Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Nostalgia, Soviet Style
This weekend, my colleague and friend Irina Leonenko took me to a fascinating restaurant. Not much populated by locals, the place is furnished like a Soviet kommunal'naya kvartica of the 1960s-1970s--a big communal apartment. So in a way, it's like a historic house museum, but one where you can come in, sit down, and touch everything. Irina recognizes furniture and decoration just like in her grandmother's house. I suppose, in a way, it's the Russian/Ukrainian equivalent of Johnny Rocket's or some other kind of '50s diner or malt shop.
As I sat there, I thought about how useful a shift in perspectives is. From my original, too American-centric perspective, I made assumptions t that most people must have been happy to leave this communal life behind; that the end of the Soviet system was a good thing. But Irina (wise beyond her years) reminded me that a place like this is about nostalgia; that for whole generations, this was where your grandparents lived, where you celebrated New Years and other holidays; that this was home. In the same way, when Americans visit a '50s diner, we don't think about McCarthyism and segregation; people here probably don't think about their country and the time's problems either.
It seemed to be as well-furnished as a historic house museum might be, but the experience of actually sitting in the space, reading the newspaper and having tea made it much more meaningful than just a historic house tour. With all the debate in the US about historic houses and their declining attendance, it certainly encouraged me to think about other alternatives.
For a fascinating look at Soviet style communal living, check out this great website: Communal Living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Everyday Life, produced, believe it or not, by professors at Colgate University in upstate New York.
Images from the restaurant; at top, Irina must look as her grandmother did!