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Void Pasts and Marginal Presents: On Nostalgia and Obsolete Futures in the Republic of Georgia

  • Katrine Bendtsen Gotfredsen
Abstract

In contemporary Georgia and beyond, nostalgia for the Soviet past is often ridiculed and dismissed as a reactionary wish to turn back time. In this article, however, I explore generational nostalgia as temporal displacement of present political struggles. Drawing on life story interviews with middle-aged and elderly people in the provincial town of Gori, I argue that nostalgic longings may be understood as active attempts to presence personal pasts and futures that have publicly been rendered absent by an official rhetoric and practice that explicitly rejects the Soviet past. From this perspective, post-Soviet generational nostalgia temporally connects several dimensions of absence: the experience of one’s personal past being publicly cast as void; a perceived lack of social security, influence, and significance in the present; and a dynamic whereby these two dimensions render former dreams and visions for the future obsolete.

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1 The first epigraph to this article is from“Saakashvili Downplays Protest Rally, Calls It ‘Masquerade,’” Civil Georgia, 25 May 2011, athttp://www.civil.ge/eng/article.php?id=23509 (last accessed 10 October 2013). Informants, including“Nuno,” who hold no official positions in government or political organizations have been anonymized. See, for instance, Hodgkin, Katharine and Radstone, Susannah, “Introduction: Contested Pasts,” in Hodgkin, Katharine and Radstone, Susannah, eds., Contested Pasts: the Politics of Memory (London, 2003), 2328; Skrbis, Zlatko, ‘“The First Europeans’ Fantasy of Slovenian Venetologists: Emotions and Nationalist Imaginings,” in Svašek, Maruška, ed., Postsocialism: Politics and Emotions in Central and Eastern Europe (Oxford, 2006), 138-58.

2 Hirsch, Francine, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge and the Making of the Soviet Union (Ithaca, 2005), 3; Suny, Ronald Grigor, The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union (Stanford, 1993), 36.

3 Verdery, Katherine, The Political Lives of Dead Bodies: Reburial and Postsocialist Change (New York, 1999), 52. Emphasis in the original.

4 See, for instance, Chkonia, Irakli, “Timeless Identity versus Another Final Modernity: Identity Master Myth and Social Change in Georgia,” in Harrison, Lawrence E. and Berger, Peter L., eds., Developing Cultures: Case Studies (New York, 2006), 349-68; Pelkmans, Mathijs, Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (Ithaca, 2006); and Suny, Ronald Grigor, The Making of the Georgian Nation, 2nd ed. (Bloomington, 1994).

5 Jones, Stephen, Georgia: A Political History since Independence (London, 2013); Reisner, Oliver, “Interpreting the Past—From Political Manipulation to Critical Analysis?,” Caucasus Analytical Digest, no. 8 (July 2009): 24.

6 For examples of this rhetoric, see, for instance, the public speeches given by Mikheil Saakashvili,“The President of Georgia Delivered a Speech at the Parade Dedi-cated to the Police Day,” 6 May 2012, at http://www.president.gov.ge/en/PressOffice/News/SpeechesAndStatements?p=7520&i=l (last accessed 10 October 2013; no longer avail-able), and“The President of Georgia Addressed the Population of Gori,” 11 January 2012, at http://www.president.gov.ge/en/PressOffice/News/SpeechesAndStatements?p=7273&i=l (last accessed 10 October 2013; no longer available).

7 The majority of the interviews, including the one with Nuno, were conducted and transcribed in Georgian. All transcriptions and translations have been done with the assistance of my research assistants, Gvanca Razmiashvili and Nestani Kvitsinadze.

8 Humphrey, Caroline, The Unmaking of Soviet Life: Everyday Economies after Socialism (Ithaca, 2002), 21.

9 Boym, Svetlana, The Future of Nostalgia (New York, 2001), 41.

10 Ibid., xvi.

11 Herzfeld, Michael, “Anthropology and the Politics of Significance,” Etnogrdfica 4, no. 1 (2000): 18.

12 Boym, Future of Nostalgia, xvi; Fritzsche, Peter, “How Nostalgia Narrates Modernity,” in Confino, Alon and Fritzsche, Peter, eds., The Work of Memory: New Directions in the Study of German Society and Culture (Urbana, 2002), 6285. See also Todorova, Maria and Gille, Zsuzsa, eds., Post-Communist Nostalgia (New York, 2010), and Berdahl, Daphne, On the Social Life of Postsocialism: Memory, Consumption, Germany (Bloomington, 2010).

13 Wheatley, Jonathan, Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution: Delayed Transition in the Former Soviet Union (Burlington, Vt., 2005).

14 Katrine B. Gotfredsen,“Evasive Politics: Paradoxes of History, Nation and Everyday Communication in the Republic of Georgia” (PhD diss., University of Copenhagen, 2013).

15 Reisner,“Interpreting the Past.”

16 On the question of youth$;s prioritization, see, for instance, Wheatley, Georgia from National Awakening to Rose Revolution, 200. Surely not all categories of youth fit within these imaginaries, and it is not only the meaningful pasts of middle-aged or elderly people which are rendered void. For a discussion of temporal marginality among youth in con-temporary Georgia, see, e.g., Frederiksen, Martin Demant, Young Men, Time, and Boredom in the Republic of Georgia (Philadelphia, 2013).

17 In that sense, the group is comparable to what Oushakine, Serguei A., in his The Patriotism of Despair: Nation, War, and Loss in Russia (Ithaca, 2009), terms a community of loss. The construction of such communities, he argues, stem from the fact that“the down-fall of socialist ideology in the 1990s cannot be limited to the disintegration of a particular value system. It also rendered meaningless the existing rituals of recognition. One$;s social status, social achievements, and social biography suddenly became ostensibly devoid of familiar prescriptive clues.” Oushakine, Patriotism of Despair, 191. It is a similar experience connecting this group, and the political and social changes in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution has, I argue, further exacerbated this experience.

18 Ninety lari is approximately $51.

19 Nuno is referring here to the quite widespread perception—among his opponents, in particular—that President Saakashvili is of Armenian origin. The Armenian minority in Georgia constitutes around 5.7 percent of the population (according to the 2002 census) and is primarily concentrated in Tbilisi and the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, which borders Armenia to the south and where Armenians make up the regional majority. Calling on the Armenian state for support, parts of the Armenian community in Georgia are demand-ing greater cultural, political, and religious rights, particularly within the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. For these reasons they are conceived of among some Georgians as a“fifth column” threatening Georgian national identity from within. Moreover, as will be evident below, Georgians and Armenians, who share a long history of cultural exchange as well as political coexistence and competition, both claim national ownership of certain aspects of cultural and religious heritage in the Caucasus, especially on a popular level.

20 Nuno is referring to a 5 June 2011 amendment to the law on religious freedom. The amendment, which was widely disputed by the Orthodox Church and Orthodox people in general, granted religious communities other than Orthodox Christians the right to be registered and to own property as religious communities. For a discussion of the amend-ment and the responses it spurred, see, for example, Shorena Latatia,“Georgia Adopts a New Law on the Status of Religious Organizations,” Human Rights House, 26 September 2011, at http://humanrightshouse.org/Articles/16973.html (last accessed 10 October 2013).

21 Mikheil Saakashvili,“Remarks by H.E. Mr. Mikheil Saakashvili, President of Geor-gia, Speech Delivered at 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly,” 22 Sep-tember 2011, at http://www.president.gov.ge/en/PressOfnce/News/SpeechesAndStatements?p=6864&i=l (last accessed 14 October 2013; no longer available).

22 Mesrop Mashtots was an Armenian theologian and linguist. The Martyrdom of Queen Shushaniki, the first extant piece of Georgian literature, was written in the fifth century, and The Knight in the Panther$;s Skin, a famous epic poem by the Georgian writer Shota Rustaveli, in the twelfth. Nuno$;s uncertainty about the correct references indicates that her strong and affective national feelings draw largely on the Georgian Golden Age as a mythological past rather than necessarily the specifics of historical circumstances and events. I discuss this point further below.

23 Chkonia,“Timeless Identity”; Christophe, Barbara, “When is a Nation? Comparing Lithuania and Georgia,” Geopolitics 7, no. 2 (2002): 147–72.

24 Saakashvili,“The President of Georgia Addressed the Population of Gori.”

25 See, for instance, Maisuradze, Giorgi, “Time Turned Back: On the Use of History in Georgia,” Caucasus Analytical Digest, no. 8 (July 2009): 1314.

26 Boym, Future of Nostalgia, 41.

27 Ibid., xviii.

28 Ibid., xiv.

29 Fritzsche,“How Nostalgia Narrates Modernity,” in Confino and Fritzsche, eds., Work of Memory, 65. Emphasis added.

30 Boym, Future of Nostalgia, 10.

31 Eelco Runia, quoted in Bille, Mikkel, Hastrup, Frida, and Serensen, Tim Flohr, eds., An Anthropology of Absence: Materializations of Transcendence and Loss (New York, 2010), 9.

32 Ibid., 18.

33 Honneth, Axel, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, trans. Anderson, Joel (Cambridge, Mass., 1996).

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Slavic Review
  • ISSN: 0037-6779
  • EISSN: 2325-7784
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