The Emergence of the Past

I’ve been thinking about the past a lot lately.

This likely comes as no real surprise to many of you – especially those of you who remember my frequent posts about the First World War when I was a tour guide in France last year. But now instead of thinking about memorials that we construct to deliberately remember the past, I’m thinking of the ways that the past has of surfacing back into our lives. My current fascination is also a much more recent past – namely the period from roughly 1989-1992 when the Iron Curtain came down and the USSR fell to pieces.

There are two major differences between that period and the First World War that I’ve been dwelling on. First, it is still very much a lived past – there are plenty of people alive today who remember it. It happened in my own lifetime, though my life had only just begun at that point, so I have no memory of it. What also strikes me is that instead of widespread physical devastation triggered by a breakdown in international relations (to vastly oversimplify a complex topic like the start of the First World War) there was a breakdown of an idea.

Of course, I am not denying that the Soviet breakdown happened without violence – it too exacted a physical price from those who lived it. But by and large it was the product of entire societies coming to the conclusion that the idea upon which their lives had been built wasn’t working. The calamitous changes of the First World War forced European societies to change, whether they wanted to or not. But in 1989 it was the status quo which prompted European societies to seek political and economic change on a massive scale. To vastly oversimplify a complex topic like the end of the Cold War.

Which leads me to the question: when we decide as a group to bring about the end of an era, where does that era go? Specifically, what happens to all the physical, material evidence of that era? The answer, as I have discovered, is that it stays for years.

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Above is a picture from the Ecseri Flea Market in Budapest. That market is full of odds and ends from the Soviet past. Hundreds (if not thousands) of old pins and badges. Flags, portraits, and busts of Lenin of varying kinds. Uniforms, and boots and helmets. Bins full of old family photos, with the red star or the hammer and sickle somewhere in the background, or on parade, or pinned to a youth’s Pioneer uniform. Alongside all the other wonderful and bizarre detritus that has a tendency to make its way into flea markets.

Teddy bears and Lenin. These go in the same category, right?

Teddy bears and Lenin. These go in the same category, right?

Of course, this period is hardly unique for reminding us of itself in our daily lives. The trenches and craters of the First World War are still visible today. Shrapnel and undetonated ordnances come up through the earth so regularly that farmers have a name for it – they call it the Iron Harvest. Not to mention that train stations and airports in that area often have specific rules in place about carrying such things in your luggage (the rule is: don’t). Where the trenches used to be, the past emerges by becoming unburied. Here in Budapest, it tends to emerge as an assorted clutter of artefacts and curiosities – scattered across flea markets and antique stores, and most likely also in attics, basements and old cupboards and drawers in people’s homes.

I suppose it has me thinking about the difference between remembrance and reminders. Sometimes we deliberately set ourselves up to remember – we have monuments, museums, and days of commemoration. Sometimes, the past simply comes into our lives and reminds us of itself, whether we really want it to or not. The former can be complicated because it begs the question of how one ought best to remember and commemorate past trauma. But the latter is not necessarily easier – after all, what exactly does one do with all of it?

I’m certain loads of this kind of memorabilia simply gets thrown out at some point, which says something about the sheer volume of it that exists in the world, given how much of it still turns up for sale. It’s an odd phenomenon, to be sure.

And sometimes, it's merely odd.

And sometimes, it’s merely odd.

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