The Guardian view on the history of feelings: a serious subject

“Eras have their surfaces,” writes the German historian Karl Schlögel. “They can be smooth or rough. They can vanish or dissolve. They can be felt. What wrapping paper was and what it meant is something one only begins to understand now that it has disappeared … in the flood of plastic bags.”

Even when it focuses on ordinary people rather than grand statesmen, we tend to think of history as a narrative of wars and laws, replete with stark facts: 13 million unemployed, 40 million dead in a famine. But it is also how people experienced these things, and how they felt about them, and about the myriad places and objects and habits that constitute what Prof Schlögel calls a “lifeworld” in his forthcoming book The Soviet Century: Archaeology of a Lost World. It is a kind of montage of coarse wrapping paper, dusty museums and Lilac eau de parfum. It nods as well to what is missing – the lost sounds of the early morning ring at the door, announcing your house was about to be searched; the turn of a key in a cell’s lock.

It has striking parallels with Russia 1985-1999: TraumaZone, the new documentary series from director Adam Curtis, taken from thousands of hours shot by BBC news crews before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union. We see scientists entering Chernobyl in suits they have jerry-rigged from plastic and tape; the body of a young woman killed in the crackdown on pro-independence protests in Tblisi; and a phone-in with KGB generals who assure viewers that they do not keep files on individuals – neatly illustrating both the impact and the limitations of glasnost. But we also glimpse a Moscow cake factory and doctors taking a villager to the mental hospital. The few addressing the camera are not experts but ordinary citizens: “Where did everything go? We were OK in the 50s and 60s!” a woman says angrily. Another, hanging garish wallpaper, observes that she “used to dream, to make plans, but nothing worked out ... I won’t dream again ... I don’t believe in anything or anyone.” The series is subtitled What It Felt Like to Live Through the Collapse of Communism and Democracy.

These works seek not the objectivity we associate with academic tomes and high-brow factual programming, but subjectivity. They evoke an understanding of how it felt to live through the Soviet Union and its collapse, as the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich did in her extraordinary polyphonic oral history Second-hand Time. This is a chronicle told not from offices of state, but from kitchens where onions sprout in old mayonnaise jars – and it is “a history of feelings” in the words of one reviewer. “I don’t ask people about socialism, I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos,” the author writes. “It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary.”

Dictators understand the importance of feelings: why else do they need personality cults or propaganda operations? Prof Schlögel, who began work on his project in 2014 – urged on by Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea – writes of the way that the political leadership has maintained its own power by exploiting “post-imperial phantom pains, nostalgic yearnings and fears of the loss of social status to pursue an aggressive policy, not excluding war against neighbouring states”. Material and emotional experience is how we encounter the world – and also shapes it.