March 01, 2020

Memory Fades

“Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

– Joan Didion

In January, time and opportunity conspired to offer me a chance to visit my 87-year-old mentor in western Wales. Our meeting took place not far from the scene of the crime, where 40 years ago this fine teacher and scholar, Malcolm Gilbert, first enticed me into a love for Russian history, culture, and language. He did this mainly by being a great teacher, by recounting Russian history as a grand and mysterious story full of colorful characters and unfathomable events.

And so we sat for hours, talking about the things we saw and experienced “back then,” and Malcolm – his memory and storytelling skills not diminished by a whisker – repeatedly amazed me with tales of things that happened back then that I had known nothing of.

That’s the thing about history: you can’t see everything that is going on when you are living it, and then, when you try to dredge up what really happened, all you’ve got is your frail memories. And so we bandage those up with gauzy embellishments and soon enough they glow with the warm, muddling light of nostalgia.

As it turns out, this issue is all about nostalgia: a photographer visits a village school that seems trapped in a time warp (page 28); avid preservationists give their lives over to saving old wooden churches (page 50); an old villager falls down a nostalgia rabbit hole when tasked with protecting a trove of books (page 46); and our dear Anton Pavlovich (whose 160th is this year) writes a rather un-Chekhovian story – in which nothing happens, twice – about the nature and memory of beauty (page 38).

Meanwhile, on our cover you will find Asya Lisina’s fun and unusual illustration of dinosaurs dressed up as politsia (or is it the other way round?) confronting a feminist March 8 demonstration. What exactly is that all about? you may ask.

I will answer like this. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek word nostos, which means “a longing to return home.” Beginning in the mid-1600s, nostalgia, particularly that expressed by soldiers on the battlefield aching for home, was seen as “a neurological disease of essentially demonic cause,” with symptoms ranging from melancholy to suicidal thoughts and cardiac arrest. This view persisted until at least the late 1800s, and only in our day have scientists been able to assemble data to show that nostalgia is actually a universal human neurological defense mechanism, one particularly useful for counteracting feelings of depression or meaninglessness amid times of hardship or difficulty.

So, the next time you hear some dinosaur pining for a time past, when “things were better, different,” calling for us to “take back” this or that, remember these two things: chances are, things were far from what that person remembers them to be; such longings are often a defense mechanism that this person is using to cope with some current hardship.

Enjoy the issue!

Brontosaurusly yours,

Paul Richardson

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