2010 Honors Day Address: Laura Henry

Story posted May 12, 2010

Nostalgia and the Common Good
By Assistant Professor of Government Laura A. Henry
May 12, 2010

Assistant Professor of Government Laura A. Henry delivered the following remarks during the 14th annual Honors Day ceremony recognizing the college-wide academic and extracurricular achievements of Bowdoin students and faculty. The ceremony was held May 12, 2010, at Kanbar Auditorium, Studzinski Recital Hall.

Laura Henry150.jpg
Laura Henry

Dear student-honorees, faculty, staff, parents, and friends,

Welcome to this celebration of intellectual projects completed and new endeavors about to begin. Students, we congratulate you on your talent and dedication. Bowdoin has set high standards for you and you have exceeded them. This night you symbolize the promise of a new generation. You embody our hopes for the advancement of the sciences, the creativity of the arts, and the insights of the social sciences.

However, tonight I will urge you not to remember this moment too fondly. I want to warn you that nostalgia can be dangerous. On some distant future evening, do not reflect too comfortably on the honors bestowed on you tonight, remembering only the culminating achievement, the proud faces, the applause, and the warmth of the Bowdoin community. I ask you not to forget the days of hard work, the moments of confusion, and the times when you may have considered abandoning your pursuits — when you were tempted to shy away from a notoriously challenging course, to turn in a paper that was merely good enough, or to remain quiet in a moment that required your leadership. Your willingness to face uncertainty, to confront challenges that seemed too much and ideas that appeared too complex, brought you here tonight. They played a role in your success as important as your natural abilities and self-confidence.

Tonight as we both reflect on your time at Bowdoin and look ahead to your bright future, I want to speak to you on the theme of nostalgia and the common good. I want to suggest that the one can undermine the other — that our fondness for the past can keep us from meeting the challenges of the future. To that end, I hope that you will indulge me in a nostalgic story of my own.

When I was a new graduate in the early 1990s, I spent a year in the former Soviet Union. To begin this adventure, I moved to the small city of Vladimir on Russia's Golden Ring. I hoped that by living in the provinces I would gain insight into Russian life. I settled into the apartment of my hostess, Tamara Bochkova, a woman in her early seventies, careworn, shoulders bent, but bursting with energy.

Baba Tamara, as she preferred to be called, was an excellent Russian hostess. She stuffed me with heavy cheese pancakes and warned me about the slightest shift in weather — in other words, she smothered me with the kind of attention that Russian grandmothers provide so generously. She regarded me as a clueless and clumsy American in dire need of protection and I regarded her with exasperated affection. I was grateful for the warmth she showed me. Faced with the challenges of daily life in Russia, I had become homesick — nostalgic for my busy life at college that I had so recently left.

Baba Tamara was nostalgic, too, it turned out. One evening over tea with jam at the kitchen table, Baba Tamara said to me, "Laurichka, do you know the greatest Russian who ever lived?" No, I said, but I knew already that her answer would not be Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratic president. Baba Tamara despised Yeltsin because he had presided over the hyperinflation that destroyed her life savings and devalued her state pension. Instead in a loud voice trembling with emotion she announced, "The greatest Russian who ever lived is Comrade Josif Vissarionovich Stalin."

Stalin. My first instinct was to recoil from this pronouncement. My undergraduate history major had been overseen by an impassioned scholar of Russian heritage who specialized in WWII — or what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. We had studied the malfeasance of Stalin's regime in great detail: more than four million dead from collectivization, 700,000 killed in the political purges of the 1930s and many more sent to labor camps, more than three million deported, plus millions dead in WWII.

My second reaction, however, was curiosity. Here was a woman who I knew to have a warm heart. Why was Baba Tamara nostalgic for life in an authoritarian regime? Under one of the world's most infamous dictators, no less? That evening Baba Tamara continued to speak of her nostalgia for the Soviet Union — an era when life was more orderly, more secure, and in some ways simpler; when the community pulled together to industrialize, modernize, and eventually win WWII.

Baba Tamara was not and is not alone in her nostalgia. Between the collapse of communism in 1991 and the present day, Russian citizens' approval of democracy and capitalism has declined. In 2001, 57 percent of Russians said they wanted to return to the USSR and 45 percent claimed that communism was better than the current system of democracy. As recently as 2009, 58 percent of Russians agreed it is a great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists. In fact, across the post-communist region many citizens are afflicted with nostalgia for the past — a sentiment that may seem unexpected given Western assertions that democratic freedoms had proven themselves best able to guarantee individual happiness.

In response to this nostalgia, our first thought might be to marvel at the effectiveness of the Soviet system. Have Russians been so profoundly socialized into totalitarianism that they reject the principles of democracy? Or are they culturally predisposed toward authoritarianism? Yet post-communist nostalgia is more complicated that the stereotype that some societies simply long for a strong leader. Nostalgia is linked to memories of past superpower status, the loss of social solidarity, and the sense that one's life experience is being devalued. Nostalgia also is partly a response to citizens' disappointment with their actual experiences with weak democracy and economic systems that enriched the former communist elite. They are disillusioned by corruption and growing inequality. They are uncertain about the future. Even young people in the region are nostalgic for an era they never experienced.

Of course, we in the West also occasionally long for the simple politics of capitalism vs. communism — for the clear division of the world into us vs. them, good vs. evil. Cold War debates were fundamental, related to basic principles of human society and even morality. They were inspiring and implied that we were part of something greater than ourselves.

Since the collapse of communism, Russians have been engaged in a continual debate over how to interpret the past. Liberals draw attention to the missed opportunities for democracy in the late tsarist period, and they vie with May Day crowds holding portraits of Stalin and nationalists who advocate a return to Russia's peasant culture or the reconstruction of imperial power. Their struggle is typified by a Russian saying: "The past is much more unpredictable than the future." In the midst of this backward-looking debate, Russia in practice has settled into semi-authoritarianism enabled by disagreement and apathy. Unable to agree on a common vision for the future, the Russian political elite reflexively revives old symbols of the past — the double-headed eagle of the tsar and the familiar notes of the Soviet national anthem.

To look back at history with longing but without understanding is to miss entirely its lessons. We all have the tendency to see the past in through the hazy glow of nostalgia. But the cloud of nostalgia that envelopes Russia's political debate has been barrier to facing present challenges, and to articulating the future path of the country. The longing for the past is universal, but also divisive. To paraphrase Svetlana Boym, "Possessed by nostalgia, we forget our actual past." Each individual remembers a different past — an idealized past in which joys and accomplishments are scrubbed clean of any hardship, repression, and struggle. Nostalgia has become an obstacle to negotiation and compromise. Nostalgia has impeded the definition of a new common good in Russia.

I am not suggesting that we should forget the past — quite the opposite. Indeed, a careful examination of the complexities of history can help to temper nostalgia with wisdom. In his recent book, Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt reminds us, "The past was neither as good nor as bad as we suppose: it was just different." We will inevitably look back, but as we do we should resist the temptation to simplify what was complicated, and to think that we always knew where we were headed.

For the seniors here this evening, with your graduation from Bowdoin, you will suddenly acquired freedom — the freedom to choose your own path. As the Polish dissident Adam Michnik wrote of his own society, this freedom constitutes the most difficult gift: "No one can decide for us, we have to decide for ourselves." Your life likely will become more unpredictable than it was at Bowdoin. The goals that you pursue will be more challenging, and the potential for failure greater. In your ambition, you will be tempted by rewards that offer personal enrichment and distinction, but may not be of the greatest benefit to society. You will see that some paths are easier than others and you will struggle to choose among them. The pressures of competition may obscure the obligations of community.

As you face the great possibility and uncertainty of this freedom, I remind you not to forget what brought you to this point — the difficulties, hard choices, and moments of doubt. You may recall a past that seems easier than the present. But to assert that things were always better in the past is to abdicate personal responsibility. Nostalgia becomes a means to avoid the difficult conversations and hard decisions that are necessary to meet the challenges of the present and to build a better future.

What Bowdoin has given you more than any particular honor or any body of knowledge is the idea of the common good. These are words that you will hear many times during the ceremonies that mark the end of the year, but let me be among the first to recall for you the statement of President Joseph McKeen at the opening of the College in 1802:

Literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no man should live to himself, we may safely assert, that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good.

Building the common good is not something that is best done looking over one's shoulder or gazing mistily into a romanticized past. I hope that you will remember Bowdoin fondly — I'm sure that you will. We have a wonderful community here at Bowdoin in large part because students like you recreate the community anew, and refuse to allow it to be anything less. Four years ago some of you left your homes for a strange new place, and you rose to the new challenges you faced here. As you move on I hope you will remember that it is the difficulties that you've gone through that are the mark of your achievements — your achievements are impressive because they did not come easily, because it was a struggle to accomplish them. With that knowledge, you are well prepared for the possibilities of the future. And for that, we congratulate you.


Dear student-honorees, faculty, staff, parents, and friends,

Welcome to this celebration of intellectual projects completed and new endeavors about to begin. Students, we congratulate you on your talent and dedication. Bowdoin has set high standards for you and you have exceeded them. This night you symbolize the promise of a new generation. You embody our hopes for the advancement of the sciences, the creativity of the arts, and the insights of the social sciences.

However, tonight I will urge you not to remember this moment too fondly. I want to warn you that nostalgia can be dangerous. On some distant future evening, do not reflect too comfortably on the honors bestowed on you tonight, remembering only the culminating achievement, the proud faces, the applause, and the warmth of the Bowdoin community. I ask you not to forget the days of hard work, the moments of confusion, and the times when you may have considered abandoning your pursuits — when you were tempted to shy away from a notoriously challenging course, to turn in a paper that was merely good enough, or to remain quiet in a moment that required your leadership. Your willingness to face uncertainty, to confront challenges that seemed too much and ideas that appeared too complex, brought you here tonight. They played a role in your success as important as your natural abilities and self-confidence.

Tonight as we both reflect on your time at Bowdoin and look ahead to your bright future, I want to speak to you on the theme of nostalgia and the common good. I want to suggest that the one can undermine the other — that our fondness for the past can keep us from meeting the challenges of the future. To that end, I hope that you will indulge me in a nostalgic story of my own.

When I was a new graduate in the early 1990s, I spent a year in the former Soviet Union. To begin this adventure, I moved to the small city of Vladimir on Russia's Golden Ring. I hoped that by living in the provinces I would gain insight into Russian life. I settled into the apartment of my hostess, Tamara Bochkova, a woman in her early seventies, careworn, shoulders bent, but bursting with energy.

Baba Tamara, as she preferred to be called, was an excellent Russian hostess. She stuffed me with heavy cheese pancakes and warned me about the slightest shift in weather — in other words, she smothered me with the kind of attention that Russian grandmothers provide so generously. She regarded me as a clueless and clumsy American in dire need of protection and I regarded her with exasperated affection. I was grateful for the warmth she showed me. Faced with the challenges of daily life in Russia, I had become homesick — nostalgic for my busy life at college that I had so recently left.

Baba Tamara was nostalgic, too, it turned out. One evening over tea with jam at the kitchen table, Baba Tamara said to me, "Laurichka, do you know the greatest Russian who ever lived?" No, I said, but I knew already that her answer would not be Boris Yeltsin, Russia's first democratic president. Baba Tamara despised Yeltsin because he had presided over the hyperinflation that destroyed her life savings and devalued her state pension. Instead in a loud voice trembling with emotion she announced, "The greatest Russian who ever lived is Comrade Josif Vissarionovich Stalin."

Stalin. My first instinct was to recoil from this pronouncement. My undergraduate history major had been overseen by an impassioned scholar of Russian heritage who specialized in WWII — or what Russians call the Great Patriotic War. We had studied the malfeasance of Stalin's regime in great detail: more than four million dead from collectivization, 700,000 killed in the political purges of the 1930s and many more sent to labor camps, more than three million deported, plus millions dead in WWII.

My second reaction, however, was curiosity. Here was a woman who I knew to have a warm heart. Why was Baba Tamara nostalgic for life in an authoritarian regime? Under one of the world's most infamous dictators, no less? That evening Baba Tamara continued to speak of her nostalgia for the Soviet Union — an era when life was more orderly, more secure, and in some ways simpler; when the community pulled together to industrialize, modernize, and eventually win WWII.

Baba Tamara was not and is not alone in her nostalgia. Between the collapse of communism in 1991 and the present day, Russian citizens' approval of democracy and capitalism has declined. In 2001, 57 percent of Russians said they wanted to return to the USSR and 45 percent claimed that communism was better than the current system of democracy. As recently as 2009, 58 percent of Russians agreed it is a great misfortune that the Soviet Union no longer exists. In fact, across the post-communist region many citizens are afflicted with nostalgia for the past — a sentiment that may seem unexpected given Western assertions that democratic freedoms had proven themselves best able to guarantee individual happiness.

In response to this nostalgia, our first thought might be to marvel at the effectiveness of the Soviet system. Have Russians been so profoundly socialized into totalitarianism that they reject the principles of democracy? Or are they culturally predisposed toward authoritarianism? Yet post-communist nostalgia is more complicated that the stereotype that some societies simply long for a strong leader. Nostalgia is linked to memories of past superpower status, the loss of social solidarity, and the sense that one's life experience is being devalued. Nostalgia also is partly a response to citizens' disappointment with their actual experiences with weak democracy and economic systems that enriched the former communist elite. They are disillusioned by corruption and growing inequality. They are uncertain about the future. Even young people in the region are nostalgic for an era they never experienced.

Of course, we in the West also occasionally long for the simple politics of capitalism vs. communism — for the clear division of the world into us vs. them, good vs. evil. Cold War debates were fundamental, related to basic principles of human society and even morality. They were inspiring and implied that we were part of something greater than ourselves.

Since the collapse of communism, Russians have been engaged in a continual debate over how to interpret the past. Liberals draw attention to the missed opportunities for democracy in the late tsarist period, and they vie with May Day crowds holding portraits of Stalin and nationalists who advocate a return to Russia's peasant culture or the reconstruction of imperial power. Their struggle is typified by a Russian saying: "The past is much more unpredictable than the future." In the midst of this backward-looking debate, Russia in practice has settled into semi-authoritarianism enabled by disagreement and apathy. Unable to agree on a common vision for the future, the Russian political elite reflexively revives old symbols of the past — the double-headed eagle of the tsar and the familiar notes of the Soviet national anthem.

To look back at history with longing but without understanding is to miss entirely its lessons. We all have the tendency to see the past in through the hazy glow of nostalgia. But the cloud of nostalgia that envelopes Russia's political debate has been barrier to facing present challenges, and to articulating the future path of the country. The longing for the past is universal, but also divisive. To paraphrase Svetlana Boym, "Possessed by nostalgia, we forget our actual past." Each individual remembers a different past — an idealized past in which joys and accomplishments are scrubbed clean of any hardship, repression, and struggle. Nostalgia has become an obstacle to negotiation and compromise. Nostalgia has impeded the definition of a new common good in Russia.

I am not suggesting that we should forget the past — quite the opposite. Indeed, a careful examination of the complexities of history can help to temper nostalgia with wisdom. In his recent book, Ill Fares the Land, Tony Judt reminds us, "The past was neither as good nor as bad as we suppose: it was just different." We will inevitably look back, but as we do we should resist the temptation to simplify what was complicated, and to think that we always knew where we were headed.

For the seniors here this evening, with your graduation from Bowdoin, you will suddenly acquired freedom — the freedom to choose your own path. As the Polish dissident Adam Michnik wrote of his own society, this freedom constitutes the most difficult gift: "No one can decide for us, we have to decide for ourselves." Your life likely will become more unpredictable than it was at Bowdoin. The goals that you pursue will be more challenging, and the potential for failure greater. In your ambition, you will be tempted by rewards that offer personal enrichment and distinction, but may not be of the greatest benefit to society. You will see that some paths are easier than others and you will struggle to choose among them. The pressures of competition may obscure the obligations of community.

As you face the great possibility and uncertainty of this freedom, I remind you not to forget what brought you to this point — the difficulties, hard choices, and moments of doubt. You may recall a past that seems easier than the present. But to assert that things were always better in the past is to abdicate personal responsibility. Nostalgia becomes a means to avoid the difficult conversations and hard decisions that are necessary to meet the challenges of the present and to build a better future.

What Bowdoin has given you more than any particular honor or any body of knowledge is the idea of the common good. These are words that you will hear many times during the ceremonies that mark the end of the year, but let me be among the first to recall for you the statement of President Joseph McKeen at the opening of the College in 1802:

Literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education. It is not that they may be enabled to pass through life in an easy or reputable manner, but that their mental powers may be cultivated and improved for the benefit of society. If it be true, that no man should live to himself, we may safely assert, that every man who has been aided by a public institution to acquire an education and to qualify himself for usefulness, is under peculiar obligations to exert his talents for the public good.

Building the common good is not something that is best done looking over one's shoulder or gazing mistily into a romanticized past. I hope that you will remember Bowdoin fondly — I'm sure that you will. We have a wonderful community here at Bowdoin in large part because students like you recreate the community anew, and refuse to allow it to be anything less. Four years ago some of you left your homes for a strange new place, and you rose to the new challenges you faced here. As you move on I hope you will remember that it is the difficulties that you've gone through that are the mark of your achievements — your achievements are impressive because they did not come easily, because it was a struggle to accomplish them. With that knowledge, you are well prepared for the possibilities of the future. And for that, we congratulate you.

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