In the wilderness: tuksnesī/ в пустыне

The researchers on this project have each heard people talking about empty and emptying places across the former Soviet Union. We have noted how similar material environments and sensual effects accompany these descriptions of emptiness in our various field-sites. Here, people use the word(s) in their own languages (Russian, Latvian, Ukrainian, Belarusian) to refer to that which we would translate into English as ’emptiness’; they also use other, cognate words to pick out something similar. Or they might just live in a place with vanished traces where most is gone (ruins, abandoned infrastructure, brown fields, broken monuments) and do not comment on it – only in snatches and glimpses does the overall impression of emptiness get brought into discourse.

But say, hypothetically, that people lived in what looked like an empty place to us, but they themselves did not call it that. Could one, in analytical audacity, claim that they nonetheless lived in ’emptiness’? Not if we wanted to stay on the emic side of the emic/etic distinction beloved of socio-cultural anthropologists. Not if we wanted, that is, to privilege the perspective of the people themselves who have lived in and known this place for decades, sometimes their whole lives, over the viewpoint of a newcomer and interloper.

Therefore the anthropologist who wishes to develop an ‘ethnographic theory’ is left with a single option, at least at the start of an investigation: to be guided by the words that people use. These words have a history and a ‘rich archive of meanings and associations’ (Dzenovska 2020: 15). But if we go down the rabbit-hole of mapping the philological and semantic inflections of the words for emptiness and its cognates in the respective languages, our tracings seem to lead us back to the same solemn and overbearing source: the Bible.

When someone says that now everything is ’empty’ (Latvian: tukšs; Russian: пустой ) or that they live in the midst of ’emptiness’ (L: tukšums; R: пустота), the sense of these statements does not depend only on the speakers’ intentions or their context of use. The words’ meanings reside also in the archive of associations that they engender. And one cannot escape that the semantic root of these terms occurs hundreds of times in the Bible, nor that these stems trace their very origins back to the Book. That these words’ associations and unconscious entailments might trace their genealogies back to their biblical Greek and Hebrew equivalents is for the anthropologist both a blessing and a curse.

Such heavy semantic baggage leaves the analyst with a problem. How to prevent the seeming religious overdetermination of these words’ meaning from crowding out novel understandings of postsocialist emptiness, however construed?  One option would be to subordinate these untidy meanings to an a priori analytical viewpoint. But this risks denying the possible ‘religious’ overtones that people may want to invoke to describe their experience.

What a genealogy of emptiness shows up are not so much the problems of etymology or even history, but what could be called issues of ‘meta-history’. We have here not a neutral vocabulary, but one laden with layers of shifting value that guides action. The nexus is further complicated because ‘religious’ meanings of empty spaces have since the modern period been spliced together with notions of a different origin, such as the Neo-Latin legalism terra nullius first used in international law from the 1890s.

Yet in spite of these semantic cross-overs, it would be unwise to discount ‘religious’ meanings in shaping how land is inhabited. The Pilgrim Fathers did not think when they set up the Colonies of Plymouth and Massachusetts that they were occupying terra nullius. They rather inscribed arrival in New England into a meta-historical biblical pathway that continued to inflect the American frontier for centuries thereafter, and to which we will return below: ‘an errand into the wilderness’ (Miller 1956)

These reflections suggest another way to unpick the skein of meanings in the Slavic and Baltic contemporary contexts, where it is hard to disentangle obviously ‘religious’ meanings from purely ‘secular’ vocabularies of emptiness. First, to identify a place that showed the physical, social and non-linguistic indices of what, provisionally and heuristically, we could term ’emptiness’ (abandoned buildings, ruins, declining population, wildlife run amok). But, second, to choose to investigate an empty place where its ‘religious’ significance had been explicitly foregrounded, even cultivated and curated; to pick a location where locals had overtly selected and activated the material affordances of an empty place in order to deploy the ‘religious’ potential buried in the meaning of emptiness itself.

In such a place one could, to speak quasi-scientifically, ‘control’ for the linguistic overdetermination present in the Slavic and Baltic terminologies of emptiness. For it is one comparative axis that is stable across these sites that the language of emptiness bears this Judaeo-Christian burden. Such a ‘control’ could, on the one hand, let us see more clearly across these diverse locales how the archives of meanings interact with lived experience; but on the other hand, it could reveal how the silent political and economic processes that provide the conditions of possibility of emptiness are apprehended or undercut, exposed or shortchanged, by the richness and the impoverishment of everyday language.


Here’s a thumbnail sketch of one possible candidate for such an empty place whose very emptiness provided the resource and impetus for its ‘religious’ re-imagining and re-purposing. Russia’s Maritime Region (Приморксии Край) was dotted with military bases during the Second World War and the Cold War to service the Soviet Pacific Fleet (Тихоокеанский флот). In the late 1980s the underfunded Pacific Fleet abandoned one such base, a hydro-aerodrome for sea planes and helicopters. Coded in official documentation as ‘military base 95157’ (военная часть), the barracks attached to the hydro-aerodrome were left to ruin. These structures included residential buildings for officers and their families (acronym DOS:  Дом офицерского состава), a canteen building, shops, a hairdresser’s, a tower for radar and communications, bunkers.

A black and white photo showing a long, white one-storey building with a pitched roof and a row of rectangular framed windows, with a sheltered outdoor area to the right. A few bare trees stand in front of the building, with their bottom sections painted white.
Military Canteen in Soviet times © Dominic Martin

In the early 1990s a group of young people in the nearby town decamped to the barracks, which they turned into a live-in ‘squat’. By 1995 these youth had been baptized into the Old Belief, an ancient tradition of Russian Orthodox Christianity, whereupon they set about converting the canteen into a Church and the barrack rooms into ‘cells’ (кельи). By 2010 a group of single men lived in these renovated cells, having become ‘the flock’ to the community’s founders who, in the two decades since their retreat ‘into the desert’, had been ordained priests in the Church hierarchy.

A photo of a low, white-washed building with a metal pitched roof. A small orange chimney and a simple onion dome sit on top. The church is surrounded by a low, wooden stick fence and brown dirt ground. To the right is a telephone pole with wires/cables extending from it.
Church in post-Soviet times © Dominic Martin

The latter phrase ‘into the desert’ (в пустыню) was loaded with significance for these postsocialist religious pioneers. The paramount scene-setter of the Judaeo-Christian cosmos, it is the phrase that opens the Book of Numbers and the Gospel of Mark; it outlines the space in which Moses hearkens to the voice of God and where John the Baptist prepares the way for the Lord. People everywhere have held up Exodus and the Gospels as mirrors to their epoch (see Slezkine  2017: 94 & 202). St Sergius of Radonezh founded the tradition of Russian monastic hermitage when he translated the actions of the ‘Desert’ Fathers into 14th-century Russian. There was no Syrian desert in cold Medieval Russia. Yet the northern forest provided a worthy proxy for a space which, in its biblical extension – both the Greek eremos ( ἔρημος) and Hebrew Midbar ( מִדְבָּר) – is more faithfully rendered as ‘wilderness’ than desert in the physical geographical sense (in the Hebrew it is not a literal desert but an unappropriated pasture affording free range for the flocks).

A photo of an icon of a male saint with an orange-gold halo, clad in orange-gold vestments with a red cape and blue-and-red over vestment. The saint holds an open scroll in their left hand and his right hand is held in the gesture blessing. The icon is set between two white pillars against a red wall.
Picture of St. Sergius © Dominic Martin

The post-Soviet pilgrims made explicit their recapitulation of the movement of St Sergius ‘into the wilderness’ by consecrating their former sailors’ canteen-cum-Church in his name. As St Sergius made the forest north of his native home into his equivalent of St Anthony’s ‘desert’, so the neophyte Old Believers transposed the empty barracks eight kilometres from their town into the spiritual geography of their own postsocialist ‘wilderness’.

What might it add to our thinking if we take these Russian Christians’ words and deeds seriously? What conceptual insights might a genealogy of ‘wilderness’ generate that could render ethnographic instances of emptiness more graspable?

I can offer only a few gnomic and unelaborated remarks. In an empty place inscribed into the biblical chronotope of ‘wilderness’ opposites and antinomies meet: a place of punishment, the wilderness is also a site of salvation. In the wilderness one wanders, is scattered or dispersed, but at the same time subject to divine order and ecological harmony. While the wilderness constrains and disciplines those who enter its bounds, it is space of freedom relative to previous or prospective bondage, having often been reached ‘by flight’. The wilderness seems to possess all the qualities of what Victor Turner ascribed to the condition of liminality, that threshold betwixt and between worlds. But the wilderness lacks what Turner considered the most defining characteristic of the liminal: communitas (Turner 1969: 94). The wilderness is a place of solitude and detachment, not community. Worldly relations are kept to a minimum; those that are maintained, though tight and regular, are never rich and varied.

Yet perhaps the most intriguing association of the wilderness lies within the deepest and most mysterious semantic layer: Midbar in the Hebrew contains the same root as the ‘speech’. According to Rabbi Sacks “only in the emptiness of the wilderness is the eye subordinate to the ear” (Bemidbar). In the wilderness, emptiness speaks. What will we hear if we listen?


Bemidbar (5768) The Wilderness and the World, https://rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation-5768-bemidbar-the-wilderness-and-the-word-2/, accessed January 2021.

Dzenovska, Dace. 2020. “Emptiness: Capitalism without people in the Latvian countryside”. American Ethnologist 47(1): 10-26.

Miller, Perry. 1956. Errand into the Wilderness. Harvard University Press. Cambridge: MA.

Slezkine, Yuri. 2017. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution. Princeton University Press. Princeton: NJ.

Turner, Victor. 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure. Cornell University Publications. Ithaca: NY.

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If you would like to find out more about the project or contribute a blog on a resonant aspect of your own research to the Field Reports section of our website, please get in touch by writing to emptiness@anthro.ox.ac.uk.