The magnitude and novelty of emptiness are particularly pronounced in postsocialist contexts, where two systems of organizing life – socialist and capitalist – have been retreating in quick succession. Here, the future has been lost in several senses: there are no ideologies that promise to reverse emptying, and many people believe they have lost control of their lives. The project mobilizes these insights for theorizing about the global present and its futures. By doing so, we want to turn postsocialist people and places from ‘case studies’ of successful or failed transitions into sites that generate new analytical insights.
Popular and scholarly representations of emptying in the former socialist world tend to link it to systemic endings, that is, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of Eastern European socialisms. Emptying after socialism is viewed as an inevitable outcome, a correction of socialist modernity’s erroneously conceived organization of political and economic life. From this perspective, emptying that results from ‘corrections’, such as the (neo)liberalization of economy and society, is a necessary phase in the transition to democracy and market economy. This project counters such a vision. Emptying is indeed perceived as a transitional state by those who live it, but the end point of this transition is not capitalist prosperity and freedom; at least, not for them. Rather, the end point is a radically different future in which those who live the present may have no part. It is precisely because of the loss of the certainty of capitalist prosperity and freedom that emptiness in postsocialist contexts carries enormous analytical potential.
Our study will take place in five sites where ethnographic research will use the ‘portable analytic’ of emptiness derived from the Latvian-Russian borderlands to engage in detailed analysis of the lived experiences, governance, and analytical purchase of postsocialist emptying and emptiness. These include: the Latvian-Russian borderlands (Dace Dzenovska), the Russian Far East (Dominic Martin), Russia’s Kostromskaya Oblast (Maria Gunko), Eastern Germany (Friederike Pank), and Ukraine and Belarus (Volodymyr Artiukh). The sites have been selected on the basis of: (1) identification of a set of interrelated forces that have contributed to emptying and emptiness after socialism, namely geopolitical shifts, neoliberal globalization, and nationalization of politics; and (2) identification of a range of trajectories that have resulted from the combination of these forces. Latvia has firmly shifted its geopolitical orientation by joining the European Union and NATO, in the process transforming from the westernmost borderlands of the Soviet Union into the easternmost margins of the European Union. Eastern Germany has lost its status as an independent state, and much of the emptying has to do with internal migration within a unified Germany. Russia’s remote regions have experienced the most radical withdrawal of the socialist state. Belarus has remained within the orbit of socialism and Russia, though in an increasingly ambiguous position, and Eastern Ukraine is an active battlefield with regard to the economic and political control of the region and its geopolitical orientation. Taken together, these sites enable both analysis of the specificity of postsocialist emptying/emptiness and of global workings of economic and political power (see People and News & Events for more).