My past is digital (1981-2011)

Every once in a while I reminisce about the olden days. I know it must sound comical coming from someone who is turning 30 next month, but I’ve noticed the older I get the more frequent and urgent are the journeys into the past. I suppose there is just more of it to return to.

Although our futures are more intertwined than ever, chances are my past is very different from yours. There are no two ways about. In fact, it’s different from most of Americans or Europeans of my age. Theirs (yours) is somehow more accessible, more immediate. It’s everywhere around– the cultural and physical spaces of Europe and North America have for the most part remained intact since I was born.

Sipsik, my favorite childhood book. Eponymous main character was a cloth doll with an infectious smile.

You (the Europeans and the North Americans) can return to your childhood toys, the books, the music. It’s all still there somewhere in your parents attic or garage, and if it’s not in your parents’ garage, it’s in your neighbor’s garage, or in another garage down the street. That much is true — you are all children of the mass consumption culture.

But my past is distinctly different. It’s the kind of place you don’t travel to by digging out and dusting off your favorite toys, it’s the kind you get to by watching the History Channel. For someone who was born on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, 30 years ago is already the stuff of documentaries. The past, in which my childhood resides, is behind an impenetrable historical discontinuity.

The mass upheaval that swept the country when I was ten and the immigration of my family to the United States a few years later have swept away the garages and attics of my memory. Soviet Union of 1980s an intellectually, socially and politically a distant place — a place that we once struggled to forget, only so we can now struggle to recall it.

The main character, a mole, ended up in the kind of city I wanted to live in.

Perhaps the nostalgia for long lost places and things has caught up with more of us than I imagined. The one of a kind objects we all treasured, and this is harder to explain to someone delivered into a disposable culture of the West, had intense personal meaning and significance. The more precious the thing, the more anomalous it must have been in the Soviet desert of dull, boring and desensitized childhoods.

These objects, be it books, records, clothing, electronics or toys, were obtained through significant effort and hazard. My parents had to go out of their way to seek out the different, the otherworldly, and to bring it home. One such anomaly which until last week I remembered only vaguely, if at all, was Sipsik. And as soon as I saw again that bright cover (a distinctly non-Soviet blue) with the smiling cloth doll on it, I immediately understood how different it really was.

I wanted to write about Sipsik today because, as strange as it sounds, I find myself tearing up just thinking about how much I loved the book. And I wouldn’t have remember the book, if I haven’t accidentally stumbled upon a full scan of it online. To me the fact that I have rediscovered it speaks more of the digital revolution than all the scholarly and popular books ever could.

Oh, the times we live in.. Sometimes it is so tempting to be enamored by the visions of flying cars, space travel, intelligent machines and all the rest. The future possesses a powerful seduction of its own, but it’s an altogether different seduction from the one offered by our past, which is intensely private and non-fungible affair.

Street view of the yard I played in circa 1988 (Rostov-on-Don, Russia)

Truth is my past is coming back, and the deluge seems only to have intensified in the last 3-4 years. It’s coming back in distinct memories I reunite with when I see the recently added Street View of the apartment block my family moved out of in 1991.  It’s coming back through re-discovery of Sipsik or Krtek ve městě (Mole in the City) or the illustrations to other childhood books I cherished. Now they are all just a click and a Google search away.

It’s both exciting and intimidating to be able to tap so easily something so deep and so long forgotten, forgotten in haste and with finality of knowing that you may be forgetting it forever. Now, on the other side of a 20 year blackout, I am welcoming it back. My digital past, you are so much better than no past at all.


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