REFLECTIONS FOR COLLEGE LANGUAGE ASSOCIATION 2018: “Polyphonous Atemporality: Dual PostColonialism in Nick Joaquin’s Short Stories”

Nick Joaquin: Polyphonous Atemporality: Dual Post-Colonialism in Nick Joaquin’s Short Stories.

Reflections for the College Language Association 2018 Conference

Chicago, Illinois

B. Amarilis Lugo de Fabritz, Ph. D.

Master Instructor,  Russian

Howard University

The transition from colonialism to post-colonialism in the twentieth century raises soe curious questions to the populations left behind in the lands formerly classified as colonial holdings, such as Latin America and the Philippines. Among the most interesting:

a. How do we evaluate the cultural influence of colonial powers on the populations left behind?

b. How do we evaluate the cultural and historical shifts brought forth by the colonial past?

Nick Joaquin provides an interesting case study for these two questions in Philippine literature. He wrote both critical-theoretical articles on the nature of Philippine history and culture, as well as creative fiction that created a vision of colonial influence on Philippine culture as a case of polyphonous atemporality, where multiple cultural influences caused a cultural reality unmoored from standard unlinear temporal ideas.

My presentation will look at one of Nick Joaqun’s theoretical concepts, the way that colonial languages can be used as tools to reflect historical cultural transitions. This concept, combined with an application of the Bakhtinian concept of heteroglossia, when applied to his creative writings, reveal how he manages to create a polyphonous atemporal narrative, where his characters negotiate through different colonial cultural constructs to reflect on contemporary hybrid Filipino reality.



Nick Joaqui's anthology Culture and History

Nick Joaqui’s anthology Culture and History

Nick Joaquin wrote extensively on the issue of culture and colonialism. His essay “Culture as History,” in particular, presented his view on how to negotiate Philippine contemporary culture with its colonial past. He differentiated among Asian, Spanish, and English colonial legacies. He makes various provocative observations,

I. Colonial legacies, which have been absorbed by the Philippines, have become tools in the progress of Filipino culture.

“Here would be no need to save national pride, since this would be purely Philippine History: the Filipino at stage center; with the alien intervenor himself counting as one of the tools with which we acted and to which we reacted. Even Christianity can be included among these tools, not in any derogatory sense but in the McLuhan meaning when he says that clothing, money, the house and the road are tools and that all such tools are “media of communication.” Thus we could solve the problem that most irks us about this epoch: the presence of the alien intruder, who would then be reduced, not without honor, to the role of medium. “

II. The Philippines become a place where the conflict between East and West play out in ways that echo Slavic debates between Westernizers and Slavophiles.

“This is recognized even by those who deny it, as when they assert that 1521 marked a deviation from what might have been our true history; or when they fume that we were Christianized at the cost of our “Asian” soul; or when they argue that if the Philippines had only been completely converted to Islam by the 16th century, the Philippines were already Buddhist, or Taoist, or Hinduist, or Confucianist, or Shintoist, the West would have conquered us in vain, because, being already formed by the media of the great civilizations of the East, we would be in little danger of deviating from the Asian form.

If it be true indeed that we were Westernized to the cost of our Asian soul, then the blame must fall, not on the West, but on Asia.”

III. A dual cultural process emerges, polyphonous atemporality.

“Our problem is in the process, or rather, in history as becoming, for what we cannot accept is that we became Filipino any more than we accept that we became Asian. (If you are of Asia, then you are Asian, period.) Even if we do recognize that a double process was in movement during the colonial era, one process tending to Asianize us and the other to Westernize us, we do so only to discriminate between them and to aver that the former produced what may be called our pancit and lumpia culture, which can be accepted as Philippine because it was Asian, and the other produced our adobo and pan de sal culture, which is Creole and therefore to be rejected as corruption. From a practical existential viewpoint, either process seems as Filipino as the other, and both to be now a single culture in which they cannot be distinguished apart, being too interfused with each other and with everything else in the culture,..”

Nick Joaquín, “Culture as History,” Culture and History: Occasional Notes on the Process of Philippine Becoming. Metro Manila: Solar Publishing Corporation, 1988 1-26

English comes to occupy a special place among colonial languages, since, in his eyes, it is only that literariness as such truly emerges as a tradition in Philippine writing.

“Our fictionists in English are, in fact, the very first group of Filipino writers to be read simply for the sake of reading, or, rather, for the pleasure, the delight, of reading.”

Joaquin, Nick. “THE FILIPINO AS ENGLISH FICTIONIST.” Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society, vol. 6, no. 3, 1978 Pg. 121-122

These comments seem to harmonize in a curious manner with Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia, разноречие.

“Literary language – both spoken and written – although it is unitary not only in its shared, abstract, linguistic markers but also in its forms for conceptualizing these abstract, linguistic markers, it itself stratified and heteroglot in its aspect as an expressive system, that is, in the forms that carry meaning… Thus, at any given moment of its historical existence, language is heteroglot from top to bottom: it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epoch of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles, and so forth, all given a bodily form. These “languages” of heteroglossia intersect each other in a variety of ways, forming new socially typifying “languages.””

Mikhail Baktin, “Discourse in the Novel,” 288,,291

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. Holquist, Michael, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996

Putting these all together, we can start detecting the emergence of an intentional polyphonous atemporality in Nick Joaquin’s fictional writing, My analysis will focus on the short story “May Day Eve,” which is available in his recently published Penguin anthology, but which is also available via JSTOR from:

Joaquin, Nick. “May Day Eve.” The Transatlantic Review, No. 5 (December 1960), pp. 26-35

“May Day Eve” is a short story populated by multiple points of view and multiple timelines. This multi-voiced, heteroglot in the Bakhtinian sense, and multi-temporal narrative reflects the co-existence of what Joaquin sees as the three main cultures that constitute the Filipino tradition: indigenous Philippine, Spanish Catholic conquista, and English. While Spanish and indigenous ideologies fight for domination in this cultural space, it is the bending of English stylistic and grammar rules that become the main tool for displaying the, in the case of his story, literally magic effect of the polyphonous ideologies that play off of each other like so many musical cords, that constitute Filipino awareness.

The story revolves around a legend presented by the oldest woman we see in the story, old Anastasia.

“And it was May again, said the old Anastasia. It was the first day of May and witches were abroad in the night, she said – for it was a night of divination, a night of lovers, and those who cared might peer in a mirror and would there behold the face of whoever it was they were fated to marry, said the old Anastasia as she hobbled about picking up the piled crinolines and folding up shawls and raking slippers to a corner while the girls, climbing into the four great poster-beds that overwhelmed the room, began shrieking with terror, scrambling over each other and imploring the old woman not to frighten them. ‘Enough, enough, Anastasia! We want to sleep!’

‘Go scare the boys instead, you old witch!’

‘She is not a witch, she is a maga. She was born on Christmas Eve!’

‘St. Anastasia, virgin and martyr.’

‘Huh? Impossible! She has conquered seven husbands! Are you a virgin, Anastasia?’

‘No, but I am seven times a martyr because of you girls.’”

Nick Joaquin, “May Day Eve” The Transatlantic Review, No. 5 (December 1960), pp. 27

Here we see some of the more common features of Joaquin’s style. Sentences related to dialogue delivery prove consistently short. However, those focusing on descriptive passages tend to blur the rules of normative style and grammar by running on to amazing lengths. The tense play of competing ideologies, much like the tense relationship among second or sixth notes in a chord, manifests itself in the flow of these not safe for grammar school English sentences. In this passage, for instance, Anastasia carries out the rational legal functions of a European nanny, while conveying to her charges the old traditions of pre-Christian Philippines.

“‘Let her prophesy, let her prophesy! Whom will I marry, old gypsy? Come, tell me.’

‘You may learn in a mirror if you are not afraid.’

‘I am not afraid, I will go!’ cried the young cousin Agueda, jumping up in bed.

‘Girls, girls – we are making too much noise! My mother will hear and will come and pinch us all. Agueda, lie down! And you, Anastasia, I command you to shut your mouth and go away.’

‘Your mother told me to stay here all night, my grand lady!’

‘And I will not lie down!’ cried the rebellious Agueda, leaping to the floor. ‘Stay, old woman. Tell me what I have to do.’

‘Tell her! Tell her!’ chimed the other girls.

The old woman dropped the clothes she had gathered and approached and fixed her eyes on the girl. ‘You must take a candle,’ she instructed, ‘ and go into a room that is dark and that has a mirror in it and you must be alone in the room. Go up to the mirror and close your eyes and say:

“Mirror, mirror,

Show to me

Him whose woman

I will Ье!”

As we get carried away by the unexpected twist to the fairy tale formula “mirror, mirror, on the wall” we also see the confused presence of possibly Christian, possibly pagan verb “prophesy,” In this case the maga gitana reveals the magic space of the mirror.

This mirror, and the text surrounding the mirror, inhabits s space occupied by what Slavic ethnographers called dvodverie, cultural practices derived by the simultaneous manifestation of dual ideological systems. Anastasia is considered a saint for having been born on Christmas Day and surviving seven husbands, but at the same time she is the maga opening the magic boundary of the mirror on May 1.

The mirror, in turn, becomes a spot that bends time and space, and thus marks the effects of the cohabitation of both belief systems. The mirror literally becomes a place of reflection on the present, the past, and the future. The ritual in front of the mirror repeats itself four times in the course of the text, the first with young Agueda, the second with old Agueda relating the story to her daughter, then with young Don Badoy Montiya, Agueda’s eventual husband, repeating his version of the ritual, and then old Don Badoy reflecting on Agueda’s passing.

Each of these repetitions displays one of Joaquin’s most distinctive stylistic features: the unannounced, instantaneous temporal shift.

“The mother’s lips curled. ‘Yes, he did! But, alas see them at that time. All I could see were his flashing eyes, his curly hair and moustaches.’
‘And did he speak to you, Mama ? ‘
‘Yes . . d. Yes, he spoke to me,’ said Doña Agueda, and bowing her greying head, she wept.
‘Charms like yours have no need for a candle, fair one,’ he had said, smiling at her in the mirror and stepping back to give her a low mocking bow. She had whirled around and glared at him and he had burst into laughter.
‘But I remember you!’ he cried. ‘You are Agueda, whom Inleft a mere infant and came home to find a tremendous beauty, and I danced a waltz with you but you would not give me the polka.’
‘Let me pass,’ she muttered fiercely, for he was barring her way.
‘But I want to dance the polka with you, fair one,’ he said.
So they stood before the mirror; their panting breath the only sound in the dark room; the candle shining between them and flinging their shadows to the wall. And young Badoy Montiya (who had crept home very drunk to pass out quietly in bed)
suddenly found himself cold sober and very much awake and ready for anything. His eyes sparkled and the scar in his face gleamed scarlet.”

The presence of practices that reflect the existence of a Philippine presence of двоеверие (dvoeverie), the marked presence of the performance of a specifically West European form of masculinity, as reflected in desirability being directly proportional with European education — don Badoy had just returned from study in Europe, Agueda’s higher space in society being reflected in her mastery of multiple European dances such as the waltz and the polka, all of these prove fruitless in the attempt to match these social coequals. Their final cultural compatibility derives from their ability to execute the old, pre-Christian ritual in front of the mirror.





Those of us who entered the Slavic studies field in the Soviet era “grew up” with an understanding of two things: it would be hard, and we would have to question every little bit of information presented to us. The 1990s, with its period of “transition” and political change, raised a new generation that came to take for granted easy access to the Soviet Union – multi-entry visas? Really? – and a moderately diversifying atmosphere, with the growth of “normal” businesses and numerous missionaries in our first year Russian classrooms.

As we started to feel like our innate skepticism and cultural skills that emphasized the realistically paranoid – as in, yes, they were really watching you paranoid – were an instrument for the history books, Vladimir Putin took over. The skills of the dinosaurs in our field became necessary for proper study of Russia once again.

One of the respected reporters from the Soviet period has published a memoir/study of Russia, Putin Country: A Journey Into the Real Russia (New York: Picador 2016).The skills developed over decades of working with television and radio news –she was the voice that narrated Gorbachev’s coup for me when I was in Greenville, South Carolina, for instance – have combined with mastery of essential history and an in-depth understanding of Putin’s government and resulted in an amazingly accessible story of why Putin enjoys the support he has in Russia. This is a great, gripping narrative, that goes down as nicely as National Public Radio with your morning coffee, except that it goes on for 227 pages. This is one report that is not going to get cut short for the local traffic report.



She signed my copy. #FANGIRL

She signed my copy. #FANGIRL

Then she was charming to my Howard University students. Made the ten hour drive to Ohio State University and the Midwest Slavic Conference totally worth it. #BISONSLAVISTS #BIGGERFANGIRL!

Then she was charming to my Howard University students. Made the ten hour drive to Ohio State University and the Midwest Slavic Conference totally worth it. #BISONSLAVISTS #BIGGERFANGIRL!

Ms. Garrels follows the narrative strategy of using an individual example to humanize data that would easily overwhelm even the most ardent data fiend if presented as a spreadsheet. Each chapter represents one subsection of the Russian population: “A Gay Life,” “The Believers,” “Freedom of Speech,” and “Nuclear Nightmare,” among others. For each group, Ms. Garrels tells of her relationship with a member of each subpopulation, and how their lives have changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Again and again Ms. Garrels point ways in which the 1990s proved a difficult, traumatizing period for Russian society at large.

The true charm – and value –of this narrative is the way in which she shows the drastic difference between the capital cities – Moscow and Saint Petersburg – and the provinces, and how critical the difference between these two types of cities was to the rise of Putin. Her story of how she settled on Chaliabinsk, a formerly closed city close to a still closed nuclear city, is engaging in and of itself. The years of research on site and outside allows her to weave what would be otherwise overwhelming amounts of historical data as a natural part of the experience of each of her subjects. She makes the rise of Putinism, with the increasing limitations it places on civil liberties across the board understandable, and at times almost logical. Most importantly, she clarifies the extent to which the cultural and economic trauma of the 1990s still haunts Russian politics.

This is the perfect book for the Russia head who wants to show that skeptical aunt why Russia is still a subject worthy of serious interest. Or the Puerto Rican family that at times wonders why one would vote for study abroad in Leningrad instead of Barcelona.



One of the benefits of academia is that every now and then you get what is called a “desk copy,” a copy of a publication for you to review for your classes. Most desk copies come as direct requests to the publisher because I am about to have all my students invest on their book for my class. This semester, for instance, I will be ordering Plutopia, by Kate Brown – which is an awesome, awesome historical narrative for those interested in the intersection of urban planning and scientific development.

Sometimes, however, the desk copy just comes to you out of the Book Loving Gods. Such is the case with Red Star Tales: A Century of Soviet Science Fiction. I got the book in the fall at my office mailbox. I remember looking with excitement at the box and saying: “Yay! Desk copy! But which?” I had made sure to assign documents available through my students’ online library access, so a hard desk copy was an unexpected treat. Love of just about any kind of reading is one of the prerequisites of an academic career in the humanities. This was a case of the Book Loving Gods feeding me to the proper algorithm at Russian Life Books and, voila, at my desk was a copy of this nice little anthology of Russian science fiction.

According to the book’s publication notes, Red Star Tales: A Century of Soviet Science Fiction resulted from a crowd-funding Kickstarter campaign to help defray the publishing costs of the first run of the book. This is a sad commentary on the state of general publishing these days. This anthology is a great contribution for those who want a broader exposure to science fiction – readers like me, who were raised on the Hitchhiker’s Guide, C. S. Lewis and Doctor Who. Short stories constitute the majority of the anthology, which made it highly digestible in the hour to hour and a half chunks of time I could devote to attentive reading during the school year. The idea that this volume did not benefit from the push of a more traditional publishing house and its publicity resources concerns and saddens me. To draw a parallel, as President Barack Obama stated in White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2016 about the general state of journalism: “As you know, “Spotlight” is a film, a movie about investigative journalists with the resources and the autonomy to chase down the truth and hold the powerful accountable. Best fantasy film since Star Wars.”( It is truly regrettable that more general subject publishing houses should delegate translations, especially translations of genres such as science fiction, to the realm of self-funded publishing.

So… A group of driven translators gets together an agrees to get together an anthology of Russian and Soviet science fiction. (Side note: Sounds like the result of a third pint at ASEEES). Said translators get a few more buddies, a publishing house – in this case Russian Life Books – and a few more buddies to work as editors and social media gurus for the Kickestarter side of things. At least, I imagine that is how it generally happened. The result is a really enjoyable volume of wide ranging stories, covering 1892 to 1992.

Clearly, the more evident market for this collection would be a Russian/Soviet literature survey or a comparative literature course. This collection, however, does rank fairly high on what I would call the airplane/summer beach reading quotient. Read: would this make the two hours before boarding a plane, or an afternoon at the beach or such summer vacation destination enjoyable? The answer is yes, quite so. I am, in fact, thinking of having my tweener son, who has started reading other C. S. Lewis texts, to promise not to wreck the book and have him read it for summer vacation.

The anthology displays an interesting evolution of what I call “narrative technology” in my survey classes. The stories demonstrate the evolution of narrative voice seen in Russian literature throughout the twentieth century. The first interesting feature of the collection is the inclusion of a couple of Valerii Briusov stories, particularly “Rebellion of the Machines.” Students of Russian literature generally encounter Valerii Briusov as one of the founders of the Russian Symbolist movement. The presence of a work from 1908 that should strike fear in my heart of a wireless telephone and a microwave in 2016 really speaks of the universality of art and of a disturbingly accurate level of prescience as far as to how technology would evolve in the future. Mikhail Ancharov’s “Soda-Sun,” written in 1961, is one of the longer selections and displays the narrative leisurely pace of mainstream socialist realist stories. It features a Central Asian locale to represent the exotic other – in this, a Kazakh village. Interwoven with generalized jargon laden language is a meme worthy tidbit: “We look for salvation in endless quests, nut endless questing is endless hunger…” “The Exam,” by Sergei Drugal, from 1979, includes Syntax the cat, and a test that ends up with a placement as a preschool teacher. “Jubilee 200,” by Kir Bulychev, written in 1985, seems to steal a page from the Planet of the Apes series, but ends with a delightfully engaging plot twist. Sergei Lukyanenko’s “My Dad’s an Antibiotic” seems to draw a criticism of contemporary Russian politics.

However, the more charming of the stories is an excerpt from the story “Doorinda” by Daliya Truskinovskaya, from 1990. The story features a newly single mother, Ksenya, somehow ends up with a magic door that transports her wherever she can envision. The fragment has the heavy scent of Bulgakov’s Margarita to it, as she transports herself from place to place and comes back to turn the whole experience into a fairy tale, like Margarita with the little boy upstairs from Latunsky’s studio.

A few of the stories, like “Doorinda” and “Professor Dowell’s Head” feature female point of views which prove an interesting change from the technological jargon that seems to overpopulate the male narrative voices. While these seem to err on the side of hyper-feminized stereotype, in the context of the entire collection they prove refreshing changes of what I term narrative technology. This is a refreshing change from standard Russian classic novelistic fare – sorry, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Turgenev, we sometimes need a break from you! Toss it in your summer bag/gym bag/soccer practice/honor bang hangout bag and enjoy the trip to different realms of the universe. You will even enjoy contemplating switching your vision with your hearing and vice versa!

Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction. Yvonne Howell, ed. Montpellier: RIS Publications, 2015. Available through


One Research Day…

One of the problems of living next to one of the richest, most vibrant research communities in the country is actually carving out the time to take advantage of its resources. Spring break is such a time. The very things that help support my career here – my position as Master Instructor (Senior Lecturer at other institutions in the United States) and my family responsibilities make it very complicated to actually carve out a solid block for my own personal research. (Overwhelmed; Work, Love, Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte is a great primer on these challenges). However, I did take one day to work on independent research. And it reminded me why it is that research in D. C. pretty much tops research everywhere else – sorry Boston, Saint Petersburg and Moscow!

Morning was spent at my favorite reading spot: Library of Congress. The last few years, as my teaching responsibilities have multiplied, my ability to read for myself has shrunk. I do not get to read deep as often as I would like – shshsh! don’t tell my students! – but this morning got me to looking at primary and secondary documents related to a presentation on Kalatozov’s I Am Cuba that I will reading at Midwest Slavic in a few weeks.

Lesson re-learned this day: proper materials and proper technological support can turn what would otherwise be a two to three week project into a one morning project.

In front of the Library of Congress, my favorite place in Washington D. C. Never mind the Supreme Court is next door and the Capitol right across the street.

In front of the Library of Congress, my favorite place in Washington D. C. Never mind the Supreme Court is next door and the Capitol right across the street.

Lunch was spent with an old friend at a pub down by the White House, across the street from the Department of Treasury building. It was wonderful not to have to worry about a children’s menu, as I sped past families enjoying the DC-ness of DC during spring break.

However, the highlight of the day was going to the Woodrow Wilson Center for a presentation co-sponsored by the Kennan Institute: “The Maisky Diary: The Wartime Revelations of Stalin’s Man in London,” held on Tuesday, March 15.

Gabriel Gorodetsky is Quonam Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. The presentation focused on the diaries of Ivan Mikhailovich Maiskii, Soviet ambassador to the United Kingdom for the majority of the Stalin period. Professor Gorodetsky has worked on the publication of Maiskii’s diaries for a lot of years. Maiskii’s story tends to deviate from the regular narrative old school Sovietologists have internalized. A former Menshevik, he rose up the diplomatic ranks and survived in part because of the contacts he cultivated through a lifestyle that normal Marxists might qualify as bourgeois decadent. What proves even more amazing was that the diaries survived as classified documents until the end of the Soviet era. They shed light in part on the way that the image of the Soviet Union evolved within the ranks of the British ruling class as the Nazi regime rose to power. And somehow Maiskii managed to survive.

Professor Gorodetsky at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Another book into my must read collection.

Professor Gorodetsky at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Another book into my must read collection.

I regret my father has already passed on – this sounds like the kind of narrative he would enjoy. Diaries of this kind, in particular, play an integral part in illuminating the complicated dynamics of the Stalinist regime. The level of repressions and censorship of the period really makes scholars of the humanities and social sciences much more like archaeologists. It is vital because, as the character of Eliza in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton asks, “…And when my time is up/Have I done enough?    COMPANY: Will they tell my story?…” This is the kind of book that can help us contemplate the danger of the mix of charisma, authoritarian – or in Stalin’s case, totalitarian – instincts, a well-defined nationalist ideology, and a willingness to make violence against civil society by purging it of “opportunist elements…”

The end of the day... Even barely missed WAMTAmageddon!

The end of the day… Even barely missed WAMTAmageddon!

Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Before LinkedIn or Google Plus, There Were the Pins…

“Leningrad – The Bronze Horseman” printed under a relief of the Bronze Horseman, the statue representing Peter the Great. I saw this across the river from my bus stop at the university.

Oh, the Places  You’ll Go! Before LinkedIn or Google Plus, There Were the Pins…

A lot of times we remember the rivalry of the Cold War. We remember the 1980 boycott, Reagan’s meetings with Gorbachev, and the way Sovietologists scoured every syllable of Pravda for hidden political meaning.

As a student during Perestroika, however, there was a lot of cool excitement about studying Russian and going to the Soviet Union. Nerdy, bookworm, we were the Big Bang Theory Crowd before the Big Bang Theory Crowd came around. Nirvana of Sovietology in that period was finally achieving acceptance to a study abroad program in Russia. There were basically two programs that dominated the environment back then: Council of International Educational Exchange, CIEE, based in Leningrad, and the American Council of Teachers of Russian program in Moscow. I ended up in Leningrad. I was much more interested in the cultural aspects of Russian studies – music, and especially literature. Or rather, Russian Literature. Especially Russian Poetry. I wanted to see the city of Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Akhmatova.

One fun aspect of study abroad in Russia was trading pins. Little lapel pins. If done properly, you would end up with your coat covered in pins demonstrating various things. First were pins that showed scenes from the city where you stayed. You also would buy pins you could trade. Also, you would get pins as presents from people you met. It was a way to show first degree relationship in the day when there was no LinkedIn or Google plus.

So, last summer, my mother hands me a box to bring with me. She had been cleaning out a part of the house and ran into one of my college “memory boxes.” I opened it and inside – still in an old Soviet frozen strawberry bag – was my old collection of Soviet pins.

Besides the plain nostalgia it brought for a younger, more optimistic self, finding the pins served as a visual reminder of how sophisticated mass produced Soviet culture actually was. It allowed for a standardized way to represent localized experiences. Pins represented well known local attractions, historical events, and political pride.

Pins could be classified under general categories. Most common were the pins that showed local pride. These pins showed monuments or iconic images of a given place. I spent my time in Leningrad in 1988, so the bulk of my collection ha mostly to do with the mythology of the city of Leningrad, particularly with Leningrad as the cradle of the Bolshevik Revolution


Captions: “Embankments of the Neva: Leningrad.” Vintage: @1988. The university is located on the embankment of the Neva River.



A pin that has “Leningrad” printed under an image of the Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva River.


There also were pins designed to reflect pride in the Soviet Union’s revolutionary past, and their political uniqueness.

Caption reads “Always ready.” Image of Vladimir Ilich Lenin with s Soviet star as the background.


Pin with the caption “V. I. Lenin.” Image of Vladimir Ilich Lenin with a background of the Soviet flag.


Pin in honor of the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or as we know it from its acronym, KPSS.


Lenin. Just Lenin.


There were pins to mark holidays, anniversaries, and other special occasions.


Pin celebrating the millennium of the Christianization of Rus’.



May 1, International Workers’ Day.


Another May 1 pin. This holiday was big.

Happy New Year!


Elochka gori! Happy New Year!


March 8. International Women’s Day. Everything was International.


May 9. Day of the Victory of the Great Patriotic War, also known as World War II. I think this is my favorite pin.

Caption reads: “Glory to the Soviet Army.” Celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolt.

Another pin celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.


Celebrating 70 years of the Soviet Revolution. I like the white enamel finish effect.


We did not go, but we still ended up with cute souvenirs from the 1980 Olympics. Even in 1988.

Moscow. 1980. Swimming.


Then there were the city pins you would get as you traveled, or that you would exchange when you met people from different cities.


Caption says: “Moscow, Capital of Our Motherland.” I went there.


Riga. I went there. It was beautiful.


Odessa. I turned 21 there. It was beautiful.


Izhevsk. I had a pen pal from there. We met at Brown when their delegation visited us. I saw her again in Moscow.


Clearly I met somebody from Vladimir. Just cannot remember who for the life of me.


A historical castle from Tver’. Never went there.


Tallin. My roommate went. Wish I had had a chance to go.

Minsk. The most changed city we visited.


What do you remember when you revisit these kinds of symbols? First, you remember how ubiquitous these pins were. You remember how you could not get away from Lenin, no matter where you were. Always, everywhere. Statues. Pictures. Posters. You remember how self-conscious the Soviets were of making sure everyone had one consistent vision of what constituted Soviet history. How they always, always emphasized the heroic, and everyone seemed blissfully ignorant of the ugly, like Stalin. How actually cool the visual representations of revolutionary Soviet culture actually were.

You also wonder. Even if these pins were made for mass consumption, the amount of attention placed to the aesthetic quality of the pins. Even almost thirty years and an extreme camera close-up cannot take away from the stunning visual quality of some of these pins.

And last, but not least, you always left thinking you brought too many with you. But now I wish I had saved more.