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.


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’.

peter lowe profile pic

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.

Pushkin House Team