Essays Theme: St. Petersburg in the 1990s. A window in time Introduction. St. Petersburg -- intangible heritage of the 1990s. Archiving work in progress

One cannot go back in time and cannot experience it as it was. Yet this collection of memoirs is an attempt at the restoration of the immaterial culture of the 1990s in St. Petersburg. It was written with the awareness of the integrated failure of the project by all its participants.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2022:3-4, pp 81-126
Published on on January 18, 2023

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I have rewritten this introduction many times and can continue to do so. We have stepped into a river which is moving very fast — all the meanings, symbols, and stereotypes we grew up with have changed rapidly, so there is a need for constant re-thinking, re-turning to the past, re-considering, regretting. Thus, in this version of the introduction, I want to refer to Irina Sandomirskaya’s recent book, which also includes “re-“ in the title: Past Discontinuous: Fragmenty restavratsii. In her introduction, Sandomirskaja refers to Jean-Luc Nancy’s epigraph to one of his books: “There is no heritage”. From her 30 years of research in Soviet and post-Soviet memory, Sandomirskaya paraphrases Nancy: There is no memory.
I interpret this claim to mean that there is no unquestionable, unchanged heritage nor unquestionable, unchanged memory. There are artefacts from the past, significantly changed by “the present” in our attempt to make them look like old things. Yet they still remain a part of contemporary materiality and the current value system, rather than a time capsule from the past. Sandomirskaja proposes using another concept to deal with the past, neither heritage nor memory. According to her, the relation with the past is better described by the concept of restoration, which “serves to fulfill the desire for a collective belonging to the past, which is constantly adapting to the present day” (p.13).
It is interesting that the concept of “restoration” has at least two meanings. The first has to do with materiality — the technique to repair a historic object — to clean it from the layers of recent history, fixing what can be fixed, aiming to make the object resist becoming dust, preserving the touch of the past enough to claim the object’s authenticity. Another meaning of “restoration” is an attempt to bring back a former condition, a nostalgic move backwards, hunting the disappeared past, pretending that it could have been brought back, if only we had performed the right restoration technique.

In this collection of memoirs on St. Petersburg during Boris Yeltsin’s time, the authors are trying to do both. From the perspective of what is happening now, we suddenly have found that the 1990s, which are usually considered to be not far enough in the past, uninteresting, a desperate time of Russia’s first decade as an independent state, are actually a decade in history which is worth contemplation. That time which is considered to be materially poor and anxious is demonstrated to possess other qualities, which can be appreciated nowadays — the feeling of freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of hope. Because the culture of the 1990s was primarily intangible, our restoration is the restoration of that cultural heritage in its immateriality as well as an attempt to revive the time when openness was one of the important conditions of existence. It is an attempt to re-vitalize and re-experience that feeling of not being afraid to talk, to hope for a united Europe, which would include even a forever changed, democratized Russia. This romantic side of the 1990s is more vivid in the texts of Tatiana Samokhvalova and Mikhail Borisov. Samokhvalova dives into the Bohemian life of the St. Petersburg State University dormitory, as well as her discovery of the non-touristic part of the cityscape. The touristic infrastructure which made St. Petersburg so pleasant in the 2000s did not yet exist. For example, there were no established coffee chains and we mostly met at our homes, making basic salads, and covering the lack of taste with mayonnaise.
Mikhail Borisov tells about a vivid cultural life in St.Petersburg, which was often spontaneous och almost always lacked financial support from institutions. To be honest the cultural institutions themselves often lacked financial support for projects too. In the 1990s, most of us still did not have the financial possibility to travel outside Russia, so the investigation of the habits of Westerners was left to our imagination, listening to music, watching films, and reading, but by time filled in by our encounters with guest artists, designers, journalists, filmmakers from the West, that started to come more often as it gradually became easier to travel to Russia.

The city of St. Petersburg then was gloomy and Bohemian as well as creative and intellectual — and very, very poor. There was not big difference if one was born in Leningrad or moved there later. 50 per cent of my classmates came from other parts of Russia, but it did not play big role for their adaptation of St. Petersburg identity. There was no difference, who was really born here or who came from some other region. You automatically became a real St.Petersburg citizen if you embraced that this cold and rather uncomfortable place on Earth at the same time is the greatest place to be. In his contribution to this collection of memoirs, Vladimir Rannev describes what was characteristic of the city at that time and gives the readship a clue to the meaning of its intangible deviant culture.
So we make an attempt to restore that time and place. However, one can say, paraphrasing Nancy and Sandomirskaja, there is no restoration either. Restoration is an attempt that always fails. The failure is part of the concept of restoration. One cannot go back in time and cannot experience it as it was. Yet this collection of memoirs is an attempt at the restoration of the immaterial culture of the 1990s in St. Petersburg. It was written with the awareness of the integrated failure of the project by all its participants. At the time of the current cruel and absurd war with Ukraine, which broke all previous understanding of where the border of insanity begins, silence took over our work for some months, as a sign of the impossibility for a human brain to digest the reality. We had to postpone digital meetings several times, because participants of this writing project did not have strength for anything more than their most necessary everyday work. We had a sense of the impossibility of managing the project to revive private memories from the 1990s, describing the time when democracy had a chance. All this suddenly became meaningless — our memories, our voices, our stories. When we started to discuss this project in 2021 there was a feeling that we are coming back to the beginning of perestroika, that the circle of openness came to its end. This openness of the 1990s felt like a short moment in history which we wanted to record and preserve. Doors opened and have been closed again. We, born in the USSR, becoming adult in the new Russia, did not even manage to reach retirement age before this openness came to its end. February 24, 2022, changed this still romantic metaphor of a circle which we had in mind. It probably has to be exchanged for a metaphor of Moloch, but events are happening so fast that there is no longer any time to search for the right metaphors.
Nevertheless, some texts have emerged during this time, and here they are, connected to the city and for almost all participants of this project to the St.Petersburg State University. They probably say something to someone as a written attempt of archiving that time. The 1990s were a very immaterial time, and creativity was concentrated on cultural absorption: books and music, reading and listening. This time was an attempt to restore access to European culture, which Soviet citizens were deprived of for many years. In the 1990s we tried to assimilate, get access to, understand, appropriate, and learn Western culture very fast to fill in the gap of discontinuity during the Soviet era. I think that because that time has not been archived systematically and generally did not produced so many material artefacts — for example, one cannot speak of architecture and design of the 1990s — there is a need to archive it in stories, memoirs. Otherwise this intangible very subtle culture gradually vanishes and disappears forever, especially being overwritten by nowadays brutal narrative, which dominates Russian media during last decade.

It is generally unusual to write memoirs about such recent times, but it felt as though something is about to be finished — a balance that began in 1991 when the USSR dissolved, and new countries started to get their shapes has been shaken. No one I knew in the 1990s was sad or nostalgic about the Soviet Union, even though ordinary life after its collapse was more difficult for many. My mother lost her job, as did the mother of my twin friends. The job market collapsed together with the USSR; many places where one could have been employed were closed. After one year of desperation and constant searching, my mother found a less qualified job than that she had before, more physically challenging, which with the combination of her being stressed led to her serious illness. Still, she did not complain; she was satisfied that she could participate in real elections and listened to TV debates with representatives of different new political parties.
Thanks to our age — I was 16 when the USSR disappeared — we did not immediately need to be breadwinners like our mothers. What we had to do was to apply and be accepted at some university, which I and my friends did. The opening of society had actually already started before 1991 thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev and his idea of glasnost’. At school, we were already free to discuss new books that were not part of the Soviet curriculum. We read Varlam Shalamov’s Kolymskie rasskazy [Kolyma Tales], a powerful judgement of the Soviet era. History books were re-written, trying to give a balanced view of different history actors — for the first time, they were not the history of one party, but an attempt to tell a story without taking this or that side. When we finished our Soviet school, our minds were already formed by glastnost’ and perestroika to take these ideas further at university. With the criticism of the former Soviet grand narrative came our ignorance of everything connected to that, including our university teachers who had previously taught Leninism and Marxism. After 1991 they could retain their teaching positions, but they had to adjust what they were teaching to the significantly changed view on reality. At the same time came the tendency to ignore political ingredients in private life as well as denial of the ideology of collectivism. As Olga Serebranaya mentions in her memoir, we were very apolitical back in the 1990s.

One of the cultural movements in the 1990s was necrorealism, a macabre art trend founded by St. Petersburg filmmaker Yevgeny Yufit, an absurdist, dark narrative with references to Socialist realism. In the 1990s I actually did not get the point of that artistic expression and thought that it was just trying to be provocative and quirky. However, as history was unveiled, the movement started to reveal its depth and even in some sense the possibility to predict the future. One can say that nowadays, necrorealism has become a part of mass culture, blessed by Russian political and religious leaders, just without that humor and intellectual distance which was essential to the necrorealist artists in the 1990s. One of the memoirs in this collection, written by Andrei Patkul, reveals his own and his friends’ take on this matter.
Another special feature of the 1990s was that intellectuals started to be interested in the work of the Russian Orthodox Church, and tried to find the meaning of life there. As with many other institutions of power which survived the historical catastrophe, the church system demonstrated its rigidity, despite the fresh air of the newcomers: educated cultural young people. As we know now, that new generation of believers did not manage to reform and modernize this institution; instead it was appropriated by the official power and ideology structures, as we can read in Julia Kravchenko’s history.
To collect memoirs of the 1990s is a work in progress. I hope that many people who lived in the 1990s will write their own memoirs and reflect on why democracy did not get its roots into society. United by the city of St. Petersburg then and scattered around the world afterwards, we were often driven not by a personal dream or career but by the impossibility to stay or accept the taste of reality in Russia. This exodus continues even now. As Mikhail Borisov said in our private chat — St.Petersburg feels unusually silent now in 2022. This must be because many whom one could have as a conversation partner left, or resists talking, as dialogue with other citizens became meaningless and even impossible.
Unfortunately, the window of openness which opened in the 1990s is closed now. Russia has come back to where it started, in fact to an even worse place. The decade of the studies of nostalgia is coming to an end. Nostalgia from Snow White turned out to be a wicked witch, demonstrating the degree of violence it can lead to in the attempt to revive the past: from melancholic visits to nostalgic cafes to the demolishing of societies and lives. We would do better to abandon our feeling of nostalgia, to wake up and come back to our senses and minds. By writing our 1990s stories down, we let them go at the same time. The 1990s were about openness and democracy but that time did not bring any healthy fruit.

My wish is that a new rationality is on its way to overcome nationalistic and imperialistic animosity and lead to modernity and democratic freedoms. There is a third meaning of restoration — restoration of a political regime. The post-Soviet time developed a dream of pre-revolutionary Russia, an idealized picture of how it was. This idealization was frequently used to stimulate the nostalgic drive of the Russian population — backwards in history, not forward. The extensive reading of our favorite writer, Vladimir Nabokov, as I see it now, fitted well in the framework of this trend. We lived through his nostalgia. But the reading of good books is not modernizing as such.
The restoration of the Russian connection with the West is failing not only as a project directed to the future. It also fails as a retrotopia. We did not manage to restore Nabokov’s childhood Russia, which was then a part of Europe, either. As Konstantin Zarubin summarizes in his concluding comments, while we were occupied by renewing our thoughts, “the fragile new institutions created in the 1990s have since been destroyed or rendered utterly decorative”.≈


Irina Sandomirskaja, “Past discontinuous: фрагменты реставрации” [fragments of restoration] in Новое литературное обозрение [New literary review], (Научная библиотека [Scientific Library]: 2022).


Special section

81 Introduction. St. Petersburg – intangible heritage of the 1990s. Archiving work in progress, Anna Kharkina
85 The Bohemian life of the St. Petersburg State University dormitory, Tatiana Samokhova
91 The otherness of the city made it artistic, Vladimir Rannev
92 “In the 90s everyone was in a hurry”, Mikhail Borisov
100 Leap into the void, Anna Kharkina
107 Fabulous lost years, Olga Serebranaja
112 The Pravednick’s band project, Andrei Patkul
120 The revival of the Orthodox Church, Julia Kravchenko
123 Summary. The Weimar Republic analogy seems unavoidable, Konstantin Zarubin

  • by Anna Kharkina

    PhD in history and philosophy. Previously an archivist at the Swedish Center for Architecture and Design (ArkDes); currently involved in the research project “Transnational Art and Heritage Transfer and the Formation of Value: Objects, Agents, and Institutions” at Södertörn University. Anna Kharkina previously worked in various cultural institutions in Russia and as a freelance curator and writer.

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