Kyiv Nostalgia After 2014

Kyiv is becoming a palimpsest of its older self and at the same time, the civil society is losing its right to the city. This erasing of the urban memory through active urban renewal and lifestyle changes, has the unexpected benefit of the emergence of an imaginary cultural memory. In the essay, this new nostalgia phenomenon is explained in the context of the urban globalization processes.

The nostalgia we are discussing here has its own idiosyncrasies: its specific features can be traced back to Ukraine’s socialist past, much akin to the famous Ostalgie — nostalgia for the GDR. Eastern European countries have very specific common post-socialist cultural codes, which indicate nostalgia as a postcolonial phenomenon. After the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine (2013–2014), which further fuelled such erasure of memory as decommunization, the fashion for nostalgia has become a prominent feature in the cultural, gastronomic, and night spheres of the city. Thus, decommunization, perceived as the destruction of the Soviet cultural heritage and globalization with its creation of a unified architecture and urban infrastructure is causing a demand for a kitsch nostalgic product. In this sense, examples abound: Soviet architecture (the activist movement “SaveKyivModernism” and the enlightenment project on Kyiv architecture of the 1980s “Understanding the Soviet Podil”); mosaics (a book “Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics” by Yevgen Nikiforov, 2017) or even music (the Shukai Record Label which is collecting archives of Soviet music between the 1960s and 1990s. These are primary examples of non-commercial nostalgia.

The production of ersatz nostalgia with its commercial, entertainment and cultural projects has become a reality in Kyiv. This article focuses on several cafés from ‘Kyiv Soho’, the new rave culture and its visual documentation with the help of analog media. Sometimes culture commoditises nostalgia, creating in its ‘consumers’ feelings about what they did not actually live personally. This analysis tries to answer why the consumer of culture is dissatisfied with the present, in what ways he experiences a nostalgic cultural product, and how all this can be related to globalization.

Café in ‘Kyiv Soho’

The so-called ‘Kyiv Soho’ represents the nostalgic geography of Kyiv. ‘Kyiv Soho’ is the name of the city centre neighbourhood from Lvivska Square to the Golden Gate metro station: Yaroslaviv Val, Reitarska, Mala Zhytomyrska, and adjacent streets. These places are where the recently so to say artificially designed nostalgic cafes are concentrated. They all use authentic elements of the interior of the past or style them in this way: ‘Kashtan’ (Chestnut tree is a symbol of Kyiv; café opened in 2017 which contains actual Soviet interior elements), ‘Jacuzzi’ (decorated with tiles similar to those found in Soviet swimming-pools; the café opened in 2019), and the gallery ‘Naked Room’ (1970s faux interior style, opened in 2019).

The most famous café in this area is an authentic nostalgic café called ‘Yaroslavna’, which is located in Yaroslav Val Street. Its pricing policy one can say it’s quite democratic and all classes in fact meet here. Visitors can eat buns from Proust dough and remember the “good old days”; even if the memories are no more than an artificial construct and the old days did not actually happen to them. This bakery is also one of the most popular places for Kyiv artists and intellectuals. ‘Yaroslavna’ combines spatial and temporal nostalgia. Old City Café is a constant meeting place; it has the same recipes from the past and the same saleswoman. The café opened in 1982 to mark the 1500th anniversary of Kyiv and it is at the same time a portal into this uncertain past: the wall motifs date back to the times of the Kievan Rus; the heavy chairs made of wood and metal date back to the 1990s and the household appliances and shop windows to the 2000s. Moreover, the fact that there is no Wi-Fi inside indicates that ‘Yaroslavna’ hasn’t fully kept up with the pace of times, but despite that, it remains a popular place. Unlike the artificially designed nostalgic cafes, ‘Yaroslavna’ remains real and authentic. Quoting Walter Benjamin’s, it has “an aura of the past and the original”. This contrasts clearly with the pseudo-nostalgic businesses and institutions which are no more than ‘copies’ and ‘reproductions’ of the past.

Each of the new nostalgic cafes have their distinctive features compared to the standardized coffee shops like the Ukrainian analogue of the Starbucks chain ‘Aroma Kava’, in which the consumer in no matter what city, knows exactly what product he is actually buying.

Researchers of globalization and local identity have already studied the topic of such cafes. According to Richard Sennett, due to the rapid change of places in public places, residents lose their attachment to sites, lose their sense of home, and these concepts in modern culture are generally blurred (Sennett, 2006). This phenomenon is also associated with the postmodern new nomadism, in which people have ceased to be fixed in specific places. The rejection of the place’s culture gives a sense of loss of one’s roots, so the local is rediscovered as a protective response to globalization (Duyvendak, 2011). An additional secret of the success of ‘Yaroslavna’ and the newly created artificial nostalgic cafes is that they are not networked. They have a single fixed physical space in contrast to the multiple yet standardized ‘Aroma Kava’ café chain.

To understand this local movement in Kyiv, it is necessary to discuss the opposite trend. Kyiv does have the features of a global city: the plastic aesthetics of numerous residential complexes, shopping malls, and specific cold blue lighting are gradually displacing the historical image of the city. This old city, in particular, is preserved in the geography and culture of ‘Kyiv Soho’, which (re)create in fact a local identity.

Nostalgic Rave Culture

The period of the 1990s is currently the most nostalgic among today’s underground youth, as evidenced by the new rave culture in Kyiv. Rave parties are a cultural phenomenon of the 1980–1990s, appearing in Kyiv in 2014 after the Revolution of Dignity. At that time, young people felt the stress and apathy of the then political crisis and atomization in the virtual space. Rave parties were in demand as a safe space for communication, gathering of young people by interests and the opportunity to splash emotions through dance. This essay supports the idea that the success of this rave culture happened in the right place and at the right time. There is a demand for raves both as a nostalgic practice and as a shared social ritual in troubled times, which has a calming effect. The most attended of these raves is a series of parties called “cxema”.

Stylistically, the “cxema” party’s art managers made the new rave culture surprisingly similar to the raves that took place in the UK and Europe 20 years ago. Rave parties are an outright pastiche: spectacularity begins with the carnivalization of the raver himself. The Raver starts to construct his image from the clothing, looking for authentic clothing of the 1990s in the local flea markets. That is how the culture of raves started its underground fashion. A peculiar aspect of this trend was the sudden demand for clothing inspired by the style of late socialism (‘Gosha Rubchinsky’ clothing brand in Russia, and ‘Anton Belinskiy’ in Ukraine). Models were needed for fashion shows, so special modelling agencies were created (Cat-b in Ukraine), whose models can help construct images of deviant subcultures as a reference to real visitors to raves from the 1990s (skinheads, so-called gopniks, and skaters). This industry is creating the aesthetics of the so-called New East, which is characterized by a longing for late socialism. The fact remains, that for the youngest audience born in the 2000s, it is nostalgia without a real memory.

Analog Nostalgia of the New Rave Culture

The modern global city mentioned above is a city of digital visual culture. Such aesthetics should leave only a virtual and substance-free cyborg. There is a recultivation of analog mediums in the conditions of such modernity among the subculture of ravers.

Oversaturation of the virtual also draws young people’s attention to printed materials (poster art has also become a constant companion of ‘Kyiv Soho’). There is a demand for vinyl records for home and parties and cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs as an integral part of contemporary art projects. To create the image of the new raves, photographers after 2014 turn to late analog photography (Nightingale, 2016) to bring it closer to the visual ideal of authentic raves in the 1990s. The Medium is also a product of a particular era. With the aid of analog photos they can fully embark on a journey into the past.

The aesthetics of analog photography penetrate the digital space. The now popular social network Instagram is in itself a nostalgic project because it is a collection of traces of the idealized past. Sometimes Instagram users stylize their photos as ‘film’, granulating them to make the image ‘warmer’, while digital images are considered cold and soulless (Sappio, 2014). It is also possible to find a return to the aesthetics of low-digital in Instagram profiles: the deliberate enlargement of images to the appearance of pixels, which should probably resemble a photo of the first mobile phones with a camera from the 2000s.

For a discussion about nostalgia and radically distinguishing modernity from it, the following passage from Svetlana Boym (2002) can be valuable:

In counterpoint to our fascination with cyberspace and the virtual global village, there is a no less global epidemic of nostalgia, an affective yearning for a community with a collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world. Nostalgia inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals

Boym, 2002

To interpret Boym’s thoughts in the understanding of aesthetic and photographic mediums, one can conclude that analog media is exactly that, a protective reaction to cyberspace.

Instant sets of copies of digital visual culture are no longer so fascinating for young Kyiv ravers. The phenomenon is called ‘analog nostalgia’ and is currently popular among researchers of visual culture. The term was first coined by the philosopher of media Laura Marks, who referred to it as “longing for Firstness in the age of Thirdness” (Marks, 2002). The researcher describes analog aesthetics as one characterized by intentional imperfection. These obvious flaws are the traces of human error casting a warm aura of what it means to be human in a stark opposition to the cold logic of the digital perfection. The film image contains a verified character, in contrast to the digital image associated with computer intervention which is soulless. Printed photography is tactile, its image has an imprint of the medium, so the consumer trusts that it is an analogue of the reality.

Conclusions

Considering the cases of stylized cultural places or practices, it is worth answering the central question of the essay — why nostalgia is so popular and what it shows?

Fredric Jameson, a researcher of postmodernism, considers nostalgia a symptom of a pathological inability to aesthetically represent recent experience — the production of culture has nowhere else to turn but to the past (Jameson, 1989). The demand to combat cultural amnesia by rummaging through history and rediscovering the local through attachments to a place instead of the standardized culture is a timely and well-studied symptom of modernity. Meanwhile, nostalgia and pessimism about innovation is a deceptive and inhibitory therapy. ‘Inhibition’ of cultural development and the refusal of reflections on the actual present through the re-actualization of existing images indicate the trauma of society, the depressed and crisis state of culture.

Nostalgia is always open to being exploited to make cultural managers passive curators of the past, who many times “ask questions without trying to find answers”. Perhaps the answers were encrypted in the past. Young people are left to build their local identity on past experiences because the present problems are too difficult to comprehend.

Kyiv nostalgia (commercial and analog), in the end of the day, is no more than a collection of retro escapist practices that are experienced and consumed voraciously in their quest against an overwhelming modern world.

References

Boym, S. (2002). The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books.

Duyvendak, J. (2011). The Politics of Home: Belonging and Nostalgia in Europe and the United States. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Jameson, F. (1989). Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press.

Marks, L. (2002). Touch: Sensuous Theory And Multisensory Media. University of Minnesota Press.

Nightingale, A. (2016). Cxema — Raves Owning Eastern Europe Techno Scene. METAL. https://metalmagazine.eu/en/post/interview/cxema-raves-owning-eastern-europe-techno-scene-an-nightingale.

Sappio, G. (2014). Homesick for Aged Home Movies: Why Do We Shoot Contemporary Family Videos in Old-Fashioned Ways? In Media and Nostalgia: Yearning for the Past, Present and Future (edited by Niemeyer, K.) (pp. 34–50). essay, Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Sennett, R. (2006). The Culture Of New Capitalism. Yale University Press.

Yesterday was too early, tomorrow will be too late: hence, act now

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