The Ecologies of Emptiness project is a collaboration between Sandra Jasper, Adam Searle, and Jonathon Turnbull. It asks the question: how can scholars theorise emptiness across species, scales, and causal agents? Drawing on fieldwork in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, abandoned spaces in Berlin, and the St Kilda archipelago in the Northern Atlantic, which have diverse relations to emptiness, the researchers are exploring how nature is viewed, valued, and experienced differently at each, developing situated understandings of the varieties of emptiness across species, spaces, and scales. The project attends to the intersections of political economy, political ecology, and the uneven experiences – human and nonhuman – of emptying spaces, and their varying relations to capital.
The Soviet government exploited natural resources and human resources with little consideration of the environments in occupied lands, and transformed whole regions, cultures, nations and economies. Maximal industrialisation of the Soviet Republics was enabled through accelerated labour recruitment, education, building infrastructure, and whole new cities and settlements in the newly occupied Soviet territory. Mining was the most targeted sites for industrialisation and urbanisation and this went hand in hand with the promotion of Soviet-style modernity (sovremennost). A city such as Shurab in Tajikistan was built around a coal mine in 1952, while Janatas in Kazakhstan was constructed around phosphate mines in 1964, and Chiatura in Georgia – where manganese was found in the 19th century in Tsarist times – was rebuilt by the Soviets in the early 1900s in order to extract this precious resource. Strategic cities also received special Moscow attention under the separate channel of moskovskoe obespechenie (Moscow provisioning). Through this channel special products and services were delivered directly from Moscow to the strategic cities in the Republics. These cities then became attractive to a wider public who came to work, to shop, or just to have a short holiday, as these cities had been built not only with basic infrastructure, but also to be attractive to live in, with rich cultural programs and entertainment facilities. The average working-class Soviet citizen or engineer was eager to move to and work in these newly built mining cities in order to enjoy the privileges of relatively high wages, special consumer goods, and a well-developed social and cultural infrastructure.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became apparent that such mining cities and similar industrial complexes were organized so that supply and trade were dependent on the purchase contracts of other industries in other Soviet Republics. The end of the Soviet Union also meant the end of provisions from Moscow. The economic webs were cut as newly independent Republics struggled to build up their economies autonomously. After the end of the Soviet Union, economic units and industries were left to function on their own, relying on local and national resources and governance. Most industries which were under Soviet state control were either privatised or taken under the control of newly independent post-Soviet states. Cities with low value or less important raw materials were hit harder than others which still offered attractive products such as oil, gold, and fertilisers. Former cities which found themselves uncompetitive in an open market functioned at only 5% of operations during the Soviet Union. This led to the economic collapse of these cities, to massive demographic change due to outmigration, and consequently to infrastructural decay. Prosperous during Soviet times and now ghost towns, emptiness is a post-Soviet reality for many cities which enjoyed moskovskoye obespechniye during Soviet rule.
Newly independent post-Soviet economies, which were mismanaged or suffered from corrupt authoritarian regimes that continued Soviet-style governance, faced both economic collapse and political conflict. This led to mass outmigration, most obviously from formerly prosperous mining cities. The demographic change resulting from outmigration, the downsizing of most Soviet-built industries, infrastructural decay, economic collapse, and the fading out of state presence and state social support: these factors were the basis of the visual and discursive results of emptiness (Nasritdinov 2015). Emptiness filled not only the cityscapes of the ghost cities but also the content of important fields, both material and non-material. Empty buildings – at times high-rise buildings towering next to each other in their magnitude – were a reminder of the great past, while their current emptiness showed the empty and impoverished present. Eventually emptiness filled the promises of the new post-Soviet states in the eyes of the ghost cities’ residents. Empty houses, empty places filled with ruins, empty pipes with no water, empty budgets with no money, empty bank accounts, or the empty pockets of the residents of ghost cities: each manifestation of emptiness pervaded a certain atmosphere and attitude among the residents. Mixed feelings arose about the great past and poor present, which was meanwhile riven between efforts to survive and a hopeless existence.
Emptiness was not only the concern of those who had to make ends meet and to make sense of the places in which they lived. The ruins which filled the emptiness impacted the natural and physical wellbeing of both the living and non-living beings of the cities. Ruined buildings, infrastructure, and nature (in form of dark, black-coloured rivers and air pollution); the ruined health of living beings in these locations: ruins of everything filled the emptiness. The empty flats and houses created further problems, adding to the process of the general infrastructural decay and compromising water supply and heating systems, particularly in the five- or nine-storied apartment buildings in all of the three cities that I describe below. The average occupancy rate of these houses has fallen to approximately five to 10 percent.
Such ghost mining cities are by now found not only in the post-Soviet space but also in the West, in the USA, Germany, and in China where deindustrialisation has turned cities largely into ghost cities (e.g. Bontje 2004, Pallagst et al. 2013). Mining cities where companies stopped working or reduced their capacities are found all across the former Soviet Union: in Russia, Georgia and Central Asia. The cities we studied within the framework of the project Mining Cities in Central Asia and the South Caucasus: Survival Strategies under Conditions of Extreme Peripheralisation (during 2015–20, coordinated by Leibniz Institute for Regional Geography in Germany) include Janatas in Kazakhstan, Shurab in Tajikistan, Chiatura in Georgia, and Angren in Uzbekistan (2015–16).
The results of this research are in the process of being published as an edited volume which will include working papers and policy briefs. Our research shows the wide array of residents’ economic survival strategies in these abandoned places. In Janatas, for instance, we witnessed informal economic networks based on mutual debt employed by inhabitants in order to afford basic foodstuff from small shops. In Shurab mardikor labour (informal labour) make up a large portion of local residents’ income, including the mine workers who are mainly hired on the basis of informal employment (cash-based and sales-based salaries). In Shurab, due to the absence of running water, water for all purposes has to be purchased and is the item on which most earned income is spent. In Chiatura, people survive partly by relying on state welfare, agricultural sustenance, and bank credits (even for normal daily expenses people borrow money from the local banks, creating another debt system popularised in Georgia) and by entrepreneurship. Still, mining has retained some importance – in spite of its economic and environmental hazards – while at the same time a diversification of revenue-generating activities and new forms of solidarity are emerging.
To give one example of such entrepreneurial efforts: in Chiatura an older man who worked all of his life for the state has spent the last 15 years devoted to making a small paradise corner out of the abandoned mountainous part of upper Chiatura. He discovered a very deep cave where he grew mushrooms and organised small ponds for growing fish. He has built a small infrastructure to enable him to stay in place, reliant upon his own efforts and with minimal investment. He recalled that he had to re-purchase the same land several times with each change of government and has not given up on the idea of making this cave an attraction for tourists while further developing his small business to make it profitable. He has an entrepreneur’s confidence in the local government which plans to make Chiatura into a tourist city and invest in the cable cars for which Chiatura is known.
The hope demonstrated by such entrepreneurial individuals in empty places such as Chiatura and in the other ghost cities we studied over the last several years is a broader token of hope for the many empty places across the post-Soviet space. It indicates that these places need more systematic engagement not only of the scholarly kind exemplify by the Emptiness project, but also by local politicians. Although Chiatura was one of the better places among the cities we studied, in other cities residents showed innovative efforts to survive and deal with the emptiness, each in their own ways.
Bontje, M. (2004) “Facing the challenge of shrinking cities in East Germany: The case of Leipzig”. GeoJournal 61(1), pp. 13-21.
Pallagst, K., Wiechmann, T. and Martinez-Fernandez, C. (eds) (2013) Shrinking Cities: International Perspectives and Policy Implications. Routledge.
Emptiness and Rural Educational Imaginaries
This project, led by Professor Alis Oancea and involving Dr Mariela Neagu and Arzhia Habibi, is funded by the University of Oxford’s Department of Education small grants scheme. It pilots digital and remote ethnographic educational research in rural areas affected by demographic change where permanent school closures occurred. Emptying – the disappearance or radical reconfiguration of material and social relations that constitute a place (due to demographic change, migration, economic situation, COVID-19, etc.) – is an increasingly common global phenomenon. The project aims to describe how small or isolated rural communities and individuals in places that are ’emptying’ continue to live and become after permanent school closures – in order to understand and theorise the different senses of emptiness at play and their material, social, and cultural entanglements. The empty school buildings, objects emptied of function, and lost routines and calendars, together with the disappearance of part of the local labour market and community services and support network, do not only open a keenly perceived material and social hiatus within the community, but school closures also transform its rhythms, aesthetics, self-understandings, and imaginaries.
Arzhia Habibi is a DPhil candidate at the Department of Education, University of Oxford, conducting research on global and world citizenship education in Chinese higher education under the supervision of Professor Alis Oancea and Dr Nigel Fancourt. She uses ethnographic methods to engage, in Mandarin, with educators, students, and researchers in Chinese higher education institutions. Arzhia received her master’s degree from National Chengchi University, Taipei, and her bachelor’s degree from the University of Nottingham, UK. As a child, Arzhia lived and attended kindergarten in Fuzhou (Fujian province), China, for five years. These early childhood experiences inform her interests into how memory, belonging, longing, family, and community weave into a personal relationship with education and with Chinese-speaking communities. More broadly, she is interested in the intersection of anthropological debates and practices, and philosophical concepts, as well as the relationships, frictions, tensions, silences, and gaps that exist between the two fields of inquiry. You can find Arzhia on Twitter.
Black Box East
Even decades after the official end of the Cold War, ‘the East’ remains the Other. Only because of this reinforced Othering of what Western media now designates ‘post-communist’ space can it so comfortably function as a black box of the West’s ethical imperialism: the much-invoked opacity of ‘the East’ can be presented as a lack of transparency and hence a legitimation for the West’s ostensibly ‘civilizing’ therapies and impositions; meanwhile, that very opacity can be used to veil privatization processes of state-owned enterprises, for instance, in obscurantism, that is, beyond the light of rational comprehension and democratic accountability. Black-boxing ‘the East’ in this way makes it possible to conceal abuses of power, wide-ranging mechanisms of exploitation, and privatization-related aggravation of structural problems. Moreover, it provides the perfect conditions for the misuse of subsidies, white-collar crime, and organized crime.
Scrutinizing the double standards underlying capitalism’s post-1989 expansion, the Berliner Gazette (BG) project takes Germany as a starting point: a nation-state whose entrepreneurial agenda (“first we take East Germany, then we take eastern Europe and beyond”) has reached a critical limit. The most obvious signs of this would be the increasing precariousness and radicalization in ‘the new states’, as BG founding editors Magdalena Taube and Krystian Woznicki show in their introductory essay. Read it in English or in German.
Pavel Otdelnov’s Russian Nowhere
Artist Pavel Otdelnov’s latest work invites reflection on ways of seeing Russian nowhere that is also anywhere.
“I would like to revisit my reflections on nonsites that I began in Inner Degunino and Mall. Both series were informed by direct observation of the changing landscapes on the outskirts of major cities. The new project that I started during lockdown deals with virtual images. As captured by Yandex and Google streetview cars, landscapes are completely devoid of any idealization or an author’s view. These pictures have no author or author’s attitude towards the seen: the lens of an automated camera is perfectly impartial and disengaged. I based by paintings on the most banal and typical images that could be made anywhere in Russia.”
Pavel’s previous project Promzona is on the entanglement of industrial ruins and family history.
Ivars Drulle’s To My Homeland
Latvian artist Ivars Drulle’s 2017 exhibition was dedicated to the vanishing landscaping of his homeland. As put by the artist himself: “My home is in the rural countryside and the landscape is rapidly changing. The houses are being abandoned and left to decay. For some years there are ruins and then they disappear from the face of the earth. I drew a circle around my home with radius of 15km and counted at least 350 abandoned homes. For years I tried to document them before they vanish.”
A local resident explores abandoned houses in rural Latvia
Abandoned World is an interesting YouTube channel, where a local resident goes on expeditions to abandoned houses, including to his own great-grandmother’s house, in rural Latvia. This is an example of how abandonment and emptiness are observed and represented by those who live in it or live nearby to it.
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