Emptiness

Going to the country: mobility and space in the time of a pandemic

This story is about a particular form of pandemic-era mobility – namely, the move from the city to the country. I was asked to reflect on this question by the organisers of the Annual Conference of the Museum of Moscow, most likely because the COVID-inspired move to the countryside has been observed and celebrated across national borders and political divides. From Russia and Latvia to the UK and France, people are asking whether – and hoping that – the pandemic will restore life to the emptying European countryside.

The abandoned village of Lucchio in Tuscany, 2018 © Dace Dzenovsка

But let me step back for a moment. I have been conducting intermittent research in an emptying rural settlement in Latvia since 2010.

Abandoned house in Latvia, 2010 © Dace Dzenovska

It is located in the Latvian countryside near the Russian border. It came into being around the first Baltic railway station on the St Petersburg-Warsaw line in the middle of the 19th century. During the Soviet era, it was a lively transportation hub with goods and people circulating constantly. The nearest urban hub was Leningrad, not Riga. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, this lively circulation has stopped.

Cargo train passing through the station, 2020 © Dace Dzenovska

Leningrad – now St Petersburg – is behind a border that is getting harder by the day. Collective farms have been dismantled; factories closed. And even though people already started leaving this place in the 1970s, when some railway work was automated and the post-war Soviet generation sought education and urban life, emptying has intensified manifold since then. Now it is not only young people, but their parents and grandparents who are leaving, not only for the city, but also – and more often – for the UK, Germany, Norway, or elsewhere in Western Europe. The combination of agrarian privatization following the collapse of Soviet collective farms (that is, the restitution of small family plots) and financialization of the economy where profit is derived from circulation rather than production has made this place and its people unnecessary for capital and a burden for the state. As a result, it has been rapidly losing its constitutive elements – people, schools, shops, jobs, and, ultimately, the future.

This village is not alone in its emptiness. There are other such places in Latvia. It is often said that that the entire countryside is becoming empty. You can always find a successful entrepreneur to counter the narrative of emptying, but individual success cannot undo the spatial reconfiguration taking place – more and more people are living in urban areas and the in-between places are becoming emptier. Moreover, the urban areas in which people concentrate are not necessarily regional or national. Riga, the capital of Latvia, has lost one-third of its population in the last 30 years.

Window of an abandoned apartment building, Riga, 2012 © Dace Dzenovska

People are moving toward global cities or their metropolitan areas. This is to say that the spatial reconfiguration currently underway is not simple urbanization. It is part of a process whereby global population is concentrating in global cities, with the in-between places – both towns and villages – becoming increasingly disconnected from the circulation of capital and the care of the state. Most of Eastern Europe and Russia have been at the forefront of these shifts. There is a constant stream of media stories – and related images – about empty Bulgarian and Moldovan villages, shrinking Russian monotowns, and abandoned buildings in Eastern European capitals.

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It is this spatial pattern that COVID is thought to be interrupting. The first effect of what my colleague Biao Xiang calls shock mobility was the emptying of the world’s cities. It seemed that the emptiness I had been studying in rural areas suddenly struck the urban ones. News and social media platforms were full of images of the empty streets of global capitals and cities of the Global South: Paris, Milan,New York, Moscow, Caracas, and more. This new urban emptiness was simultaneously appealing and frightening. On the one hand, the empty streets of Paris in springtime appealed to the global cosmopolitan subjects’ aesthetic appreciation of decaying, suspended, or interrupted forms of modern life. On the other hand, these empty streets suggested that it was their (or our) world – rather than someone else’s – that was under threat.

This uncanny emptiness was almost instantly followed by hopeful narratives of regeneration, of images of nature reclaiming space in the form of weeds in the squares of Rome, or animals in Buenos Aires, Venice, and Wales, among many others. Environmental activists – and others – suggested that the ‘new normal’ is not all bad, that there is less pollution, cleaner water, more animals. This is the same sentiment that drives the hopeful narratives about the regeneration of the countryside.

But what are the forms of mobility and immobility that have created this effect and, moreover, that are needed to sustain it (that is, if it should be sustained)? There are three types of mobility at work here, First, there is the move indoors, with people stuck in their apartments, with the exception of those who do not have apartments or who have lost their apartments as a result of the suspension of the global economy and have had to leave the city, as we’ve seen in India. Second, there is the move to second homes or dachas among the global elites and middle classes. Some states have actively encouraged this, while others, such as the UK and Germany, have chastised or forbidden such elite behaviour when everyone else is stuck. And, third, there is the transnational move home. For example, Bulgaria reports the return of about 550,000 people, many of them labour migrants. Their return is especially felt in Bulgaria’s small towns and villages. Ukrainian experts estimate similar numbers, and the Ukrainian president called for the Ukrainian migrants to return home even before COVID. Some migrants were returning because they had lost their jobs, others, because they wanted to be closer to their family in such extraordinary conditions.

Added to that is the mobility needed to sustain the economy in this extraordinary situation. For example, the UK and Germany have used charter planes to fly in agricultural workers from Romania and Poland. Workers of the logistical sector have been granted safe passage to move the goods needed for the empty shelves of Western supermarkets. Most of us have delegated our everyday mobility – from shopping to food provision – to an army of mobile, and poorly protected, workers. The emptying of the world’s cities is made possible by organized and regulated infrastructural mobility that takes place across closed borders and in quarantined spaces. 

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Leaving the city – or not being able to leave the city – in the time of a pandemic is not new. The Decameron is precisely about that: a group of decadent youth leaving the city and living through the pandemic by telling stories. Perhaps historical record is one reason why we pay attention to the movement from the city to the country. But another reason surely is the hope harboured by some parts of European publics that the temporary might become permanent and that the depopulating European countryside might come alive again. I should say that there are urban liberals, such as the migration scholars Adrien Favell and Ettore Recchi and the political scientists Ivan Krastev, who are wary of the move to the country, mostly because they link it to the renationalization that is accompanying deglobalization; namely, the closure of national borders and the undermining of the European project. They also fear that the nationalist resurgence may overshadow any promise that the countryside may hold for a left-oriented deglobalization.

They may have a point. Over the years, there have been various ‘back to the country movements’. The web is full of video blogs in various languages by people who have moved to the countryside and claim to be living fulfilling lives. In Latvia, they tend to celebrate entrepreneurial spirit alongside an ideological commitment to country living. In Russia, they are more varied and recognize the simultaneous beauty and horror of the countryside, as in the Russian writer’s Dmitri Gorchev’s journal entry from 7 October 2007.

None of these ‘back to the country’ movements have done enough to counteract the general trend of the continued growth of global cities. For a spatial shift of sufficient magnitude to take place, external restrictions, namely closure of national borders and domestic quarantines, seem to be needed. No wonder that it attracts both fears and hopes.

When we examine the practices that provoke such fears and hopes, we see that they are a lot less linear than the ‘return to – or of – the countryside’ narrative might suggest. This narrative is supported by fragmented data, which is understandable, because we are trying to make sense of an unfolding situation in real time and from partial perspectives. My own reflections are also partial, based on a combination of long-term ethnographic fieldwork in a particular place and ‘rapid ethnographic assessment’ consisting of some interviews and lots of reading and web searches.

The data that support the ‘return to the countryside’ narrative include ‘big data’, such as mobile service provider records that show, for example, that last spring 15% of MTC clients in Russia relocated to the countryside, 75% of them to the area near Moscow and the rest further afield. The ‘return to the countryside’ narrative is also supported by real estate data. In Latvia, the pandemic has helped real estate agencies working in rural areas to get rid of so-called ‘illiquid property’ – properties in the price range up to 15,000 Euros that had been on the market for 3-4 years were sold within three months (one agency had 38 such properties and now has none). These were not old farmhouses that would require three times the sum to renovate them or fancy summer houses, but solid, Soviet-era buildings with some green space around them. The 15,000 Euro mark was also determined by the fact that one could obtain consumer credit up to that amount, because banks in Latvia do not tend to finance mortgages in the countryside, for they, too, consider these properties to be illiquid. Moscow real estate agencies also report increased interest in buying and renting property in the ‘near countryside’, i.e., in areas with good access roads, healthcare services, food provision, and neighbours.

But there are also data that do not quite fit the return narrative: migrant returnees in Latvia, Bulgaria and Ukraine speak of temporary sheltering rather than a permanent return even as the local government officials are planning redevelopment. A Moscow professor described his countryside retreat in an interview to the BBC by explaining that his family has an established routine for escaping the city in a variety of crises, from bombings to diseases. First, they go to the dacha. They have food provisions there for three months. Then,  if need be, they can retreat to a remote and self-sufficient farmhouse, and, when borders open up, they can go to Europe. The professor and his family have a complex spatial escape strategy shaped not by COVID, but by a more general sense of the future as a threat.

At the same time, there is evidence that areas beyond ‘the near countryside’ have become even emptier than before. In the village in which I work, elderly ladies and middle-age ‘left-behind’ people are on their own.

A woman walking home in the absence of buses, Latvia, 2011 © Dace Dzenovska

Their children are living abroad and are not able to come for Christmas, because they have retained their jobs and cannot afford to self-isolate for two weeks upon arrival and two weeks upon return. I stopped going as well. When I spoke on the phone with Milda, the 92-year-old woman whom I had befriended, she said she had stopped going to the church in the nearby town a while back, and that the neighbour’s daughter who had been driving her and the neighbours to church had come down with COVID. Milda was afraid of COVID, but, as in the case of the residents of a nursing home researched by my colleague Anna Žabicka, the physical threat of the disease did not seem as terrible as the prospect of total isolation. Anna’s research is really heart-breaking – elderly residents of the nursing home feel that their time is running out, while everything is on hold. Visits and concerts that gave their life some shape and meaning are not taking place, but their hearing, vision, and consciousness are slipping away. Aging has not been put on hold. Last summer Milda told me that as the world around her was getting emptier, she was living the best – freest – years of her life. Today the emptiness of the outside world is threatening to overtake her life.

In Russia, too, most rural areas are not mobbed by urbanites escaping COVID. A viewer of a national television show wrote from the Jewish Autonomous Area that “living in a distant village is already like quarantine, we have never been without it” (мы из него и не выходили). Another viewer wrote from Voronezh oblast: “there is no heating, no water, when it snows, you cannot get through. What refuge? On the contrary, it’s scary to stay there”.

What we see is that a certain hierarchy of places is maintained. The mostly empty places remain empty and perhaps become even more so. Residents are worried about lack of medical services and do not want newcomers, lest they bring the COVID plague. The ‘near countryside’ is experiencing what looks like a modest revival. And the cities are ground zero, with people escaping, real estate markers suffering, and the future in question. But how much of this is desirable – and by whom – and, perhaps most important, how lasting are such shifts?

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Celebrations of the return to the countryside – or, rather, the near countryside – seem to assume that the problem was the departure of people in the first place. Now that one segment of the global class of urbanites is working remotely while living in the countryside, regional development experts hope that their presence will regenerate life insofar as they will need services which can then be provided by the migrants returning from abroad, as in much of Eastern Europe. In other words, more people will beget more people. Or, rather, more people with the ability to secure livelihoods outside the rural areas to which they have moved will beget more people and some form of development in their new places of residence. The urbanites are a form of ‘foreign direct investment’.

The assumption that all that the emptying places need is people underlies various resettlement projects: Middle Eastern and African refugees in Italian villages, Central Asians or Old Believers in the Russian countryside, and more. These depend heavily on government funding.

Without the restructuring of the global economy, which may or may not be afoot, there need to be additional factors to keep people in the countryside, among them value change and external restrictions, such as travel bans and closed borders. The value change is strongly pushed by a variety of global publics, left and right. The left are speaking of deglobalization, slow living and ecological consciousness. The right are speaking of the call of the nation and, well, also ecological consciousness. The external restrictions are currently in place, but most publics, except for the radical right, don’t really want them to stay in place. That means that for the move to the ‘near countryside’ to continue the value shift – which, again, may or may not be taking place – needs to be accompanied by material practices that make the near countryside not only a comfortable shelter but also a desirable home. The closed schools need to be reopened; transportation lines reinstated. Perhaps paradoxically, the infrastructure that was destroyed as a result of postsocialist rural deindustrialization needs to be reinstated as part of service-oriented reurbanization. This involves population change and not just population return. If during the Soviet period the countryside was the home of rural proletariat, the imaginary of the postpandemic – and postsocialist – countryside is based on the arrival of the middle class.

When we are tempted to celebrate the return to the countryside, we should ask whose countryside we are celebrating, as well as look beyond ‘the near countryside’. We should ask whether it is possible – or desirable – to revive rural settlements by nationalizing and localizing middle-class subjects who have become thoroughly mobile and for whom ‘going to the country’ is part of multi-scalar tactics of assembling a life. Is it worth fixing capital in the sense of building infrastructure in conditions when there is little indication that the predominant forms of capitalism are changing as a result of COVID? Can the hoped for value shift effect broader structural changes or is it limited to extending the city just a little bit further while leaving the empty places as empty as before – and possibly more so?

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