OPINION: In search of a lost time: the politics of nostalgia
By Tobias Lewis
As often seems to be the case with me, I joined my first political rally quite by accident. I happened to be in Belgrade at the same time as President Putin’s visit in January and had spent the day visiting museums and art galleries when I decided to finish my day by visiting the Saint Sava Church – a towering mausoleum-like structure faceted with gradually increasing domes that culminates in one major dome, an impressive architectural feat that befits its status as one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world.
Upon arriving, I realised that it was not possible for me to visit the church. The whole building had been cordoned off, many police and media were present and, in front of the church and behind the media, there was a crowd that was gradually growing in number.
Seeing this, and the number of pro-Russian flags and memorabilia, I realised it was a pro-Putin/Russian rally and remembered that Putin was expected to speak at the church.
Curious, I decided to join.
The rally itself was unlike anything I had imagined. It had this peculiar sense of age to it, of being dated, of being a nostalgic attempt to recreate the rallies of a now vanished time.
Yes there were the rows of people standing patiently in the frigid January winter, waiting hours for the appearance of someone whom they would never properly engage with. But amid the cigarette smoke and the smell of rakija drunk out of plastic bottles, one thing was clear; their age. While there were the occasional younger participants, at the front of the line – where those who had arrived first would have to wait hours for Putin’s appearance – most were easily old enough to be grandparents.
It became clear to me, as I fidgeted and shifted for two hours in hope of seeing Putin before giving up and going home, that this was not their first rally. In their calm patient waiting – without chairs or any form of support – they belied an experience that made all too much sense given the region’s communist history, with all the attached parades and mass rallies that went with that.
Aside from the people, this entanglement with the past was most clearly shown by the flags and signs participants carried. A Romanov flag. A Soviet or Yugoslav poster of generals in full military regalia. Even contemporary politics was recast in light of the old: a grim, stern portrait of Putin had more than a passing resemblance to the portraits of Soviet leaders.
This sense of connection, or indeed focus on, the past was something that pervaded the whole rally. Nostalgia as a political force is powerful indeed. The desire to recreate the past – or rather recreate a rosy-tinged ideal of the past – is something that crosses nations and cultures. As a driver of political action, it has no homeland. While the focus here is on Russia, one need only consider Trump’s campaign slogan: Make America Great Again.
Clearly, the power of this political slogan is not that it promises to make the country great but that it promises to do so once more. To restore and relive. That is the power of nostalgia.
The level of ‘greatness’ so to speak is largely irrelevant. The appeal of this slogan is that it conjures up an image of a past when things were simply better and easier, a simplified and glorified past when everything was basically right, and promises a return to this.
Whereas the future – if we were to make the slogan just ‘Make America Great’ – may excite the imagination, the past is what captures the heart. We cannot ever truly return to it, so we long for it all the more. There is a comfort in its certainty – because we cannot return to it and change it, there is little to no anxiety about the past. By nature, it is over. Any anxiety related to the past is only in terms of comparisons with the present or expectations of the future and not the past sui generis (i.e. the past as on its own; unique).
This means that our perceptions of the past and, importantly for political action, our emotional view of it, are distorted. As Milan Kundera once wrote “in the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine”. History and past events are no longer seen, as historian Leopold von Ranke so eloquently puts it: wie es eigentlich gewesen (how it actually was). Rather we see it as softened, the hard edges and realities are removed and what we have left is instead is a best version of the past. More of a ‘how it could have been’ than a ‘how it actually was’. Naturally, we will desire a return to this.
In the case of Russia, a desire to restore the nation to its past glory – interventions in Georgia, the creation of a Eurasian Economic Union of USSR successor states, the annexation of Crimea, etc – has driven much of Putin’s foreign policy. What is interesting is that for the vast majority of Russians, life under the past regimes – whether Tsarist or Communist – was significantly worse than it is today. Even under an autocratic regime such as Putin’s, ordinary Russians are afforded freedoms and privileges unthinkable to those a few generations earlier.
Yet there remains considerable support for these attempts to recreate the past, even though the consequences are such that life for the everyday Russian worsens. For instance, post-Crimea sanctions are estimated to have caused a 35% drop in GDP; the ruble collapsed and Russia entered a financial crisis. So why continue supporting and electing a President who pursues this, when it clearly worsens quality of life?
Part of the answer no doubt is that we are not rational thinkers. Experiments have shown us to be loss-averse. This means that when faced with the possibility of losing $10 we act differently than we would when faced with the chance of winning $10. We hate the idea of losing more than we like the idea of winning. As anyone who has been gambling with friends will know, people will try to chase their losses by progressively increasing their bets to try recoup what they have lost. We risk more to win back what we have lost than we do to win more from a given starting point. And so it is with politics. Especially when a ‘lost’ past is involved.
When we hear promises of a return or restoration, nostalgia kicks in. We may know logically that such a past is not as objectively good as we imagine it, or that – even if it were how we perceive it – it is fundamentally lost to us, but it still motivates us. It still holds a power over us to the extent that we try to recreate something that can never properly be recreated. Reality, in that we may in fact worsen our situation, takes the passenger seat.
Nostalgia is the realm of emotions, and its political strength derives from this. We do not stop to weigh our options and consider. We hear the appeal, we imagine a now vanished world, our heart aches, our mind is captivated by the idea of a return, and we act.
Such is the politics of nostalgia.