Finnish stereotypes in the works of Alexander Pushkin

Elisabeth van der Meer explores Russia's greatest poet's subversion of national tropes

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In 19th century Russian literature there is usually an abundance of stereotypes: rich landowners, unruly peasants, drunken and gambling officers, miserable clerks, but also reckless Cossacks, exotic Circassians, singing Gypsies, German tutors, French mademoiselles and the odd Finn. These stereotypes quickly set the scene for the reader and create a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘others’. But Russian literature wouldn't be as good as it actually is if it just left it at that. It takes the stereotype and forces the reader look at it again, and at themselves - are we really any better? What would we do if we were in their position? To mark the just-passed 100th anniversary of Finland’s founding as a state, let us explore the links between Finnish national stereotypes and the work of Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin.

Russian - Finnish history

Throughout Russian history Finns have been considered as a rather non-threatening nation, innocent bystanders in their constant battles with the Swedish empire. Before the Finnish War (1808-1809, between Russia and Sweden, but fought on Finnish soil) Finland had been under Swedish rule for 600 years. During the war Sweden surrendered Finland to Russia, leaving the Finns feeling betrayed. Although they were suspicious of the Russians, the predominant sentiment became pro-Russia, helped by the fact that, as a Grand Duchy of Russia, Finland gained autonomy and Finnish culture and language were able to blossom. These events are described in The Tales of Ensign Stål, an 1848 poem by Johan Ludvig Runeberg, known to every Finn:

The Russian host could vaunt the name

Of many a seasoned veteran

Recorded on the scroll of fame

Before our war began.

Barclay, Kamensky, Bagration,

Were household names to every son of Finland.

When they hove in sight,

We could expect a fight.

But Kulnev's name was new to all

Before the flame of war was blown

And he came rushing like a squall,

Scarce dreamed of before known.

He struck like lightning from the blue

So terrible and yet so new,

But ne'er to be forgot, we felt,

From the first blow he dealt.

 

Pushkin and the Finnish stereotype

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) is still seen as Russia's national poet and his patriotic words still strike a strong chord of pride with many Russians. His legacy has contributed to the Russian identity, just as The Kalevala and the poetry of Runeberg have shaped Finnish identity. What may be more interesting is how his works have shaped the depiction of Finns. In his works we can find three very different examples of Finnish stereotypes in Russian literature. The first (the sorcerer) in the narrative poem Ruslan and Ludmila (1820); the second (the dutiful worker) in one of The Tales of Belkin (1830) - ‘The Undertaker’; and finally the most famous of all (the fisherman), in the narrative poem The Bronze Horseman (1833).

Ruslan and Ludmila

Ruslan and Ludmila is a fairy tale set in ancient Russia. Ludmila, the young wife of the hero Ruslan, has been kidnapped by an evil dwarf called Chernomor during their wedding night. On his journey to find her, Ruslan encounters an old man. It turns out to be a good Finnish wizard who helps him to find Ludmila. The old man, Finn, tells Ruslan his own story: when he was a young shepherd he fell in love with Naina, but she rejected him. To impress her he fought in wars abroad and returned to her with treasures, but again she rejected him. As a last resort he studied sorcery for years and years, but when he finally casts a love spell over Naina, he notices too late that she has turned into an old crone. He rejects her and now the old hag Naina hates Finn and takes sides with Chernomor. With the help of Finn, Ruslan is able to win his bride back and save Kiev in the process.

Pushkin's knowledge of Finnish mythology probably comes from the Russian historian and writer Karamzin, who Pushkin admired. Until Elias Lönnrot wrote down the Finnish myths in The Kalevala in 1835, they were passed on orally, and obviously some legends reached Russia. There are similarities between the good wizard Finn and the wizard Väinämöinen from The Kalevala. Ruslan and Ludmila confirms the popular belief in Russia that Finns “had a way with magic”. This is a story of good and evil, of struggles and unexpected encounters, of having faith that the good will eventually conquer, and of using your powers not for personal gain, but to help others: a typical fairy tale. But if we look simply at the names, it is literally Finn helping Ruslan.

But listen on: there in my homeland

among the lonely fisherfolk

there's lore mysterious and awesome.

Amid thick forests, wild, remote,

a guild of ancient sorcerers

dwells deep in the primeval stillness.

Their minds they constantly apply

to elements of highest wisdom.

Everything bows to their command -

what has been and what is to come.

They wield a terrifying power

over not only death but love.

The Undertaker

In ‘The Undertaker’ we find an ordinary, simple Finn. The story takes place in the first decades of the 19th century, when Finland was the Grand Duchy. A Russian undertaker (not to be confused with the jolly type of undertaker that Shakespeare and Walter Scott describe, warns Pushkin) moves to a different part of Moscow and is invited to a party by his new German neighbor, a shoemaker. At the party the gloomy undertaker meets several cheerful Germans and a Finn. This Finn is introduced to the reader by Pushkin in a rather curious and comical manner: “The Shoemaker’s small room was filled with guests, for the most part German craftsmen with their wives and apprentices. There was only one Russian official present, police constable Yurko, a Finn who, in spite of his humble calling, enjoyed the particular favour of the host.”

Compared to the German tradesmen living in Moscow, Yurko the Finn is Russian. This shows different degrees in foreigners, clearly those belonging to the Russian empire were somehow less foreign. Yurko is described as honest, loyal and hardworking, typical Finnish characteristics, but he can eat and drink like a Russian. During the French invasion of Moscow in 1812, Yurko’s yellow sentry-box burned down and he had to build another one. Unperturbed, he has fulfilled his duties for twenty five years. However, the Germans and the undertaker befriend him primarily because he can be useful for them, not because of his good characteristics.

Yurko embodies the way in which Russia saw Finland: as a useful buffer between Russia and Sweden, the innocent bystander in Russia’s conflicts, and a potential ally in wartime, better as a friend than as an enemy. But Yurko has the last laugh as he jokes to the undertaker that he should drink to the health of his clients. This causes the undertaker to have a terrifying nightmare in which his dead clients come to haunt him and reprimand him for ripping off their next of kin in their moments of grief. Pushkin leaves it to the reader's imagination whether or not the undertaker shall better his life.

The Bronze Horseman

The most famous description of Finnish people in Russian literature, “nature’s poor foster child”, comes from Pushkin's well-known poem The Bronze Horseman. The poem is about the great flood of 1824 in Saint Petersburg. The protagonist Evgenii loses his fiancé in the flood, and soon he loses his mind too. He curses the statue of Peter the Great, and the statue suddenly comes to life and chases Evgenii through the streets of Saint Petersburg. Later poor Evgenii is found dead, washed up on some desolate shore.

It is one of the most influential works of Pushkin. In the introduction Pushkin describes Peter the Great as he envisions a new, splendid city on the banks of the Neva, a territory that was recently conquered from the Swedes. That area was at that time sparsely inhabited by mostly Finnish people. Neva is the Finnish word for bog, or swamp. The first impression is that in a place where Finns were merely fishing and making a poor living, the Russians succeeded in building a magnificent city. On the other hand there is the image of the humble Finn, in touch with nature and less impacted by natural disasters; he is timeless and can always continue fishing, whereas Saint Petersburg was not a complete success: it had a hard time fighting the elements and was regularly plagued by floods. One of the themes of the poem is man versus nature, something that Finns are perhaps better at.

A hundred years have passed. We see,

Where swamp and forest stood but lately:

The city, northern prodigy,

Has risen, sumptuous and stately;

Where once a humble Finnish lad –

Poor foster-child in Nature’s keeping –

Alone upon the low banks had

Oft cast his time-worn nets when reaping

The waters’ hidden harvest, – now

Great towers and palaces endow

The bustling banks with grace and splendour…

 

In his inimitable way gives Pushkin the old Finnish stereotypes his own twist, making them fresh and original: the old sorcerer becomes a friendly helper, the dutiful police constable turns out to like a little joke, and “nature’s poor foster child” is now fishing somewhere else, blissfully unaware of whatever disaster has struck Saint Petersburg...

Sources:

Alexander Pushkin, Ruslan and Ludmila, translated by Roger Clarke

----------------------, The Bronze Horseman, translated by John Dewey

----------------------, ‘The Undertaker’, translated by Gillon Aitken

The North in Russian Romantic Literature by Otto Boele

The many ways to read The Undertaker by Henri-Dominique Paratte

Imperial Rhetoric and the Finnish other in Russian literature by Tuomas Taavila
 

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I'm Elisabeth van der Meer, Dutch and recently moved to Finland. I have a blog on which I share my enthusiasm for (mainly 19th century) Russian literature and try to make others see what's so great about it. I enjoy digging into specific passages, subjects or characters, trying to find connections and meanings hidden behind the surface. I'm also fascinated by the lives of these great writers, that were often at least as interesting as their works. To me Russian literature is an inexhaustible source for subjects to write about. 

 

Making a Soviet Murderer: The Case of Moscow Serial Killer Vasili Petrov-Komarov

Dr Mark Vincent investigates a scandal that shocked 1920s Russia

 Photo credits: Mikhail Gernet (ed.),  Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy  (Moscow, 1924).

Photo credits: Mikhail Gernet (ed.), Prestupnyi Mir Moskvy (Moscow, 1924).

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By 7th June 1923, anticipation had reached fever pitch in Moscow surrounding the imminent sentencing of Vasili Komarov and his wife Sophia, accused of murdering a combined total of 33 people between February 1921 and May 1923. These victims shared a number of common characteristics in that they were all male, all had a semi-rural background with an expressed interest in horse trading, and were all found in the vicinity of the city’s Shabolovka district with their limbs tied tightly together and packed into small sacks intended to disguise their size and shape.

In an early feuilleton, young writer Mikhail Bulgakov recalled how the case had captured the imagination of the public by describing how rumours circulated of pillowcases packed full of money and how Vasili would feed his pigs the victim’s intestines. Away from street-level gossip, the case also received the attention of the international news media through future Pulitzer Prize winner and controversial apologist of Stalin’s collectivization policies, Walter Duranty, a little over a year into his post as Moscow correspondent for The New York Times. Over the course of the twelve day trial, Duranty vividly detailed the protracted nature of the deliberations, moved from the regular court chamber to the Polytechnic Museum due to an ‘extraordinary interest’ in proceedings, and how the crowd broke into applause as Vasili and Sophia were sentenced to execution.

Proceedings depicted by Bulgakov and Duranty came at the culmination of a prolonged police investigation which narrowed in on the carriage driver after a large number of victims were found close to a twice-weekly horse market. Given that bodies were often discovered in the days immediately following trading, and that the sacks contained traces of hay or oats, further enquiries increasingly turned the spotlight upon Komarov who was identified as a regular attendee who appeared to do little business at the site itself.

Entering his property at 24 Shabolovka Street under the pretence of searching for an illicit brew house, detectives unearthed a corpse partially buried in a stack of hay in Komarov’s outside stable. Although the suspect was able to flee the scene through an open window, he was apprehended a few days later. Under interrogation, Komarov confessed without remorse to a total of 33 murders, 22 of which had already been accounted for. Five more bodies were discovered with the aid of his testimony and the remaining five had sunk to the depths of the Moskva River.

(Warning: The following paragraph contains a graphic description of murder; please skip to below the photos if you wish to avoid this.) An article published a year after the trial further detailed Komarov’s modus operandi, revealing how he would look to entice ‘peasants’ from the market to his apartment under the pretence of selling them a horse or other equestrian-related products. Upon the victim's arrival, Vasili would offer his prospective ‘client’ alcohol before producing a document for them to read while sat on a chair positioned in the centre of the room. While distracted, Komarov produced a hammer wrapped in a tablecloth and, approaching from behind, arched his arm around to strike them violently on the forehead. Suffice to say, this would knock his victim unconscious and, after letting their blood drip out into a bowl, finished the murderous act by strangling them with a noose. After initially stashing the bodies in a large chest inside his wardrobe, the corpses were later carried to a number of different locations on Shabolovka Street, including the derelict building next door and the grounds of a nearby mansion. Komarov’s pressing need to move the bodies further afield meant that he began transporting them to the nearby side street Konnyy Pereulok, then, using a horse purchased with money stolen from his victims, deposited them both on the embankment and in the Moskva itself.

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The aforementioned article originated from an edited volume produced by the Moscow Bureau for the Study of Criminal Personality and Crime, an organisation originally instigated by a delegate of the Moscow Soviet and headed by leading criminologist Mikhail Gernet. Operating under the control of the Moscow Health Department, the Bureau rejected elements of Lombrosian-based atavism in favour of understanding criminality through conditions of time and space.

The article therefore wove the Komarov case around the main themes of the volume, which emphasised the primacy of the urban environment, to the point of excluding any mention of the outside stable, and argued how Komarov’s relationship with alcohol (influenced by his parents and older siblings) was seen as ‘preparing the soil’ to be further cultivated by the ‘legalized murder’ of warfare. This was in reference to Komarov’s involvement in the First World War, in which he reportedly rose to the rank of general and authorised his own battalion to shoot a spy while also taking part in a vote to execute a captured enemy soldier. When later detained himself, Vasili had the foresight to change his surname from the original Petrov to avoid being killed (he is referred to as ‘Petrov-Komarov’ throughout the Moscow Bureau chapter but only ‘Komarov’ in reports elsewhere).

This issue regarding Vasili’s name shows one of the ways in the Moscow Bureau ‘Sovietized’ the Komarov Case to align it with their attempt to shift focus away from ‘celebrity’ individuals and toward a study of the unnamed criminal masses. Referring to the subject as Komarov-Petrov and excluding his nicknames (formed using bestial epithets such as the ‘Wolf of Moscow’ or the ‘Human Wolf’) took away a degree of Vasili’s individuality and played down the more sensationalised aspects of the case. This was also achieved through a discrepancy in the number of murders, with the Moscow Bureau chapter revising the number down to 29 as opposed to the 33 cited elsewhere.

Alongside this, the virtual absence of his wife Sophia despite the focus in the Bureau’s wider writings on the increase of female crime, and that she was also sentenced to the death penalty as his accomplice, remains a curious omission which can only be explained in that her inclusion would suggest the existence of traditional, patriarchal structures and dispute the arguments expressed elsewhere. While their approach shows that the Moscow Bureau were adjusting their language in an attempt to speak ‘Bolshevik’ this clearly came into conflict with the details of the case. Unlike the seemingly irrefutable evidence pointing toward Komarov, unravelling some of these wider contradictions may bring us closer to understanding the role of criminologists and the study of crime and punishment in the early Soviet state.

 

Dr Mark Vincent

School of History, University of East Anglia  

@VincentCriminal

cultoftheurka@gmail.com

Other Russias: Author Q&A with Victoria Lomasko

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Commended by the judges for the 2018 Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, and given a special award for 'Best Book in Translation', Victoria Lomasko's 'Other Russias' is propelled by the idea that everyone has a story worth telling. For the past eight years, graphic artist and activist Victoria Lomasko has been travelling around Russia and talking to people as she draws their stories. She spent time in dying villages where schoolteachers outnumber students; she stayed with sex workers in the city of Nizhny Novgorod; she went to juvenile prisons and spoke to kids who have no contact with the outside world; and she attended every major political rally in Moscow. The result is an extraordinary portrait of Russia in the Putin years - a country full of people who have been left behind, many of whom are determined to fight for their rights and for progress against impossible odds. 


Tell us about your background: why did you become a graphic artist?

I never made such a decision consciously.  It just happened to be this way.  One day I started doing graphic reportage (I prefer this term).  There wasn’t a discussion in my family about me becoming an artist – my artist father had decided on that even before I was born.  I was never though attracted to easel painting – if I needed to draw, I would rather draw in the graphic design format.  I wanted to become a book illustrator when I was a teenage girl.  I graduated from Moscow State Print University as a “book artist”.  After that I spent several years as a commercial magazine illustrator, also trying to do something in the sphere of contemporary art.  I felt happy, everything fell into place, only when graphic text appeared in my work.  With each work text acquires a more and more important role – it is not just some commentary to drawings, as it used to be the case in the beginning, but the drawings themselves become illustrations to the text.

Who are the artists who have inspired you?

Firstly, they are Russian-Soviet artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.  Unfortunately, Russian-Soviet Fine Art, even though it is of a very high standard, is practically unknown abroad.  Simply because Russia is not the First but Second, or even Third, world.  This is why I appreciate this material so much – who but an artist living in Russia now can continue the tradition of these artists and endeavour to bring themes of the contemporary Russia to the attention of foreign audiences? Perhaps, the biggest influence on me has been an artist called Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878-1939), especially his books, also illustrated by him: “Khlinovsk”, “The space of Euclid”, “Samarkandia”.

Do you think the graphic novel format helps communicate social issues more effectively or to a wider audience?

To be honest, I am not that concerned with this question.  Firstly, I do my work for myself.  Of course, I am pleased that other people like it, that it gets exhibited, printed and published as books in many countries, but I think, this is not because of the format.  It is impossible to compare what is more effective – an article or some graphic series.  There are comics - accessible in their form and presentation - which none the less are not viewed by anyone, and there are long articles which have been read by millions.  It all depends on the standard, on the level of a concrete work of art.  And the level depends on the ability of the author to produce things which are really interesting to herself or himself and on the depth of her or his understanding of the interconnections, interrelations in the world.

What made you decide to research “Other Russias”?

In 2008, when I began making a reportage series accompanied by text, I had hardly left Russia, so I did not have a lot of choice in selecting the object of my studies; almost all the series were drawn in Moscow or the areas around Moscow.  It seems obvious to me that it is impossible to produce relevant work from different countries without having properly understood your own country.  I did not have the initial idea that all the reportage series would be gathered and published under one cover.  I was simply and gradually answering the main questions that I was preoccupied with in those years: “Why is Russian society so divided?”, “Why do we respect neither ourselves nor other people?”, “Who can be modern, contemporary heroes in this country? What are they like?”, “Where is my own personal place in this overall picture?”

What was the most surprising experience for you during your research?

They are two chance meetings, which happened to me in one day.  At first, I was drawing an Orthodox prayer service in the centre of Moscow and one Orthodox activist, who was being drawn by me, declared: “The West want to ruin the beautiful and brave Russian people”.  Then I went to a fashionable bar around the corner, where a typical representative of the Moscow intelligentsia sat next to me and dropped into our conversation: “Russians are shit! But Me, I am an intellectual in the seventh generation!” So the diptych from the “Black Portraits” series was born.  I was struck by how these concrete people represented at the same time real archetypes.  Then I also thought about how, in the contemporary Russian reality, these two individuals didn’t have even the slightest chance to start a dialogue – that’s how strongly these two social groups hate each other.

Given the bleak opinions expressed by many of the people you portray, are you optimistic for the future of Russia?

I don’t believe in a normal future for the contemporary Russia.  And this is not only due to the economic crisis, wars in Ukraine and Syria, sanctions, the absence of developed manufacturing, the destruction of the last remaining infrastructure of the Soviet system of medicine, science, education, pensions.  The worst thing of all is that people in this country are used to being so humiliated that they don’t even notice it.  To notice it one must become an independent researcher, to have one’s own developed environment, to travel abroad often.  But this is inaccessible to most of the population.  In comparison to the Western World the people have very little understanding about their rights and the responsibilities of the state.  And the increasing persecutions decrease their chances to learn, to unite and demand their rights.

Have your critical views caused any criticism or problems for you within the country?

At least not until now.  I simply have hardly any opportunities for my work to be exhibited and printed inside the country.

What is your next planned project?

I am working on two new topics at the moment.  The first is a research trip around the Post-Soviet space.  I started the project in 2014, I have made a graphic reportage series from the Russian Northern Caucasus (Dagestan, Ingushetia) and from Georgia, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan.  These are spaces where the Russian language is still more or less maintained, it means that I can fairly freely take an interview.  I am interested in documenting the drawn-out process of the last links inside the post-Soviet space disappearing.  I want to make my next book about that.

The second topic is a book about my native Serpukhov, a small town 100 kilometres away from Moscow.  I recognise Serpukhov less and less with each visit.  I want to describe things which are still connected with my Soviet childhood and Perestroika youth. 

 Victoria Lomasko at the opening of her recent exhibition 'On the Eve' at Pushkin House

Victoria Lomasko at the opening of her recent exhibition 'On the Eve' at Pushkin House

Victoria Lomasko was born in Serpukhov, Russia in 1978. She works as a graphic artist and has lectured and written widely on graphic reportage. The co-author of the book Forbidden Art, nominated for the Kandinsky Prize in 2010, she has also co-curated two major art exhibitions, The Feminist Pencil and Drawing the Court. Her work has been exhibited in numerous shows in Russia and abroad. She lives in Moscow.

 

 

'Other Russias' is published by Penguin (and first by n+1 in the United States) - copies are available from the Pushkin House Bookshop. Victoria Lomasko was interviewed for Pushkin House Russian Book Prize by Andrew Jack and and translated from the Russian by Olga Utrivanova.

A Pushkin House podcast, recorded with Victoria to accompany her recent exhibition at Pushkin House can be downloaded here.

 

 

 

 

Where the Heart Is: Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia and Russian Nostalgia after 1917.

Dr Peter Lowe explores the artistic expression of émigré and exile homesickness in the Soviet Union.

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With the events of 1917 now having been commemorated a century later, it feels timely to focus once again on those who left before, during, or after the October Revolution: those who were caught out by the sudden switch of historical direction after the Tsar’s abdication, and those who fled the prospect or the reality of Bolshevik rule.

In all of these eventualities the shared truth is that the life of the émigré — even for those born into the condition after their parents’ original leave-taking — is never easy. Pushkin House’s own history attests to the desire for those living elsewhere to maintain the social and cultural ties so important to their identities. The Russian mind is always at least partially ‘elsewhere’, and for those who have left it, or known it only through inherited memories, that elsewhere is always Russia.

In the wake of 1917 those that passed on the opportunity to leave at once, thinking perhaps that other chances would follow, found themselves confined by the borders of the still-developing USSR. In the interests of survival, some accommodation was necessary for those living in a state very different from what they had known and, increasingly, very different from what the rhetoric of its revolutionary promise had suggested. To acquiesce was, for many, the best approach in public at least.

For those unable to overlook the shortcomings of the Soviet utopia, the state, like its Tsarist predecessor, proved adept at giving its critics a change of location within its borders, exiling them to remote regions either in labour camps or in villages far from the cultural and social milieu that had sustained them. The pavilion designed by Alexander Brodsky for Pushkin House’s 2017 exhibition ‘101st km: Further Everywhere’ brought to life tales not of travel away from Russia, but deeper within it — a displacement as real as exile but arguably all the worse for its domestic nature.

In a world where hundreds of thousands consider themselves displaced, exiled, or forced into the life of a refugee as a result of circumstances in their homeland, nostalgia for a time or a place has become a powerful solace for some and a tool for others. The recent appearance of family memoirs like Mark Mazower’s What You Did Not Tell, and Mary-Kay Wilmers’ The Eitingons reminds us that these narratives are now in the hands not so much of their original émigrés but of subsequent generations of the family. Telling the tale is part of the process of reclaiming a past believed to be ‘lost’ but recovered through memory. Such tales are also a useful alternative to state-sponsored appeals to a collective Russian ‘past’ that may be more manufactured than real — the recourse of a government looking to channel discontent or divert attention away from other elements of the present reality.  

In Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1983 film Nostalghia, the protagonist, a poet named Gorchakov, wanders through a lush Italian landscape, ostensibly researching the life of another Russian émigré, a late eighteenth-century composer who briefly lived there but returned home to a Russia that he missed too acutely. Accompanied by a translator, Eugenia, Gorchakov visits locations without, it seems, ever really engaging with them, and it is unclear what, if anything, he is gaining from the trip except a more intense understanding of his own isolation. Eugenia frequently challenges him, exasperated by his enigmatic silences and the sense of distance between them.

Drifting in and out of Gorchakov’s reverie, the film allows us a glimpse of his thoughts, and they frequently coalesce around a vision not of where he currently is, but of where he is not: a Russian dacha in which his wife, children, and dog are all present. Only in the film’s celebrated final shot do we see Gorchakov in this setting, and then it is an imagined return, a return in spirit, as the physical man has, in that moment, died of a heart attack in Italy after attempting (in response to a challenge set for him by the local mystic) to carry a lighted candle across the hot-spring baths of a Tuscan health spa.

Gorchakov’s state of reverie arises in large part because even as he travels he is never really out of Russia: the country is carried within him as a blend of images, sounds, and physical sensations and in his final moments the desire for return provides the transition from life into death. The film realises his return home by making location not a physical thing but a state of mind, a return achieved in the final flickers of his consciousness.

For Tarkovsky Nostalghia was a landmark project in other, more personal ways.  When Mosfilm withdrew its support from the project he completed the film in 1983 with funding from the Italian broadcaster RAI — support that looked well placed when the finished work was rapturously received that that year’s Cannes Film Festival. The longer-term impact was more personal, though, as the following year Tarkovsky announced, at a press conference in Milan, that he would not return to the USSR, shooting his final film The Sacrifice in Sweden, and eventually settling in Paris where he died in 1986.

The figure of the Russian émigré has a much longer pedigree than Tarkovsky’s 1980s actions, of course, and Russian history is filled with examples of figures who have, for varying reasons, found that life outside the country is preferable to that within it. Faced with bouts of state-level repression, writers and artists have been among the first to forge lives elsewhere, simultaneously despairing of the prospect of ever returning, and yet unwilling to fully concede that their country is lost to them. Their nostalgia is indeed the longing for a place they know to be effectively irrecoverable but which they cannot wholly abandon in their thoughts.

The need to retain a sense of ‘home’ in both physical and temporal terms, and to believe that it remains accessible, in thought if not in actuality, continues to underpin so much of the art and literature not only of Russia, but of all other states. Released thirty-five years ago this month, Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia remains a testament to a state of mind both Russian and universal: the need to feel that there is always a place called ‘home’.

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Dr Peter Lowe teaches classes in English Literature at the Bader International Study Centre, East Sussex. His interests are in the culture and history of the early 20th century in Russia and in western Europe, and he is currently researching the nature and uses of 'nostalgia' in the early Soviet period.