Towards the Radiant Past: Nostalgia in Alexandra Marinina’s Detektiv

Elena V. Baraban, University of Victoria

This paper discusses the ways in which nostalgia for the Soviet past is addressed in detective novels by Aleksandra Marinina, a popular writer of the 1990s. A combination of structuralist readings and social theory allows us to uncover the ways in which Marinina’s mysteries capitalize on the sentiment of nostalgia, the sentiment that was typical of the 1990s. My analysis contributes to our understanding of the ways Russian culture invents and reinvents itself after the fall of the USSR, how it mobilizes the past for making sense of the present. Drawing on readings of literature and culture by such scholars as Mixail Baxtin, Siegfried Kracauer, Andreas Huyssen, and Svetlana Boym, I analyze Marinina’s plots, choice of victims and criminals, her strategies in portraying the protagonists in the light of cultural memory, nostalgia, and historical sensibilities after the fall of the Soviet Union. Svetlana Boym proposes to differentiate between restorative nostalgia, focused on recovery of what is perceived to be an absolute truth, and reflective nostalgia focused on the individualized meditation about history, an individual narrative, and cherishing shattered fragments of memory (The Future of Nostalgia 49-50). I argue that Marinina’s mysteries combine elements of classical mysteries, hard-boiled detective novels, and Soviet detektivy in a way that is best suited for the expression of reflective nostalgia for the Soviet past. While Marinina’s plots have an affinity with classical mysteries, and her interpretation of the milieu and commentary on the social order in Russia link her novels to the hard-boiled detective fiction, Marinina’s strategy in depicting characters connects her novels to Soviet culture. Like authors who worked in the tradition of socialist realism, Marinina romanticizes the inconspicuous (modesty) and collectivism while criticizing wealth, the so-called “beautiful life” (krasivaja žizn’), and individualism. Nastja Kamenskaja, Marinina’s protagonist, would have been an ideal Soviet citizen. In the post-Soviet era, she is not interested in building communism, but tired of instability in Yeltsin’s Russia, she lives according to the principles valued from her childhood (without viewing them as Soviet, but rather as the norm).

The Russian popular consciousness in the 1990s started to idealize the peaceful life, simplicity and comradeship of the Soviet type conveniently forgetting about the side effects considered loathsome during the Soviet period. In the actual past, the values professed by Marinina were often criticized in the unofficial popular culture; in the 1990s, they are absorbed into popular entertainment with their embarrassing aspects erased from memory. With Marinina’s characters, nostalgia is an expression of longing for something that was never there in the first place. Marinina’s ideal reader is nostalgic not about the concrete order of things that existed in reality in the past but about the myths of the past, the ability to live in utopia, the capacity to be optimistic even if only self-deceived.