The battle over how the world should feel about the past

Image by Wolfgang Staudt via Flickr

Time’s tough, so it’s no surprise that everyone’s a bit nostalgic.

Old(er) and poor(er) Russians miss a time when the word “oligarch” had yet to invade their vocabulary, and things could be bought with kopeks (cents).

Many say they also miss being citizens of a huge, sprawling multiethnic superpower that seemed to command respect in the world.

“I used to travel all over the USSR, and was welcomed everywhere,” says Inna Lepneva, a retired TV sound engineer. “Now the country is split up, no one likes Russians anymore, and good relationships are ruined. Nothing has changed for the better.

Nowadays, postmodern nostalgia is worn on trendy T-shirts by a new crop of ironic or uber-patriotic young hipsters. Verdict of the past is battled out at length on TV and in bookstores.

Since 1991 Russians have been bombarded with articles, books and television programmes denouncing Bolshevik crimes: the Red Terror under Lenin and Trotsky; the Great Terror under Stalin; the famine of 1932-33; the gulag; the deportation of individuals punished for, or suspected of, collaborating with Nazi Germany; and the repression of the Brezhnev era. The battle for memory combined with the promotion of democratic commercial values has been keenly fought by the media, journalists and historians, backed by a vast Western, chiefly US, network of institutions, universities and foundations.

In former East Germany, Ostalgie is pervasive.  In Berlin, a whole souvenirs’ industry around former-East German products such as Ampelmaennchen has sprung, getting your passport stamped with fake border crossing visa, and posting with former Communist street guards have become tourist attractions.  Part of Berlin’s charm was its run-downness, and the bourgersie version of poverty-porn.

Clunky Trabants belching car exhaust along Karl-Marx-Allee. Red-and-yellow East German flags fluttering from storefronts. Retro-chic bars that resemble cold-war bomb shelters. The Berlin Wall may have fallen 20 years ago next month, but in certain pockets of this pulsating German capital, it seems to be going back up – at least for those too young to recall what life was like in the German Democratic Republic. From stylish hotels that resemble 1970s Soviet housing to boutiques that elevate kitschy East German goods to high design, Berlin is still divided – on whether the Iron Curtain was cool.

Populist broadcasters in the US are also cashing on people’s nostalgia.  But before people dive straight over the edge of sentimentality, it’s a good thing Jon Stewart goes for the jocular.

Not feeling so nostalgic anymore, are we?

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