The Future of Nostalgia


By Svetlana Boym

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Can one be nostalgic for the home one never had? Why is it that the age of globalization is accompanied by a no less global epidemic of nostalgia? Can we know what we are nostalgic for? In the seventeenth century, Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches, and a trek through the Alps would cure nostalgia. In 1733 a Russian commander, disgusted with the debilitating homesickness rampant among his troops, buried a soldier alive as a deterrent to nostalgia. In her new book, Svetlana Boym develops a comprehensive approach to this elusive ailment. Combining personal memoir, philosophical essay, and historical analysis, Boym explores the spaces of collective nostalgia that connect national biography and personal self-fashioning in the twenty-first century. She guides us through the ruins and construction sites of post-communist cities — St. Petersburg, Moscow, Berlin, and Prague-and the imagined homelands of exiles-Benjamin, Nabokov, Mandelstam, and Brodsky. From Jurassic Park to the Totalitarian Sculpture Garden, from love letters on Kafka’s grave to conversations with Hitler’s impersonator, Boym unravels the threads of this global epidemic of longing and its antidotes.





To my parents,
Yuri and Musa Goldberg


Nostalgia is not only a longing for a lost time and lost home but also for friends who once inhabited it and who now are dispersed all over the world. I would like to thank writers and artists whose friendship inspired me as much as their work: Maya Turovskaya, Dubravka Ugrešić, Ilya Kabakov, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. I am grateful to my colleagues, scholars and friends who read portions of the manuscript in spite of our collective shortage of time: Greta and Mark Slobin, Larry Wolff, William Todd III, Donald Fanger, Richard Stites, Evelyn Ender and Peter Jelavich. I began to develop the idea of writing about nostalgia while on a Bunting grant from 1995 to 1996, and benefited from the discussions at the Institute. The first chapters of the future book were presented at the Conference on Memory at the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard in 1995 and at the memorable meeting in Bellagio in April 1996. I am grateful to the organizers, Richard Sennett and Catherine Stimpson, as well as to its participants for their comments and remarks. Two summer IREX grants allowed me to complete the research on my project. Finally, a Guggenheim fellowship and sabbatical from Harvard University in 1998 and 1999 permitted me to write the book. My participation in various international conferences helped challenge and shape my ideas: the Conference on Soviet Culture in Las Vegas in 1997, the Conference on Myth and National Community organized by the European University of Florence and the discussions and lectures at the Central European University of Budapest in summer 2000. My collaboration on the board of the ARCHIVE organized for the study of ex-Soviet immigrant culture in the United States and many long conversations with Alla Efimova and Marina Temkina inspired me to begin my interview project on immigrant homes. Larisa Frumkina and the late Felix Roziner inspired me in that work and shared their immigrant souvenirs and stories with great generosity.

Each city I visited and described became my temporary home, at least for the duration of the chapter. In Petersburg I am grateful to Oleg Kharkhordin, a scholar of friendship and a good friend; Olesia Turkina and Victor Mazin for artistic guidance; Victor Voronkov and Elena Zdravomyslova for introducing me to their project on the “free Petersburg”; Nikolai Beliak for sharing dreams and masks of the Theater in the Architectural Environment; and Marieta Tourian and Alexander Margolis for being the best Petersburg guides. My high school best friend, Natasha Kychanova-Strugatch, brought back some not-so-nostalgic memories of our growing up in Leningrad. In writing on Petersburg I benefited from the work of Eua Berard, Katerina Clark and Blair Ruble. In Moscow I enjoyed Masha Gessen’s hospitality, political insight and excellent cooking. Thanks to all my Moscow friends who reconciled me to their city and even made me miss it: Masha Lipman and Sergei Ivanov, Daniil Dondurei, Zara Abdullaeva, Irina Proxorova, Andrei Zorin, Joseph Bakshtein, Anna Al’chuk and Alexander Ivanov. Grigory Revzin provided necessary architectural expertise. Masha Lipman shared wisdom and integrity and good humor; Ekaterina Degot’, radical visions in art and politics. Alexander Etkind was a great intellectual companion and friend on all continents.

In Berlin I found a perfect home in the apartment of my Leningrad friend, Marianna Schmargen. My Berlin guide was a scholar and friend, Beate Binder, who showed me the best ruins and construction sites. Thanks also to Dieter Axelm- Hoffmann, Sonia Margolina and Karl Schlögel, Klaus Segbers, Georg Witte and Barbara Naumann. In Prague I enjoyed the hospitality and insight of Martina Pachmanova, and in Ljubljana the wisdom and good company of Svetlana and Bojidar Slapsak.

To my friends and fellow travelers who shared with me their longing and aversion to nostalgia: Nina Witoszek, Dragan Kujundic, Sven Spieker,Yuri Slezkine, Giuliana Bruno, Nina Gourianova, Christoph Neidhart, Elena Trubina, David Damrosch, Susan Suleiman, Isobel Armstrong and Eva Hoffman, whose books inspired me long before our meeting. Thanks to Vladimir Paperny for real and virtual travels and for the photographs, and to Boris Groys for heretical discussions about absolutes.

I am enormously indebted to all the photographers who shared with me their pictures and their visions, especially Mark Shteinbok,Vladimir Paperny and Mika Stranden.

It wouldn’t be worth writing books were it not for my students, who were my first and most attentive readers and critics. Julia Bekman gave invaluable editorial suggestions and together with Julia Vaingurt advised me on subjects ranging from Mandelstam’s poetry to Godzilla movies. To my other readers and reseach assistants: David Brandenberger, Cristina Vatulescu, Justyna Beinek, Julia Raiskin, Andrew Hersher and Charlotte Szilagyi, who graciously took care of all the last-minute loose ends. Our graduate workshop “Lost and Found” helped us all to find out what we didn’t know.

I am grateful to Elaine Markson, who encouraged and inspired me throughout, to my editor at Basic Books, John Donatich, who believed in the project for as long as I did and shared with me his own nostalgias. I am grateful to Felicity Tucker for her gracious help in putting the book together, and to the most patient and intelligent copyeditor, Michael Wilde.

Finally, special thanks to Dana Villa, who persevered against all odds and shared with me everything from Socrates to the Simpsons, and more. And to my parents, who never made a big deal out of nostalgia.


Taboo on Nostalgia?

In a Russian newspaper I read a story of a recent homecoming. After the opening of the Soviet borders, a couple from Germany went to visit the native city of their parents, Königsberg, for the first time. Once a bastion of medieval Teutonic knights, Königsberg during the postwar years had been transformed into Kaliningrad, an exemplary Soviet construction site. A single gothic cathedral without a cupola, where rain was allowed to drizzle onto the tombstone of Immanuel Kant, remained among the ruins of the city’s Prussian past. The man and the woman walked around Kaliningrad, recognizing little until they came to the Pregolya River, where the smell of dandelions and hay brought back the stories of their parents. The aging man knelt at the river’s edge to wash his face in the native waters. Shrieking in pain, he recoiled from the Pregolya, the skin on his face burning.

“Poor river,” comments the Russian journalist sarcastically. “Just think how much trash and toxic waste had been dumped into it .. . . ”1

The Russian journalist has no sympathy for the German’s tears. While the longing is universal, nostalgia can be divisive. The city of Kaliningrad-Königsberg itself resembles a theme park of lost illusions. What was the couple nostalgic for, the old city or their childhood stories? How can one be homesick for a home that one never had? The man longed for a ritual gesture known from movies and fairy tales to mark his homecoming. He dreamed of repairing his longing with final belonging. Possessed by nostalgia, he forgot his actual past. The illusion left burns on his face.

Nostalgia (from nostos—return home, and algia—longing) is a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed. Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy. Nostalgic love can only survive in a long-distance relationship. A cinematic image of nostalgia is a double exposure, or a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life. The moment we try to force it into a single image, it breaks the frame or burns the surface.

It would not occur to us to demand a prescription for nostalgia. Yet in the seventeenth century, nostalgia was considered to be a curable disease, akin to the common cold. Swiss doctors believed that opium, leeches and a journey to the Swiss Alps would take care of nostalgic symptoms. By the twenty-first century, the passing ailment turned into the incurable modern condition. The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future was discarded like an outmoded spaceship sometime in the 1960s. Nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension, only it is no longer directed toward the future. Sometimes nostalgia is not directed toward the past either, but rather sideways. The nostalgic feels stifled within the conventional confines of time and space.

A contemporary Russian saying claims that the past has become much more unpredictable than the future. Nostalgia depends on this strange unpredictability. In fact nostalgics from all over the world would find it difficult to say what exactly they yearn for—St. Elsewhere, another time, a better life. The alluring object of nostalgia is notoriously elusive. The ambivalent sentiment permeates twentieth-century popular culture, where technological advances and special effects are frequently used to recreate visions of the past, from the sinking Titanic to dying gladiators and extinct dinosaurs. Somehow progress didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it. Similarly, globalization encouraged stronger local attachments. In counterpoint to our fascination with cyberspace and the virtual global village, there is a no less global epidemic of nostalgia, an affective yearning for a community with a collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world. Nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals.

Yet the more nostalgia there is, the more heatedly it is denied. Nostalgia is something of a bad word, an affectionate insult at best. “Nostalgia is to memory as kitsch is to art,” writes Charles Maier.2 The word nostalgia is frequently used dismissively. “Nostalgia . . . is essentially history without guilt. Heritage is something that suffuses us with pride rather than with shame,” writes Michael Kammen.3 Nostalgia in this sense is an abdication of personal responsibility, a guilt-free homecoming, an ethical and aesthetic failure.

I too had long held a prejudice against nostalgia. I remember when I had just emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States in 1981, strangers often asked, “Do you miss it?” I never quite knew how to answer. “No, but it’s not what you think,” I’d say, or “Yes, but it’s not what you think.” I was told at the Soviet border that I would never be able to return. So nostalgia seemed like a waste of time and an unaffordable luxury. I had only just learned to answer the question “how are you?” with an efficient “fine” instead of the Russian roundabout discussion of life’s unbearable shades of gray. At that time, being a “resident alien” seemed the only appropriate form of identity, which I slowly began to accept.

Later, when I was interviewing immigrants, especially those who had left under difficult personal and political circumstances, I realized that for some nostalgia was a taboo: it was the predicament of Lot’s wife, a fear that looking back might paralyze you forever, turning you into a pillar of salt, a pitiful monument to your own grief and the futility of departure. First-wave immigrants are often notoriously unsentimental, leaving the search for roots to their children and grandchildren unburdened by visa problems. Somehow the deeper the loss, the harder it was to engage in public mourning. To give name to this inner longing seemed to be a profanation that reduced the loss to little more than a sound bite.

Nostalgia caught up with me in unexpected ways. Ten years after my departure I returned to my native city. Phantoms of familiar faces and facades, the smell of frying cutlets in the cluttered kitchen, a scent of urine and swamps in the decadent hallways, a gray drizzle over the Neva River, the rubble of recognition—it all touched me and left me numb. What was most striking was the different sense of time. It felt like traveling into another temporal zone where everybody was late but somehow there was always time. (For better or worse, this sense of temporal luxury quickly disappeared during perestroika.) The excess of time for conversation and reflection was a perverse outcome of a socialist economy: time was not a precious commodity; the shortage of private space allowed people to make private use of their time. Retrospectively and most likely nostalgically, I thought that the slow rhythm of reflective time made possible the dream of freedom.

I realized that nostalgia goes beyond individual psychology. At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time—the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.

Nostalgia is paradoxical in the sense that longing can make us more empathetic toward fellow humans, yet the moment we try to repair longing with belonging, the apprehension of loss with a rediscovery of identity, we often part ways and put an end to mutual understanding. Algia—longing—is what we share, yet nostos— the return home—is what divides us. It is the promise to rebuild the ideal home that lies at the core of many powerful ideologies of today, tempting us to relinquish critical thinking for emotional bonding. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Unreflected nostalgia breeds monsters. Yet the sentiment itself, the mourning of displacement and temporal irreversibility, is at the very core of the modern condition.

The nostalgia that interests me here is not merely an individual sickness but a symptom of our age, a historical emotion. It is not necessarily opposed to modernity and individual responsibility. Rather it is coeval with modernity itself. Nostalgia and progress are like Jekyll and Hyde: alter egos. Nostalgia is not merely an expression of local longing, but a result of a new understanding of time and space that made the division into “local” and “universal” possible.

Outbreaks of nostalgia often follow revolutions; the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution and recent “velvet” revolutions in Eastern Europe were accompanied by political and cultural manifestations of longing. In France it is not only the ancien regime that produced revolution, but in some respect the revolution produced the ancien regime, giving it a shape, a sense of closure and a gilded aura. Similarly, the revolutionary epoque of perestroika and the end of the Soviet Union produced an image of the last Soviet decades as a time of stagnation, or alternatively, as a Soviet golden age of stability, strength and “normalcy,” the view prevalent in Russia today. Yet the nostalgia explored here is not always for the ancien regime or fallen empire but also for the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that became obsolete. The history of nostalgia might allow us to look back at modern history not solely searching for newness and technological progress but for unrealized possibilities, unpredictable turns and crossroads.

Nostalgia is not always about the past; it can be retrospective but also prospective. Fantasies of the past determined by needs of the present have a direct impact on realities of the future. Consideration of the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales. The future of nostalgic longing and progressive thinking is at the center of this inquiry. 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.

There is in fact a tradition of critical reflection on the modern condition that incorporates nostalgia, which I will call off-modern. The adverb off confuses our sense of direction; it makes us explore sideshadows and back alleys rather than the straight road of progress; it allows us to take a detour from the deterministic narrative of twentieth-century history. Off-modernism offered a critique of both the modern fascination with newness and no less modern reinvention of tradition. In the off-modern tradition, reflection and longing, estrangement and affection go together. Moreover, for some twentieth-century off-modernists who came from eccentric traditions (i.e., those often considered marginal or provincial with respect to the cultural mainstream, from Eastern Europe to Latin America) as well as for many displaced people from all over the world, creative rethinking of nostalgia was not merely an artistic device but a strategy of survival, a way of making sense of the impossibility of homecoming.

The most common currency of the globalism exported all over the world is money and popular culture. Nostalgia too is a feature of global culture, but it demands a different currency. After all, the key words defining globalism— progress, modernity and virtual reality—were invented by poets and philosophers: progress was coined by Immanuel Kant; the noun modernity is a creation of Charles Baudelaire; and virtual reality was first imagined by Henri Bergson, not Bill Gates. Only in Bergson’s definition, virtual reality referred to planes of consciousness, potential dimensions of time and creativity that are distinctly and inimitably human. As far as nostalgia is concerned, eighteenth-century doctors, failing to uncover its exact locus, recommended seeking help from poets and philosophers. Neither poet nor philosopher, I nevertheless decided to write a history of nostalgia, alternating between critical reflection and storytelling, hoping to grasp the rhythm of longing, its enticements and entrapments. Nostalgia speaks in riddles and puzzles, so one must face them in order not to become its next victim—or its next victimizer.

The study of nostalgia does not belong to any specific discipline: it frustrates psychologists, sociologists, literary theorists and philosophers, even computer scientists who thought they had gotten away from it all—until they too took refuge in their home pages and the cyber-pastoral vocabulary of the global village. The sheer overabundance of nostalgic artifacts marketed by the entertainment industry, most of them sweet ready-mades, reflects a fear of untamable longing and noncommodified time. Oversaturation, in this case, underscores nostalgia’s fundamental insatiability. With the diminished role of art in Western societies, the field of self-conscious exploration of longing—without a quick fix and sugarcoated palliatives—had significantly dwindled.

Nostalgia tantalizes us with its fundamental ambivalence; it is about the repetition of the unrepeatable, materialization of the immaterial. Susan Stewart writes that “nostalgia is the repetition that mourns the inauthenticity of all repetitions and denies the repetition’s capacity to define identity.”4 Nostalgia charts space on time and time on space and hinders the distinction between subject and object; it is Janus-faced, like a double-edged sword. To unearth the fragments of nostalgia one needs a dual archeology of memory and of place, and a dual history of illusions and of actual practices.

Part I, “Hypochondria of the Heart,” traces the history of nostalgia as an ailment—its transformation from a curable disease into an incurable condition, from maladie du pays to mal du siècle. We will follow the course of nostalgia from the pastoral scene of romantic nationalism to the urban ruins of modernity, from poetic landscapes of the mind into cyberspace and outer space.

Instead of a magic cure for nostalgia, a typology is offered that might illuminate some of nostalgia’s mechanisms of seduction and manipulation. Here two kinds of nostalgia are distinguished: the restorative and the reflective. Restorative nostalgia stresses nostos and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming—wistfully, ironically, desperately. Restorative nostalgia does not think of itself as nostalgia, but rather as truth and tradition. Reflective nostalgia dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity. Restorative nostalgia protects the absolute truth, while reflective nostalgia calls it into doubt.

Restorative nostalgia is at the core of recent national and religious revivals; it knows two main plots—the return to origins and the conspiracy. Reflective 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. At best, reflective nostalgia can present an ethical and creative challenge, not merely a pretext for midnight melancholias. This typology of nostalgia allows us to distinguish between national memory that is based on a single plot of national identity, and social memory, which consists of collective frameworks that mark but do not define the individual memory.

Part II focuses on cities and postcommunist memories. The physical spaces of city ruins and construction sites, fragments and bricolages, renovations of the historical heritage and decaying concrete buildings in the International style embody nostalgic and antinostalgic visions. The recent reinvention of urban identity suggests an alternative to the opposition between local and global culture and offers a new kind of regionalism—local internationalism. We will travel to three European capitals of the present, past and future—Moscow, St. Petersburg and Berlin—examining a dual archeology of the concrete urban space and of urban myths through architecture, literature and new urban ceremonies, from the St. Petersburg Carnival of city monuments to the ahistorical Berlin Love Parade. The sites include intentional and unintentional memorials, from a grandiose cathedral in Moscow rebuilt from scratch to the abandoned modern Palace of the Republic in Berlin; from the largest monument to Stalin in Prague supplanted by a disco and a modern sculpture of a metronome to the park of restored totalitarian monuments in Moscow; the Leningrad unofficial bar “Saigon” recently commemorated as a countercultural landmark to the new “Nostalgija” café in Ljubljana decorated with Yugoslav bric-a-brac and Tito’s obituary. At the end we will look at the dream of Europa from the margins, the eccentric vision of the experimental civil society and aesthetic, rather than market, liberalism. Unlike the Western pragmatic transactional relationship of the idea of “Europe,” the “Eastern” attitude used to be more romantic: the relationship with Europe was conceived as a love affair with all its possible variations—from unrequited love to autoeroticism. Not euros but eros dominated the metaphors for the East-West exchange. By 2000 this romantic view of the “West” defined by the dream of experimental democracy and, to a much lesser degree, by the expectations of free-market capitalism, became largely outmoded and supplanted by a more sober self-reflective attitude.

Part III explores imagined homelands of exiles who never returned. At once homesick and sick of home, they developed a peculiar kind of diasporic intimacy, a survivalist aesthetics of estrangement and longing. We will examine imagined homelands of Russian-American artists—Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Brodsky and Ilya Kabakov—and peek into the homes of Russian immigrants in New York who cherish their diasporic souvenirs but do not think of going back to Russia permanently. These immigrants remember their old homes, cluttered with outmoded objects and bad memories and yearn for a community of close friends and another pace of life that had allowed them to dream their escape in the first place.

The study of nostalgia inevitably slows us down. There is, after all, something pleasantly outmoded about the very idea of longing. We long to prolong our time, to make it free, to daydream, against all odds resisting external pressures and flickering computer screens. A blazing leaf whirls in the twilight outside my unwashed window. A squirrel freezes in her salto mortale on the telephone pole, believing somehow that when she does not move I cannot see her. A cloud moves slowly above my computer, refusing to take the shape I wish to give it. Nostalgic time is that time-out-of-time of daydreaming and longing that jeopardizes one’s timetables and work ethic, even when one is working on nostalgia.


On Sale
Mar 28, 2002
Page Count
432 pages
Basic Books

Svetlana Boym

About the Author

Svetlana Boym was a writer and Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard. She is the author of Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia and Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet, as well as of short stories, plays, and a novel.

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