The Guardian’s look at the history of feelings: a serious subject | Editorial

“Eras have their surfaces,” writes the German historian Karl Schlögel. “They can be smooth or rough. They can disappear or dissolve. They can be felt. What the wrapping paper was and what it meant is something we are only beginning to understand now that it has disappeared…into the flood of plastic bags.

Even when it focuses on ordinary people rather than great statesmen, we tend to think of history as a tale of wars and laws, filled with hard facts: 13 million unemployed, 40 million died in a famine. But it is also how people have experienced and felt about these things, and the myriad places, objects and habits that make up what Professor Schlögel calls a “world of life” in his forthcoming book The Soviet Century: Archeology of a Lost World. It’s a sort of montage of crude wrapping paper, dusty museums and lilac eau de parfum. It also nods to what is missing – the lost sounds of the early morning doorbell ringing, announcing that your house was about to be searched; a turn of the key in the lock of a cell.

It has striking parallels with Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone, the new documentary series from director Adam Curtis, drawn from thousands of hours shot by BBC news crews before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We see scientists entering Chernobyl in suits they made from plastic and duct tape; the body of a young woman killed during the repression of pro-independence demonstrations in Tbilisi; and a telephone conversation with KGB generals who assure viewers that they do not keep files on individuals – perfectly illustrating both the impact and the limits of glasnost. But we also see a cake factory in Moscow and doctors taking a villager to the psychiatric hospital. The few who speak to the camera are not experts but ordinary citizens: “Where did it all go? We were OK in the 50s and 60s! said a woman angrily. Another, clinging to a garish wallpaper, observes that she “used to dream, to make plans, but nothing worked… I won’t dream anymore… I don’t believe in anything or anyone “. The series is subtitled What It Feel Like to Live Through the Collapse of Communism and Democracy.

These works seek not the objectivity we associate with academic tomes and high-level factual programming, but subjectivity. They evoke an understanding of what it felt like to experience the Soviet Union and its collapse, as Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich did in her extraordinary polyphonic oral history Second-hand Time. This is a chronicle told not from state offices, but from kitchens where onions grow in old mayonnaise jars – and it’s “a story of feelings” in the words of one critical. “I don’t ask people about socialism, I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairstyles,” writes the author. “It’s the only way to drive disaster into the contours of the ordinary.”

Dictators understand the importance of feelings: why else would they need personality cults or propaganda operations? Professor Schlögel, who began work on his project in 2014 – prompted by Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea – writes of how political leaders maintained their own power by exploiting “post-imperial phantom pains, nostalgic aspirations and fears of loss of social status to carry out an aggressive policy, not excluding war against neighboring states”. Material and emotional experience is how we encounter the world – and also shapes it.

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