Back in the USSR: A Reading List

Photo: yeowatzup

Svetlana Boym, an eminent Leningrad-born literary scholar, died earlier this month in Boston. She was a versatile and eloquent critic, novelist, and photographer, but is perhaps best known for her work on nostalgia, a cultural and psychological phenomenon that she described as “a strategy of survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming.”

Boym left the USSR in the early 1980s. Since then, her country of birth has formally disintegrated, but has also become one of the most fetishized nostalgic objects of our post-Cold War imagination, a political entity that continues to cast spectral shadows in unexpected places — in Russia, in the former Communist Bloc, and in the West.

Writing about post-Soviet Kaliningrad/Königsberg, Boym described the city, and by extension contemporary Russia as a whole, as a “theme park of lost illusions.” The stories in this reading list — from a haunting travelogue through an abandoned Soviet mining town in the Arctic to Boym’s account of Moscow’s 850th anniversary celebrations in 1997 — take us on a ride through the park’s gaudily uncanny landscapes.

1. “The Most Soviet Park in Russia.” (Charles Shaw, The Appendix, March 2014)

Shaw guides us through the sprawling kitsch and grandiose architecture of Moscow’s VDNKh park, a World Fair-style amalgamation of pavilions and exhibition spaces. In the post-Soviet era VDNKh has morphed into a mishmash of commercial outlets and tourist attractions (including “two competing live shark habitats, one of which is housed in the former pavilion to Friendship of the Peoples”), and this essay channels the surreal ambiance of the space it describes.

2. “Nostalgia for Russia’s Soviet History.” (Anya von Bremzen, Travel + Leisure, September 2013)

After writing Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, a memoir of Soviet food cultures, Anya von Bremzen returns to her native Moscow with her mom. Between sumptuous meals, the two explore the strange vogue for Soviet design, fashion, and food among younger Muscovites who never lived through — or can’t remember — the struggle and hardship that went hand-in-hand with (now-retro) objects like Red October Chocolate or avoska mesh bags.

3. “The Cold Rim of the World.” (Colin Dickey, Longreads, March 2015)

Pyramiden, an abandoned Soviet outpost in the far reaches of the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, has turned from utopia to dystopia in the short span of 15 years. Once a seemingly prosperous mining town, now in ruins and overtaken by gulls, Dickey sees in Pyramiden not just the collapse of an ideology, but a vision of a post-human landscape, “where human history has once again joined the deep geologic time of the earth itself.”

4. “Into the Cosmos” (Chloe Aridjis, Granta, August 2012)

“Looking back on his early years, writer Zinovy Zinik describes how the mere knowledge of Sputnik 1 orbiting the sky instilled a sense of triumphant flight (and, later in life, of tragic landing) — it was much easier to become a cosmonaut than to obtain an exit visa to travel abroad, and therefore all Soviet adolescent boys wanted to fly.”

In her essay, Aridjis explores the parallels between Soviet cosmonauts and circus performers, and how both captured a distinct Cold War-era fascination with the vertical.

5. “My Midwestern Soviet Childhood.” (Liesl Schillinger, Virgina Quarterly Review, January 2015)

From recitations of Pushkin over dinner (in Russian!) to poppyseed birthday cakes, Schillinger evokes her unconventional upbringing by two Slavophile professor parents. Bemoaning the sad fate of the study of Russian in the US, she sees a silver lining in the renewed tensions between Moscow and the West: perhaps Russia’s greater political relevance will also resuscitate interest in Russian culture, as it did back in the days of the USSR?

6. “Nostalgia, Moscow Style.” (Svetlana Boym, Harvard Design Magazine, Winter/Spring 2001)

“For the celebration of Moscow’s 850th anniversary, in 1997, Mayor Yuri Luzhkov ordered the clouds over the Russian capital to be dispersed.”

Taking a cue from the extravagant festivities that marked a mostly fabricated anniversary, Boym explores the persistence — and fragility — of Soviet-inflected narratives of grandeur in post-Communist Moscow, from the sprinkling of massive historical monuments all over the city to the construction of Europe’s largest underground shopping mall beneath Manezh Square.