92-year-old Milda lives in a village next to a former railway station in the Latvian-Russian borderlands. During the Soviet period, it was a vibrant transportation hub. Residents recall ‘wagons of watermelons’ that passed through and ‘crowds of summer residents’ who came from Leningrad. Things have changed since then. The last passenger train passed through two years ago. There is no work, no school, no post office, and no store. The shop-on-wheels comes to the village every Friday not necessarily for profit, but rather because the remaining residents need it. Only a few homes are occupied; the rest are in various stages of decay.
This is emptiness, as it appears in the Latvian-Russian borderlands. It is a complex social formation that consists of: (1) an observable reality, in which places rapidly and seemingly irreversibly lose their constitutive elements: people, schools, services, social networks, jobs, the future; (2) a way of life (practices and social relations) that emerges as residents attempt to make life go on; and (3) an emic interpretive frame local residents use to describe and make sense of the new reality.
While Milda is increasingly alone in the emptying village, the village is not alone in its emptiness. There are reports of emptying villages and towns in Moldova, Bulgaria, Russia, Italy, and Spain. In fact, contrary to the widespread narratives about global urbanization, many of Europe’s cities – and not just villages – are shrinking rather than growing. To be sure, global cities, such as London, Delhi, and Beijing, are seeing population growth, but the places in-between – both cities and villages – are losing people, jobs, and infrastructure. This means significant changes to how the remaining people live and how states and municipalities govern. What does it mean for a local government to plan for shrinking rather than development? Who is to take down the crumbling and abandoned houses? What does it mean for the political authority of the state, when large territories become empty or when its subjects leave in large numbers to live in territories of other states? Who comes to (re)inhabit the emptying territories, and what forms of life emerge in the margins of capitalism and statecraft (see Why study it for more)?
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