Escape from the future: The draw–and threat–of USSR nostalgia
“We say ‘soviet’ meaning a construct or something political, but for me soviet was first of all generations of people who faced drastic changes and some could never find a way to fit into the new world,” says Hayk Bianjyan, a documentary photographer whose love for collecting items from USSR led him to create an interactive museum about Soviet life.
It doesn't matter how many years have passed since the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)--the memories of it still haunt many of the countries that were once part of it and generations of people who lived in it, notes Bianjyan.
It's been more than two decades since he started collecting everything produced in the USSR. His collection spans from perfumes, plates, shoes, and newspapers to alcoholic beverages, furniture, and even buses. His space has also preserved decorations from abandoned hotels and restaurants.
After attracting an investor in 2015, Bianjyan’s collection expanded into the Soviet Club. The club is in a building that was once a Soviet-era silk factory in the suburbs outside the Armenian capital Yerevan.
“It's not exactly a museum, it's more an interactive space, where people can touch and wear everything they see, play on the same attractions they used to when they were kids,” he says. The exhibits look like moments paused from real life, just waiting for someone to come in and press play.
“If you want to call it a museum, then it’s more a museum of memories and emotions, not items,” says Vardan Harutyunyan, who donated a few items to the collection and works as the administrator. “Here parents get to know their kids and kids learn more about their parents. This place is filled with emotions,” he continues.
“Recently we hosted a private birthday party for a woman. Her grandchildren organized it and we recreated the old Soviet-era birthday cakes, the same colors, texture, and taste. She got so emotional. I can't imagine any other place or situation where people, however close they are, bond on such an emotional level.”
For Armenia and many other countries that were once part of the USSR, independence, which played out against a backdrop of ruined houses, abandoned factories, and lost lives, looks more like a loss than a gain.
“I think the feeling of nostalgia is a metaphor for going back to your mother`s womb,” says Samvel Saghatelian, curator, architect, and contemporary artist, whose body of work is closely linked to nostalgia.
Saghatelian often questions the role of traumatic memories in the formation of society and uses USSR-era cultural symbolism as elements in his work. His ongoing series, “An artist is never alone” explores nostalgia in political ideology through the image of a naked Vladimir Putin with a statue of Vladimir Lenin instead of his genitals.
The symbolism is about more than provocation, he says. “It's how I symbolically explain my whole vision of Russia. To me, Putin is a very interesting character to observe whose driving force is the past. This is why the genitals as an organ of reproduction, and thus a metaphor for the future, here are replaced with memories of the past, dead memories of the past,” Saghatelian explains.
“I often work with the past, my own or others…But I know very clearly that the past requires very delicate skills, without which you may be totally swallowed by it.”
Moments of uncertainty in the present are widely believed to activate a “rosy retrospection”—a psychological phenomenon that recalls the past more positively than it actually was. This may be one of the reasons why several generations of Armenians still recall the soviet as a “glorious time” because those were the times of their well-being.
This psychological phenomenon, often helping us to hold on and survive moments of discomfort by hiding in “good old times” is often used in political propaganda as a very powerful weapon and works mainly when we don't agree with what we have now or aren't yet ready to change it.
Though for some nostalgia has a taste of sweet memories, for others nostalgia can be lethal. Roman Palamarchuk, a political consultant and media analyst currently residing in Kyiv, Ukraine, notes there are elements of nostalgia even in the terms people use to describe the countries that emerged or reclaimed their independence following the collapse of the USSR— post-soviet.
“First of all, ex- or post-Soviet countries are something that looks like parts of the whole, and the whole is always bigger and more clear and understandable, isn’t it? So why not try to gather the whole back?” Palamarchuk says, underscoring that these nostalgic moods, delivered even in the form of speech, actually strengthen the regimes that are striving to restore the USSR or any totalitarian regime that promises to be the same.
“Speaking of Armenia or Ukraine we don’t need these Soviet memories,” he says. “We had others, ours. The presence of the national myth, grounded in culture and traditions should be remembered, more than being part of any empire.”
Artist Saghatelian warns that when analyzing or recalling the past, people need to be clear about what it means for the present.
“If we’re talking about the nostalgia in our country, from what I've observed different “nostalgias” are interwoven, which simply blurs our vision of the present,” he says.
“I see parts of different memories from our history, undigested and just widely shared. I would say that Armenia needs to focus now on the present, on what it has now to get a bit stronger. The past may shatter it, especially the USSR past.”