“If I start feeling homesick, I'll find a violet in the snow…”
Home. That was what it felt like. It felt warm, welcoming, and reassuring. The song felt like home.
Languages have diverged long ago. Where we once had a single, unifying language, we now have hundreds of different language groups and regional dialects, all of them full of unique phrases and abstract ideas. In each language, there are many untranslatable words: an attempt at expressing them outside of their native tongue would do an injustice to them.
But I noticed that certain ideas transcend linguistic and cultural boundaries. And some emotions aren’t limited to a particular group of people: instead, they are human. And one of the most complex, yet most simple of these feelings is nostalgia. A longing for something you once had: it’s a warm feeling…and it’s a sad feeling. Happiness at your fingertips, but just out of reach – instead limited to a past you cannot go back to.
Many languages and cultures around the world have this concept of nostalgia. The word itself consists of two Greek words: nostos, return to one's native land, and algos, pain or suffering. The Russian language is not an exception to our human bond over nostalgia. NSLI-Y helped me realize that no matter how far we are, no matter how foreign a country seems, nostalgia perseveres: a fundamental part of this culture half a world away.
In the summer of 2021, I attended the NSLI-Y VSI program. It was everything I hoped for and more: I was able to greatly improve my Russian language abilities, learn so much about the cultures of Russian-speaking countries and, most importantly, meet wonderful people who shared my passion for language learning.
After about 5 weeks of studying grammar, learning vocabulary and conversing in this beautiful language, I was approaching the end of my language journey this summer. But I still had a week left to reflect on my experiences and soon I was faced with my final project: a Soviet film project. Our Russian class, consisting of about 12 people, was split into 3 groups with 4 members in each group. Each group chose a Soviet film that they would watch and would create a presentation afterwards about that film.
The films had variety, each one unique: there were comedies, tragedies and dramas. But there was one that didn’t exactly fit any of these criteria. It didn’t belong to a particular genre and it wasn’t like any other movie in particular. So, of course, my group picked this film.
“Я Шагаю По Москве” or “Walking the Streets of Moscow” is indescribable. It definitely shocked me on my first watch: the plot was incredibly instructured. There was no “villain.” And there was no exhilarating action that Hollywood so desperately tries to implement in their movies. But most importantly, there was no big conflict. The characters weren’t trying to fight against any other character, phenomenon or even themselves: instead, they were trying to find harmony in this big crazy world.
I could tell that this movie was not made for Western audiences: made in 1964, the movie follows a day in the life of Kolya, an ordinary citizen of Soviet era Moscow. The “plot” centers around a Siberian writer named Volodya, who stays in Moscow for a day before he leaves by train in the evening. As luck would have it, Kolya and Volodya meet on the streets and quickly become friends. They get into fun shenanigans with Kolya’s crush, Alonya, his friend Sasha and a whole cast of supporting characters that represent the everyday people of Moscow.
So the movie didn’t necessarily have an overarching plot, but it did have overarching themes. First off, this movie wanted to portray the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens at the time. To demonstrate how friendship, above all else, prevails in the Soviet Union and how the kind nature of Muscovites extends to all different people, regardless of if they come from Petersburg or Siberia or even Japan (there was one scene of an English-speaking Japanese man). Secondly, the film conveyed to everyone in the Soviet Union at the time (and maybe even the world) that this city – this beautiful city that we call Moscow – is our beloved capital, a capital of dreams and love and everyday citizens. Lastly, to tie it all back to nostalgia, the film wanted all Russians to know that wherever they are, they will always be welcomed back home in Russia and in Moscow.
And in the last scene of the movie, after Volodya is hopping on a train and they all say their goodbyes, our main protagonist, Kolya, starts singing a song. It’s a happy, cheerful song. And yet, he just said farewell to a really great friend who he’ll probably never see again. Buried beneath the cheerfulness is a sense of melancholy and loss. But isn't that what nostalgia is? Isn’t that what life is?
I truly believe “Walking the Streets of Moscow” is a jewel yet to be found by many. It skillfully depicts the craziness of life in the big city: how we can make a friend one a certain day and lose them on the same night; how we can live, laugh and love knowing that eventually, we’ll drift apart; and, how even though we’ll drift apart, the memories are still intact – they will be with us forever. That is the beauty of nostalgia.
Major changes are happening all around us. The world is a hectic place. But throughout it all, I’ll still have the memories. I still have the friends I made last summer. I’ll still have NSLI-Y.
“...And I’ll remember Moscow.” (Walking the Streets of Moscow)