) support the war with Ukraine – they also feel nostalgia, in its Russian version. Nostalgia, becoming crueler and crueler to real people.

I could speak separately about many other aspects of this topic – the vision of Russia as “great” and the whole world as provincial; the stigmatizing definition of emigration as an “easy way”; the specific Russian cult of death, about which philosopher Mikhail Epstein brightly talks – all of this may be a start of the wider research. Here I just want to draw the line between existential experiences of specific people – and attempts of the power to control these experiences. Between real suffering of war victims – and the state-fueled hysteria, which accompanies dishonorable wars.