Nostalgia is a complex, and largely misunderstood, human emotion that is central to our sense of ourselves. But what happens when one’s nostalgic yearnings are for a place, a time, or for half-forgotten memories that, for others, represent a space of personal horror and political oppression?
Certain well-worn cliches just might be based in some truth. I, for example, fit the cliche of the Russian (well, Soviet) refugee who experiences nostalgia for a time and a place that no longer exist. I am also a moral philosopher who wonders about the sorts of things that move us, and happen to have been working on a book dealing with the intersections of memory, nostalgia, and identity in the lives of refugees and others who have experienced life-changing traumas, focusing specifically on how particular kinds of nostalgia can contribute to reimagining and reconstituting shattered identities. This book was progressing apace until Russia’s war in Ukraine brought things to a standstill. The reasons for this are not just the more obvious interruptions of shifted attention and daily horror: I began to doubt my project on moral grounds, worrying about it giving voice to the kinds of Russian (and Soviet) nostalgias that might be (mis)interpreted as pining for the cultural and historical sources of ongoing war crimes. A kind of a weaponization of my memories. And so, as a way of trying to work through this dilemma, I decided to share a few thoughts not only about the nature of nostalgia itself, but about why I am currently at a loss about how to proceed. But first things first: what is nostalgia, and why does it matter?
A little history might be helpful here. One of the very first descriptions of nostalgia in western culture can be found in Homer’s Odyssey, with Odysseus weeping on the island of Ogygia, pining for his beloved Ithaca. Despite offers by the goddess Calypso to take him as a spouse and grant him immortality, Odysseus desires nothing more than to return to the place of his birth – even after Calypso foretells of the hardships he must bear before reaching his home. More modern notions of nostalgia are grounded in a much less poetic, much more medicalized sources. Reifying nostalgia as a psychological condition as early as 1688, a Swiss physician, Johannes Hofer, wrote a thesis about a young student from Bern, who, while studying at a university in Basel, was consumed by a longing for home. So intense was this longing that he became ill, lost a worrying amount of weight, and deteriorated physically and psychologically to the point that there were well-justified fears for his life. But by the time he was halfway home to Bern, the student had fully recovered. In naming this new illness, Hofer chose the Swiss dialect word Heimweh (homesickness), and translated it into Greek. From “nostos” (homecoming), and “algia” (pain), he coined the word “nostalgia.”
Nostalgia as an emotion has been, and remains, a complicated and fluid idea, too often reduced to its medicalized understandings or generalized to its more overwrought emotional extremes. It is somewhere between the more “legitimate,” “serious” emotions of sadness and regret; between psychological diagnosis and a vague mood of the soul; between yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Too often, nostalgia is understood as that transitory sense of longing one might find in a madeleine de Proust – that fleeting pang of bittersweet pain when recalling a long-gone childhood – or else as an unsettling feeling of being pulled back into an era, place, or an experience that might never have been. Even when viewed as an emotion worth considering, “nostalgia” is glibly used as an umbrella-term for the feelings of sadness, melancholia, or loss of a real or imagined past. In this light, nostalgia becomes either a psychologically-unhealthy preoccupation with the past, a rose-tinted, backward-looking melodrama, or else just an epistemically empty and morally damaging practice – harmful, inaccurate, and wrong. It neither explains nor frees. And it certainly does not resolve our current dilemmas in any way we can recognize (3). At its worst, it can totalize, simplify, and oppress, potentially making our individual and collective existence into political horror. It is nowhere specific and everywhere at once – between borders, between memories, between time itself.
Yet the truth about nostalgia, it seems to me, is not just much more complex, but more central to our sense of ourselves. After all, if it is such an indefinite emotion, why do most of us experience it at some point on our lives—and more so, I suggest, when our present is especially difficult, frightening, or even traumatic? Indeed, despite the negative valences attributed to nostalgia, it has been, and remains, central to human experience. From the Portuguese and Galician “saudade,” to the Albanian “mall,” to the German “Wehmut” or “Sehnsucht,” to the Korean “keurium“, to Russian “nostalghia,” nostalgia’s longings can, at times, be our only refuge from the unexpected, the traumatic, and the irreconcilable. Nostalgia might feel like a liminal, indeterminate state when we are in its grip, but it is, by far, no outlier among the varieties of human experience.
Nostalgia, in other words, matters. And so in my book, I want to rescue it from its history of philosophical neglect, medicalization, and general disdain as a kind of unhealthy, sentimental obsession with memory and with the past. I do this by considering stories of trauma-born nostalgias of immigrants, refugees, and others whose lives have been upended, disoriented, deprived of the coherent life story we tend to desire. I want to argue that one kind of nostalgia, that for a time or place which is no longer accessible in any direct way, can be fundamental to reconstituting broken identities and broken selves in times when we are faced with personal or collective disaster and moral disorientation. I want to say how much it matters that we can look backward in order to be able to move forward as moral agents. But how can we look backward with any semblance of trust in what we “find” – and why would doing so have anything to do with morality?
In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym identifies two kinds of nostalgia: “restorative” nostalgia and “reflective” nostalgia, with “restorative nostalgia put[ting] emphasis on nostos and proposes to rebuild the lost home and patch up the memory gaps. Reflective nostalgia dwells in algia, in longing and loss, the imperfect process of remembrance” (1). Like Boym, I am wary of restorative nostalgias that, dangerously and desperately, with potentially devastating consequences, desire to rebuild the valorized, idealized, and totalized past – the past that master narratives insist is more desirable, and more deserving of existence than the imperfect present. If nostalgia is a longing for both place and time, then restorative nostalgia wants to quite literally rebuild the lost spaces and return to specific, often mythologized, historical eras – and is unsurprisingly at the core of some of the worst kinds of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, and other horrors. Restorative nostalgia does not joke around – it “does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition” (1). It is where personal memory meets collective narratives; it is where myths become concentration camps. This kind of nostalgia can, and does, create monsters.
Reflective nostalgia, however, is something else entirely. It sits with – but does not try to recreate – the shards and waves and ambiguities of memory. It neither mourns, nor valorizes, nor tries to recreate the past, but views it bittersweetly, perhaps playfully – and often ironically – with an awareness of how the narratives we form are contingent on imperfect memory. Reflective nostalgia is less about longing for certain places, eras, or values, and more about an aesthetic experience of passing time, of thinking about, without necessarily desiring to return, to that which is irrevocably behind us. By engaging recollection, and by allowing oneself to feel the emotions that it evokes, reflective nostalgia is a part of our ever-evolving, and epistemically ambiguous, process of self-understanding. As Boym argues, “[r]eflective nostalgia does not follow a single plot but explores ways of inhabiting many places at once and imagining different time zones. It loves details, not symbols[…]reflective nostalgia cherishes shattered fragments of memory and demoralizes space” (2). While restorative nostalgia centers its narratives as truth, reflective nostalgia comes on little cat feet, uncertain where to stand.
Aside from the personal, the reflective conception of nostalgia does have its collective instantiations. There is the “Ostalgie” (a play on “nostalgia,” with the German word “Ost,” meaning “east”) of the former residents of East Germany (and, interestingly, some others who never lived there). The longing of the “Ossis” for, among other things, the sense of community of the GDR, is not reflected merely by the popularity of East German brands and products but also indicates a desire of the former East German citizens to reclaim their own memories, experiences, values, and longings that are not reflected in, and in fact are rejected by, the West. This nostalgia is not an attempt to reproduce the GDR, but is more of an (at times) ironic backward glance at a life, every detail of which defined the sense of Ossis’ self-understanding, and that can no longer be. It is an embracing of a personal and collective history that has been lost, and in many ways delegitimized, within the larger narratives of reunification. Similarly, in the case of Yugo-nostalgia, found among the populations of the former Yugoslavia, this reflective longing is not a matter of focused restoration but is expressed aesthetically—with both yearning and regret—through music, art, film, and other creative forms. As their wistful nostalgias are a response to the destabilizing and unmooring of their sense of themselves, the Ossis and the citizens of post-Yugoslav nations can appear liminal to others, as well as to themselves. But what their nostalgic narratives are not is a totalizing force—what they are not is an attempt to restore the unrestorable, or to return to that which is best left behind.
This brings me back to my project – to the book that in part addresses nostalgia of a kind experienced by some Soviet (and other) refugees. As a part of my analysis of this particular kind of nostalgia, I have defined it as a wholly reflective project – none of the individuals whose personal narratives are included in the volume see themselves as in any way wishing to restore the Soviet Union (or other Eastern Bloc nations) in any sense other than literary: we want to talk about, reflect on, and wonder about the meaning of the impossibility of nostos, to play with our memories, to push away from them, to draw them close. We want to describe, engage with, and enact our liminality as persons who are always in between places, times, identities. We cannot return – but we want to look back, to examine, to see if anyone is home. And because this is a book rather than a private discussion, these nostalgias are there for anyone to witness – once published, they are public and in plain sight.
But lately, for me, this project of nostalgic narrative-making has become a bit morally murky – a bit liminal itself. Ever since Russia, led by the nationalist authoritarian Putin, has brutally invaded Ukraine, two things have become clear to me: First, Putin’s project is primarily one of restoration – he not only publicly pines for Russia’s (and the U.S.S.R.’s) imperial past, but considers it his duty to restore Russia to its “rightful” place as the “greater Russia” – the fever dream of so many of its autocrats and dictators. Second, the Russian people – the majorities who have not fled to Finland, Georgia, and elsewhere in horror – are right behind him, sharing in his monstrous nostalgias: Some regret the break-up of the Soviet Union, longing both for its secure economic drabness as well as for its status as a superpower. Others long for the security of national identity itself. And even if we grant that a number of Russians, when asked their views, fear the consequences of giving an honest response, still too many enthusiastically praise the restoration of a largely mythologized world where historic struggles with the West are only outdone by a glorious restoration of a reunited, beloved homeland.
So where is the moral dilemma? For me, it begins with Boym’s claim that nostalgia is not always retrospective; it can be prospective as well. The fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future. The consideration of the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales. Unlike melancholia, which confines itself to the planes of individual consciousness, nostalgia is about the relationship between individual biography and the biography of groups or nations, between personal and collective memory (2).
In other words, what we are nostalgic about, and how and whether we express that nostalgia, are matters of moral concern. Individual reverie can, if sufficiently publicized, become a narrative that endorses pining for another’s nightmare, or worse, lead to collective narratives that lead to horror. In telling our nostalgic stories, we have to be cognizant of how they impact individual and collective futures. Putin and his supporters have followed their restorative nostalgic longings to the borderlands of the unthinkable and blithely crossed that line. And they are responsible for watching as their longings for past glory transform into war crimes.
My worries might seem odd at first. After all, my project neither promotes, nor glorifies, restorative nostalgia—in fact, it is quite critical of it and its well-documented consequences. It offers no paeans to the totalitarian nationalism of the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, or the historical monsters that it spawned.… And yet, the nostalgic narratives I engage with are sometimes the positive and cherished experiences of Soviet, Russian, and Eastern Bloc refugees. Is giving public voice (for writing and publishing a book is always at least in part a public act) to these longings for a place and a time that has spawned current (and future) nightmares justified while an entire nation’s existence is threatened by Putin – an ex-KGB agent and direct product of the same era that evokes such nostalgia in my subjects? After all, while one can certainly engage in private flights of nostalgia about one’s home, should not the moral requirements differ when those wistful narratives can be read or heard by the current victims of a rebranded version of that very place? When we tell our stories, the historical contexts of others – and how these others might hear those stories – matters. And thus personal nostalgic reveries of Russians and Germans about 1930s U.S.S.R. or Germany will be heard quite differently by the victims of Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes than by others. Putin’s political lineage is more complicated than being yet another (post-) Soviet dictator; his ideological roots are those of a former KGB agent, intent on recapturing old glories. He has not hidden his motivations, mourning the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 as the demise of “historical Russia,” and the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century.” And so I worry: While Putin’s dark fantasies of returning to “greater” (Soviet) Russia play out on the world stage in all of their murderous terror, can I continue justifying making public, perhaps for Putin’s victims themselves to encounter, the narratives about those very times that bred the monster, or should I heed Boym’s warning to “take responsibility for our nostalgic tales” lest we allow our personal longings to paint over the suffering of others? For now, although I have resolved to continue working on this book, it is with some trepidation and an awareness that one’s narratives of longing just might sound to another like an endorsement, however indirect and reflective, of the authors of their suffering.
- Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic.
- Boym, Svetlana, 2011. “Nostalgia,” Atlas of Transformation.
- Gotlib, Anna. “Memory, Sadness and Longing: Exile Nostalgias as Attunement to Loss,” The Moral Psychology of Sadness, Rowman & Littlefield International, Anna Gotlib, ed.