From the Russian film "Khrustaliov, My Car!"

From the Russian film "Khrustaliov, My Car!"

Essays Introduction. The property of missing persons Cultural heritage, value, and historical justice

In general, social disasters always result in the disproportionate excess of things: while humans perish en masse, artifacts survive in the form of market commodities and museum exhibit; as human life extinguishes in catastrophes, the life of objects gets more and more active in market exchanges, expropriations, and lootings. The history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century has witnessed many such episodes.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:3, pp 43-45
Published on on December 30, 2019

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The Russian film director Aleksei German’s masterpiece, Khrustaliov My Car! is set in the last days of February 1953, the week before Stalin’s death, the seven days of passion for the main character. A successful and powerful man, a military doctor, lives in the expectation of an imminent arrest. When his time comes, after an attempt at escape, the man surrenders to his fate; we follow him into imprisonment to witness his inhuman humiliation, and then, upon Stalin’s death and the release from prison, his flight into freedom, into a widely open space of nothingness. There, he disappears, literally vanishes in the air: a man without properties and without property, a missing one most probably not going to be missed very much.


At the beginning, in his home, we see him and his family surrounded by a grotesque overabundance of material objects. The large apartment is populated by too many people all of them loudly crowding and quarrelling in the large kitchen surrounded by a weird assortment of out-of-place objects occupying too much space and suffocating the humans. These are artworks and interior decorations, valuable furniture and beautiful utensils that do not at all belong where they are, a precise period detail of the everyday life of the Stalinist elite. These are most probably objects requisitioned from homes and art collections of the already disappeared ones, the victims of earlier waves of terror, to be later distributed to those who still remain. They are given in temporary possession to the remaining ones as a sign of their short-lived privileged status. The property of the earlier missing ones has also stayed behind, alienated from its own value, meaning, history, and context and now waiting for their present owners to disappear in their turn, without a trace. These things constitute a silent Greek chorus, they are witnesses to the main character’s fabulous assent to fortune followed by a precipitous fall into infinite “missingness”.


What does it mean, “to be missing”, or “to go missing”? What kind of category is that, what are its figures an symbols, and how does it relate to our sense of historical continuity, our claims of historical legacy and cultural heritage, what is its critical potential in the understanding of cultural value and historical justice?


Characteristic for our time is the sense of something missing that is symptomatic of the ambiguous relation between an incomplete present and an irreplaceable past. We say that something is missing when it was there but now cannot be found where it should be; we say that someone is missing when one is not present where one is supposed to be. About those who are missing we say that they are conspicuous with their absence, or even that they shine with their absence (Fr. brillent par son absence). In this case, it is precisely absence that shines forth, unconcealed: a presence-in-absence, or even a presence-by-means-of-absence. What is missing is something that should be and is not: thus, missing is a matter of value and justice.


Value and justice become especially relevant when the past finds representation for itself in artifacts like those that crowded the apartment of the unfortunate Stalinist general, or broadly speaking, in material objects of cultural heritage. In its original context, the French word for cultural/national heritage, patrimoine, was a revolutionary concept, a neologism and a euphemism to describe goods without owners. Those were precious objects and artwork confiscated by the French revolution from the houses of the nobility and from monasteries by law of terror, or simply stolen by mobs pillaging and burning palaces, estates, and churches, killing the aristocracy and raping nuns. The Thermidore invented a word for these “excesses”, vandalism.1 It also found a way of dealing with the excesses of material objects thus obtained at the expense of terrible loss of life among their dispossessed owners. The Thermidore invented the word and the function to handle the overproduction of material property in violence: patrimoine, objects belonging to the patrie because otherwise they had no one to belong to.2 They were to be sent to museums to serve education, promote enlightenment, and instill patriotic feelings.


In general, social disasters always result in the disproportionate excess of things: while humans perish en masse, artifacts survive in the form of market commodities and museum exhibit; as human life extinguishes in catastrophes, the life of objects gets more and more active in market exchanges, expropriations, and lootings. The history of Eastern Europe in the 20th century has witnessed many such episodes, some of them discussed in the essays by Polina Barskova, Irina Sandomirskaja, and Iuliia Demidenko in this issue. In his comment, Ove Bring develops the relation between heritage and justice in the legal sense as he considers the matter from the point of view of international law.


In one of his wartime poems, the French poet and the hero of the Resistance René Char famously proclaimed, that our inheritance is not testified to us by any preceding will. Indeed, the history of the 20th century consists of irremediable human catastrophes, and their residues overfill present-day museum displays, museum storages, and auction houses. Our legacy as we received it from the past may very well represent a case of questionable ownership, and the heritage we consider ours can easily turn out to be contested goods. And still, René Char continues, “You only fight well for causes you yourself have shaped, with which you identify — and burn.”3 Even though not testified to us, things do constitute our heritage, not because we are entitled genetically or legally, but because of the choice we make to inherit, i.e., to assume responsibility for the missing of the ones that have not been saved and for the memory of the circumstances in which the missing of persons occurred.


20th century collective memory is incorporated in such objects, our inheritance consisting of things that represent, broadly speaking, the property of people who went missing in the historical catastrophes of the age. When claiming our legacy, we should be critically aware of the economics, ethics, and politics that lie in the foundation of such inheritance. Discourses and practices of collective memory, ideologies and rhetoric of historical legacy and cultural heritage nowadays, whether public or private, have to do with identity politics and the presumed continuity between the past and the present. Jean-Luc Nancy in an interview below develops a critical reflection of cultural heritage to which, as he claims contrary to the current narratives of identity politics and belonging, we have no natural rights, either genetic or legal. Mikhail Iampolski contributes to the critique of the ideologies and practices of heritage by placing them into the contexts of modern historization with its the ever developing and complex processes of production of time and temporalities, and especially in the current situation that he describes as “the suspension of time”.


From a different point of view, Johan Hegardt compares the present-day historical memory with archaeological excavations, constantly driven forth by yearning after the missing past. Elements of the past, once missed and then miraculously recovered in the excavations of collective memory, transform into assets of cultural capital and patrimonialization, the process that was started by the European revolutions and constitutes unalienable part of modernization, now changes into a heritage hype under the influence of digital media with their demand of ever-increasing flows of spectacular, sensational, and easily appropriable “historical” discoveries. In a methodologically important comment, Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback warns against the threat contained in the expansion of categories to subsume all phenomena under the same title. Patrimonialization is just one of such strategies leading to complete elimination of all differentiation in our knowledge of the past, and therefore all critical capacity in interpretation. Following the poetic method proclaimed by Paul Celan, Marcia Sá Cavalcante Schuback proposes the idea of a “narrow path” as a methodological counter-measure against such non-differentiation: a critical attention that is highly relevant in the study of a region like Eastern Europe and the Baltic Rim where the non-differentiation in the matters of history and politics has already demonstrated its potentially disastrous consequences. Viktor Shklovsky once talked about the necessity for the present day to make “a revolutionary choice of the past”. Political forces in the Eastern part of Europe are nowadays making what appears to be “a reactionary choice of the past”. Importantly, it is a still a choice.  ≈



1  Dominique Poulot, “Le patrimoine des musées: pour l’histoire d’une rhétorique révolutionnaire.” Genèses, no 11 (1993) Patrie: patrimoine: 25—49. Accessed at, April 15, 2019.

2   Jean-Luc Nancy, “Beni vacanti”, Philosophy Today, Vol. 60, Issue 4 (Fall 2016), 869—876.

3    René Char, “Hypnos”, in Furor and Mystery & Other Writings (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2010) 154—155.

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