“Eras have their surfaces”, writes the German historian Karl Schlögel. “They can be smooth or rough. They can disappear or dissolve. You can make yourself felt. What wrapping paper was and what it meant is only understood now that it has disappeared…into the tide of plastic bags.
Even when dealing with ordinary people rather than great statesmen, we tend to see history as a tale of wars and laws filled with hard facts: 13 million unemployed, 40 million starving . But it’s also about how people experienced these things and how they felt about them, and the myriad of places, objects and habits that make up what Professor Schlögel describes in his forthcoming book The Soviet Century: Archeology of a Lost World called “lifeworld”. ”. It’s a sort of montage of crude wrapping paper, dusty museums and lilac eau de parfum. It also alludes to what’s missing – the lost sounds of the early morning doorbell announcing that your house would be searched; turning a key in a cell lock.
With striking parallels to Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone, the new documentary series from director Adam Curtis, is drawn from thousands of hours filmed by BBC news crews before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We see scientists entering Chernobyl in suits they cobbled together out of plastic and duct tape; the body of a young woman killed during the repression of pro-independence demonstrations in Tbilisi; and a phone call to KGB generals, who assure viewers that they keep no files on individuals – underscoring both the impact and the limits of glasnost. But we also see a cake factory in Moscow and doctors taking a villager to a psychiatric ward. The few people looking at the camera are not experts, but ordinary citizens: “Where did it all go? We were well into the 50s and 60s! said a woman angrily. Another garish wallpaper notes that she “used to dream, make plans, but nothing worked out…I won’t dream anymore…I don’t believe in anything or anyone.” The series is subtitled What it’s like to experience the collapse of communism and democracy.
These works do not seek the objectivity that we associate with academic tomes and sophisticated programs of facts, but rather subjectivity. They convey an understanding of what it was like to live through the Soviet Union and its collapse, as Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich did in her extraordinary polyphonic oral history Second-hand Time. A chronicle that’s told not from state offices, but from kitchens where onions grow in old mayonnaise jars – and it’s “a story of feelings”, as one reviewer put it. “I don’t ask people about socialism, I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairstyles,” writes the author. “Only in this way can catastrophe be chased away within the contours of the ordinary. »
Dictators understand the importance of feelings: why else would they need personality cults or propaganda operations? Professor Schlögel, who began work on his project in 2014, prompted by Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, writes of how political leaders maintained their own power by “confronting post-imperial phantom pains, nostalgic longings and the fear of exploited loss”. social status to pursue an aggressive policy that does not exclude war against neighboring states. Material and emotional experience is how we encounter the world – and also shape it.
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