Understanding 'Ostalgia,' the Strange Longing for Soviet-Era Art

A new exhibit at New York's New Museum explores the phenomenon

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Socialist Realism, a Soviet-sanctioned style of art, illustrated the ideals of Communism /Wikimedia Commons

On August 19, 1991, a cabal of Soviet-era cops and party hacks made what turned out to be a last grab for Kremlin power in an attempted coup d'état against Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist Communist then at the helm of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The coup collapsed in a haze of drunken ineptitude, and Gorbachev was reinstated. But in a matter of months, the Soviet Union and its empire imploded. In its place today are Russia and about two dozen other countries that range from robust democracies like Poland to autocratic crypto-fascist states in Central Asia and, alas, Russia itself.

The U.S.S.R. at its height was a superpower. Now, the empire is a fading historical parentheses lasting barely 75 years, and whatever coherence there was in the Soviet era has been supplanted by a vast swath of lands with barely more than remnants of Marxism-Leninism that defined so much of 20th century international relations. How that transformation is expressed in art is the core of a major exhibition through September at the New Museum (an imposing five-story building on New York's Bowery), made up of paintings, photos, drawings, and sculptures intended to capture what has come to be known as Ostalgia, a peculiar form of nostalgia for the relative clarity of the Soviet era, during which official art in all its forms was supported by the states that answered to Moscow's authority. In comparison, today's art, whatever other qualities it has, lacks any such organizing principles.

Ostalgia emerged as a concept in the 1990s in East Germany, in which the styles and practices of the Soviet period were revived, blending kitsch and the unattractive features of what seemed in retrospect a simple way of life compared to the choices and challenges of capitalism. Ostalgia, the exhibition, combines elements of the Soviet period with multi-media of the past 20 years, "mixing private confessions and collective traumas," the curators write, with "a psychological landscape in which individuals and entire societies negotiate new relationships to history, geography and ideology." Ostalgia "does not make a case for a unified history of art in the former Eastern bloc: instead it illuminates similar atmospheres and sensibilities across nations, and points to dramatic differences for 'Ostalgia' is more about a state of mind than a specific place in time."

The art of the Soviet era operated, essentially, on two levels: The surface was "Socialist Realism," statuary and glorified imagery that in hindsight is almost comically grandiose yet to today's generation is a reminder of the façade the empire presented to the world in its heyday. Below that surface was the artistry of dissent, literature, sculptures, paintings, and lithographs that captures the genuine attitudes of the time. What "Ostalgia" does is lend value to nostalgia for the authorized work while also recognizing the samizdat that gave artists and writers a sense of integrity. In its way, therefore, the exhibition is a hodgepodge of messages: the Soviet surface combined with underground artistry and the output of today's post-imperial age.

What is most striking about "Ostalgia" is that the former Soviet bloc no longer has a unifying theme -- as it did in its superpower epoch. The craftsmanship of today ranges from gifted to crude, from grotesque to subtle. But the net effect, successful on the whole, is to separate the work of the Western region -- Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic -- from the Central Asia and Caucasus cultures. What is displayed is the shattered empire rather than the elements that made it seem to adhere. In his introduction to the catalog, Massimiliano Gioni, associate director of the New Museum, writes:

This exhibition is an album of memory, an archive or atlas, a cartography of a territory with geographical and histories boundaries that tend to blur and fade as we go back in time or venture into the future. The temporal epicenter of the exhibition is 1991, the year that marked the official dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact... It is disjointed and fragmented, since fragments are all that is left of one of its main protagonists: the overarching ideology of Soviet Socialism.

What is missing from the display is the collective irony of the underground work. There is an earnestness to the art that makes it seem less inventive or engaging than it should be. But the concept of Ostalgia nonetheless fascinates -- that it is possible to characterize the retrospective art of the Soviet empire in a single term is an important contribution to modern history. The U.S.S.R. is long gone. The Russia of today is crude and crass; its former satellites have their own cultures. Ostalgia is a worthy heir -- and there aren't many -- of the Soviet era, providing a basis for artistry that seemed immutable in its time but turned out not to be.