'You can't put your arms around a memory/Don't try' (Johnny Thunders)
Nostalgia was never meant to be associated with communism. This utopian project, where the principle of hope was buttressed by the scientific certainties of dialectical materialism, declared itself future-oriented and unsentimental about a world where all that was solid melted into air. And yet, with the shattering of 'really existing socialism' and of the world movement which, despite much soul-searching and secession, still had at least one foot in the 'real' ruins, post-communist nostalgia has emerged as a socio-cultural phenomenon as well as an object of study.
This special issue grew out of a conference on communist nostalgia held at the University of Glasgow in September 2015, organised by Twentieth Century Communism in partnership with the Centre for the Study of Socialist Theory and Movements. It brought together fifty delegates (overwhelmingly young and female) from at least fifteen countries, including Italy, Kazakhstan and China. Here we present a range of places, genres and approaches to what Maria Todorova and Zusza Gille have called 'a spectre haunting academia'--and beyond. (1)
Given his demonisation before and since his execution on Christmas Day 1989, it may appear surprising that Nicolae Ceausescu has become an object of nostalgia in contemporary Romania. However, as Manuela Marin shows, the painful transition to market economics and EU integration, as well as the recession since 2008, have produced spikes in positive views of communism as an idea and of the dead Conducator, who, according to a recent poll, would receive forty-one per cent of the vote in the first round of a presidential election. Surveys demonstrate widely-held longing for a 'golden age' of welfare and relatively high living standards. Strikingly, there has emerged the phenomenon of 'exonostalgia': a longing among the young for a system they never knew.
Such widespread nostalgia has been ridiculed and censored by an official discourse which emphasises the 'crimes of totalitarianism'. This love that rarely dares to speak its name has therefore expressed itself in an underground or 'vernacular' way, notably in the street stencil (which we have chosen as cover image) of Ceausescu promising: 'I'll be back'. This graffiti, which appeared on many walls in central Bucharest, was systematically erased on the orders of the city council. However, as Maria-Alina Asavei demonstrates, such 'unhealthy' memory work manifests itself in diverse artistic forms: Ceausescu soap and tiramisu; contemporary art installations re-visiting the trial and execution of the 'tyrannical' couple; and Ceausescu tattoos. For Asavei, such manifestations of nostalgia are more often 'reflective' rather than 'restorative', to use the terms of the late Svetlana Boym. (2) There is no way 'home'; instead, there are ironic and ludic attempts at approaching the recent past and present 'from below'.
Elsewhere, nostalgia is driven by nationality. In the former Baltic States, the collapse of the Soviet Union entailed a rediscovery of nationhood as well as membership of the EU. But Kjetil Duvold and Joachim Ekman point out the persistence of Soviet nostalgia among the substantial Russian minorities left in these countries. Here, dissatisfaction with the current political and economic situation combines with ethnic identity and substantial hostility to democracy itself to produce a dangerous longing that could be exploited by Moscow. Post-Soviet nostalgia also lives on in contemporary Russian literature. Thus Helena Duffy finds in the novels of Andrei Makine, an attitude towards the Soviet past which is bereft of critical postmodern metanarrative. The communal apartment dreamt up by Lenin is, for Makine, the metonym for a wider wholeness which is subsequently demolished, first by Gorbachev's perestroika then the kleptocracy post-1991. By doing so, Makine turns a blind eye to the kommunalka as scene for the brutalities of the regime and its citizens.
Another former communist state that would have been thought bereft of nostalgia is Poland. However, as in Romania, a more positive reassessment of 'people's democracy' can be found beneath the dominant discourse. Recognising that the forty years of Polish communism were internally diverse, with an often forgotten level of freedom of expression, there have been attempts at reviving the community-based cultural life which was so battered by the aggressive capitalism of the 1990s. The social practice of nostalgia can be found in web-sites, museums and theme pubs, but this latter phenomenon shows the reduction of communist nostalgia to de-politicised consumption.
Indeed, what emerges from these studies is a longing for a communist past devoid of communist ideology. Thus Ivan Maksimovic (born fatefully in Belgrade in July 1989) remarks upon the curious absence of political elements in 'yugonostalgia'. Certainly, there is widespread hankering for security, stability, prosperity and--again, contrary to Cold War expectations--freedom of expression and movement, but yugonostalgias various manifestations--from TV shows to a three-acre 'Yugoland' to a Proustian exhibition including cheap Bulgarian perfume, hot-dog stands and the smell of burnt milk--stimulate cosy reminiscences of a pleasant and prosperous middle-class life. For Maksimovic's interviewees, an old-fashioned sense of order and hierarchy are abiding positive memories of Tito's defunct Federal Republic, not the programme of the League of Communists.
Communist nostalgia inevitably takes different forms in countries outside the eastern bloc, where the fraternal parties only exerted power at municipal level or in coalition at the national one. That said, these western countries have had to react to not only the collapse of the Soviet referent, but also the challenges of globalisation and EU integration that have accelerated since 1989. Thus Gino Raymond examines the attempts by the French Communist Party, which cultivated a romanticised and rather selective version of its role in France's history, notably during the Occupation, to participate in the revival of a radical left in the form of the Front de Gauche, whose presidential election candidate of 2012, Jean-Luc Melenchon, came close to equalling the score of Georges Marchais in 1981. However, the Front de Gauche has been eclipsed, especially in the working-class electorate, by the Front National, which offers a more persuasive defence of French identity, while playing, in its own way, on communist nostalgia in the rust belts of France. Similarly, in Italy, a once mighty communist movement, in its rush to ditch the red legacy, distanced itself from its most successful leader, Enrico Berlinguer. Phillip Cooke and Guanluca Fantoni show how this memory vacuum has mainly been filled by right-wing intellectuals and the populist politician and comedian Beppe Grillo, who have championed Berlinguer's call for the 'moralisation' of political life, while, more generally, Berlinguer has come to symbolise a better Italy now lost forever.
Communist nostalgia can be a confused and confusing phenomenon. Iro Filippaki presents its Greek manifestation as the pain of a phantom limb, flaring up in 1985 then 2015. His Freudo-Marxist reading of Rinio Dragasaki's short film Dad, Lenin and Freddy detects communist nostalgia in 'residual' and 'emergent' cultural forms, part of an Oedipal drama where a Red father meets the ghost of Lenin and the horror character Freddy Krueger. Amongst this distracted arrangement of cultural and material artefacts emerges nostalgia for paternal leaders who will never materialise. Another 'blurred object' of nostalgia is Radio Free Europe. In her analysis of two documentaries and a multilingual hip-hop track, Yuliya Komska argues that this tool of Cold War propaganda becomes first an object of medial nostalgia--for the threat and thrill of listening to 'enemy' radio--then, paradoxically, a symbol of borderless resistance to the contemporary 'system' it helped bring into being.
We are therefore dealing with a multifaceted phenomenon that deserves further investigation. Work is urgently needed on nostalgia in those countries putatively still part of the communist world (for the population of what remains there now exceeds that of the entire 'bloc' in 1989). At the Glasgow conference, Hongsheng Jiang, of Peking University, spoke of nostalgia for the Cultural Revolution and the emergence of a harassed yet popular (especially on social media) cult of Mao's widow. It would be instructive to extend this study to Vietnam--where Ho Chi Minh and General Giap are totems for peasants desperately resisting expropriation by indigenous capitalists--and to another communist country now opening itself to the USA, Cuba. Perhaps the migrant crisis currently tearing at the fabric of the EU will encourage nostalgia for the relative immobility and homogeneity of the world before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Finally, there remains the possibility of communist nostalgia as a political agent--could such longing for a lost but idealised home ever become future-oriented?
(1) Maria Todorova and Zsuzsa Gille (eds.) Post-Communist Nostalgia (New York: Berghahn, 2010),p1.
(2) Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001).
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|Publication:||Twentieth Century Communism|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2016|
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