Memory Politics in Tbilisi

Published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation  Feb. 2018

Identity Construction and the Politics of Memory

The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to the creation of 15 independent states that faced the necessity to construct their new identity – both internally and externally. The latter would pave the way to joining the “international community”. “To some extent, identities create opportunities and constraints for foreign policy-making, and also frame relations between countries.”[1]

The identity construction of a new state is a complex process requiring special instruments. Modern political communities use a collectively shared notion of the past as one of the main tools. Appealing to the past is a convenient instrument and resource for the legitimization of the existing political order. How the shared past is conceptualized and processed constitutes the politics of memory within a society.

In its turn, the politics of memory uses various instruments for the construction of a shared notion of the past. The official historical narrative is the principal of such instruments and is complemented, disseminated, and popularized by others. Among them, nation-wide holidays and commemoration days, school programs, national symbols, the creation of memorial sites and museums are the most efficient tools for the instrumentalization of the past and the construction of the state’s official narrative of history.

Undoubtedly, in this process those who carry out and experience the politics of memory have to deal with the heritage of the previous periods as well. “The history of most post-Soviet countries is characterized by the rise and triumph of nationalism and a radical revision of approaches to the history writing that dominated in the previous periods.”[2]Across the post-Soviet space, these revisions brought an overhaul of not only the official historical narratives but also the entire memory landscapes of the societies. This analysis looks into the post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscape in Tbilisi by re-visiting its memorial sites and monuments.

Georgia: History Revaluation

Caucasus Edition

The area of today’s Rike Park in the Soviet period. Electronic copy of the photograph obtained from the National Archives of Georgia.

Georgia was one of the first countries that gained independence from the Soviet Union. Ever since, the state is seeking to form its identity. Like virtually every former Soviet Union country, Georgia started a revaluation of history as part of this quest. The political elites had to provide a memory project aimed at establishing a new foundation narrative, or a new “story” of beginnings, bringing back the “lost” historical memory[3]. The revaluation of history manifested also in commemoration policies and the memory landscape. Before delving into the examination of memorial sites and monuments in Tbilisi, let’s look at a few milestone events catalyzing this revaluation of history.

From Shevardnadze to Saakashvili

In Georgia, due to the chaotic political processes of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, a new state politics of memory was not systematic or targeted. The ethno-political conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia followed by their independence claims as well as the economic and political crises in the country drew all efforts towards policies aimed at stability. Consequently, in the decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither attention nor resources were directed towards conceptualizing and implementing a new politics of memory.

The shaky times of the first decade of independence unfolded under the rule of one of the most prominent Soviet politicians Eduard Shevardnadze, who used to be the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union. This period ended with the so-called Rose Revolution highlighted by massive protests against the results of the 2003 parliamentary election, skewed in favor of political parties supporting Shevardnadze. The name of the Rose Revolution derives from the culminating moment of the protests, when demonstrators led by Mikheil Saakashvili stormed the Parliament session with red roses in hands. Shevardnadze resigned in November 2003, and Mikheil Saakashvili won the presidential elections.

The Rose Revolution

The Rose Revolution and the developments that followed marked a new direction for the independent Georgian state. The Saakashvili government made an unambiguous choice to prioritize integration with Western institutions and adoption of its system of values. As Saakashvili took the presidential office, the politics of memory emerged as the key instrument for constructing a new, modern, and pro-Western Georgia.

History was the first target of revision. The events of the eras of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union were reassessed, reinterpreted, and revised. Even though since 2003 Georgia has changed 3 presidents and even switched from the presidential system to the parliamentary system, the politics of memory of the country remains sufficiently consistent. Perhaps the August 2008 war was the next milestone cementing this politics.

The August 2008 War

The August 2008 war played a crucial role in the formation of the new Georgian identity and became a catalyzer for the revision of history. The August 2008 events were perhaps the junction point where not only the relations between Russia and Georgia split into periods of “before” and “after”, but the entire Georgian politics of memory and identity.

It is true that starting from the early 1990s, Georgia’s major foreign policy objective has been balancing Russian power and influence, which is seen as key to enhancing the country’s national security. Yet this foreign policy was the result of the quest, driven by political elites, for a new national identity rather than pragmatic considerations[4]. Thus, the 5-day war of 2008 was a “logical” extension of the Georgian identity-driven foreign policy struggling to be within Western and Euro-Atlantic spheres of influence, contrary to Russia’s aspirations to keep Georgia in its own zone of influence. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the events of August 2008 reinforced this identity-driven foreign policy. The Georgian politics of identity and memory turned into a radical rejection of the country’s Soviet past and of any Russian influence at large.

One of the consequences of the war was the adoption in May 2011 of the Charter of Freedom with three main tenets: strengthening national security, prohibiting Soviet and Fascist ideologies and eliminating any symbols associated with them, and eventually creating a special commission to maintain a black-list of persons suspected of collusion with foreign special forces.

These events both influenced the emergence of a new politics of memory and were influenced by it. Moreover, their reverberations spread across the physical appearance of Tbilisi. As we view the transformations of the post-Soviet memory landscape, manifested in the memorial sites and monuments of Tbilisi, we have considered both those created in the Soviet period and those constructed in the independence period.

Soviet Memorial Sights of Tbilisi

The 70 years of Soviet rule had a huge impact on the political, economic, and cultural domains of life in all Soviet Republics as well as the countries of the communist bloc. Bolsheviks, coming to power after the fall of the Russian Empire and the emergence of another empire – the Soviet Union, started creating a new cultural heritage that would reflect the communist view on political and social structures, their meanings and functions. The memory landscape and urban environment of the Soviet Union were the direct projections of the prevailing political system and its values. And of course, Tbilisi was not an exception.

As everywhere else in the communist world, in Tbilisi too there sprung up monuments bearing the mark of the Soviet political and social system. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the meaning of those monuments and even their very construction was revised.

“[…] it is not a surprise that during times of political turbulence and change, some of the monuments gain an extra meaning and significance and become objects symbolizing or externalizing societal dynamics and changes.”[5]

The extra meaning and significance of monuments in times of political turbulence can mean both the construction and celebration of new ones as well as the destruction and demise of old ones. The early 1990’s was a period of Georgia’s release from the Soviet past and many monuments embodying the Soviet culture were dismantled from Tbilisi. The Rose Revolution and the August 2008 war brought a new wave of revolutionary changes to the urban environment of Tbilisi.

And yet, despite all the effort of the new Georgian political system to erase the legacy of the Soviet past, rather than to deal with the past, there is still political, social, and cultural memory that persists. And of course, there are still monuments of Tbilisi that date back to the Soviet times. In the new political system, these monuments gain new interpretations, meanings, and significance for the Georgian society.

We have examined two monuments erected during the Soviet times, preserved until now, and – in our opinion – significant for their social and political value. We have looked at how they have been reframed within the modern political system of Georgia and the construction of the new Georgian identity.

The Mother of Georgia Monument on the Sololaki Hill

The monument Mother of Georgia or Kartlis Deda was designed by sculptor Elguja Amashukeli and erected on the top of the Sololaki hill in 1958, the year Tbilisi celebrated its 1500th anniversary. The 20-meter-tall aluminum statue, wearing a Georgian national dress and holding a cup of wine in one hand and a sword in the other, is said to symbolize the Georgian national character; wine stands for hospitality and the sword represents every Georgian’s strive for freedom.

The notion of a “mother of the nation” and embodiment of this notion into a monument of a woman is not unique to Georgia; many states of the former Soviet Union have the very same statue. Moreover, these statues are all in the style of socialist realism hovering over Kiev, Volgograd, Yerevan, and other cities of the post-Soviet space.

Caucasus Edition

The “Mother Armenia” monument in Yerevan, Armenia. Photo Credits: Tatev Bidzhoyan.

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland Calls” monument in Volgograd, Russia. Photo Credits: Yuliya Drachenko, taken from

Caucasus Edition

“The Motherland” monument in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo Credits: Maria Karapetyan.

Nevertheless, the modern Georgian society by and large does not perceive Kartlis Deda as a cultural remnant of the Soviet Union but rather as a collective image of the Georgian people. Not manifesting a specific individual, Kartlis Deda was easily integrated into the new national discourse and is supposed to be a figure that every Georgian could identify themselves with. Mother Georgia is “the most important woman in all Georgia: its protector and a standing definition to others of what Georgia is”[6].

Memorial of Glory in Vake Park

Another colossal monument erected during the very last years of the Soviet Rule, more specifically in 1985, is the Memorial of Glory, dedicated to the 300,000 citizens of Georgia that lost their lives during the years of the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945 and the victorious triumph of May 9 over Nazi Germany.

The then Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Eduard Shevardnadze conceived the idea of the monument, aiming to prove his loyalty to the central Soviet government. This was an effective move since “Victory Day has become the quintessential ritual of a Soviet culture and society in which Russia – or rather, the Russian-speaking world – was presented as its epicenter”[7].

Former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, pursuing de-Sovietization policies, made efforts to change the meaning of the monument and the significance of the victory day itself. For example, in 2005, he celebrated the victory in World War II, and no longer in reference to the Great Patriotic War, with the US President George Bush in Liberty Square, and not in Vake Park. A further attempt to downplay the Soviet meaning of the monument was the multiple depiction of the modern Georgian flag on the lower part of the monument.

In 2011, in another move aimed at re-focusing attention between historical events, Saakashvili’s government initiated a project that would mount a new memorial in Vake Park, dedicated to the 1924 anti-Soviet riots. The site was to commemorate Kote Abkhazi, a well-known leader of the liberal nobility of Georgia, and his division that the Communist regime shot in Vake Park in 1923[8]. The installation of the monument was planned for February 2012. However, the monument was not erected. The Georgian government that came after the defeat of Mikheil Saakashvili’s political party returned the celebration of the victory in World War II to Vake Park. Nevertheless, in both official and public discourses, the celebration is said to commemorate the victory in World War II, and not in the Great Patriotic War.

Memorial Sites of Modern Tbilisi

Caucasus Edition

The cityscape of Tbilisi from Rike Park. Photo Credits: Katie Sartania.

Modern Tbilisi is a dynamic city with a multi-layer architecture. It is an eclectic mix of the medieval, the imperial, the Soviet, and the modern. The most remarkable monuments of the memory landscape in the capital of independent Georgia were constructed after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The then president Mikheil Saakashvili and his government paid a special attention to the politics of memory and symbols.

We have examined three monuments crowning the city-scape of Tbilisi and that – in our opinion – best illustrate the new politics of memory of independent Georgia.

The Statute of Saint George on Freedome Square

The statue of Saint George tops the column in the middle of Freedom Square in Tbilisi. The square itself, or rather its name, deserves a small excursion into its own layers of transformation. Its name unveils the turns in Georgian history. When Georgia was part of the Russian Empire, the square bore the name of Knyaz Ivan Paskevich-Erivanskiy and was called Erivanskiy Square. This name lasted until the Sovietization of Georgia. In the Soviet era, it was initially named after Lavrentiy Beria and later on renamed after Vladimir Lenin, with his statue erected in the square in 1956. Following Georgia’s independence, the place was renamed Freedom Square. This was the name of the square at the time of the first Georgian republic that existed in 1981-1921, between the fall of the Russian Empire and Sovietization. Despite this change that bridges the old and the new, even today, some of the older residents of Tbilisi call the place Lenin’s Square.

In the place of the dismantled statue of Lenin’s, a new one dedicated to Saint George was mounted on November 23 in 2006. Designed by the well-known Georgian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the monument embodies Saint George killing a dragon.

In the new political mythology of Georgia, Saint George is not only the patron saint of Georgia and its protector, it is the symbol of Georgia’s fight for freedom and independence. In this new interpretation, the defeated dragon on the monument symbolizes the imperial legacy – both Russian and the Soviet. Hence the monument not only echoes the distant mythological past but also the recent past. Moreover, as literary scholar Zaal Andronikashvili argues, it promises a future victory as well. The mythological past is projected onto the modern political context and foreshadows the future[9].

Heroes Memorial

One more remarkable example of Mikheil Saakashvili’s sophisticated politics of symbols was the opening of the Heroes Memorial on the Heroes Square in 2009 right after the August 2008 war. The 51-meter memorial is dedicated to Georgians who died in the fight against the Red Army in 1921, the anti-Soviet revolt of 1924, the war in Abkhazia in 1992-1993, and the August 2008 war in South Ossetia. Around 4,000 names of soldiers are engraved on the marble tiles of the memorial.

The Heroes Memorial not only fuses together the past events by the mechanism of analogy but also alludes to the future. As former president Saakashvili noted, the memorial is not only for the heroes who have already died for their country but for the heroes who will sacrifice their lives for the country in the future as well. In his speech at the opening ceremony, he made a clear point: “If we want Georgia to exist, we should all be ready to put on this uniform [referring to the military uniform he was wearing]; we should all be ready to take arms in the decisive moment; and we should all be ready to fall on our land and ready to inscribe our names on the empty parts of this monument. That is the genetic code and historic experience of our country and a major guarantee of our future”[10].

Earlier, in 2003, near the same square, another memorial to Georgians fallen in the wars of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was put up again following the initiative of Mikheil Saakashvili who was then the head of the Tbilisi City Council[11].

The opening of both memorials gave two specific messages made by the government of Georgia to its society and the international community. The first message is that Georgia’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity are absolute values. And the second message was about the government’s perception of who is perceived as a threat to those absolute values. The Russian support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s, as well as the August 2008 war followed by the recognition of their independence, contributed most to the formation of the perception of Russia as the number one foe of Georgia.

The Statue of Ronald Reagan in Rike Park

New memorial sites and monuments appeared in Tbilisi not only to mark the distancing from the Soviet past but also to mark new alliances. The relatively new statue of the 40th US President Ronald Reagan is an example of that element of the new politics of memory and symbols in Georgia. Unveiled in November 2011 near the Mtkvari River in Rike Park, the statute depicts Ronald Reagan, sitting on a bench with crossed legs, smiling, and looking off into the distance towards north, perhaps in the direction of Russia? Inscribed on the bench is one of Reagan’s remarkable phrases: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”.

Following the pattern, Mikheil Saakashvili presented the statue as a symbol of freedom and victory over the biggest evil – the Soviet Union. During his speech on the opening ceremony of the statue he said in reference to the then Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s words: “the leader of our invader state has announced that the collapse of the Soviet Union – the Soviet Union that was brought down by Ronald Reagan – was the 20th century’s biggest geopolitical catastrophe. […] While they [Russia] have restored the anthem of the Soviet Union, we are unveiling a statue of Ronald Reagan as a sign of the difference between our ideology and theirs”[12]. Referring to the creation of the Eurasian Economic Union between Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, Mikheil Saakashvili once again associated the Soviet Union with Russia only and made an attempt to distance Georgia from its undesirable past.

Dealing – Away – With the Past

A changing politics of memory is always indicative of a changing political course and is called to justify that course. In this analysis, we looked at a number of memorial sites in Tbilisi both from the soviet and post-Soviet periods, analyzing them from the perspective of the modern Georgian political system, the quest for and construction of a new Georgian identity, and the politics of memory and symbols.

The revaluation of Georgia’s past in the Imperial Russian and Soviet realms, the celebration of freedom and independence, and Georgia’s turn towards a pro-Western path of development are at the core of this politics. Some old monuments that have no hope of surviving in the new system of coordinates are demolished. Others are revised and reinterpreted into the new paradigm. Yet new ones are mounted and unveiled.


[1] Kakachia, Kornely. 2013. “European, Asian, or Eurasian?: Georgian Identity and the struggle for Euro-Atlantic Integration.” In Georgian Foreign Policy: The Quest for Sustainable Security, 41-53.

[2] Kirchanov, Maksim. 2017. “Politics of Memory as Historical Politics in Georgia: From Desovietisation to the Invention of the Sovietness.” Georgia Monitor. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[3] Toria, Malkhaz. 2014. “The Soviet Occupation of Georgia in 1921 and the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008. Historical Analogy as a Memory Project.” In The Making of Modern Georgia, 1918-2012: The First Georgian Republic and Its Successors, edited by Stephen F. Jones, 316-335. New York: Routledge. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[4] Kakachia, Kornely. 2012. “Georgia’s Identity-Driven Foreign Policy and the Struggle for Its European Destiny.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 4-7. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[5] Javakhishvili, Jana. 2016. “Stones Speaking: Reading Conflicting Discourses in the Urban Environment.” Caucasus Analytical Digest 8-11. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[6] Constable, David. 2012. “Kartlis Deda: The Importance of Georgia’s Most Famous Woman‏.” Huffington Post. October 29. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[7] Edwards, Maxim. 2016. “Victory Day in Tbilisi.” Open Democracy. May 10. Accessed January 6, 2018.

[8] 2011. “In Vake Park the Memorial to be Installed in Commemoration of 1924 Riot.” GHN News Agency. August 28. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[9] Andronikashvili, Zaal. 2011. “The Glory of Feebleness. The Martyrological Paradigm in Georgian Political Theology.” In Identity Studies, Volume 3, 92-119. Tbilisi: Ilia State University. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[10] 2010. “Saakashvili Addresses Nation on Independence Day.” Civil.Ge. May 26. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[11] 2004. “В Тбилиси у мемориала воинам, погибшим в боях в Абхазии и Южной Осетии, установлен почетный караул.” Ria Novosti. February 26. Accessed January 7, 2018.

[12] 2011. “Ronald Reagan Statue Unveiled in Tbilisi.” Civil.Ge. November 23. Accessed January 7, 2018.

* This story has been produced with support from the US Embassies in the South Caucasus. The opinions expressed in the publication reflect the point of the view of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the US Embassies.

** All photos of this story were taken by Katie Sartania and Tatev Bidzhoyan unless credited otherwise.

*** This story is part of a series on post-Soviet transformations of the memory landscapes, memorial sites, and monuments in Tbilisi, Yerevan, and Baku.

Designing the Soviet Union

Soviet architecture had diverse and ambitious ideas for transforming the spaces people live, work, and travel in.

An abandoned Soviet-era bus stop in Chiatura, Georgia. orientalizing / Flickr

For the last few years, the best-selling architectural coffee-table books have all shared the same subject: Soviet buildings. They are part of a strange but popular cult, where the ruins of the Soviet Union are contemplated and documented as an alien landscape.Agata Pyzik, in her 2014 diatribe Poor But Sexy, describes this trend as a form of intra-European Orientalism. Books like this year’s success story — Christopher Herwig’s Soviet Bus Stops — explore what she calls an “obsolete ecology,” an irradiated yet magical wasteland, an Urbex paradise littered with wonderfully futuristic ruins. It is a seductive approach, and many Western writers (like me) have joined in.

Herwig’s contribution is a gorgeous example: page after page of bus stops, in an elegant, almost pocket-sized hardback volume, with a terrific design by the Anglo Sovietophile publisher FUEL.

But why bus stops? Because Herwig discovered that the long, straight, often potholed highways that run between the former Soviet Union’s big cities are dotted with hundreds, maybe thousands, of architecturally imaginative bus shelters.

There are none in the cities themselves — urban bus shelters are far more likely to be the sort of metal and glass canopies found in any metropolis. But tiny towns, villages, and hamlets commissioned, through processes that the two introductions to the book manage to leave totally unexplored, a series of exceptionally striking and original designs, in a raw style that combines the local vernacular (Baltic, Central Asian, etc.), concrete futurism (all jagged angles and cantilevers), and bright colors.

It’s fabulous stuff, but to paraphrase Brecht, a photograph of a Soviet bus stop tells us almost nothing about the society that brought it into being.

Tellingly, many of these hit books are made by professional photographers who have chanced upon their subjects — something Herwig shares with the French photographer Frederic Chaubin, author of the smash hit CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. This means they don’t share the compulsion that an academic or journalist might have to include editorial condemnations of the Soviet Union.

Until recently the subject has produced little good work in the English language. Prewar Soviet architecture has been well-served with studies by the likes of Catherine Cooke, Selim Khan-Magomedov, and Vladimir Paperny, but post-Stalin design has been oddly obscure. However, several recent publications combine the innovation of Soviet aesthetics with excellent writing. There’s no excuse to just stare at pictures of incredible Soviet ruins when there are books that can tell you what they are and why they’re there.

Theory and Practice

Zurab Tsereteli — one of the designers of Herwig’s totally awesome Soviet bus stops —maintained a successful career well into the post-Soviet period. The Russian-based Georgian sculptor shifted from expressive, mosaic-clad organic modernism to a monstrous form of figurative, neo-imperialist sculpture in bronze, leaving a trail of horrors in his wake.

Moscow’s Peter the Great statue is Tsereteli’s most notorious creation, set on its own artificial island. German scholar Philipp Meuser christened this style — which combines late Tsarist, high Stalinist and Las Vegas aesthetics — capitalist realism in other words.

As editor at Dom Publishers, Meuser has been responsible for an impressive program of Soviet and post-Soviet architecture publications. In just the last year, these have included a series of city guides for the Latvian capital Riga, one of the most western of ex-Soviet cities, and for Slavutych, an extraordinary planned city in northern Ukraine designed to rehouse workers displaced by the Chernobyl disaster.

The small housing estates in Slavutych were “donated” by various Soviet republics. You can find a Tallinn Quarter, a Baku Quarter, a Leningrad Quarter and so forth, each reflecting the styles and spatial ideas of their namesake republics. The guide, from Ukrainian architectural historian Ievgeniia Gubkina, strikingly demonstrates how diverse Soviet architecture had become on the eve of its collapse.

However, other recent Dom books, such as Hidden Urbanism — on the astonishing underground palaces of the Moscow Metro — reveal a remarkable level of continuity in Soviet design. The subway stations all share a similar, space-age crypt idiom, whether they were built in 1985 or in 2005.

Another recent Dom book, Meuser and Dmitrij Zadorin’s Towards a Typology of Mass Housing in the USSR, focuses on the flipside of special projects like the Metro, Slavutych, and the bus stops. Instead, it examines the immense prefabricated house program, the largest experiment in industrialized housing ever attempted. This deadpan, obsessive-compulsive book attempts to catalog each apartment building series, which were rolled out of specialized, assembly-line factories like automobiles.

Towards a Typology of Mass Housing reveals that by the 1970s Soviet architecture had almost entirely eliminated the figure of the individual architect, who traditionally works on a specific design for a specific site. For this massive urban housing initiative, the USSR transformed architects into industrial designers, except when it came to the creation of showcase public buildings.

Some of Dom’s recent publications focus on these prestige designers — like Felix Novikov, a mercurial figure whose career included Stalinist palaces for the nomenklatura in the 1940s, Khrushchev-era mid-century modernism like the Moscow Palace of Pioneers, and neo-Persian bathhouses and bazaars in Central Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps the saddest of these books, Galina Balashova: Architect of the Soviet Space Program, focuses on the engineer-architect who designed the ergonomic interiors and streamlined casings for space capsules and stations. Balashova created real, constructed human environments that floated in space or rotated in orbit, but her most recent work consists of watercolors of her family in Tsarist-era military costumes. Whatever else could be said about it, Soviet collectivism made people do things that they wouldn’t have considered possible, before or since.

One of the few books in the Moscow Institute of Modernism’s series of publications on Soviet architecture to be translated into English is Anna Bronovitskaya and Olga Kazakova’s heavy volume on another prestige architect, Leonid Pavlov.

All the facets of Soviet architecture appear on his resume: he began as a Constructivist, passed through the Socialist Realist period of opulent, elite classicism, and then found his metier in the 1960s as an architect for Gosplan, the agency that officially planned the Soviet economy.

As readers of Francis Spufford’s novel Red Plenty will already know, in the 1960s the Soviet Union made an abortive attempt to computerize its economy in hopes of solving the socialist calculation problem. Pavlov designed several Moscow-based computer centers for Gosplan, using a pure, mathematical, and finely detailed modern idiom of clean lines and precisely calculated grids, sometimes integrated with abstract sculpture — a Soviet cousin to postwar America’s corporate architecture.

However, the construction industry couldn’t keep up with the pace of Pavlov’s ideas, and most of the centers were completed at least a decade after their design. By that time computers had shrunk, and the computer rooms were changed into conference rooms or left unused; an apt metaphor for the gulf between theory and practice in Soviet planning.

Pavlov’s late work, tellingly, was devoted to sacred spaces for the cult of Lenin — like the Lenin Funerary Train Museum in central Moscow or the Lenin Museum at Gorki, where Lenin lived and slowly died in the early 1920s. These designs borrow from ancient religious architecture and Miesian high modernism in an attempt to create an appropriate architectural language for a secular cult.

One historical study and one city guide — both published in the last year — provide the most interesting analyses of what Soviet architecture actually was and what (if anything) sets it apart from ordinary capitalist architecture.

The first is Richard Anderson’s Russia: Modern Architectures in History, which presents a panoramic history of pre-Soviet, Soviet, and post-Soviet architecture from the late nineteenth century to the present. It starts with Victorian eclecticism, “style modern,” and Constructivism, then turns to the eclectic, anti-modernist Socialist Realism of the Stalin era and the standardized and plural modernisms of the 1960s through the 1980s, and ends with a very mixed picture of contemporary Russian architecture, dominated — especially outside Moscow — by an overbearing, unplanned, and speculative monumentality.

Whereas the book covers profound social changes, Anderson pulls out an unexpected thread of continuity, as institutions such as Mosprojekt — the municipal architecture-construction department of Brezhnev-era Moscow — reinvented themselves in the 1990s by designing horrific mirror-glass and marble edifices for the new rich.

Anderson’s book also adroitly uncovers some of the lesser-known aspects of twentieth-century “socialist architecture.” Beyond the famous icons of the avant-garde, Russia: Modern Architectures in History takes in the garden cities in Lenin’s Moscow, the oddly Finnish low-rise housing in post-Blockade Leningrad, the entirely new territory Brezhnev attempted to create through a series of planned towns strung along the Baikal-Amur Mainline, and the various imperial exports found both within the Soviet Union — in the Soviet “East” of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan — and in the imperial baroque style that represented the central power in Eastern European capitals like Warsaw, East Berlin, and Riga.

The most politicized recent book on Soviet and post-Soviet architecture deals precisely with this imperial legacy. The collectively produced The Book of Kyivwas published to mark the city’s biennale last year, largely by affiliates of the Visual Culture Research Centre (VCRC), a leftist non-governmental organization.

The Book of Kyiv works as a guide to the city by presenting a series of carefully chosen buildings, almost all from the Soviet era: a ghost mall known as the House of Clothes; a Metro station left half-finished just outside the city center; the National Museum of Ukraine, done in the Stalinist Roman Empire style; the haunting, organic Crematorium, designed in the 1970s; various emblematic spaces like the former Dzherzhinsky Square, which features a flying-saucer-shaped Institute (featured in no less than Chaubin’s CCCP) and a gigantic monument to the Cheka, only demolished last month; and various soon-to-be de-Communized mosaics and monuments.

Among the spaces that feature in The Book of Kyiv is the dramatically authoritarian, late Stalin-era Independence Square, best known by the Ukrainian word for square: maidan. The VCRC supported the 2013–14 uprising there, and combine this with a sharp critique of the Ukrainian built environment’s de-Communization, now underway through a legally enforced process of renaming and vandalism.

But what makes The Book of Kyiv a real antidote for the likes of Soviet Bus Stopsis its sympathetic account of Soviet architecture and planning, which lets equal stress fall on its failures, continuities, and successes, and trains a ruthless eye on the capitalist city, which has survived by cannibalizing the Soviet legacy, building on its interstices, slathering its public spaces with advertising and cheap commerce, straining its infrastructure, and maintaining a violent divide between rich and poor.

This becomes all the more poignant when it’s enforced on an urbanism that, for all its serious flaws made a serious attempt to create an egalitarian metropolis defined by public space, equality, and planning. It is in that contrast that you can begin to understand what that elusive thing — Soviet architecture — actually was, and what distinguishes it from capitalist architecture. Appropriately, the book is made for the pocket, rather than the coffee table.

What is the post-Soviet?

By   Samuel Goff

Published in The Calvert Journal

What’s the concrete connection between Tallinn and Tashkent, Prague and Pristina, Dubrovnik and Dushanbe? All of these places share a 20th-century history of socialist government. Whether this began in 1917 or 1945, and whether it is viewed now as something to celebrate or something to mourn, this has to be our starting point. This might seem like basic stuff, but it’s important to bear it in mind, because it reminds us that what we call “post-Soviet” was part of a global cultural economy; if anything, lumping all of eastern Europe together is insufficient — we should be talking about Vietnam, Afghanistan, KoreaIran, a whole host of African states too.

Even individual national cultures contain multitudes too often ignored. Take Russia: cultural tastemakers in the West might know to cite Gosha Rubchinskiy’s postmodern streetwear in fashion, or Andrey Zvyagintsev’s austere miserablism in film. How many know about the multi-ethnic hybrid threads of Uzbek-Korean designer J.Kim, or the Islamic craft-inspired Asiya Bareeva? Or the breakout work of the twenty-something director Kantemir Balagov, who wowed Cannes last year with Closeness, his dissection of religious tensions in the North Caucasian republic of Kabardino-Balkiria?

Focusing in on shared details while keeping the broader global picture in mind — that is what lies behind the designation of “post-Soviet” culture. As Anastasiia Fedorova, co-curator of Calvert 22 Foundations forthcoming exhibition Post-Soviet Visions: Image and Identity in the New Eastern Europe puts it here, much of the art on display is imbued with “the feeling that witnessing a historical transition can become a bonding experience.” If we follow this logic, then what makes “post-Soviet” culture vibrant is that it demonstrates how international events interact with local circumstance.


This being said, the question “what is the post-Soviet” remains a teasing and frustrating one. “Soviet” cannot be an objective reference point; it means too many different things to too many different people. Is it a strictly defined political identity? An aesthetic? A brand? Is it synonymous with lost glories, or with national tragedy?

What makes “post-Soviet” culture vibrant is that it demonstrates how international events interact with local circumstance

It’s worth acknowledging that our use of the term “post-Soviet” in this special report — and in Calvert 22 Foundation’s forthcoming exhibition — is problematic. We are not limiting our scope to artists, architects and designers from the 15 (or 16, or 17, depending on who’s counting) successor states to the Soviet Union. We’re using the term to refer to works from Poland, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and more; no doubt some of the very artists whose work we are showcasing would object to the label. Today, 29 years after the tumults of 1989 and 27 years after the dissolution of the USSR, there is justifiable anger that the historically inaccurate designation “Soviet” is still applied to the whole of eastern Europe, a continuation of the old Cold War trope that all life beyond the Iron Curtain was monolithic and dictated by Moscow. And this frustration grows with time as 29 independent states get on with the painful business of nation-building.

So why use the term “post-Soviet” at all? After all, the Calvert 22 Foundation exists to dispel old clichés about eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia — we even began using the phrase “New East” to provide a more neutral and forward-thinking way of describing the region we cover. The answer, perhaps, is precisely because it’s awkward, or provocative. “New East” lacks the relativity of “post-Soviet”, the implication that, even if we resent the fact, there are parallels and links to be drawn between states and peoples that are sometimes bitterly divided. And “post-Soviet” also forces us to think about the position of outside observers, looking in on a region that they may little understand, and the presumptions and prejudices they (we) bring to the table.


We can look to national cinema culture for an example. Both Georgia (which was part of the Soviet Union) and Romania (which decidedly wasn’t) have produced cinematic “New Waves” in the last 15 years; both of these Waves have been responses to the economic and social collapses that followed the Soviet/socialist era, and each has been incubated by the similar-yet-distinct crises that afflicted each country. Georgia had a rich filmmaking tradition and an established industry that was laid low by the civil war that followed independence from the Soviet Union; its directors found their collective voice again precisely by articulating the violence and disorder of the period. (The loss of so many young men in the war has subsequently contributed towards an even Newer New Wave — a raft of films by or about women forced to step into the roles vacated by absent fathers and sons.) Romania, on the other hand, had comparatively little in the way of domestic filmmaking tradition, but has since managed to create a space for itself on the global market with its patented brand of low-budget, naturalist dramas that delve into the social dislocations created by the disasters of the late Ceausescu regime and the hardships of the 90s; a cottage industry that has garnered international acclaim for the likes of Cristian Mungiu and Corneliu Porumboiu. Two examples of “post-Soviet” national cinema, distinct yet related.

To acknowledge the role played here by the fall of socialism is to shine perhaps too bright a light on the role of the West in creating and curating a post-Soviet aesthetic

Of course, if “post-Soviet” is synonymous with “post-socialist” then it also refers to a distinct ideological period. Post-Soviet culture is produced and consumed in the wake of a fearsome political shift, a restructuring of people’s understandings of the world; as Fedorova puts it, this is the culture of “youth caught between two stagnations” whose parents’ life stories sounds like “distant fairytales”. The socialist past is omnipresent in this art; sometimes it looms large, as in the ongoing western fascination with crumbling communist monoliths such as Bulgaria’s Buzludzha Monument. At other times it’s a vague shadow. And often it’s violently disavowed — for instance, in the recent wave of nationalist historical dramas pushed by Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice government. And if this ideological dimension is something which is often elided in conversations about post-Soviet culture in the West, then that is because to acknowledge the role played here by the fall of socialism is to shine perhaps too bright a light on the role of the West in creating and curating a post-Soviet aesthetic.

  • Crowds on Palace Square in Leningrad in 1991. Still from Sergei Loznitsa’s film about the fall of the USSR, The Event (2015)

In a series of essays for openDemocracy Russia, Kirill Kobrin makes an important point about the dismantling of the Soviet Union (and by extension about the collapse of socialism across eastern Europe). What happened to the USSR is generally understood as an ideological collapse: the ideals of state socialism were no longer tenable, and so the political system founded on them crumbled. Post-Soviet culture reflects the postmodern condition of a world where the need for all-encompassing ideology has been superceded. I think this is what undergirds western fascination with the perceived “nihilism” and “gritty poetry” of Rubchinskiy-style Russian streetwear, the brashness of a youth forcibly deprived of “meaning”.

Except, as Kobrin notes, this is a misunderstanding. The Soviet system didn’t collapse when its ideology was exhausted, a casualty of postmodernism — it was taken apart as a result of arguments over old-fashioned (that is, quintessentially “modern”) issues like borders, ethnic divisions and international aggression. The violence that broke out across the post-socialist space in the 90s — from the Yugoslav wars to the Tajik civil war and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — speaks to this. So, incidentally, does Air Force One (1997). Wolfgang Petersen’s slice of pure Yankee triumphalism, about terrorists protecting the honour of a rogue regime in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, understood better than many historians that the brave new world of the 90s was one where nationalism and sovereignty were back on the agenda in a major way.

If anything, it would be more accurate to refer to today’s cultural vanguard as the “post-post-Soviet”

Kobrin’s point is that Soviet ideology didn’t collapse at the end of the 1980s — it had collapsed long before then. Not for nothing was Leonid Brezhnev’s 18-year tenure (1964-1982) as General Secretary known as the Era of Stagnation, a painfully slow retreat from idealism into rigor mortis. By the time perestroika came around, there was little meat left on the bones of Soviet ideology anyway. If anything, it would be more accurate to refer to today’s cultural vanguard as the “post-post-Soviet”.

In the USSR and across eastern Europe, artists had reacted to the Stagnation as it unfolded, exploring the decrepitude, hypocrisies and unrealised potentials of their various socialist systems for decades before the West got to fawn over “post-Soviet” ruins. When a designer like Vetements founder Demna Gvasalia puts a hammer and sickle on an oversized hoody and sells it for $700, people are quick to point out that this is post-ideological sleight of hand, the medium becoming the message, political meaning emptied out into aesthetics. But if that is “post-Soviet”, then what do we call the work of Moscow Conceptualist artists like Erik Bulatov, who had spent the 1970s gleefully playing with the visual insignia of an ideology that had already been drained of authenticity?

So, the West was late to the party. No shame in that: those who are at the sharp end of socio-political maladies tend to be better at diagnosing them. But the question of aesthetics and ideology after the fact is still a crucial one, because it colours so much of our consumption of post-Soviet culture. This is something that Owen Hatherley and Jamie Rann have written about for The Calvert Journal. Whether it’s the predilection for “ruin porn” that drives interest in the derelict Buzludzha Monument or the ghosts in the snow of former Soviet military outposts, or the exotic appeal of “concrete clickbait” like the former Yugoslavia’s spomenikwar memorials, a purely aesthetic response to these sites elides their original purpose and retroactively retools them as reminders of the inevitability of socialist collapse. As Rann writes, “the [USSR] has not lost its reputation for strictness and inhuman grandeur, but now this — for better and for worse — is combined with a sense that the Soviet world is, from an aesthetic point of view, ready to be mined for content by the contemporary culture industry.” In the case of the Yugoslav spomeniks — these are monuments to anti-fascist struggle. Are we really in a position to be ignoring these kinds of political lessons?


If nothing else, we cannot let the terms of “post-Soviet” culture be dictated by never-Soviet onlookers. Eastern Europe and Eurasia have always been particularly useful sites of projection for the West: they combine familiarity (eastern Europe is still Europe, after all) with the exoticism provided by past ideological conflict. Rather than a space of imputed otherness, they are a space of imputed ambiguity, a good testing ground for western critics to demonstrate their “nuance” — which oftens amounts to little more than the projection of their own insecurities into a region which is taken as living proof that there is no alternative to the neoliberal world order. But the contradictions of post-war liberalism and the decay of Soviet socialism have both provoked revanchist and regressive forces. Both have excluded people from political process. People like to say — with good reason — that Putin’s Russia is battling to return the lost glories of the Soviet empire; how exactly would we describe Brexit? Or Trump?

Ultimately, the “post-Soviet” is about people. We have to let them populate the frame. Every site that we might look into from outside, from the grandest Stalinist monument to the dingiest collective apartment, is the sum of local and global stories of conservation and neglect and has been lived in for longer than we’ve been paying attention. When we delight in the repurposing of these spaces (how kids are now “skateboarding the ruins of Georgia’s communist past”, for instance), or ask why the “ugly”, “authoritarian” tower block is such a prominent feature of contemporary photography, we reveal the extent to which we’d dehumanised them up to this point. They matter because they were built by and for people who have more to say about them then we do, and have more ways than ever of realising that vision.

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi

City as a geopolitics: Tbilisi, Georgia — A globalizing metropolis in a turbulent region

By Joseph Salukvadze and  Oleg Golubchikov

Published in Cities

Volume 52, March 2016, Pages 39-54


Tbilisi, a city of over a million, is the national capital of Georgia. Although little explored in urban studies, the city epitomizes a fascinating assemblage of processes that can illuminate the interplay of geopolitics, political choices, globalization discourses, histories, and urban contestations in shaping urban transformations. Tbilisi’s strategic location in the South Caucasus, at the juncture of major historical empires and religions in Eurasia, has ensured its turbulent history and a polyphony of cultural influences. Following Georgia’s independence in 1991, Tbilisi found itself as the pivot of Georgian nation-building. Transition to a market economy also exposed the city to economic hardship, ethnical homogenization, and the informalization of the urban environment. The economic recovery since the early 2000s has activated urban regeneration. Georgia’s government has recently promoted flagship urban development projects in pursuit of making Tbilisi as a modern globalizing metropolis. This has brought contradictions, such as undermining the city’s heritage, contributing to socio-spatial polarization, and deteriorating the city’s public spaces. The elitist processes of decision-making and a lack of a consistent urban policy and planning regimes are argued to be among major impediments for a more sustainable development of this city.


Post-socialist city
Post-Soviet city
Urban planning
Urban governance

1. Introduction

Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, a post-Soviet country in the South Caucasus.1 The 2014 census estimated its population at 1.118 million (Geostat, 2015).2 Tbilisi is not only the largest city in Georgia, but is also one of the key socio-economic hubs in the Caucasus as a whole. The city presently accommodates 30% of Georgia’s population, but produces almost a half of Georgia’s GDP and, furthermore, contributes 60–75% to the country’s key statistics in entrepreneurial and construction activities (Geostat, 2014a; Geostat, 2014b).

‘Tbilisi… is like a Janus: one face towards Asia, and the other Europe’, wrote the Zakavkazskiy Vestnik newspaper in 1847 (Vardosanidze, 2000). Such hybridity remains a hallmark of the city located at the conjunction of the European and Asian continents, different cultures and geopolitical realms.

Tbilisi rose to its prominence through the centuries of a turbulent history. Its location on the edge of ancient and modern empires (Persian, Byzantine, Arab, Mongol, Ottoman, Russian) and on major trading routes, rendered the city geopolitically and economically significant — if only guaranteeing a continuous struggle for survival. The historical dynamism has left its marks on the social and cultural hybridity of the city. Tbilisi traditionally featured a cosmopolitan and multicultural character, as well as the tolerance of ethnical and religious differences (Frederiksen, 2012). Its urban forms and spatial fabric similarly inherited a peculiar mix of different cultural layers, superposed on the city’s rather peculiar topography.

The modern Tbilisi could have recreated itself through this indigenous tradition of distinctiveness, polyphony and tolerance. Becoming the capital of a newly independent Georgian state in 1991, the city, however, found itself entangled in the turbulent economic and political processes. The installation of a market economy coupled with an economic freefall in the 1990s, the rise of nationalism and the territorial disintegration of Georgia, as well as its government’s entanglements in the geopolitical tensions between Russia and the NATO powers have all produced a myriad of previously untested challenges — which have also left their marks on the city’s social and physical change.

As a globalizing city in a small nation in an economically peripheral and yet geopolitically strategic region, the case of Tbilisi can make an important contribution to urban studies, such as with respect to the meaning-making of the trajectories of “ordinary” non-Western cities in global urbanism (Robinson, 2006), to comparative and conceptual post-socialist urban studies (e.g. Borén & Gentile, 2007; Golubchikov, Badyina, & Makhrova, 2014; Sjöberg, 2014; Sýkora & Bouzarovski, 2012; Wiest, 2012), to a better understanding of variegated pathways of transition and neoliberalism (Brenner, Peck, & Theodore, 2010; Pickles & Smith, 1998), or even to the critical urban pedagogy of transition (Golubchikov, 2015). However, despite attention to Georgia from the disciplines such as international political studies, there is still a lacuna of internationally circulated knowledge of urban change in Tbilisi (although see Van Assche, Salukvadze, & Shavisvili, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). With this contribution, we intend to further unlock Tbilisi for urban studies by providing an overview of its urban trajectories as a basis for hopefully further localized and comparative investigations. By doing so, the paper outlines some of the essential, even if controversial, processes, problems and outcomes of the city’s convoluted past and present.

The paper is structured as follows. We start with outlining the location, demographic and physical conditions of Tbilisi and then proceed with its main historical development phases — from the medieval period to the Russian Empire and Soviet eras and to the more recent period of post-socialist transition. We then consider the establishment of the real estate markets and recent urban policies and transformations in the built environment, and pay particular attention to the current urban development initiatives and associated political, planning and governance issues and concerns.

2. Physical, administrative and demographic settings

Tbilisi is located 120 km south of the Great Caucasus Mountains, on the Kura River (Mtkvari in Georgian). It shares the latitude of cities such as Rome or Barcelona, similarly enjoying a mild climate. The city has a complex topography, shaped like a large amphitheater surrounded by mountains on three sides. These physical conditions, once favorable for controlling the valleys, today represent a physical obstacle for urban growth. However, the climate, topography, and hydrography have also granted Tbilisi a unique cityscape, attractive panoramas, and peculiar architecture featuring laced wooden balconies and internal patios, traditionally used as places for socialization (Fig. 1).

Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 1. Traditional wooden balconies in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The present-day Tbilisi has a special status of the capital of Georgia. Internally its territory is divided into six administrative districts, with five of them being further subdivided into Ubani — 30 in total. These spread on the territory of 504 km2. However, the city topography circumscribes an island-like geography, with a few densely built-up areas surrounded by undeveloped land: more than half of the city’s incorporated territory is not built-up. The mountainous environment particularly limits new development on the right bank of the Kura River; at the same time, the built-up area on the left bank of the Kura stretches for 40 km.

Tbilisi’s present spatial structure is a product of a long historical process and expansion (Fig. 2). However, the city’s territorial expansion mostly occurred during the Soviet era: between 1921 and 1991 Tbilisi expanded six times in terms of population (Fig. 3) and ten times in terms of incorporated territory. Tbilisi’s Master Plan (Fig. 22) illustrates the city’s resultant layout, including built-up areas squeezed between mountainous areas. The city expansion has recently accelerated even further, aggravating the problems of the integrity and connectivity of the city.

The administrative expansions of Tbilisi

Fig. 2. The administrative expansions of Tbilisi. Source: Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2013.

The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011

Fig. 3. The population of Tbilisi, 1922–2011. Source: General Population Censuses; * Estimates.

After gaining the independence, Tbilisi experienced a dramatic 15% population reduction. This was due to a mass outflow of population, mostly to Russia, coupled with a very low natural growth to compensate the out-migration (Meladze, 2013; Salukvadze & Meladze, 2014). However, the population growth reversed to positive in the 2000s, fuelled by migrants from rural Georgia. The city has consequently undergone ‘Georgianization’ — the acceleration of even a longer-term trend of the replacement of its once multinational composition by ethnic Georgians, due to a disproportional outmigration of Russians and Armenians (Fig. 4). Recent demographic trends have also included: aging population; a smaller family size; decreased levels of marriages and increased divorces. Coupled with lifestyle change, these factors have amplified demands for housing and developable land.

Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi

Fig. 4. Historic change in the ethnic composition of Tbilisi. Source: UN HABITAT, 2013:208.

3. From a medieval capital to an imperial powerhouse

Tbilisi was founded in the 5th century AD, although archeological findings reveal even earlier settlements. Emerged as a stronghold in the Kura valley, in the vicinity of the ancient Eastern Georgian capital and a religious center of the Orthodox Christianity — Mtskheta, Tbilisi eventually became a strategic settlement for controlling the lowlands between the Greater and Minor Caucasus ranges and major trade routes. In the 6th century AD, Tbilisi was made the capital of the Eastern Georgian kingdom Iberia. Since then it has maintained its status of the chief city of either Eastern Georgia or a united Georgian Kingdom.

The strategic location of Tbilisi between Europe and Asia made it vulnerable in the context of the rivalries between the main powers in the region, including Persia, Byzantium, Arabia, Mongols, and Ottomans (Lang, 1966). At the dusk of the Middle Ages, Georgia, the only Christian enclave retaining its statehood in the otherwise Muslim region found itself squeezed between hostile powers — Persian and Ottoman Empires, and North Caucasian tribes. Due to constant wars, Tbilisi shrank in population and economically. This required seeking protection from the growing Russian Empire in the north, sharing the Christian Orthodox religion, with whom Irakli II signed a treaty in 1783. This did not avert, however, a devastating Persian invasion in 1795. The Russian Army eventually liberated the Kingdom, but this cost the abolishment of the Georgian independent kingdom altogether in 1801. At the time of the incorporation in the Russian Empire, Tbilisi had only 15,000 survivors (Lang, 1957).

The consequent rebuilding of the city under the Russian rule marked the start of a post-medieval era in Tbilisi’s development. Known as Tiflis in the Russian Empire (like even today in some languages), the city retained its primacy and started serving as an important administrative center of the empire; from 1844 Tbilisi became a seat of the Emperor’s representative (Governor) in the Caucasus (Namestnik Imperatora na Kavkaze). The political importance of the city also boosted as the authorities regarded the city as a strategic military stronghold for protecting the south-western borders of the empire, as well as for monitoring and controlling political processes in the Ottoman and Persian Empires. Tbilisi had retained the status of the largest trade center and the most populous city of the region until the oil boom made Baku a larger city in the second half of the 20th century.

Tbilisi, hitherto a compact settlement with a medieval social organization and an irregular oriental-style layout, started a transformation towards ‘European-style’ patterns. Through an active city-building process, it gained the feature characteristic for a colonial ‘dual city’ with oriental-type, irregular, topographically diverse and culturally mixed Old Town, and newly-built European-style areas, established in accordance with a regular plan on relatively plain terrains (e.g. Sololaki). This changed the main axis of territorial development from the Kura River to the new wide avenues, which were named after the Governors Golovin and the Grand Duke Michael Romanov (today named after, respectively, Rustaveli and David Agmashenebeli) — one stretching westwards from the Old Town and the other located on the left bank of the river. The new districts were socially more homogeneous, residing the emerging strata of bureaucrats, affluent entrepreneurs, and Georgian aristocracy.

The appearance of the city and its internal structure and centrality changed dramatically (Fig. 5). The old town, rebuilt from ruins, with its labyrinthine of courtyards and balconies, contrasted with the new districts of neo-classical architecture (Fig. 6) (Suny, 1994; Rhinelander, 1972). The involvement of European architects brought in Western influences: neo-renaissance, neo-baroque, Italian Gothic and Art Nouveau (Ziegler, 2006; Baulig, Mania, Mildenberger, & Ziegler, 2004). Among newly introduced components were administrative buildings (e.g. the City Hall, currently the City Council) and palaces (e.g. the Governor’s palace, currently the Youth Palace), usually located in commanding heights and conspicuous locations, as well as squares connected by boulevards (e.g. on modern day’s Rustaveli Avenue), and parks (e.g. the Alexander Park, currently the 9th of April Park). A botanic garden, an opera, theaters, museums and schools also emerged in the city over 19th and the early 20th century.

A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov)

Fig. 5. A plan of Tbilisi in 1809 (compiled by Banov).

The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century

Fig. 6. The old town (left) and a new district of Tbilisi in the early 20th century. Source:

Tbilisi of that era became a visiting venue or a place of residence for many prominent people. Writers, intellectuals, and artists who then visited or lived in Tbilisi, included, among others, Russians Alexander Griboyedov, Alexander Pushkin, Lev Tolstoy, Mikhail Lermontov, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Feodor Chaliapin, French Alexandre Dumas the father, Norwegian Knut Hamsun, German Arthur Leist and Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt, British diplomat Sir Oliver Wardrop, German businessmen the Siemens brothers, Armenian oil magnate and financier Alexander Mantashev, German architect Otto Simonson.

By the late 19th century, Tbilisi had grown as a major trade, culture and manufacturing center of the Russian Empire. The railroad (built in 1872) and new roads were built to connect Tbilisi with other major cities of Russia’s Transcaucasia – Batumi, Poti, Baku – and other parts of the empire. The abolition of serfdom in Russia and the growth of capitalist manufacturing and trade attracted many rural residents, mostly of Georgian origin, to Tbilisi. Some informal settlements emerged accommodating the growing in-migrant population turned in the proletariat on the slopes adjacent to the newly built railway (e.g. Nakhalovka).

The social composition of the population also diversified across ethnicities and confessions (Suny, 2009). Several neighborhoods (e.g. Avlabari on the left bank) had a strong Armenian flavor; some others were Muslim (mostly Azeri, but also Kurdish, Persian — e.g. Abanoebisurani: ‘a neighborhood of baths’), Jewish (e.g. Bread Square in the Old Town) and even German (e.g. Alexanderdorf or ‘German Colony’ built from the 1840s). This composition made the city’s life cosmopolitan and multicultural: Tbilisi developed a distinct urban culture that transcended ethnic origins (Gachechiladze, 1990).

The transformation of the city also touched upon the way of life of Tbilissians. For example, the traditional meeting places such as bazaars, baths (especially the sulfur baths in the Old Town), and feasting places (e.g. Ortachala gardens) were succeeded by new gathering places, such as the opera, literary salons, and even the Georgian national drama theater (opened in 1850, then closed in 1855 and reopened in 1879).

The Georgian national theater and Georgian newspapers played a significant role in raising a national liberation spirit and consolidation of national identities. Additionally, the new education system – schools, gymnasiums and seminaries – brought in not only literacy but also anti-Tsarist attitudes, which eventually lead to spreading socialist, nationalist and liberal ideologies, the formation of political parties and their struggle for workers’ rights, on the one hand, and anti-imperialist values, on the other hand. Notably, Joseph Stalin (born in the neighboring town of Gori with the birth surname Jughashvili) was converted Marxist while studying at the Tiflis Seminary at the turn of the century; Tbilisi effectively became the site of early revolutionary activities for the later most powerful Soviet leader.

4. Soviet Tbilisi: urban growth and industrialization

In the period preceding and following the 1917 Russian Revolution, Tbilisi was in the center of political struggles over the future of the nation. After the February Revolution of 1917 in St. Petersburg, the Russian Provisional Government installed the Special Transcaucasian Committee (Osobyy Zakavkazskiy Komitet) to govern Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Tbilisi took the function of the de-facto seat of the Committee. Following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917, on 24 February 1918, the Transcaucasian Commissariat proclaimed the establishment of the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic with the capital in Tbilisi. The new political entity was short-lived as its members showed divergent geopolitical preferences — Georgians’ orientation was perceived to be pro-German, Armenians’ — pro-British, whiles Azeris’ — pro-Ottoman. As a consequence, the federation fell apart, following the proclamation of an independent Georgian Democratic Republic on 26 May 1918 and the declarations of independence in the other two republics within two days.

During a brief period of independence of 1918–1921, Tbilisi became a seat of important nation-building projects, including Tbilisi State University, the first university in the Caucasus.

In 1921, the Bolsheviks finally gained control over Georgia and the republic was integrated into the Soviet Union. Remarkably, Tbilisi took the function of the regional capital once again. In 1922, the three South Caucasus republics were organized into yet another confederation, the Transcaucasian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (TSFSR). It was disbanded in 1936, after which Tbilisi became the capital of a separate Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Under the Soviets, Tbilisi was transformed from a medium-sized and relatively compact settlement into a large industrial metropolis. It was an important political, social, and cultural center of the USSR — even if remaining behind the ‘first-tier cities’ of Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad with regard to its economic status. While the main driving force in the 1930s through the 1950s was the expansion of industrial activity (during WWII also fueled by the evacuation of manufacturing from the European part of the USSR), since the 1960s, industrial growth slowed down, and mass housing became the main driver of the city’s territorial growth.

Tbilisi developed according to the master plans (Genplans) of 1934, 1953 and 1969 (Van Assche et al., 2009). The growth of Tbilisi was in line with the Soviet policy of stimulating hyper-urbanization of the capitals of the Soviet republics to ensure ‘agglomeration effects’, i.e. economic gains from the concentration ‘of decision-making, diversified employment opportunities and better infrastructure in the capital city and its neighborhood’ (Gachechiladze, 1995: 157). The growing city enjoyed diversified public transport services with different transportation modes — busses, trolleybuses, trams, cable roads. In 1965, Tbilisi became the fourth Soviet city, following Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, to gain an underground metro system. The Tbilisi Metro has proven to play a pivotal role in the city mobility, not least by providing accessibility to remote and otherwise isolated districts.

Architectural approaches evolved over the Soviet era (Bater, 1980). The Stalinist monumentalism with neo-classical and national elements, as well as the Soviet constructivism is notable in the Rustaveli Avenue (Fig. 7) and other main streets (e.g. buildings of the Zarya VostokaEasts Dawnnewspaper, and the IMELI Institute of Marx, Engels and Lenin). However, from the late 1950s, with the shift in policy to mass housing, the preference was given to mass-produced cost-efficient and uniform built environment (Fig. 8). Of the late Soviet era, internationally renowned were still, for example, the Road Department (Fig. 9), the Palace of Celebrations (currently a private residence of the family of late tycoon Patarkatsishvili), the Sport Palace, and the Dynamo Stadium. Many engineering mega-projects were completed — such as the embankment and retaining walls for the Kura River, a large water reservoir (18 km2) inside the city administrative boundaries (known as the Tbilisi Sea), the metro. All of these remain essential for the city’s functioning.

The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building

Fig. 7. The ‘Stalinist’ architecture: the Georgian National Academy of Sciences building. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance

Fig. 8. Late Soviet neighborhoods suffering a lack of maintenance. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters)

Fig. 9. The 1975 Road Department building (since 2007 Bank of Georgia Headquarters). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

In 1978, with a growing attention to heritage protection, a large-scale reconstruction of the old town was launched. Old Tbilisi had remained largely untouched in the Soviet period (apart from some destructions occurring for new roads and embankments) and therefore preserved its historic unity and ambience. Although the reconstruction was criticized for its ‘facadism’ (Khimshiashvili, 2001), it had a positive effect on the pre-Russian sections of the city and boosted tourism. The project also enhanced the urban environment of Old Tbilisi and prolonged the lifespan of many buildings.

Soviet Tbilisi was not only an important economic and administrative center of the Soviet Union; it was also a center of political struggles of various factions, including those breeding the Georgian identity (Suny, 1994). As a rare scene of mass protest for that era, Tbilisi witnessed ethnic-based riots in 1956 in protest against the de-Stalinization policies of the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev; these were violently suppressed by the Soviet Army. New mass demonstrations took place in Tbilisi in April 1978 in response to an attempt by government to change the constitutional status of the Georgian language from being the sole state language in the republic to giving an equally official status to the Russian language. Moscow conceded to the popular demand to allow the status quo to continue, thus boosting the morale of Georgian nationalism. However, this also stirred up discontent in Abkhazia, an autonomous republic within Georgia, some fractions of which began seeking to split from Georgia. The radicalization of the anti-Soviet opposition and protests in the late 1980s also culminated in the so-called Tbilisi Massacre of 9 April 1989, when the army violently dispersed an anti-Soviet demonstration, resulting in several deaths. In both the popular and political culture, this event still demarcates Georgian struggles for independence.

5. Post-Soviet transition

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Tbilisi, like other ex-Soviet cities, stepped on the post-socialist transition treadmill. Following the laissez faire political ethos and conditioned by the expediencies of capitalism-in-the-making, the city turned away from planned development in favor of spontaneous real estate markets. This was, however, against the backdrop of a civil war and political and institutional disorganization and instability in Georgia under Gamsakhurdia Government (1991–1992) and the early years of Shevarnadze Government (1992–2003). Violent conflicts erupted over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which declared independence, but also in other parts of Georgia and even in Tbilisi itself, which witnessed a militarized outbreak of violence in winter 1991/1992 over state power, which eventually ousted Gamsakhurdia. As a cumulative effect, the Georgian economy was one of the most hit among the former Soviet republics. By 1994, its real GDP collapsed to less than a quarter of its value five years before.

That was a shock to Tbilisi; as documented by Gachechiladze (1995:164),

Factories stopped; so did most urban transport; electricity failed; central heating radiators became useless decoration in the apartments… The city emerged as unprepared for the new situation, unable to purchase raw materials, fuel or machinery at market prices and in the quantities required for an urban settlement of such a size.

In just a few years, trolleybuses and trams disappeared from the streets of Tbilisi and public busses significantly limited their operations. Private mini-busses (marshrutkas) alongside the metro became the only street public transport routes for many years.

These problems coupled with the increased levels of crime and interethnic tensions promoted the out-migration of many Tbilisians to Russia and other countries — starting with ethnical Russians and Armenians but followed by Georgians themselves (Gachechiladze & Bradshow, 1994). The majority of these were educated white-collar workers. The population loss was offset by in-migration from provincial towns and rural areas and less educated and poorer groups. Rural in-migrants often struggle to adapt to the urban way of life, especially as employment was curtailed due to the crisis. The omnipresence of the newcomers was perceived by the native Tbilisians as the ‘provincialization’ of the capital (Gachechiladze & Salukvadze, 2003:20). Tbilisi also witnessed an influx of so-called internally displaced persons (IDPs), fleeing, particularly, from the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The Soviet-era image of Tbilisi as a well-off and educated city, albeit somewhat exaggerated, in a short period transformed into its opposite.

Tbilisi’s IDP population is still estimated at up to 10% of the city population. Many of IDPs have struggled with the integration into the mainstream society. The unemployment rate exceeds 50%; most of them live in the so-called Collective Centers. These are state-owned buildings converted from other functions such as hotels, schools, kindergartens. The IDPs adaptation strategies have involved changing these buildings to accommodate their everyday needs, building extensions, and illegal occupation of surrounding spaces (Salukvadze, Sichinava, & Gogishvili, 2013). Until recently, IDPs occupied almost all Soviet-era hotels, including those in the city center, giving these areas a slum-like impression. The attempts of the Government of the President Saakashvili (in power between 2004 and 2013) to clear up such areas by removing IDPs to other parts of the city (e.g. providing moderate funds to buy apartments in remote districts) and to rebuild those deteriorated structures has improved the appearances of many areas (Fig. 10). However, a lack of a coherent strategy towards the resolution of the problems of IDPs, along with a virtually non-existent social/public housing sector, ensures that these problems will be haunting the city.

The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the…

Fig. 10. The Iveria hotel used as an IDPs collective centre (left) and rebuilt as the Radisson Blue.

6. The establishment of the housing and real estate markets

A cornerstone of the market reforms in post-Soviet Tbilisi was destatization and the privatization of land and real estate. As early as in 1990, the mass privatization of housing already started, followed by leasing out of urban plots and sale of non-residential buildings. Although the Soviet system maintained a considerable portion of public and cooperative housing – which made the entire stock of the apartment bock buildings – by the late 1990s, more than 90% of the housing stock in Tbilisi was privatized. In 1999, the privatization of urban land began. The land and real estate market, however, emerged under the conditions of incomplete and weak institutions, poor governance and murky practices. A poorly regulated land market was locally described as a ‘wild market’, emphasizing its violence-based nature (Salukvadze, 2009).

In the 1990s, almost no investment went into important development projects. Emerged institutionalized developers focused on businesses that did not require large investments but could generate fast returns: petrol stations, car repair shops and washes, restaurants and bars, open markets, guesthouses. The most desirable places were those located between residential neighborhoods, in proximity to major street and highway junctions or easily accessible from metro stations.

Large housebuilding activities disappeared; rather the episodic construction of villas and otherwise cheap homes took place, often ignoring formal permission systems. A more widespread phenomenon was a ‘do-it-yourself’ extension of homes and apartments. That process was actually triggered by the late Soviet decrees of the Georgian Republic, particularly the 1989 resolution “On attaching of loggias, verandas, balconies and other auxiliary spaces to the state and cooperative houses at the cost of the dwellers/tenants”. Following that, apartment building extensions (ABE) mushroomed across Tbilisi. Initially, the construction was carried out by state companies following prescribed procedures; however, after the disappearance of the public construction sector as such and especially following the housing privatization, this process went out of control. Tens of thousands of ABE were completed — in various forms and materials, and violating the norms of security, safety and esthetics (Fig. 11) (see Bouzarovski, Salukvadze, & Gentile, 2011).

Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi

Fig. 11. Apartment building extensions in Tbilisi. Photos by Joseph Salukvadze.

Despite the possibility to marginally increase living spaces through ABE, housing conditions of the population generally deteriorated. The new homeowners showed institutional and financial inability in managing multi-family apartment blocks (UNECE, 2007). There were no effective obligations on apartment owners’ to maintain common spaces in privatized houses. Problems rapidly grew with leaking roofs, broken elevators, lack of thermal insulation, and other structural problems. All these have become problematic and, in some cases, have rendered buildings unsafe. In order to improve the situation, from the early 2000s several municipal programs for housing maintenance were initiated, centered on the establishment of homeowners’ associations (HOA). In 2004, the city of Tbilisi established Tbilisi Corps, a municipal unit for supporting the development of HOAs. Buildings managed by HOAs are eligible for municipal co-financing for repair of common spaces (roofs, staircases) and public spaces (courtyards). Between 50% and 90% of the cost is covered by the municipalities. Currently there are more than 6000 HOAs in Tbilisi; almost all multi-apartment buildings are managed by them.

The period from the early 2000s witnessed improved macroeconomic conditions, including resumed economic growth in neighboring Russia and increased volumes of FDIs (including by Georgians living abroad) and remittances. As elsewhere in post-Soviet space, the economic recovery was uneven, favoring larger cities and their proximity (Golubchikov, 2006). This bolstered economic growth in Tbilisi and changed the demand of the population and the business sector towards housing and the built environment. The development of the real property registration and cadastral systems assured better property security and facilitated the establishment of the credit market and the involvement of banks and other stakeholders in property transactions.

7. Urban policies and transformations in the built environment

The spatial development of Tbilisi has been lacking plans and planning laws for a long time (Ziegler, 2009; Salukvadze, 2009; Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Rather, the building and planning activities were guided by the old Soviet legislation unless they were substituted by new rules. Such a regime was supported by the 1995 Constitution and a decree of the Minister of Urbanization and Construction of Georgia from 5 February 2002 on the Prolongation of the Terms and Validity of Construction Norms and Rules and Other Normative Acts (UNECE, 2007:8). However, in eyes of many, the old Soviet legislation was already outdated, if not lost legitimacy, and was not obligatory to follow. At the same time, when the new rules were introduced, they were increasingly relaxed, following the new worldview rejecting the Soviet planning practices as ‘unreasonable restrictions’ (Golubchikov, 2004).

The arrival of the liberal president Saakashvili, who came to power in 2004 via the so-called Rose Revolution, only further legitimized a liberal urban development policy regime. On the one hand, such policies significantly reduced corruption in planning, architectural and land administration systems; the acquisition of land plots and getting permissions for construction became relatively easy. For example, according to the Doing Business survey Georgia is ranked 3rd worldwide for the ease of issuing building permits and 1st for registering ownership rights (The World Bank, 2014). On the other hand, the same neoliberal approach has failed to attune to public needs. Hence, it is capital/investors that have determined the urban development process through the past decades, with one result being that the development is focused on the more lucrative central areas of Tbilisi, producing many infill constructions, over-densification and urban congestion.

Several key dimensions further characterize urban transformations more recently. Housing construction has skyrocketed after a near-stoppage in the 1990s, and reached the volumes of the 1960–70s (Fig. 12). The peak was in 2007–2008 when almost 2 million m2 a year was completed. The global financial crisis and especially the brief 2008 Russo-Georgian war over South Ossetia resulted in a rapid drop in construction activities, with many suspended projects (Fig. 13). However, Tbilisi municipality moved to inject confidence into the market by guaranteeing to purchase all finished developments at the cost recovery price of US$400/m2. This guaranteed at least a cost-basis return on investment and while no significant amount of such transactions was actually pursued, it lowered the perception of risk, unlocked banks’ willingness to offer credits, and encouraged developers to unfreeze projects (Gentile, Salukvadze & Gogishvili, 2015).

Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction

Fig. 12. Distribution of the housing stock in Tbilisi by the period of construction.

Source: JLL, 2012.

A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010

Fig. 13. A suspended construction of a luxurious estate in Tbilisi in 2010. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The new housing projects, even if customary delivered as ‘core-and-shell’ (i.e. without any internal decorations or installations), exceed the quality of the previous-era constructions. However, the majority of the population cannot afford buying homes in organized housing developments. New projects rather cater for those with high disposable incomes, so that the proportion of so-called luxury apartments in new construction has been 40–50% (Fig. 14).

Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold…

Fig. 14. Sold residential spaces by price segments (left scale) and the number of sold dwellings in Tbilisi in 2006–2012. Source: JLL, 2012.

Again, some projects, seeking high profit, fail to comply with the preservation regimes and damage the historical and cultural identity of many areas. This is encouraged by widespread neglecting (even relaxed) building norms and rules, as well as by allowing developers to purchase ‘additional height limits’ over those specified in zoning regimes. This has had a negative impact on the quality of urban space, architectural composition, traffic, car parking and public spaces. In many neighborhoods, old structures are torn down to give place for new high-rises (e.g. Barnovi Street, Paliashvili Street, Piqris Gora, Sairmis Gora).

Old Tbilisi has been particularly vulnerable. The retreat of the state from the housing sphere had damaging effects on the older housing stock in Old Tbilisi, which due to its age is prone to deterioration (Fig. 15). This was aggravated by the retrenchment of conservation protection; according to Khimshiashvili (2001), Georgia’s monument protection authorities had the budget in 1999 which was less than 1% of their 1990 budget. The local population, often living at the edge of survival, could neither afford investing in the maintenance of their estates. Many buildings in Old Tbilisi have become unsafe for habitation and a few fell apart (Khimshiashvili, 2001) — the situation was further aggravated by an earthquake in 2002. Some areas now appear slum-like with collapsed homes amid a deteriorating built environment. However, the potential land value in such central locations is high. Even so, the unwillingness of the local residents to move to distant parts of the city, coupled with still extant heritage restrictions in these areas, for many years curtailed commercial redevelopment projects (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). In the 1990s and early 2000s, few rebuilding projects were accomplished here – mostly as hotels, restaurants or small estates – often lubricated by corruption and enforced through violent means such as a deliberate damage to the existing structures to force the residents to move out. Despite this, the process of gentrification, like in in many other ex-socialist cities in the 1990s, was more piecemeal than systematic.

Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi

Fig. 15. Dilapidating historic buildings in Old Tbilisi. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

However, more recently, the gentrification of Old Tbilisi has become rather policy-led (cf. Badyina & Golubchikov, 2005), as the government began providing investor-oriented funds and programs for the reconstruction of the old town, such as the New Life for Old Tbilisi. The scheme was described in the following terms:

The government provides working capital that allows developers to finish residential blocks. Slum dwellers, if they agree, then move in to the new housing, vacating land in Old Tbilisi. The government puts the land out to tender for property developers to develop, sell off and use the profits to repay their original debts to the banks (Economist, 2010).

This approach targets particular neighborhoods and has helped to improve some areas both in the old town (Fig. 16) and in the 19th century part on the left bank along the David Agmashenebeli Avenue (part of former Alexanderdorf) (Fig. 17). Hundreds of families have been given a chance to acquired better homes through this scheme. At the same time, the process mediates gentrification, changing the social composition and cultural diversity of the historic areas. It also causes the criticism of heritage professionals, because buildings are normally not repaired but demolished and ‘rebuild’ creating replicas of traditional houses, but destroying the original authenticity of the neighborhoods (Fig. 18).

Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction

Fig. 16. Part of Old Tbilisi after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction

Fig. 17. David Agmashenebeli Avenue after reconstruction. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014)

Fig. 18. Rebuilding Old Tbilisi (the same street photographed in 2012 and 2014). Photos by Oleg Golubchikov.

Policy-driven gentrification of the old town appeared, however, only part of the urban ambitions of president Saakashvili. His policies were particularly aggressive in promoting the construction of ‘shiny’ glass-and-steel structures. Investments especially focused on the historic center. As a result, Tbilisi began changing its spatial structure even more rapidly — which at least until the late 2000s was happening in the absence of any urban strategy framework. Investing in flagship projects is a common feature of neoliberal urban entrepreneurialism, including in ex-socialist space (Golubchikov, 2010; Kinossian, 2012). Similarly, Saakashvili regarded extravagant post-modernist structures designed by world-renown architects as a quick fix in achieving a modernized and globalized image for the capital and, by implication, in linking the whole nation to the ‘European civilization’. Dozens of such ‘geopolitical’ projects were inserted in the fabric of the old town or its vicinity, at a considerable public cost. While the projects such as the Bridge of Peace (designed by Michele de Lucchi), Public Service Hall and Rike Park Theater (both by Massimiliano Fuksas) are certainly nothing short of masterpiece, many find them distorting the scale and flavor of historic Tbilisi (Fig. 19). Among other new-built dominants are also the Presidential Palace, the Trinity Cathedral (Fig. 20), as well as some hotels and commercial buildings (Fig. 21).

The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi's panoramas

Fig. 19. The new signature projects dominating historic Tbilisi’s panoramas. Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004)

Fig. 20. The Trinity Cathedral (built in 2004). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008)

Fig. 21. The Pixel 34 mixed-use building in central Tbilisi (built in 2008). Photo by Oleg Golubchikov.

The public opinion has been divided over such major infills. One could argue that some of these projects are better tolerated than the others. For instance, out of the signature projects the glassy Bridge of Peace and mushroom-looking building of the Public Service Hall are better accepted than the ‘the tubes’ of the new musical theater or the Shangrila Casino buildings, which are almost universally considered as inappropriate for the Old Town fabric.

Even so, these projects have created a new powerful landscape that has significantly modified the perception of the city, and project the city in a new light onto the international scale.

A common feature of ex-socialist cities has been a rapid suburbanization (Stanilov & Sykora, 2014). While the booming housebuilding sector in Tbilisi has aggravated the pressures on suburban land and made the city further sprawl, some authors note that the suburbanization trends in Tbilisi do not qualify as ‘strong’ (Sulukhia, 2009). This is because suburbanization is not necessarily taking the conspicuous form of detached homes or gated communities as in many ex-socialist cities (Hirt, 2012), but rather continues the Soviet patterns of (sub)urbanization through the expansion and absorbing of existing satellite settlements or high-rise developments on the metropolitan periphery (Golubchikov & Phelps, 2011). Gated institutionalized developments do exist around Tbilisi but so far not on a scale of a phenomenon that creates its own dominant urban patterns (e.g. in Digomi, along the E-60 highway, and Tsavkisi: see Sulukhia, 2009).

8. Urban planning and future developments

In the context of rather chaotic and ad hoc development process, the establishment of a new planning system for Tbilisi has been long advocated by concerned professional societies (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). The adoption of a new general/master plan for Tbilisi in 2009 might be seen as a substantial step towards finding a balance between planning and the market. The plan envisages a number of strategic changes in Tbilisi (Fig. 22). Inspired above all by the US zoning system (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011), it divides the city into different functional zones, separates commercial, residential and industrial areas, identifies heritage protection areas, and introduces the layouts of land-uses and general regulations for building and development for each functional zone.

The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009

Fig. 22. The Master Plan of Tbilisi of 2009. Source: Tbilisi City Council.

It is important to note, however, that the production and implementation of the city plan has not been without its own controversies. Firstly, many urbanists, architects, and planners complain that the plan was drafted and adopted without participation of professional and public circles. Secondly, the plan fails to incorporate sufficiently detailed schemes for transport and infrastructure development, thus raising questions over its usefulness for spatial development. Thirdly, it is rather a declarative document, as it lacks a solid view of what kind of city with what priorities will be developed. Furthermore, the emerged tradition of ad hoc development has not ceased after the adoption of the new city plan. The provisions of the plan can be changed by the Building Development Council of the Tbilisi City Council; for example, from December 2009 to February 2014, more than 1500 changes were applied to the functional zones, such as changing recreational and landscape protection areas into a residential, commercial or transport use. Besides, the government officially allows developers to buy ‘excesses’ deviating from designated building parameters in certain zones, thus actually allowing them constructing much larger and taller buildings.

The city plan still envisages several larger-scale projects. One of those is moving the railway line – rerouting it along the east side of the Tbilisi Sea to bypass the central districts of Tbilisi – thus releasing the city from transit traffic. This is envisaged to free up more than 150 ha of centrally located land for redevelopment and to better integrate otherwise isolated parts of the city. The space under the current railway infrastructure will accommodate a new public-business center with offices, retail, convention facilities, recreation and luxurious housing. Among other large-scale projects, the priority is given to the (re)construction and installation of high capacity motorways that should relieve the congested traffic regime in many parts of the sprawled city.

With the arrival of a new government in 2012 (the Georgian Dream coalition), the city authorities started a revision and partially stopped some projects approved by the Saakashvili government. For instance, the already initiated project of the bypassing railroad was halted for several months, although resumed with some changes in 2015. Some dimensions of the 2009 Master Plan have been reconsidered and it is likely that Tbilisi City Council will be requested to revisit the plan. As a step in that direction, the city government has prepared a City Development Strategy. It proposes a vision for Tbilisi in 2030 to become ‘a hub for global supply chains — creating a bridge between different civilizations in the competition for talent, technology and market’ (Tbilisi 2030, 2013: 5).

For its part, the new national government has also begun promoting new strategic projects in Tbilisi, continuing the practice of ad hoc interventions. For instance, a new flagship megaproject is envisaged to be the Panorama Tbilisi, which is to embrace formerly protected landscape areas of the Old Town. It is advertised as “the largest ever real estate development in Georgia’s history,” consisting of a multi-functional development of hotels, serviced apartments, offices, exhibition centers, conference halls and swimming pools linked by a series of cable cars. Financed by the Georgian Co-Investment Fund (GCF), driven by the tycoon, ex-Prime Minister and informal leader of the Georgian Dream coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili, it envisages a total funding of USD 500 million, supported by a number of foreign funds (Anderson, 2014). However, numerous opponents – urbanists, architects, planners, cultural heritage protectors – argue that its implementation will finally kill the authenticity of Old Tbilisi (as well as ruining the hopes of including it on the UNESCO World Heritage list) and will aggravate the traffic conditions and environmental problems. Yet, after an initial refusal in March 2014, Tbilisi City Council, following a pressure from the national government, has hinted that it will approve the project.

Although so far the powerful stakeholders manage to overplay other voices, protests increasingly disturb the former. Urban activism fuelled by younger groups begins to make a strong presence in Tbilisi and often manages to halt some projects (e.g. in Gudiashvili Square). The activists efficiently use social media to consolidate the public opinion. This tendency of a growing public interest and involvement of social groups in the urban development process gives the hope that a more balanced and participatory processes will finally gain momentum.

9. Conclusions: evolving urban governance

The modern-day Tbilisi reveals a peculiar juxtaposition of the layers of urbanization shaped around the successive historical and geopolitical rounds of empire building, industrialization, independence, marketization, and associated struggles. The present post-Soviet era in the development of Tbilisi has yet been the one that lays bare the contradictions of transition and globalization. Basing on our analysis, the period can be conceptualized as consisting of three loose phases, following the evolving configuration of the most prominent actors in urban governance:

In the 1990s, during the period of political instability, economic hardship, and weak state institutions, it was population’s small-scale initiatives that dominated the development process — though in a limited way, due to a lack of capital. Their development practices were limited to ‘self-help’ small projects and fixes. That phase could be seen as a ‘Do-It-Yourself Urbanism’.

From the late 1990s, the improvement of economic situation and strengthening business and banking sectors allowed development companies to benefit from weak planning institutions. Developers found that it was possible to enter formerly restricted yet attractive public spaces. As a result of that opportunistic ‘Investor urbanism’ phase, infills mushroomed and filled up vacant public spaces in central areas of Tbilisi, over-densifying spaces and often ruining urban landscapes.

The consolidation of the state power from the mid-2000s put national government as a major player in urban development. The ‘Rose Government’ initiated many development projects, most of which took place in the central city, dramatically changing it. The adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009 brought some regulatory frames, but the government still commonly violates them. This ‘Politically-determined urbanism’ phase has not finished with the arrival of ‘The Georgian Dream’ coalition in power.

Overall, the entire post-Soviet period has witnessed an imbalanced urban process. Tbilisi, the city that had been developed under the Soviet planning system for 70 years, has been largely rejected planning as a tool for urban regulation and consensus building. This situation is not unfamiliar in the South Caucasus more widely (Valiyev, 2014) or indeed in the ex-socialist space (Stanilov, 2007). Even during the Soviet era, Tbilisi was not a good example of a well-planned city and existing plans were not followed too strictly (Van Assche & Salukvadze, 2011). Nevertheless, the new practices of non-planning have been of quite a different scale.

While the early transition process was the one of institutional disorganization, which may be argued to be responsible for the initial neglect of urban planning processes, the more recent lack of progress in that direction, under the arguably neoliberal yet authoritarian government of Saakashvili, rather hinted at a more deliberate ideological choice, where geopolitical aspirations for integration with the European and Transatlantic institutions were sold to the population in conjunction with laissez-faire deregulations and a further neoliberal package of reforms. However, weak urban planning also meant fewer obstacles for arbitrary interventions, including from the government itself and other powerful circles, and by no means a non-interventionist approach. Indeed, a modus operandi that emerged during the Saakashvili rule was that the central government began acting as a de-facto principal ‘driver’ of urban change, even if in a peculiar, urban entrepreneurial format. Most notably, in the name of the renovation and modernization of Tbilisi, the government initiated and sometimes co-financed fancy post-modernist signature projects designed by famous architects from abroad. In combination with the historic areas’ rebuilding, these have considerably changed the city’s outlook.

From a certain perspective, these post-socialist unregulated and ad hoc urban processes are innovative, affording varied participants the opportunity to contribute in the creation of new spaces: liberated from planning regulations, they have transformed the city from the uniformity tendencies of the previous era towards a post-modern eclectic and irregularity. However, professionals and the public are seriously concerned about the impacts of this state of affairs on urban integrity, functioning and heritage. A sporadic character of such constructions, violations of building norms and rules, the occupation of public spaces by buildings of oft-questionable quality and esthetics, and the dramatic change of the historic cityscape all attract criticism of both professional community and the civil sector. More and more frequently, one could hear that Tbilisi deserves a more careful approach in order to protect its uniqueness and traditional features. Irregular infills by modern high-rises and other commercial projects in inner city are no longer easily tolerated by citizens. Both the city and national governments have recognized the need in a comprehensive urban plan for Tbilisi and have started working in that direction, as evidenced by the adoption of the new General Plan for Tbilisi in 2009. Overall, this suggests that the citizenry becomes more sensitive regarding city development. The population is increasingly recognizant of the importance of more ordered spatial processes. This also gives the hope that a more inclusive urbanism, which would balance different interests with a strategic vision as well as functionality, will eventually manifest itself more vividly.


The study was supported by the Academic Swiss Caucasus Net (ASCN) operated by the Interfaculty Institute for Central and Eastern Europe at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland (grant “Social Contents of Changing Housing Landscapes of the Capital Metropolises of Armenia and Georgia: Institutions, Stakeholders, Policies”). The authors are also grateful to the Urban reconfigurations in Post-Soviet space research network (IRA-URBAN) for offering further opportunities to refine this research. Views expressed in this paper are exclusively those of the authors.


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The South Caucasus region refers to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. It has also been historically referred to as Transcaucasia, from the Russian Zakavkazye, “the far side of the Caucasus”, reflecting the Russo-centric geopolitics of the previous eras.


This was a 3.4% increase in comparisons with the 2002 census, although this growth was mainly due to the expansion of the city’s administrative territory.

A Mehelle Film About Urban Change in Baku

The documentary below is brought to you by Ajam’s Mehelle project, an initiative dedicated to preserving the sights, sounds, and memories of rapidly-changing neighborhoods in Central Asia, Iran, and the Caucasus. Facade is a product of two years of filming in the Sovetski neighborhood of Baku, which has been the target of a state-led urbanization campaign since 2014. A follow-up film will be released in Spring of 2018.

Produced and Directed: Ajam Media Collective’s Mehelle Project
Production Help: Javid Abdullayev and Ahmed Muktar
Music: Shebnem Abdullazade and Vusal Taghi-zadeh

“The neighborhood was one large family… Sovetski was always strong, and that’s why they want to break us.”

In the center of Azerbaijan’s capital city lies Sovetski, a historic neighborhood that was once home to Baku’s oil workers and their families. Over the course of the 19th and 20th century, Sovetski developed its own distinct identity. Self-proclaimed as the “old” Bakuvians, the residents of the neighborhood have had their ups and downs; they have witnessed political upheavals, the rise and fall of various “-isms,” and economic stagnation, but they always had a close-knit community to fall back on.

Now however, the residents of Sovetski face an uncertain future. Fueled by oil rents and foreign investment since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Baku municipal authorities and the Aliyev administration have initiated many urban beautification projects to dramatically rebrand the former Soviet industrial entrepot as a center for global capital and tourism. Over the last three decades, the municipality has renovated the Old City and the adjacent Torgova district (2008), in addition to building the iconic Flame Towers (2007) and transmuting the historical industrial Black City area into a wealthy suburb known as the “White City” (2014).

The authorities have not excluded Sovetski from their vision of a ideal cityscape. In 2014, the Baku municipality ordered “renewal” of the historic Sovetski neighborhood– their labyrinthine alleys, homes, shops, and places of worship will be replaced with a public park and major boulevard. Over the course of the last three years the people of the neighborhood have resisted through protests and demonstrations, but the bulldozers have been relentless. As of Autumn of 2017, the heart of the neighborhood has already been demolished, and new sections have been marked for demolition for the coming years. Facade is a documentary about this process.

As part of Ajam’s Mehelle project, Facade is the result of a collaboration with a number of Azerbaijani filmmakers, journalists, urban activists, and neighborhood residents. If you are interested in the lived experiences of the people of Sovetski, check out the digital map below featuring 360 video, music, and other forms of media.

Informal Governance in Urban Spaces

Abel Polese, Lela Rekhviashvili, Jeremy Morris



Drawing on evidence from the competition for public spaces between street vendors and the authorities in Georgia our contribution through this article is two-fold. First, we provide empirical evidence showing the diverse role of informality in a series of settings, and its capacity to influence decision and policy making. Second, we explore the relationship between informality and power (and in particular the policy-making process) to go beyond a legality-illegality binary. Our goal is to show the influence that informality has on governance at the local but also national level. In particular, by mapping the various sources and expressions of power, informality is shown and conceptualized as a space where formal institutions and citizens (or informal institutions) compete for power, where certain aspects and mechanisms that regulate public life in a given area are played out. The importance of such a space of informal negotiation is shown to be vital in contexts where none of the two ideal types of social responses to policy problems – exit or voice options- are available.

Full Text:


Baku’s Sovetski Celebrates a Final Novruz

This photo essay features video footage from the Mehelle project, as well as photographs from Chinara Majidova, a Baku-based photographer. The accompanying text was written by Ajam Editor Rustin Zarkar. For more articles from Mehelle, click here.    

Novruz bonfires rage in what remains of the Sovetski neighborhood in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Every year on March 20th, communities from the Balkans to Western China celebrate Novruz (Nowruz, Newroz, and other spelling variations all reference the same holiday). Over the centuries numerous forms of commemoration have developed throughout this geographic space–ranging from table settings to divination, children’s games and bonfires, and even throwing hats and tightrope walking–as people have blended local traditions with the celebration of the vernal equinox. Despite the diversity of practices, a common theme runs through all Nowruz festivities: renewal and rebirth.

In the case of the Sovetski neighborhood in Azerbaijan’s capital city, Baku, the last two Novruz celebrations have been bittersweet. Sovetski residents continue to ring in the new year with fanfare and jubilation (which usually includes lighting large bonfires), but the continued demolition of their neighborhood looms over them. While many have already moved from the neighborhood, the last holdouts in Sovetski believe that this will be their last Novruz in their homes.

As we have outlined in earlier coverage, in 2014 the Baku municipality ordered the destruction of the historic Sovetski neighborhood (and home to 60,000 residents) in order to make way for the extension of Winter Boulevard and the accompanying pedestrian park. While many residents have taken the government’s financial compensation package and moved to the outskirts of the city, some still reside in the emptying neighborhood.

With most of the demolition taking place last summer, Novruz 2016 was attended by many. The streets were crowded with cars, music blared from speakers and people gathered around bonfires that dotted the neighborhood’s alleyways and growing empty spaces. Our Mehelle correspondents were able to capture Novruz celebrations in the videos below:

A short video of 2016 Novruz celebrations from the Mehelle project

Residents of all ages gather around the fire to ring in the New Year.

Family members also start bonfires in back-alleys for a more intimate setting.

360 degree video of Novruz celebrations along Murtaza Muxtarov Street.

One year later, however, the crowds have noticeably dwindled. The municipality has blocked off all major roads leading into the neighborhood, forcing people to travel by foot in order to come and go. The fires continued to rage, albeit this time fueled by construction materials, windowpanes and molding, as well as paper scraps that litter the area. Bulldozers hovered around the gathering like moths to a flame as the inhabitants listened to music, laughed, and added to the fire. Despite the constant reminder of the demolition all around them, the people of Sovetski were able to welcome the New Year the way they have done so many years before.

As dusk falls, a few groups of residents begin to make their own fires.

Young men watch the fire from the steet.

Tending the fire.

Remnants from once-inhabited homes are used as firewood.

The roaring flames attract more residents.

Bulldozers ominously watch over the festivities.

While Novruz is a time for new beginnings, it is also worth reflecting on what has been lost. In Sovetski, as well as other neighborhoods across the Caucasus and Central Asia, state and private interests are dramatically refashioning urban areas. This coming new year, Ajam will introduce two new locations to the Mehelle project: Tbilisi (spring) and Dushanbe (summer). Not only do we wish to document the changes to the built environment and the social relations embedded within them, but we hope to show that communities continue to find reasons to live and celebrate despite the struggles and the hardships they face.

Locked-in post-socialism: rolling path dependencies in Liberec’s district heating system


This paper uses the experience of post-socialist district heating reforms to tell a broader story about the continued and shared challenges that central and eastern European cities face as they grapple with the legacies of the recent and more distant past. We argue that the restructuring of this infrastructural domain has been contingent upon geographically embedded trajectories stemming from previous historical periods, while leading to the creation of new socio-technical lock-ins. The paper thus develops the notion of “rolling path-dependencies” in order to explore how post-socialist developments both overcome and supplant previous trajectories of transformation. It focuses on the northern Czech town of Liberec – a place that is known for having some of the highest heating prices in the country – to elucidate how a socially, economically, and environmentally detrimental lock-in has come into existence as a result of ill-conceived policies of marketization, municipalization, and privatization. Using evidence from official documents and interviews with policy-makers, we demonstrate how the infrastructural legacies of post-socialism both persist and are being reproduced at the urban scale even within “advanced” reforming states like Czechia.


Liberec is a medium-sized city and regional administrative center nested amidst the mountains that line Czechia’s northern borders with Poland and Germany. It has generally remained outside the attention of mainstream academic research on economic and political change within and beyond the region. Yet this city with a population of just over 100,000 people recently entered the national limelight as a result of news reports that local citizens were paying astronomically high prices for their district heating (DH) supply (Pšeničková 2015Pšeničková, Jana2015Liberec Chce Dotlačit Teplárnu, Aby Snížila Ceny. Odpustí Jí Nájemné [Liberec pressures district heating plant to reduce prices – rent will be forgiven]. Accessed May 2, 2016. [Google Scholar]). Not only did heating tariffs rise well beyond affordable levels, but households were locked into a system that prevented them from switching to a different source of energy supply. In addition, there was evidence to suggest that the local authority was indirectly supporting the privately owned DH company via a complex web of ownership interests and policy measures.

As it turns out, the Liberec case is not isolated in the context of the post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and the Former Soviet Union (FSU). In fact, a number of cities and countries in the region have struggled with the legacies of centralized heating supply systems – commonly known as district heating systems (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) – inherited from their respective centrally planned economies. This large-scale form of energy provision was emblematic of the political ideologies and urban development policies that underpinned state socialism. The system entailed the delivery of hot steam or water to households and companies via large and centralized networks of pipes and pumping stations. The water itself was heated in fossil-fuel burning plants (primarily coal, heavy fuel oil, and sometimes gas) that also often produced electricity. Under the unfolding crisis of the socialist system, the plants and networks themselves became poorly maintained, with much energy being lost between the sites of production and consumption (Bouzarovski 2009Bouzarovski, Stefan2009. “East-central Europe’s Changing Energy Landscapes: A Place for Geography.” Area 41: 452463.10.1111/area.2009.41.issue-4[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rezessy et al. 2006Rezessy, S.K.DimitrovD. Urge-Vorsatz, and S.Baruch2006. “Municipalities and Energy Efficiency in Countries in Transition. Review of Factors That Determine Municipal Involvement in the Markets for Energy Services and Energy Efficient Equipment, or How to Augment the Role of Municipalities as Market Players.” Energy Policy 34: 223237.10.1016/j.enpol.2004.08.030[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

DH systems were intimately tied to economic, social, and spatial planning practices and policies under socialism. These networks accompanied mass production and supported daily life and mass consumption of heat in standardized housing. They were also dependent on the promotion and maintenance of particular types of urban forms. The upkeep of such sizeable networks became costly and complex under the market conditions that evolved after the fall of communism. With increasing numbers of consumers switching to other energy carriers – leading to falling revenues and a subsequent need for additional price increases – utilities resorted to punitive measures to prevent further disconnection. Evidence of consumers being “trapped in the heat” has emerged in several CEE countries (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Tirado Herrero and Ürge-Vorsatz 2012Tirado Herrero, S., and D. Ürge-Vorsatz2012. “Trapped in the Heat: A Post-communist Type of Fuel Poverty.” Energy Policy 49: 6068.10.1016/j.enpol.2011.08.067[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

In this paper, we use the case of DH and the experience of Liberec more specifically as a starting point for making a broader argument about the continued importance of integrated perspectives on past and present urban transitions and transformations in CEE and the FSU. Drawing upon the multiple transformations model by Sýkora and Bouzarovski (2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), we argue that the need for a holistic view on post-socialist systemic change still holds relevance for developments in the region and beyond, because micro- and meso-scale transformations in the domains of social practice, organizational change, and the evolution of urban and regional landscapes are ongoing. These claims are developed with reference to the specific infrastructural character of DH, which embodies the institutional and socio-technical inertia of past systems, being nested in past and present urban formations and challenged by recent impacts of free market conditions. Thus, DH can tell us a broader story about the continued and shared challenges that CEE and the FSU face as they continue to grapple with the legacies of communist central planning – even in the case of countries like Czechia that are now well integrated into the sphere of Western capitalism.

In advancing these claims, we do not wish to negate or diminish growing calls for the inclusion of the post-socialist heuristic into a global sensibility of urban change, potentially entering into a dialog with post-colonial frameworks (Chari and Verdery 2009Chari, Sharad, and Katherine Verdery2009. “Thinking between the Posts: Postcolonialism, Postsocialism, and Ethnography after the Cold War.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 51: 634.10.1017/S0010417509000024[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Nor do we intend to retreat to the presumably safer space of area studies, which, as some have argued, holds the risk of driving the study of CEE and FSU cities into a corner that underplays and trivializes the wider political–economic relations that underpin changes in this part of the world (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 4: 299319. [Google Scholar]). Rather, the contribution that follows highlights the need for focusing on the systemic nature of socio-spatial processes that have been unfolding in this part of the world over the past 25 years. There is an emphasis on understanding how the period of post-socialist restructuring has been contingent upon geographically embedded path-dependencies stemming from previous historical periods, while leading to the creation of new socio-material lock-ins. We develop the notion of “rolling path-dependencies,” which signifies that new paths arise during periods of systemic change by both overcoming and supplanting previous trajectories of transformation (Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]). While challenging mainstream neoliberal understandings of transition (Åslund 1992Åslund, Anders1992Post-communist Economic Revolutions: How Big a Bang?Washington, DCCenter for Strategic and International Studies. [Google Scholar]), this perspective also holds relevance for the understanding of similar deep-seated processes of socio-spatial restructuring in other parts of the world.

Theorizing systemic change: legacies and path dependencies in post-socialism and beyond

The last 15 years have seen the publication of a significant body of academic and policy contributions aimed at unraveling the relationship between urban transformations in the post-socialist space, on the one hand, and wider political and economic developments in CEE and FSU, on the other. In contrast with the relatively prescriptive one-dimensional understanding of transition that was advanced by neoliberal economists in the early 1990s (Åslund 1992Åslund, Anders1992Post-communist Economic Revolutions: How Big a Bang?Washington, DCCenter for Strategic and International Studies. [Google Scholar]; Sachs 1990Sachs, J. 1990. “Eastern Europe’s Economies: What Is to Be Done?” The Economist, January 3. Accessed October 14, 2016. [Google Scholar]), it has come to be acknowledged that the movement to a market-based economy requires complex and lengthy reconfigurations in a multiplicity of spheres. What is more, the political and institutional application of normative reform frameworks has been preceded, supplemented, and followed by a wider range of more subtle and less visible shifts in the governance and conduct of everyday life. These involve the establishment of new regulatory principles and informal practices that are simultaneously shaped by and shape broader neoliberal agendas (Stenning et al. 2010Stenning, A.A. SmithAlena Rochovská, and D. Świątek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesMalden, MAWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Thus, post-socialist change can be seen as the emergence of a specific array of interconnected social dynamics with indeterminate outcomes. It is enacted via “multiple transformations,” whose expressions and articulations can be found in the urban landscapes of CEE and FSU (Sýkora and Bouzarovski 2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).

Post-socialist transition dynamics are geographically delimited: they take place in countries that have experienced a large-scale movement away from the centrally planned economy and one-party system (Smith and Swain 2010Smith, Adrian, and Adam Swain2010. “The Global Economic Crisis, Eastern Europe, and the Former Soviet Union: Models of Development and the Contradictions of Internationalization.” Eurasian Geography and Economics 51: 134.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This suggests that a level of commonality exists across the entire CEE and FSU space, and in relation to similar state socialist economies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Understanding the intrinsic nature of these shared features has often required focusing onto the geographical specificities of “post-socialist difference” (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 4: 299319. [Google Scholar]). However, it has been argued that a spatial emphasis on the defining characteristics of transforming CEE and FSU cities limits the ability of post-socialist urban studies to engage with wider theoretical paradigms while relegating analyses and conceptualizations of systemic change in the region to the domain of area studies (Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (Mar.): 113131. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.12332.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Moore 2001Moore, David Chioni2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” PMLA 116: 111128. [Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016Tuvikene, Tauri2016. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 132146.10.1111/1468-2427.12333[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). While constraints on space do not allow for a wider engagement with such debates within the confines of this contribution, we would emphasize that they have often neglected the temporal dimension of political and material reconfigurations associated with post-socialist urban reconfigurations. The CEE and FSU transformation process can be seen as an amalgamation of critical junctures stemming from the collective and individual decisions taken by institutional and household actors reflecting both socialist legacies and challenges of capitalism. Systemic knowledge that is applicable well beyond the post-socialist context can emerge from a conceptualization of the socio-material nature of reform choices, their relationships with wider political dynamics, and their implications for urban transformations writ large.

The significant body of literature on path-dependencies and “hysteresis effects” in CEE and the FSU (Hausner, Jessop, and Nielsen 1995Hausner, J.B. Jessop, and K. Nielsen1995. “Institutional Change in Post-socialism.” In Strategic Choice and Path-dependency in Post-socialism, edited by J. HausnerB.Jessop, and K.Nielsen345AldershotEdward Elgar. [Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]; Yavlinsky and Braguinsky 1994Yavlinsky, G., and S.Braguinsky1994. “The Inefficiency of Laissez-faire in Russia: Hysteresis Effects and the Need for Policy-led Transformation.” Journal of Comparative Economics 19: 88116.10.1006/jcec.1994.1064[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) made numerous inroads into the relationship between surviving vestiges of the state-socialist system – be they social, economic, or spatial – on the one hand, and reform trajectories followed by countries in the region, on the other (Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova 2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This work has primarily seen path-dependencies in the context of past developments, in addition to highlighting their economic sub-optimality from the perspective of neoliberal approaches. There has been a strong focus on the manner in which historically formed forces create economic and material rigidities that limit the number of options available to agents. Such arguments have often been developed with reference to the more widely observed “tendency for the geographical structure of the economy to exhibit historical ‘quasi-fixity’” (Martin and Sunley 2006Martin, Ron, and Peter Sunley2006. “Path Dependence and Regional Economic Evolution.” Journal of Economic Geography 6: 395437.10.1093/jeg/lbl012[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 414), thus shedding light on the processes whereby “an economic landscape has come to be what it is.” Indeed, the wider body of scholarship on the subject has often argued that path dependency is a fundamental feature of territorial evolution (Boschma 2015Boschma, Ron2015. “Towards an Evolutionary Perspective on Regional Resilience.” Regional Studies 49: 733751.10.1080/00343404.2014.959481[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). This is because path-dependencies are often predicated upon lock-ins, whose inflexibility can bring about stable conditions and benefits in some contexts, while preventing the emergence of new forms of internal development and flexible adaptation in others (Underthun et al. 2014Underthun, AndersJarle Moss HildrumHelge SvareHenrik Dons Finsrud, and Knut Vareide2014. “The Restructuring of the Old Industrial Region of Grenland in Norway: Between Lock-in, Adjustment, and Renewal.” Norsk Geografisk Tidsskrift – Norwegian Journal of Geography 68: 121132.10.1080/00291951.2014.894566[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). According to Setterfield (1996Setterfield, Mark1996Rapid Growth and Relative Decline: Modelling Macroeconomic Dynamics with HysteresisLondonMacmillan. [Google Scholar]), lock-ins arise when sequential patterns of activity form a “groove” that render the system “over-committed” to particular technologies, industries, or institutional regimes.

A distinct strand of research on path-dependencies has explored the process of “path-creation,” where the emphasis is on “the time that events occurred even if one were looking at data gathered in the past” (Garud, Kumaraswamy, and Karnøe 2010Garud, RaghuArunKumaraswamy, and Peter Karnøe2010. “Path Dependence or Path Creation?” Journal of Management Studies47: 760774.10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00914.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 770). Authors working in this vein have underlined the complex agencies involved in the establishment of new development paths, even if some of the traditional components – initial conditions, contingencies, self-reinforcing mechanisms, and lock-in – still exist in their conceptual vocabulary (2010Garud, RaghuArunKumaraswamy, and Peter Karnøe2010. “Path Dependence or Path Creation?” Journal of Management Studies47: 760774.10.1111/j.1467-6486.2009.00914.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). But a large part of path creation thinking has to date remained highly normative, being interested primarily in the measures and strategies that need to be implemented in a given geographical or social context in order to achieve a previously defined outcome (Simmie 2012Simmie, James2012. “Path Dependence and New Path Creation in Renewable Energy Technologies.” European Planning Studies 20: 729731.10.1080/09654313.2012.667922[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The literature on the subject has paid little attention to the spontaneous emergence of new path-dependencies in periods of change. Such lacunae also extend to the CEE and FSU space, where the recognition that post-socialist transformations are not only path-dependent but also path-shaping (Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationsLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]) has yet to be translated into comprehensive theorizations that would apply to the rise of new paths after 1990 (but see Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]). But some scholars have suggested that the sequencing of restructuring decisions and practices in post-socialism plays a key role in determining policy trajectories. This line of thinking is epitomized in Dahrendorf’s (1990Dahrendorf, R. 1990Reflections on the Revolution in EuropeLondonChatto & Windus. [Google Scholar]) “clocks” metaphor, which recognizes that diverse transformations of institutions, politics, everyday routines, and spatial formations unfold at a different pace, with some processes requiring changes in others before they can commence (Sýkora and Bouzarovski 2012Sýkora, Luděk, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). It follows that new path dependencies can emerge at critical junctures during such multiple transformations, when actors make contingent choices that define and consolidate a specific trajectory of development (Sýkora 2008Sýkora, Luděk. 2008. “Revolutionary Change, Evolutionary Adaptation and New Path Dependencies: Socialism, Capitalism and Transformations in Urban Spatial Organization.” In City and Region. Papers in Honour of Jiří Musil, edited by W. Strubeltand G. Gorzelak283295LeverkusenBudrich UniPress. [Google Scholar]).

Nevertheless, new development trajectories are not formed in a vacuum. Gentile, Tammaru, and van Kempen (2012Gentile, MichaelTiitTammaru, and Ronald van Kempen2012. “Heteropolitanization: Social and Spatial Change in Central and East European Cities.” Cities 29: 291299.10.1016/j.cities.2012.05.005[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) argue that understanding socialist legacies is essential to grasp the nature of the relationship between social and spatial change. Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) point to the mutual embeddedness of socialist legacies and neoliberal practices, which “subsume legacy, recode its meaning, and recast the formerly egalitarian spaces as an uneven spatial order” (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 617). Hence, post-socialist transition entails not only transformations aimed at the dismantling of established legacies and the formation of new paths, but also a more complex situation of living with the aftermath of socialism under an emergent capitalist regime. This is especially true in the case of large-scale materially based infrastructures embedded in urban landscapes, including public transport systems and mass-produced housing (Chelcea and Pulay 2015Chelcea, Liviu, and Gergő Pulay2015. “Networked Infrastructures and the ‘Local’: Flows and Connectivity in a Postsocialist City.” City19 (2–3): 344355.10.1080/13604813.2015.1019231[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Ürge-Vorsatz, Miladinova, and Paizs 2006Ürge-Vorsatz, DianaGergana Miladinova, and Laszlo Paizs2006. “Energy in Transition: From the Iron Curtain to the European Union.” Energy Policy 34: 22792297.10.1016/j.enpol.2005.03.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Even if they were originally constructed to achieve a higher quality of living and a more egalitarian society, these socio-technical systems have become alienated from their original purpose. The logic of neoliberal capitalism has driven their utilization for profit-making purposes, bringing forth new socio-spatial inequalities (Chester 2013Chester, Lynne2013. “The Failure of Market Fundamentalism: How Electricity Sector Restructuring is Threatening the Economic and Social Fabric.” Review of Radical Political Economics 45: 315322.10.1177/0486613413487163[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Guogis, Šilinskytė, and Bileišis 2014Guogis, ArvydasAušra Šilinskytė, and Mantas Bileišis2014. “Government-community Conflict: The Lithuanian Public Governance Challenge.” Public Policy and Administration 13: 2235. [Google Scholar]; Pye et al. 2015Pye, SteveAudreyDobbinsClaireBaffertJuricaBrajkovićIvanaGrgurevRocco DeMiglio, and PaulDeane2015Energy Poverty and Vulnerable Consumers in the Energy Sector across the EU: Analysis of Policies and Measures. Policy Report 2. Insight_E, Energy Think Tank of European CommissionMaiaccesat în data de 3. [Google Scholar]).

Methods and paper structure

The decision to focus our study on the case of Liberec was made on the basis of prior knowledge, as well as the city’s prominence in Czech public discourses regarding DH restructuring. However, this exploration was embedded in a wider documentary review of relevant strategic papers and policies at the national and regional scales. We thus juxtaposed evidence from multiple sources. The legal, regulatory, and policy background was studied by surveying the secondary literature on energy supply and heating, as well as on more general urban, housing, and planning developments. Official information about the performance of the town’s heating network was acquired from the annual reports of the Liberec DH joint-stock company (“Liberecká teplárenská”) between 2001 and 2015, as well as the Termizo waste incineration joint-stock company for 2003–2015. Information about day-to-day policy practices, relations, positions, and interpretations was obtained from interviews with eight local and national decision-makers, public policy advocates, and company representatives that took place in 2015 and were supplemented by further two inquiries at Liberecká teplárenská in 2016. The interviews lasted between one and two hours, were undertaken in Czech, and took place in the participants’ own professional premises or other public spaces. They were transcribed, translated, and analyzed interpretively, in line with the conceptual apparatus provided by lock-in and path-dependency frameworks. Interview questions focused on how relevant policy-makers understood and interpreted the socioeconomic and institutional contexts of energy, housing, and urban transformations in their everyday practice, as well as their interactions with other bodies of the state administration in addition to citizens, private companies, experts, and non-governmental organizations.

In the sections that follow, we first develop a framework for a conceptual understanding of how new lock-in situations emerge by discussing the nature of DH networks, their embeddedness in the socialist regime, and the role of the newly established capitalist system in driving them. We then turn to privatization dynamics and the overall marketization of society in the context of DH reforms. Moving to the case of Liberec, the paper subsequently recounts the story of local government responses to the structural conditions that became apparent at moments when decisions had to be taken about future developments in the heat sector. Specifically, we focus on the relationship between systemic factors such as the Liberec DH company’s rapidly declining customer base and the overall decrease in urban heat consumption, on the one hand, and increasing operating costs, on the other. This vicious circle of mutually reinforcing effects, we argue, has undermined the viability of DH systems in Liberec while trapping parts of the population and some urban neighborhoods into high costs without an exit strategy. We subsequently identify the existence of multiple and mutually related lock-in situations concerning (1) the role of historical legacies emerging at the juxtaposition of radically differing societal regimes; (2) the technical and economic underpinnings of DH operation and capacity under changing external conditions; (3) the policy challenges faced by local government amidst an organizationally complex and politically contentious decision-making landscape; and (4) the socio-spatial injustices encountered by people who live in the neighborhoods served by DH.

The legacy of district heating in Czechia

As was noted above, DH systems physically consist of fossil fuel-powered co-generation plants – or in some cases, heat-only boiler stations – connected to distribution systems involving the transport of hot water or steam via insulated pipes (Rezaie and Rosen 2012Rezaie, Behnaz, and Marc A. Rosen2012. “District Heating and Cooling: Review of Technology and Potential Enhancements.” Applied Energy, (1) Green Energy; (2) Special Section from papers presented at the 2nd International Energy 2030 Conference 93 (May): 210. [Google Scholar]). There are also local pumping stations and internal heating networks within buildings. Czechia’s first centralized supply systems of the kind were established in the 1930s and 1940s to serve the country’s then-booming industrial sector, as well as working-class housing in cities. Using modern technologies and coal for the production of both electricity and steam heating, they symbolized the modern “technological sublime” (Nye 1996Nye, David E. 1996American Technological SublimeCambridge, MAThe MIT Press. [Google Scholar]) of energy and heating delivery in urban agglomerations, concentrating energy generators and end-consumers in close-knit infrastructural reticulations (Kaufmann 2007Kaufmann, Pavel2007. “Vývoj Teplárenství V České Republice.” [The Development of District Heating in the Czech Republic.] Pro-Energy 2007: 1821. [Google Scholar]).

DH systems rapidly expanded during the first decades of communist rule, driven by a rise in energy demand generated by the expansion of heavy industry, as well as newly built residential estates in urban areas. Their built-in collectivism combined with the centrally planned economy’s focus on the construction of large plants and systems to lead to the establishment of expansive systems for the centralized provision of heat. Under socialism, DH provided the only means of providing hot water and heating for large parts of the population: the systems were literally and figuratively tied to large-scale electric power plants built at the urban fringe, from where hot water was transported to both industrial zones and residential neighborhoods. In the 1970s and 1980s, the construction of new housing estates was accompanied by the development of locally based heat networks that used less polluting sources of energy, principally heavy fuel oil and gas. However, the technologies that were applied in this context were progressively at odds with global energy efficiency and cost savings trends, principally due to a series of economic recessions and the increasing shortage of investment finance. DH currently supplies almost 1.6 million dwellings (38% of the housing stock) in Czechia, principally in larger cities (CSO 2011CSO (Czech Statistical Office). 2011Population and Housing Census 2011PragueCzech Statistical Office. [Google Scholar]).

One of the reasons for the expansion of DH in Czechia lies in the close alignment between the infrastructural characteristics of the system – massive, shared, top-down, centralized, egalitarian – and the political ideologies of the socialist state. In addition to large housing estates and industrial plants, key DH consumers included older inner city tenement-style buildings and single-family houses, as well as administrative and service buildings; schools, hospitals, sports halls, entertainment facilities, restaurants, and commerce. The systems were relatively easy to build and maintain throughout due to their alignment with the centrally planned construction of new housing, services, and industries, as well as the spatially concentrated nature of urban development during socialism. Environmental concerns also justified investment in DH, because the networks replaced coal-burning stoves in inner-city areas with a relatively less-polluting and more remote source of energy.

However, the structural weaknesses of DH systems became apparent after the introduction of a market system and decentralized decision-making. The low technical efficiency of plants and distribution networks was incompatible with new environmental criteria, especially in the case of systems based on oil- or gas-burning heat-only boilers. Poor construction standards and the lack of maintenance increased operation costs while leading to high-energy losses in the distribution networks. The system’s blanket coverage of socialist consumers under soft budget constraints (Kornai 1986Kornai, Janos1986. “The Soft Budget Constraint.” Kyklos 39: 330.10.1111/kykl.1986.39.issue-1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) – including both subsidized energy prices and the tolerance of poor financial management within companies – was challenged by the economic conditions that characterized liberalized markets, as well as the installation of individual meters. Also, the customer base of DH plants began to shrink due to the emergence of more affordable and convenient heat supply options. This trend was reinforced by the economic collapse of many industrial consumers. Thus, networks built under the centrally planned and organized system of energy production and consumption exhibited “suboptimal” path-dependent features after the political and economic changes in 1989.

Private heat: energy sector reforms at the national scale

Urban heating systems are a highly specific segment of the energy sector in technical and policy terms alike (Bouzarovski 2010Bouzarovski, Stefan2010. “Post-socialist Energy Reforms in Critical Perspective: Entangled Boundaries, Scales and Trajectories of Change.” European Urban and Regional Studies 17: 167182.10.1177/0969776409356159[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Persson and Werner 2011Persson, Urban, and Sven Werner2011. “Heat Distribution and the Future Competitiveness of District Heating.” Applied Energy 88: 568576.10.1016/j.apenergy.2010.09.020[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). While the production and distribution of electricity and gas are regulated at the national scale, DH systems are a secondary and local source of energy – they use externally supplied fuels whose chemical energy is converted into heat, and their outputs are circulated in a geographically restricted area. These characteristics influenced the Czech government’s approach towards the post-socialist regulation of DH.

After the collapse of communism, vertically and horizontally integrated socialist state monopolies in the energy sector – electricity, gas, and heating – were legally and financially unbundled, creating discrete organizational units that could be sold or handed over to private actors. Due to being seen as key strategic assets, electricity and gas networks were not part of the first wave of privatization. Coal mining and gas distribution companies became subject to the process only in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The electricity market was left in the hands of the Czech Power Utility (ČEZ) – a company with dominant state ownership and no plans for privatization. However, most heating plants and distribution networks were privatized already in the first half of the 1990s. Some systems became joint stock companies with shares that were later sold to private investors. Others were transferred to municipalities, which either sold them off or began operating them via a variety of legal arrangements. In a number of cases, local authorities have established joint ventures with strategic private partners.

The privatization and municipalization of urban heating systems shifted the state’s responsibilities onto private actors and local administrations. This process coincided with the wider movement of property rights and regulatory power towards the municipal level (how this happened in the housing sector is documented in Sýkora 2003Sýkora, Luděk2003. “Between the State and the Market: Local Government and Housing in the Czech Republic.” In Housing Policy: An End or a New Beginning?, edited by M. Lux51116BudapestOpen Society Institute. [Google Scholar]), even if many local authorities lacked the strategic, organizational, and technical capacity to manage such complex infrastructural systems. The transfer of ownership to municipalities resulted in different local approaches to the management of newly obtained assets. The entry of private capital provided a quick fix to address this set of emergent, unknown, and unpredictable socioeconomic conditions. Privatization was also supported by neoliberal discourses about the inefficiency of publicly owned operations, as well as the need to repair and reconstruct obsolete infrastructures, while covering high operational costs. Widespread opposition to long-term planning combined with uncritical support for the “free market” to support ad hoc decisions aimed at reaping quick political benefits (Horak 2007Horak, M. 2007Governing the Post-communist City: Institutions and Democratic Development in PragueTorontoUniversity of Toronto Press.10.3138/9781442684386[Crossref][Google Scholar]) rather than considering deleterious future consequences.

Nevertheless, neoliberal market conditions made it difficult to renovate the technically unwieldy assemblies of power stations, heating plants, and distribution infrastructures. Price liberalization and energy cost increases meant that people and firms alike were affected by increasing utility bills (Buzar 2007Buzar, Stefan2007. “The ‘Hidden’ Geographies of Energy Poverty in Post-socialism: Between Institutions and Households.” Geoforum 38: 224240.10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.02.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). The low-energy efficiency of heating and distribution infrastructures inherited from socialism also led to high final prices. At the same time, the costs of further upgrades and energy efficiency improvements had to be borne by end-use consumers (Bouzarovski 2015Bouzarovski, Stefan2015Retrofitting the City: Residential Flexibility, Resilience and the Built EnvironmentLondonIB Tauris. [Google Scholar]; Bouzarovski and Tirado Herrero 2016Bouzarovski, Stefan, and Sergio Tirado Herrero2016. “Geographies of Injustice: The Socio-spatial Determinants of Energy Poverty in Poland, Czechia and Hungary.” Post Communist Economies. doi:10.1080/14631377.2016.1242257.[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). All of this happened during a period when new energy providers with alternative offers were entering the market. Disconnections from the DH system led to price increases for the customers who remained part of the network. The vicious circle of disconnections and price increases could only be prevented by the will and resources of municipal or private heat providers.

DH regulation and policy in Liberec

Liberec’s centralized network of heating supply was constructed in the 1970s in order to address industrial and population growth at the time. It unified a set of disparate systems that served housing estates built during the 1960s. A key factor in this regard was provided by the availability of cheap heavy fuel oil from the Soviet Union and the desire to shift away from coal. Even though the system started to provide heat in 1977, it only became functional during the 1980s – thus supplying housing estates, schools, public service and administration buildings, and industry. Its two boilers eliminated the use of local heating sources in the city – including over 200 burners in industrial plants – thus substantially contributing to decreased air pollution in a city located between mountain ranges. Rising heat demand subsequently led to the construction of a third boiler, as well as the addition of reused industrial boilers. After the fall of communism, the system was incorporated in the North Bohemian Heating Plants holding company, aimed at providing a vehicle for privatization. Soon thereafter, the Liberec network was sold to United Energy, with the local authority maintaining a 30% stake. In 2007, the United Energy portion was sold to MVV Energie CZ, while the municipality kept its share.

Changes in ownership, national regulation, and patterns of local political representation brought about significant shifts in the management and development of the DH system, as well as the socio-technical provision of heat to inhabitants, institutions, and firms. In the 1990s the combination of tightened environmental legislation and growing oil prices led to the retrofitting of the DH plant so as to enable the combined use of gas and heavy heating oil. More importantly, the city government forged a partnership with neighboring municipal administrations (in the form of the “Termizo” company), aimed at constructing and operating a new waste incinerator. In addition to burning refuse for the entire region, it would provide heat for the DH network in Liberec. Even though the incinerator was built between 1996 and 2000 with the aid of government subsidies and a bank loan (see Figure 1), further changes in environmental legislation necessitated the addition of costly new technologies. Local government officials were unwilling to finance such outlays and thus increase their indebtedness. Instead, they preferred to use the public budget to fund other large-scale projects, such as a multi-purpose arena. It was thus decided that the new incinerator would be sold to a private investor – the PPF Group. The deal also involved the distribution network, whose ownership was evenly split between the investor and municipality. MVV Energie CZ – the same company that owned the heating plant – bought the incinerator in 2011, with the municipality maintaining minority representation on the governing board of the company. It currently burns about 100,000 tons of waste each year.

Figure 1. The district heating plant (left) and incinerator (right) occupy a prominent location in the city center of Liberec. Source: Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski.

Liberec’s municipal authorities are otherwise known for having taken one of the most aggressive approaches in the neoliberal reform process, having privatized much of their housing, land, and other capital assets (Demel and Potuzáková 2012Demel, Jaroslav, and Zuzana Potuzáková2012. “FDI and the Liberec Region: The Case of the Labour Market.” E+ M Ekonomie a Management, 1: 418. [Google Scholar]; Langr 2014Langr, Ivan2014. “Systémová Korupce Jako Empiricky Vyzkum: Prípad Mesta Liberec.” [Systemic Corruption as Empicial Research: The Case of Liberec.] Stredoevropske Politicke Studie 16: 128. [Google Scholar]). While a number of improvements were made to the DH plant in order to increase its efficiency and decrease air pollution emissions, the city-owned distribution network was not targeted at all. Investment in the new incinerator was expected to bring financial profits to its new private owners. With national heat prices being deregulated in 2005, DH tariffs in Liberec increased to levels more than double than those of other Czech cities and towns (ERU 2014ERU. 2014Výsledné Ceny Tepelné Energie V ČR – 2014 [Final Heat Energy Prices in the Czech Republic – 2014]. PragueEnergy Regulatory Office. [Google Scholar]). The private investor’s ability to secure profits from the system was strengthened by its monopolistic position on the local DH market. At the same time, city authorities faced a conflict of interest between the economic aim to generate revenues for the municipal budget, on the one hand, and the political accountability to local citizens affected by price increases, on the other. Local politicians interviewed for the purposes of our study displayed a heightened sensitivity to the need to respond to public concerns:

The two city representatives work very actively on the [DH company’s] board to make decisions more transparent. Because they represent the interests of the local people, they form an opposition bloc on the board. (personal communication, Liberec public official, March 24, 2015)

The construction of a small CHP plant in a remote housing estate – principally aimed at reducing losses in the distribution network – has been the only attempt to decrease operational costs and make DH prices more affordable in the long run.

Unraveling DH price increases in Liberec

In line with circumstances observed elsewhere (Poputoaia and Bouzarovski 2010Poputoaia, Diana, and StefanBouzarovski2010. “Regulating District Heating in Romania: Legislative Challenges and Energy Efficiency Barriers.” Energy Policy 38: 38203829.10.1016/j.enpol.2010.03.002[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), the low-energy efficiency of Liberec’s DH distribution network has been central to the price problems faced by final consumers. Not only has the municipality failed to invest in the improvement of the distribution system to date, but plans to undertake future steps in this regard currently do not exist:

It is really costly, but because we don’t know what we will do in the future, we cannot undertake the investment. Thus, we are just postponing it year after year. (personal communication, Liberec decision-maker, March 24, 2015)

Geographic factors have also played a role in driving price rises. Mountainous topography has hemmed the city into several valleys, thus lengthening the network and increasing technical losses. As stated by an administrative official:

The system is oversized, with large losses. They are due to the inefficient system of distribution, and low heat demand … We need a spatial plan to regulate district heating, like the one that was devised for Jablonec. That will give us an overview of the network. (personal communication, Liberec urban planner, March 24, 2015)

Another key factor in this regard has been the company’s shrinking customer base. As was noted above, this decrease can be attributed to wider socioeconomic trends and local transformations alike. First, the downsizing or termination of the network’s industrial consumers was accompanied by the imperative of achieving cost savings in the newly established market environment. Industrial, commercial, and public sector consumers sought to reduce their heat consumption in different ways, including using alternative fuels. Second, housing privatization meant that consumer decisions about heat supply and consumption became fragmented and individualized. Each building became represented by a homeowners’ association – a far more complex arrangement than the one that existed during socialism, when the DH company only had to deal with government or industry officials as well as a small number of large housing co-operatives. After 1989 householders responded to increasing heating costs by improving the energy efficiency of their homes via facade insulation as well as the installation of new windows and infrastructures within the buildings. This was supplemented by fuel switching towards more efficient and affordable sources.

As a consequence of such trends, total heat use halved from 1943 TJ11. A terajoule equals one trillion joules (1012).View all notes in 1997 (of which 53% were consumed by households) to 881 TJ in 2013 (at which point the share of the residential sector rose to 56%). At present, the DH system in Liberec generates only about 45% of its initial capacity, serving 16,417 households, 129 organizations (principally public administration and service buildings), and 13 industrial zones. The Termizo incinerator produces up to 1000 TJ of heat annually, approximately 70% of which are sold into the Liberec DH system. Because this supply covers nearly all of the city’s heat demand, the production capacity of the DH plant remains unused. Even though Termizo has recorded significant profits since 2004, its declining customer base directly contradicts original plans. The original DH network was intended to serve vast urban populations while creating economies of scale and scope in the provision of heat to urban agglomerations. At the same time, the system has fixed costs that have to be covered regardless of the actual volume of produced heat. Shrinking demand means that these costs are borne by ever-decreasing number of customers, signaling the demise of the city’s original plans to achieve cheaper heat with the aid of the new waste incinerator.

Barriers to fuel switching and DH development

While the inefficiencies of the central heating system are included in the final price, the DH company’s customer base has been further undermined by the emergence of alternative supply options. There is a clear economic impetus behind this: our interviewees pointed out that the price of heat obtained from the Liberec plant is approximately 800 CZK per GJ22. A gigajoule equals one billion joules (109).View all notes, while individually installed gas boilers in flats and homes require 400 CZK per GJ (personal communication, Liberec city councilor, March 24, 2015). In response to the shrinking consumer base, local authorities have actively discouraged companies and housing blocks from disconnecting. Even if disconnection cannot be openly prohibited, the municipal administration has employed various practices, strategies, decisions, and planning policies to prohibit consumers from switching to more affordable or efficient technologies. According to a decision of the municipal board made in 2008 (No. 591/08), the city’s planning office shall not endorse requests for the disconnection of buildings from the DH system. It is also instructed to disagree with the construction of new infrastructure for alternative heating in districts where DH systems are present.

In addition to planning regulation, our interviewees pointed to examples where home owners wishing to install gas boilers – DH’s main competitor – have been prevented from doing so by the local authority on land ownership grounds, with the city prohibiting piped gas connections that would cross publicly owned territory.

Liberec has a gas network with sufficient capacity, although there are parts of the city that are remote from it. Still, even if you need to lay 30 meters of pipes on public land you need permission from the municipality, and they will not give it to you. Our organization has such court cases all the time … in the past we lost many of them, because the court decided that the city has the right not to allow its land to be used for purposes that are not in its interest. (personal communication, chairman of housing co-operative in Liberec, March 24, 2015)

While such restrictive measures may help prevent deeper cost inefficiencies and increasing price levels, they have rendered the existing network politically and technically precarious. The declining customer base means that DH now serves only a part of the overall heating landscape in the city. Any investment in its improvement – now desperately needed – would have to be funded by the taxpayer. As DH is primarily a private business, how and where profits are distributed becomes a politically sensitive issue, as does the cleavage between private and public interests:

For example, politicians who are on the [DH plant’s] advisory board get big salaries for just sitting on it. These are not activities that politicians should do, and they are not protecting the interests of the city there. (personal communication, Liberec city councillor, March 24, 2015)

An additional challenge is posed by the spatial distribution of the DH system in Liberec, which itself was not originally built to provide heating to all consumers. The network does not include residential areas with low-rise family housing, older inner-city neighborhoods, villages in the urban hinterland, and recently built suburbs. DH provision has been primarily targeted towards high-rise and spatially concentrated housing estates from the socialist era. Disconnections from the system are most difficult to implement in such districts, some of which are facing wider problems of social decline and outmigration. Their specific and geographically bounded population is being trapped in the vicious circle of technical inefficiencies, shrinking consumer numbers, profit imperatives, and increasing end-use prices. Paradoxically, a system that was originally meant to provide greater levels of economic efficiency, social equity, and environmental sustainability now serves an increasingly impoverished population with the most expensive form of energy.

A complex lock-in through rolling path dependencies

The multiple drivers of price increases and barriers to DH development indicate the presence of a complex lock-in with at least four aspects. First, there is an infrastructural dimension embedded in historical legacies. DH systems – which were planned and constructed under socialism in order to meet the needs of growing populations and industrial production – are now faced with a shrinking inner city and suburban sprawl (in line with wider trends in Eastern and Central Europe, see Großmann et al. 2013Großmann, KatrinMarco BontjeAnnegret Haase, and Vlad Mykhnenko2013. “Shrinking Cities: Notes for the Further Research Agenda.” Cities 35: 221225.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Petrova et al. 2013Petrova, SaskaDarina PosováAdamHouse, and LuděkSýkora2013. “Discursive Framings of Low Carbon Urban Transitions: The Contested Geographies of ‘Satellite Settlements’ in the Czech Republic.” Urban Studies 50: 14391455.10.1177/0042098013480964[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stanilov and Sýkora 2014Stanilov, Kiril, and Ludĕk Sýkora2014Confronting Suburbanization: Urban Decentralization in Postsocialist Central and Eastern EuropeChichesterWiley.10.1002/9781118295861[Crossref][Google Scholar]), which is technically and economically unsuitable for the delivery of centralized heat supply. A network designed under the former socioeconomic system thus not only functions sub-optimally under current market conditions, but its sub-optimality is being further deepened by external and internal systemic pressures:

[D]uring the last two decades it has been known that the capacity of the distribution networks … [will remain unused] … because of the exclusion of industrial capacities that do not exist anymore, or decided to disconnect. For almost two decades it has been known that the system is inefficient because the capacity is very high, the pipes are very wide and it would be good to transform it into a system of hot water instead of steam, and make it into something smaller. Unfortunately there has been no investment into this direction during the last decade. (personal communication, Liberec city councillor, March 24, 2015)

Second, the DH system is technically and economically locked-in by cost inefficiencies and subsequent high prices for heat attributed to the technical conditions inherited from socialism. The need to undertake new investment to overcome this heritage is undermined by the downward spiral of shrinking customer numbers leading to further heat cost increases. Third, the lock-in is also political and institutional. Challenged by the privatization of key parts of the system, as well as the broader marketization of heat supply in the country, local decision-makers have attempted to resolve the DH crisis using restrictive measures that limit the choices available to citizens and firms. An alternative to these measures would be the commitment of public funds towards system upgrades, serving only some citizens while adding to the private company’s profits. For the local authority, this leads to conflicts of interest and accountability towards DH customers, on the one hand, and the diverse range of urban actors who are not linked to DH system, on the other:

The other problem is that the waste burner produces the same amount of energy as the heat plant, and during the summer they do not know what to do with that energy … So, now we have a counter-argument to the one that was presented to the public a few years ago … [they are telling us that] if the district heating system collapses Termizo will have problems and you will pay much more for the waste collection … So we would have exorbitant prices for waste collection, in addition to the charges levied by Termizo … The heat lobby is very strong – regardless of any consumer rights that are demanded, they always manage to destroy any attempts to change the regulation. (personal communication, chairman of housing co-operative in Liberec, March 24, 2015)

Fourth, the lock-in has a clear socio-spatial aspect. The geographic concentration of DH in housing estates built during socialism supplants the technical and political barriers towards fuel switching, forcing the population to purchase heat from a single private provider. The inability to move away from DH is thus concentrated in geographically distinct areas, whose precarious position is heightened by high heat costs. Municipal authorities presently have no plans to address this situation:

The law does not permit the company to establish special prices for specific social groups. The prices depend on the energy source – whether it is heat or steam – and the distance and size of the customer. (personal communication, urban planner, March 24, 2015)

Neoliberal marketization, deregulation, and decentralization have created a paradox wherein a heating supply system that can potentially be economically efficient, socially inclusive, and environmentally friendly (Rezaie and Rosen 2012Rezaie, Behnaz, and Marc A. Rosen2012. “District Heating and Cooling: Review of Technology and Potential Enhancements.” Applied Energy, (1) Green Energy; (2) Special Section from papers presented at the 2nd International Energy 2030 Conference 93 (May): 210. [Google Scholar]) has evolved into a costly economic burden that deepens inequality and exclusion. While sustainability, cohesion, and energy efficiency have now become key goals of public policy, they were downplayed in the initial days of the post-communist transformation. But the sequence of decisions made during the past 25 years has created a rigid socio-technical matrix that is resistant to change. This lock-in has developed through a rolling path dependency that involves socialist legacies, national economic reforms, and local neoliberal practices. The path dependency is associated with socially and economically detrimental effects while preventing the development of more sustainable systems of energy provision. It demonstrates that the combination of socialist legacies and chains of decisions taken during the post-socialist period may result in situations and trajectories that themselves will be difficult to address for the years to come: living in and with capitalism is an ongoing project.


This contribution argues in favor of the persistent relevance of post-socialist urban studies by highlighting how socio-technically and politically conditioned lock-ins arise, are articulated, and become embedded within urban areas via rolling path-dependent processes that have emerged after 1989 while stemming from past legacies. Inspired by a growing conceptual interest in processes of path dependence and path creation across a wide range of disciplines, we focused on the choices made by institutional actors after the demise of state socialism and the impact of past legacies and market conditions on decisions made at critical junctures. We proposed and used an interpretative rather than normative model of lock-in formation, by elucidating the sequences of decisions involved in the consolidation of a particular path-dependent trajectory.

At the same time, the notion of rolling path dependencies has allowed us to trace the roots of the current lock-in within Liberec’s heating system to a combination among the legacies of DH infrastructures inherited from socialism, national policies towards energy restructuring, and the reform of DH systems after 1989, as well as the approaches adopted by local governments with regard to the management of such networks. The continued role of path-dependent trajectories – present in the form of inherited technical infrastructures that have been re-used by capitalist market actors for profit-making purposes – underlines the need for a temporally and spatially sensitive perspective on the understanding of urban transformations in CEE and the FSU.

Thus, and to summarize, what can a theoretical perspective attuned to the systemic relationships that the multiple transitions in CEE and the FSU offer to the wider world of “posts?” For one, it brings attention to the need for understanding post-socialist change through a lens that is both temporal and spatial, by acknowledging that infrastructural development trajectories are closely integrated with inherited, existing, and evolving urban landscapes. Second, it calls for making connections between the urban implications of infrastructural transformations in the post-socialist world, on the one hand, and analogous dynamics of socio-technical change in other spatial contexts, on the other: not only because of the ubiquitous background presence of neoliberal pressures, but also due to the significant opportunities for knowledge transfer about the establishment of unintended material and institutional rigidities. Of particular relevance is the ongoing global effort to move toward a low-carbon future, predicated upon deep reforms in the manner in which energy is produced and consumed. Applying the experience of post-socialist countries to this thematic context may allow for path creation to be seen beyond the tropes of technological innovation and economic development that presently dominate much of the literature. It can also highlight the deeply political nature of the creation of new lock-ins, as well as the challenges of dealing with new path-dependent situations.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.


This work was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement number 313478; Luděk Sýkora’s contribution was supported by the Grant Agency of the Czech Republic [grant number P404-12-0648], “New Socio-Spatial Formations: Segregation in the Context of Post-Communist Transformations and Globalization.”


Stefan Bouzarovski is an External Professor at the Institute of Geography, University of Gdańsk, and a Visiting Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Bergen. The authors are indebted to Saska Petrova for her assistance in the field interviews, as well as the development of the conceptual framework of the paper.



1. A terajoule equals one trillion joules (1012).

2. A gigajoule equals one billion joules (109).


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The urbanization of transition: ideology and the urban experience

Pages 607-623 | Received 09 Oct 2016, Accepted 11 Oct 2016, Published online: 02 Nov 2016

This paper debates the relationships between transition and urbanization by problematizing the operation of transition on three inter-related levels. Firstly, at the level of ideology, it is important to rehearse the understanding of transition from that of merely area-based reforms and rather understand it as a totalizing project of planetary reach, which completes the subjugation of the whole world to capitalism and crowns neoliberalism as the only global order. Secondly, at the level of practice, it is important to properly account for the spatializing effects of that ideology – which is not simply “domesticated” by local practices, but itself mediates the subsumption of pre-existing practices by capital, thus alienating them from their history. Thirdly, at the level of the urban: while urban change is usually portrayed merely as a projection of societal relations, the urban is actually the central stage where ideology mixes with the everyday, through which the societal change is mediated; new meanings, social relations, and class divisions are construed; and through which ideological transition achieves its practical completeness. What combines these three levels is the notion of urbanization of transition, which articulates the centrality of the urban in the spectacular post-socialist experience.


Although scholars of post-socialist urbanism at times indulge themselves in reflexive melancholy over their moderate impact on the wider urban scholarship, there is actually a fast-growing and already rather sophisticated body of internationally excellent literature that addresses significant challenges and provides diverse accounts on many aspects of post-socialist urbanization, both empirically and theoretically (for some reviews, see Borén and Gentile 2007Borén, Thomas, and Michael Gentile2007. “Metropolitan Processes in Post-communist States: An Introduction.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 89: 95110.10.1111/geob.2007.89.issue-2[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Sykora and Bouzarovski 2012Sykora, Ludek, and Stefan Bouzarovski2012. “Multiple Transformations: Conceptualising the Post-communist Urban Transition.” Urban Studies 49: 4360.10.1177/0042098010397402[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Kubeš 2013Kubeš, Jan2013. “European Post-socialist Cities and Their near Hinterland in Intra-urban Geography Literature.” Bulletin of Geography. Socio-Economic Series 19: 1943.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). However, I will argue in this paper that the relationships between the two key staples feeding this literature – transition and urbanization – are still under-conceptualized, taken at face value, or fail to attract their due problematization. In this article, I discuss that point and outline possible avenues as to how to problematize those relationships through the lens of a spatial political economy.

To begin with, while urban change in post-socialist scholarship is usually portrayed as a projection of larger societal changes onto local practices, the urban is actually an important scale through which new ideologies, meanings, and social relationships are legitimized – there is a dialectical co-production between the urban and the social (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar][1974] 1991Lefebvre, Henri[1974] 1991The Production of SpaceOxfordBlackwell Publishing. [Google Scholar]). The urban is also where the wider project of neoliberal transition is “domesticated” into concrete “transformations” (e.g. Stenning et al. 2010Stenning, AlisonAdrian SmithAlenaRochovska, and Dariusz Swiatek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesOxfordWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar]); however, the latter observation should not blind us from seeing the totality of transition in the first place. The discourse in post-socialist scholarship that disavows the vocabulary of “transition” in favor of more particularized “transformations” (Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Herrschel 2007Herrschel, Tassilo2007. “Between Difference and Adjustment – The Re-/presentation and Implementation of Post-socialist (Communist) Transformation.” Geoforum 38: 439444.10.1016/j.geoforum.2006.11.007[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), while rightly challenging the reductionist assumptions of the teleological projections of the Washington Consensus, has become too seductive itself. It has moved research from the understanding of the ideology of transition at large to studying smaller and particular processes, which per se become somehow sufficient to explain post-socialist experiences, while the wider meta-change is at best read perfunctorily under the now all-explanatory narrative of “neoliberalism.”

In this paper, I rehearse transition as an ideological, totalizing – indeed, totalitarian – project and discuss the role of the urban in making it such and rendering transition its social constitution. The dialectics of the total and the particular leads me to outline the contours of what I call “the urbanization of transition,” the appropriation of urban space by capitalism, simultaneously leading to the materialization, crystallization, and consequent reproduction of the new hegemony. I support my argument with some classical writings in political economy; the work of Henri Lefebvre in particular offers a useful grammar to knit the urban thread through the ideology and practice of transition.

I organize my argument as follows. I start with discussing why transition should not be easily equated with contextual transformations, arguing that to do otherwise is a debilitating position that obscures the global significance of post-socialism. I continue with discussing the totalizing nature of transition, which functions to close the civilizational dialog over alternative human futures. I then turn to outlining the spatialization of transition – as a contingent but ordered process of the subsumption of post-socialist legacy under the exigencies of capital. Against these fundamentals, I then discuss post-socialist urbanization and how it is central to these epochal and spectacular politico-economic restructurings.

Transformations or transition?

The collapse of the state-socialist project, climaxed in the well-documented geopolitical events of 1989/1991, brought about a surge of radical societal change. Unlike regime change and retrofits in other places and times, the post-socialist momentum has rebuilt the very existential foundations of the affected societies – whose professed goal was no longer building “the bright future” of communism, with its aspirations for a classless society, good life and equity for all, but rather embracing the individualistic, entrepreneurial, and competition ethos of capitalism, framed politically as a “market economy.” The change has been underpinned by so-called “transition,” as a metaphorical and practical framework for the existence of post-socialist societies. Ex-communist societies were then all seen as societies in transition, at the core of which was a technocratic package of reforms for the economic and political domains.

Since the very start, the teleological notion of transition has been challenged. While transition has been both a prescriptive and descriptive idea, many have critiqued it for being reductionist and thus failing to account for the complexity and multiplicity of pathways engaged by actually existing transition, which is shaped by local preconditions, culture, and contingencies. It has been suggested that “transformation(s)” is a more nuanced vocabulary to analyze the processes of post-socialism (e.g. Pickles and Smith 1998Pickles, John, and Adrian Smith, eds. 1998Theorising Transition: The Political Economy of Post-communist TransformationLondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]).

While this is an accurate critique, the downside has been that – coupled with descriptive, often empiricist and positivist tendencies in much of the emerging post-socialist academic geography – this new tradition has resulted in the topic being dominated by the narrative of the idiosyncrasies of post-socialism, including the diversity of contextually specific trajectories emerging from the juxtaposition of politics, culture, history, and other legacies and exigencies. The “transformation” thesis has just gone too well with the empiricist tradition of “area studies,” while the very teleology of transition has not been scrutinized on its own terms – as an ideology – it was rather reduced to the presumed Washington Consensus’s technocracies. The most interesting accounts here had to consequently come from outside the discipline of post-socialism itself, such as Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine (2007Klein, Naomi2007The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster CapitalismLondonAllen Lane. [Google Scholar]).

Many scholars now express their discontent that the literature on post-socialism is inadequately appreciated by the wider academic world; it is either little engaged with in terms of the broader understanding of global urban change or just imports ideas already well-rehearsed elsewhere without feeding back to inform the broader debates (Sjöberg 2014Sjöberg, Örjan2014. “Cases onto Themselves? Theory and Research on Ex-socialist Urban Environments.” Geografie 119: 299319.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Ferenčuhová 2016Ferenčuhová, Slavomíra2016. “Accounts from behind the Curtain: History and Geography in the Critical Analysis of Urban Theory.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40: 113131.10.1111/1468-2427.12332[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Some searches for the relevance of the post-socialist experience in the wider world have, for example, flirted with post-colonialism, thus also subjecting transition to the ideas radiating from the world’s other corners – even if with inconclusive results as to whether post-colonialism and post-socialist are indeed good bedfellows (Hörschelmann and Stenning 2008Hörschelmann, Kathrin, and Alison C.Stenning2008. “Ethnographies of Postsocialist Change.” Progress in Human Geography 32: 339361.10.1177/0309132508089094[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Hladík 2011Hladík, Radim2011. “A Theory’s Travelogue: Post-colonial Theory in Post-socialist Space.” TEORIE VĚDY XXXIII: 561590. [Google Scholar]; Moore 2001Moore, David Chioni2001. “Is the Post- in Postcolonial the Post- in Post-Soviet? Toward a Global Postcolonial Critique.” PMLA 116: 111128. [Google Scholar]).

I believe there is a much stronger potential in the “post-socialism” subject to influence wider scholarship given its phenomenal experiences of radical societal change. However, in order to achieve this we must revert the tendencies of rejecting imagining transition as a holistic teleology or ideology. There is a need to step back from ascribing everything to the idiosyncrasies of change and to see the forest through the trees to fully appreciate the emergent co-constitution of parts and the whole; that is, to more explicitly critique transition as a totality, as an ideological hegemony, however particularized it may be at varied scales of concrete material experiences and co-constituted by these experiences and their agency (cf. Giddens 1984Giddens, Anthony1984The Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of StructurationCambridgePolity Press. [Google Scholar]).

I will discuss this more in the next section, but first a word of caution: this should not be read as simply another guise of neoliberalism, especially if the latter is taken as an all- and self-explanatory narrative. While transition has been part and parcel of neoliberalization, it nevertheless has a specific context at play – the communist ideology alternative to capitalism – and hence transition has been by far more far-reaching and dogmatic than the operations of neoliberalism elsewhere. It is even naïve to assume that the neoclassical thought and pro-growth competitive agenda underpinning the execution of neoliberalism elsewhere were the only benchmark for designing and implementing the project of transition. Gowan (1995Gowan, Peter1995. “Neo-liberal Theory and Practice for Eastern Europe.” New Left Review 213: 360. [Google Scholar]) argued that transition was not so much an economic mission as a chance to reorganize the geopolitical balance of power in favor of the hegemony of Western capital. According to Burawoy and Verdery (1999Burawoy, Michael, and KatherineVerdery1999. “Introduction.” In Uncertain Transition: Ethnographies of Change in the Postsocial World, edited by M. Burawoyand K. Verdery118OxfordRowman & Littlefield.[Crossref][Google Scholar]), neoclassical economics only happened to exhibit the right excuse of this morality by insisting that markets could spontaneously create a good world once the old one was first destroyed.

Contrary to the previous adjustment and liberalization reforms in the Global South or pro-market development-oriented “transition” in China, transition in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has specifically targeted the social constitution of the affected nations. This point is exemplified by Wedel (1998Wedel, Janine R. 1998Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe 1989–1998New YorkSt. Martin’s Press. [Google Scholar], 21) who, reflecting on the differences in the Western approach toward reforms in the Second and Third Worlds, indicates that the reform project in CEE has been not so much about exercising economic development as about exorcizing the heresy of communism:

The Second World had been “misdeveloped,” not “underdeveloped” as the Third World, pundits said. Aid to India, as an example, tended to be couched mainly in terms of economic growth, not institutional and social change. But exorcising the legacies of communism in the Second World often required changing the very nature of recipient institutions, including those of banking, industry, international trade, social security, and health care.

Transition has been a more dogmatic and, one can say, geo-ideological version of applied neoliberalism – in other words, quite a different beast, which as such requires more than the universalizing prose of neoliberalization. The geo-ideology of transition is, however, bigger than the “Second World” – transition has been a project of planetary significance, transforming, for example, the internal political economy of the West itself, as much as that of the Rest. This wider relevance of transition, beyond the geographies of ex-socialist states, is important for the understanding of the recent global transformations more widely. I will now turn to outline this function of transition.

The totalizing nature of transition

A starting point is to understand transition not simply as a technocratic project envisaged by the neoliberal teleology, which in fact collapses into various transformational exigencies, but rather appreciate transition as, above all, both ideological and totalizing. It is ideological because it is based on particular assumptions and worldviews, particular philosophies of economic and political development. It is totalizing because whatever your ideological predispositions you cannot escape it – it is all-encompassing. Indeed, transition has been one inescapable compulsion that has fundamentally transformed the life and circumstances of all people and places in postsocialist societies – irrespective of their existing situations, aspirations, or individual or collective choice.

The totalizing reach of “transition” does not mean that everything can be reduced solely to the level of totality; it rather needs be understood through the Lefebvrian conceptualization of totality as synchronically copresent levels of social practice in which “one level mediates the other” and can dominate the other (Goonewardena 2008Goonewardena, Kanishka2008. “Marxism and Everyday Life: On Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, and Some Others.” In Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, edited by K.GoonewardenaS.KipferR. Milgrom, and C. Schmid117133AbingdonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 127). Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]) discusses three such levels: the macro-level, the mixed/urban level, and the micro/private level of social reality. To Lefebvre, these are not so much scalar levels in traditional hierarchical imaginaries, but rather tools with different granularity to jointly understand forces construing modern society, so that each of these “levels” can be traced, for example, at the scale of the city.

The macro-level of social practice involves “the most general, and therefore the most abstract, although essential, relations, such as capital market and the politics of space” (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]). It is the level of “society, the state, global power and knowledge, institutions, and ideologies” ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 89); it is the level of political power that “makes use of instruments (ideological and scientific)” to modify “the distribution of resources, income, and the ‘value’ created by productive labor (surplus value)” (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 78). The micro-level involves the practice of everyday life, such as housing and habiting, typically seen as “somewhat more modest, even unimportant” ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 80) but in fact representing the very orientation of ideology, if not the whole purpose of society. The mixed/urban level is then defined as a critical level of social practice that mediates between the distant and immediate/everyday order of social reality and ensures the mobilization of the urban as a productive force in capitalist society. This understanding of the mediating, mixing role of the urban is central to my notion of urbanization of transition to which I shall return later; but for the moment, I want to focus on the totalizing aspect of transition.

One can argue that the totalizing tendencies of transition make the whole world more totalitarian, advanced democracies included. To many thinkers in political economy (e.g. Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Georg Lukács), “democratic” societies were already more totalitarian than those societies explicitly branded as totalitarian, for the totalitarian means and methods in the former are typically less explicitly political and are therefore more easily concealed. According to Marcuse (1964Marcuse, Herbert1964One-dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 3):

By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For “totalitarian” is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a non-terroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. It thus precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole. Not only a specific form of government or party rule makes for totalitarianism, but also a specific system of production and distribution which may well be compatible with a “pluralism” of parties, newspapers, “countervailing powers,” etc.

Transition effectively serves as the closure of global pluralism by neutralizing “actually existing socialism” as an alternative point of reference, thus extolling capitalism as the only viable universal system – as most vividly expressed by Fukuyama’s (1992Fukuyama, Francis1992The End of History and the Last ManNew YorkFree Press. [Google Scholar]) “end of history.”Since transition is based historically on a particular form of capitalist ideology – neoliberalism – it has just pushed the world further into the triumph of neoliberalism. The closure of socialism as an alternative can explain why the expectations of many about the end of neoliberalism and the installation of a system modeled after Keynesianism following the crisis of neoliberalism of 2007–2008 turned out to be premature, if not entirely naïve (for some discussions, Smith 2008Smith, Neil2008. “Neoliberalism is Dead, Dominant, Defeatable – Then What?” Human Geography 1: 13. [Google Scholar]; Birch and Mykhnenko 2010Birch, Kean, and VladMykhnenko, eds. 2010The Rise and Fall of Neoliberalism: The Collapse of an Economic Order?LondonZed Books. [Google Scholar]; Brenner, Peck, and Theodore 2010Brenner, NeilJamiePeck, and NikTheodore2010. “Variegated Neoliberalization: Geographies, Modalities, Pathways.” Global Networks 10: 182222.10.1111/glob.2010.10.issue-2[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stiglitz 2011Stiglitz, Joseph E.2011. “The Ideological Crisis of Western Capitalism.” Project Syndicate. [Google Scholar]; Aalbers 2013Aalbers, Manuel B.2013. “Neoliberalism is Dead … Long Live Neoliberalism!” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 37: 10831090.10.1111/1468-2427.12065[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). In this light, “the strange non-death of neo-liberalism” (Crouch 2011Crouch, Colin2011The Strange Non-death of Neo-liberalismCambridgePolity. [Google Scholar]) is not that strange at all: there is simply no longer an alternative vision in sight with which to imagine an alternative future – or, indeed, a future as such, distinctive from the endless spiral of the present at this end (or side) of history.

Is it not rather disturbing to see how well the words of Marcuse above resonate with those below by Doreen Massey half a century later (2015Massey, Doreen2015. “Vocabularies of the Economy.” In After Neoliberalism? The Kilburn Manifesto, edited by S. HallD.Massey, and M.Rustin2436LondonLawrence and Wishart. [Google Scholar], 35, 36)?

It is one of the ghastly ironies of the present neoliberal age that we are told … that much of our power and our pleasure, and our very self-identification, lies in our ability to choose (and we are indeed bombarded every day by “choices,” many of them meaningless, others we wish we didn’t have to make), while at the level that really matters – what kind of society we’d like to live in, what kind of future we’d like to build – we are told, implacably, that, give or take a few minor variations, there is no alternative – no choice at all.

Neil Smith (2009Smith, Neil2009. “The Revolutionary Imperative.” Antipode41: 5065.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar], 51) argued that:

One of the greatest violences of the neoliberal era was the closure of the political imagination. Even on the left, perhaps especially so, the sense became pervasive that there was no alternative to capitalism.

Smith attributes this loss of political imagination to three factors: (a) the collapse of state socialism; (b) defeat of anti-colonial movements; and (c) defeat of the revolts of the 1960s. One can further argue that out of these three, the first is most significant, as it is state socialism that was very much a key factor underpinning the other two, including anti-colonial movements and inspiring in different ways the revolts of the 1960s.

The end of communism has consequently prompted many to talk about a post-democratic world. As Žižek (1994Žižek, Slavoj, ed. 1994Mapping IdeologyLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 1) argues, before the collapse of socialism,

[E]verybody was busy imagining different forms of the social organization of production and commerce … today as Fredric Jameson [2003Jameson, Fredric2003. “Future City.” New Left Review 21: 6579. [Google Scholar]] perspicaciously remarked, nobody seriously considers possible alternatives to capitalism any longer … it seems easier to imagine the “end of the world” than a far more modest change in the mode of production.

This closure of the alternative economic and ideological imagination by transition uncovers the full extent of its totalitarian nature. There is no longer an intellectual point of reference from where to (out)source an alternative imagination – transition has discredited state socialism into a “post-political” consensus. Hardt and Negri (2000Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri2000EmpireHarvardHarvard University Press. [Google Scholar], 245) in their Empire quote US President Truman saying in 1947 the following: “At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.” Now even authors such as Swyngedouw (2010Swyngedouw, Erik2010. “The Communist Hypothesis and Revolutionary Capitalisms: Exploring the Idea of Communist Geographies for the Twenty-first Century.” Antipode 41: 298319.10.1111/anti.2010.41.issue-s1[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), when speculating about how the idea of communism can be a social alternative, are derogative of the experiences of the “actually existing socialism,” thus further disempowering its history from the future and subscribing themselves to the very post-political, post-democratic consensus they critique. It seems more convenient for them to imagine a disconsensus over climate change than over recent human history.

As many post-socialist scholars demonstrate, things got worse under transition as it has been experienced – the economic collapse and marginalization, the rise of poverty and inequality, class division, the loss of prospects and hope for better life for many, uneven development, environmentally and ethically destructive consumerism, inter-ethnic conflicts and intolerance, the loss of social cohesion – to mention just a few. If things have gone worse, does it mean they were better under state socialism? This only logical extension to the explicit reflections about the elements of superiority in the social organization under state socialism is, however, more or less a political taboo – exactly because of the totalizing, collective schizophrenia of transition. I recall here my conversation with one of the high-profile ideologues of the Russian reforms, still a prominent mastermind behind economic policy-making in Russia, who, when I asked him about his opinion of the large human cost of shock therapy in Russia in the 1990s, replied pompously: “to me everything is justified as long as there are no longer communists in power.” It seems that this fundamentalism is more than corrupt ethics – it is the currency of transition.

Davidow (1976Davidow, Mike1976Cities without CrisisNew YorkInternational Publishers. [Google Scholar], 238), an American journalist writing about the Soviet city, complained from within the cold war: “A half-century of unremitting anti-Soviet, anti-Communist propaganda has created an atmosphere in which there is one unforgivable sin – to portray Soviet life and communism favorably” (italic in original). As Hardt and Negri (2000Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri2000EmpireHarvardHarvard University Press. [Google Scholar], 278) further recognize,

In the capitalist world, the massive cold war propaganda and the extraordinary ideological machine of falsification and misinformation prevented us from seeing the real developments in Soviet society and the political dialectics that unfolded there. Cold war ideology called that society totalitarian, but in fact it was a society criss-crossed by extremely strong instances of creativity and freedom, just as strong as the rhythms of economic development and cultural modernization.

This is not to suggest that academic work shies away from problematizing the new hegemony; revisionist accounts that reengage with the history of state socialism and challenge the Western-centric imaginaries over socialist “pastness” are not that uncommon, even in the West (for a recent interesting example to that point see, Imre 2016Imre, Anikó2016TV SocialismDurhamDuke University Press.10.1215/9780822374466[Crossref][Google Scholar]). But on a general level, it is safe to generalize that transition has rendered the “sin” that Davidow (1976Davidow, Mike1976Cities without CrisisNew YorkInternational Publishers. [Google Scholar]) refers to – perhaps “ideological mist” is a better wording – an unquestionable truism, even without the repressive apparatus of the cold war state.The heydays of Keynesianism still provide inspirations – for some of its remarkable social achievements, although, of course, Keynesianism itself was created with reference to the competition with the “actually existing socialism.” But through the ideological mist that transition has made, even for critical intellectuals the (hi)story of actually existing socialism is now closed. This is despite that for many of those who experienced state socialism – the quick history of which in most countries will be soon surpassed by the length of “transition” – those experiences remain an important point of reference: not the totalitarian totality of socialism, but the dimensions of social justice and freedom it offered – freedom from needs, from inequality, from consumerism, from exploitation, from uncertainties, from becoming an outcast, from violence, and so on and so forth – above all, freedom to have a dream about freedom. However, as Žižek (2002Žižek, Slavoj2002Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related DatesLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 2) claims, now “we ‘feel free’ because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.” As Boyer (2006Boyer, Dominic2006. “Ostalgie and the Politics of the Future in Eastern Germany.” Public Culture 18: 361381.10.1215/08992363-2006-008[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) vividly shows in his analysis of the East/West divide in the united Germany, the Western epistemic communities systematically derogate any memory about state-socialism’s superiority as the inferiority of backward “Ostalgie”; by marginalizing it, the West is able to keep sole control over the country’s future. How cannot this remind us of Orwell’s famous: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past” (Nineteen EightyFour). But these are exactly the geo-ideological terms of transition on which the East is incorporated into the Occident.

The spatialization of transition and subsumption of legacy

The totalizing nature of transition does not eliminate the importance of seeing how it is contextualized and mediated on the ground, including the micro/private level of social reality in Lefebvrian conceptualization. Indeed, it is by generalized contextualization that the totalitarian status of transition as ideology is achieved in practice, is materialized, as it penetrates all spheres and displaces alternatives. Transition is not simply radiating from some commanding heights and spreading across different cultures; it is also articulated and contextualized from within the societies themselves on which it is imposed.

Stenning et al. (2010Stenning, AlisonAdrian SmithAlenaRochovska, and Dariusz Swiatek2010Domesticating Neo-liberalism: Spaces of Economic Practice and Social Reproduction in Post-socialist CitiesOxfordWiley-Blackwell.10.1002/9781444325409[Crossref][Google Scholar], 3, 4) rightly argue that neoliberalism is “domesticated” through engagement in everyday life’s economic practices:

[A] focus on the mundane practices of economic life enables a detailed understanding of how neo-liberalism is understood, negotiated, contested and made tolerable in homes, communities and workplaces; how neo-liberalism is lived in articulation with a host of economic, political and social others; and how those practices are themselves involved in the remaking of neo-liberalism.

It is here, in the realm of practiced transition, that we can talk about the conversion of the totalizing ideology into particularized transformations. However, this is essentially an ordered, hierarchical process – the ideology of neoliberalism-cum-transition is inescapable, as it subjugates and modifies pre-existing terms of social order, the meanings and dynamics of social and economic relations, changing not simply institutions, regulations and property rights, but the state of mind, consciousness, and the way of life. Domesticating neoliberalism is simultaneously the neoliberalization of the everyday, the appropriation of the everyday by capitalism and using it as the raw material, conduit, or agency of its expansion. Transition is not simply domesticated by local practices, it subsumes them in the first place.This can be conceptualized as “the spatialization of transition” – its materialization in specific contexts and workings over pre-existing practices. Transition is spatialized, like other hegemonic ideologies. Here, one can again invoke the Lefebvrian argument that “every society … produces a space, its own space” (Lefebvre [1974] 1991Lefebvre, Henri[1974] 1991The Production of SpaceOxfordBlackwell Publishing. [Google Scholar], 31). As Harvey (2006Harvey, David2006Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical DevelopmentLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 78) notes:

Capitalist activity is always grounded somewhere. Diverse material processes (physical, ecological as well as social) must be appropriated, used, bent and re-shaped to the purposes and paths of capital accumulation. Conversely, capital accumulation has to adapt to and in some instances be transformed by the material conditions it encounters.

Through the process of spatialization, transition allows the new regime to alienate pre-existing legacies from their ideological history. As we argued elsewhere, capitalist practice feeds on the legacies of state socialism, making them the infrastructure, and often the agency, for its own expansion (Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova 2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). As a result, transition may reveal variegated forms. At face value, those forms may be similar in appearances to the previous (socialist) forms – and may even be confused as “socialist” in function; indeed, scholars of post-socialist geographies even identify a specter of urban forms – from “pure socialist” (still little affected by transition) to “pure capitalist” (totally transformed or created by transition). But this is wrong.It is hard to find any concept that is more widely used and yet so frequently abused in the post-socialist scholarship as “legacy” (and “path dependence” as its extension). At first glance, post-socialism is all about legacy – at the end of the day it is the history of socialism that makes post-socialist spaces so unique. Socialist spaces are “remembered” for their distinctive “appearances” such as, for example, the uniform residential high-rises, large collective public spaces, or monumentality in urban design. But even where not unique in form and function, “socialist geographies,” such as socialist-era industrial landscapes and built environments, are categorized as “slow-to-change socialist legacies.” Continuities here tend to be over-emphasized to the fetishism of legacy and neglect the fluid nature of legacies themselves. The historicity of post-socialist geography is then mystified by these “legacies” so that the very process of post-socialist transition is imagined along the binaries of “legacies vs. change” – the less legacy that remains, the further transition (into capitalism) goes. Even the rapidly escalating patterns of uneven spatial development and social inequalities are also ascribed to this “path-dependent” process, so that, for example, the degree of embeddedness in socialist era conditions which places are more or less successful in the market economy.

However, legacy is never fixed in the past, it is rather interpreted, co-produced by the present. The understanding of transition as totalizing helps to better see that. Once (neoliberal) capitalism is imposed by transition on the formerly socialist geographies (including their productive assets, infrastructure, housing, but also everyday life more generally), it assigns a particular meaning to “legacy,” which would have been different should the very same legacy have been embraced by a different regime. Rather than being an independent constant, socialist legacy is subsumed by capitalism and is alienated from its own history to become conducive to the capitalist processes themselves. Legacy is an important factor of change, but it is mediated by, more than it mediates, transition.

We have previously conceptualized this mutual but hierarchical embeddedness of capitalism and socialist legacy as “the hybrid spatialities of transition” (as opposed to path-dependent transition), which, according to Golubchikov, Badyina, and Makhrova (2014Golubchikov, OlegAnna Badyina, and Alla Makhrova2014. “The Hybrid Spatialities of Transition: Capitalism, Legacy and Uneven Urban Economic Restructuring.” Urban Studies 51: 617633.10.1177/0042098013493022[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), represent “strange geographies” that function according to the tune of capital but often conceal their capitalist nature with “legacies,” even though the latter have quintessentially been alienated from their ideological, institutional, and economic history. Hybrid spatialities represent the mutual containment and reconciliation of otherwise highly contradictory tensions between the spatial ideologies of state-socialism inscribed into the previously egalitarian landscape of economic geography and those of neoliberalism with its anti-egalitarian and exploitative effects.

In other words, the social and physical conditions of cities and their fortunes may seem to depend on their geography and legacy, but the root causes of their crises or otherwise are in the existing socio-political system – which twists, distorts, or recreates the meanings of the inherited landscape in its own image. This is why when under state-socialism the geographical differences served the egalitarian project of equalizing development, under capitalism, as Harvey (2010Harvey, David2010A Companion to Marx’s CapitalLondonVerso. [Google Scholar], 290) contends, even minor inequalities “get magnified and compounded over time into huge inequalities of influence, wealth and power.”

Urbanization of transition

Through the process of spatialization, transition allows capitalism to penetrate all pores of social life and transform it. But this is importantly mediated by urbanization (broadly understood). Usually the focus of post-socialist urban scholarship is only on how cities are changing in response to their exposure to capitalism and to associated social and politico-economic changes, leading to particular forms of post-socialist urban transformation. However, it is very much urban experiences themselves through which transition has taken its practical contours and disciplining power and by which it produces new social structures and relationships.

As a starting point, let us consider Brenner and Theodore’s argument (2002, 28Brenner, Neil, and NikTheodore2002. “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism’.” In Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban Restructuring in North America and Western Europe, edited by N.Brenner and N.Theodore232OxfordBlackwell.10.1002/9781444397499[Crossref][Google Scholar]):

[C]ities are not merely localized arenas in which broader global or national projects of neoliberal restructuring unfold … [C]ities have become increasingly central to the reproduction, mutation, and continual reconstitution of neoliberalism itself … [C]ities have become strategic targets for an increasingly broad range of neoliberal policy experiments, institutional innovations, and politico-ideological projects. Under these conditions, cities have become the incubators for many of the major political and ideological strategies through which the dominance of neoliberalism is being maintained …

This understanding echoes Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]), to whom, as I noted before, the urban plays a key role in mixing, mediating between the macro-dimensions of the social order and the micro-reality of everyday life. The production of urban space thus contributes to hegemony by fusing the immediate realm of lived space with the larger social order. Here, the production of space is not limited to the projection of regimes and ideologies onto the urban, but it is part of the production of social relationships:

The urban phenomenon and urban space are not only a projection of social relationships but also a terrain on which various strategies clash. They are in no sense goals or objectives, but means and instruments of actions. (Lefebvre [1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar], 87)

Lefebvre ([1970] 2003Lefebvre, Henri[1970] 2003The Urban RevolutionMinneapolisUniversity of Minnesota Press. [Google Scholar]) argues that the latest stages of capitalism are characterized by a transition from industrialization to urbanization as the totalizing social “episteme.” As Prigge (2008Prigge, Walter2008. “Reading the Urban Revolution: Space and Representation.” In Space, Difference, Everyday Life: Reading Henri Lefebvre, edited by K. GoonewardenaS. KipferR. Milgrom, and C. Schmid4661LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar], 49) explains this:

It is no longer the industrial and its disciplines focusing on capital and labor, classes and reproduction that constitute the episteme (the possibility of knowing the social formation), but the urban and its forms focused on everydayness and consumption, planning and spectacle, that expose the tendencies of social development … Compared to homogeneous industrial space, urban space is differentially constituted. This heterogeneous structure predestines urban space to clarify contemporary social forms.

This understanding can also be traced in the analysis of demand-side urbanization in much of David Harvey’s work on the urbanization of capital and urbanization of consciousness (Harvey 1985a, 1985b, 1989Harvey, David1985aConsciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press.
Harvey, David1985bThe Urbanization of Capital: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press.
Harvey, David1989The Urban ExperienceBaltimore, MDJohns Hopkins University Press. 
). In Consciousness and the Urban Experience, Harvey (1985aHarvey, David1985aConsciousness and the Urban Experience: Studies in the History and Theory of Capitalist UrbanizationBaltimore, MDJohn Hopkins University Press. [Google Scholar], 262) notes:

Individuals draw their sense of identity and shape their consciousness out of the material bases given by the individualism of money, the class relations of capital, the limited coherence of community, the contested legitimacy of the state, and the protected but vulnerable domain of family life. But they also do so in the context of how these material bases intersect within a produced urban milieu that institutionalizes and reifies the social and physical pattering of all such human relations in space and time. The urbanization of capital – so vital to capitalism’s survival as a dominant mode of production and consumption – entails a particular configuration of these different loci of consciousness formation.

Post-socialist transition too is aligned with the epistemic transition from industrialization to urbanization as the locus of consciousness formation. While the logic of social development under socialism was much bound to industrialization (social and spatial regulations were contingent on the industrial), post-socialism makes a transition to consumption and urbanization (social and spatial regulations are contingent on the urban). As Russian political philosopher Sergey Kara-Murza (2005Kara-Murza, Sergey2005Poteryannyy Razum [Lost Reason]. MoscowAlgoritm. [Google Scholar]) suggests, the rapid processes of privatization, focused on the socialist-era industrial sector, were succeeded by more far-reaching processes of the consolidation of capital over, and colonization of, the domain of the everyday, of the domain of the urban. Indeed, under the conditions of de-industrialization (also underpinned by the break-up of former supply chains), the urban domain offered new, wider, and more sustained opportunities for accumulation strategies. The processes of the subsumption of the pre-existing materialities and practices have become more focused on everyday life and urban space rather than on productive assets.Although the focus of socialist development was on the real sector of production, the city of socialism (at least where socialism took its advanced forms, such as in Soviet Russia) played the very important role as a social(ist) contract – providing quality of life to working people in exchange for their labor in the production process. This philosophy has been antagonistic to the capitalist logic of private profit maximizing (as opposed to collective value maximizing). To all the discussion whether cities of communism and cities of capitalism were different or not too much (Andrusz, Harloe, and Szelenyi 1996Andrusz, GregoryMichael Harloe, and Ivan Szelenyi, eds. 1996Cities after Socialism: Urban and Regional Change and Conflict in Post-socialist SocietiesOxfordBlackwell.[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Hirt 2013Hirt, Sonia2013. “Whatever Happened to the (Post)Socialist City?” Cities 32 (Supplement 1): S29S38.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), the former were tightly bound to very different philosophies.

Making the urban dance to the tune of capitalism and alienating the inherited social and urban forms from socialist ideology (that had either generated them or previously appropriated them from the pre-socialist regimes) creates serious ruptures with the previous philosophy of the city.

Under socialism, value extracted from more productive agents was re-invested in less productive sectors and also financed vast (often unproductive in capitalist sense) public expenditure, so that the return on re-invested capital was often partial, but the potential was being accumulated for the long-term development of social and economic capital. In contrast to that system, the new regime is indeed based on the ideology of maximization of profits, reduced public budget, and shortened investment horizons.

Through the commodification, financialization, and revalorization of housing, real estate, and other urban assets – strategies sought by both markets and regulations – urban space is very much reduced to the operation of capital. Social inequalities, injustices, and uneven development are naturalized by their mystification as the “natural conditions” of the circulation of money and commodity and people’s divergent skills and luck in acquiring personal wealth to accommodate themselves at different levels of consumption. Denouncing and de-legitimizing the practices of state socialism as an “unnatural” experiment, national and urban regimes of post-socialist transition can only legitimize their push of neoliberalization and austerity politics even further than the collective memory of the welfare state allows governments in Western Europe.

At the scale of the city, new urban consumption-based semiotics lubricates class transformation. While socialist societies were relatively egalitarian and structured mostly according to merit and profession, the new society demands new class consciousness – new etiquettes, ethics, and esthetics, new semiotics for distinguishing social position and status. High levels of income inequality are registered everywhere under post-socialism; however, income per se is not a sufficient factor of class division and true social inequality. More significant is how income translates into life chances, consumption “freedom,” and social privilege. Here, it is the consumption of urban space and segregation (including through gentrification and suburbanization) that complete this translation. For example, informed by the symbolic meanings of what locations and types of housing are “prestigious” or not, housing markets differentiate income groups, who are now in search of defining and securing their own class status (Badyina and Golubchikov 2005Badyina, Anna, and Oleg Golubchikov2005. “Gentrification in Central Moscow – A Market Process or a Deliberate Policy? Money, Power and People in Housing Regeneration in Ostozhenka.” Geografiska Annaler B87: 113129.10.1111/geob.2005.87.issue-2[Taylor & Francis Online][Google Scholar]; Golubchikov and Badyina 2006Golubchikov, Oleg, and Anna Badyina2006. “Conquering the Inner-city: Urban Redevelopment and Gentrification in Moscow.” In The Urban Mosaic of Post-socialist Europe: Space, Institutions and Policy, edited by S. Tsenkovaand Z. Nedovic-Budic195212HeidelbergSpringer.10.1007/3-7908-1727-9[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Spatial formations thus work as a medium to transform income inequalities into social status – consuming space is what sustains social reproduction and iterates classes today, more than, for example, industrial-era production-based class struggle. This is a mechanism of the establishment and reproduction of dominance in the urban society of consumers, more aligned with Weber’s vision, rather than a product of more explicit class struggle under industrial capitalism, as in Marx’s teaching.

All this, of course, changes the raison d’être of the city. Rather than being a vehicle for spatial equalization and redistribution, for a purposeful evolution of social consciousness towards “a fair and egalitarian society,” the post-socialist city has become a dividing and divided experience – with increasing social and economic disparity and polarization at both inter-urban and intra-urban scales. It is not only that the principle of the egalitarian re-distribution of wealth was replaced with the neoliberal principle of self-reliance, but the new regime has also created preconditions for the extraction of wealth from the large majority of people and places and its re-concentration in the hands of the select few (people and places).


While studies of post-socialist cities demonstrate much appetite and aptitude in investigating various aspects of urbanization under the profound and radical politico-economic changes experienced under transition, there is still much room to reveal how post-socialist urban space has been an intensive and oft-cruel battlefield – over ideas, powers, social, economic, and political practices, identities, symbolism, understandings, and meanings. There is still much room to reveal the appropriation of urban space through various mechanisms – privatization and commodification, investment and disinvestment, violence and conformity, resistance and resilience, negation, interrogation and negotiation, location, relocation and displacement, exclusion and segregation, new representations of space, and new spaces of representation. There is still much room to reveal different agencies in these rapid and complex processes – state, markets, and people – in their different embodiment, organization and identification.

What is particularly missing from the current urban debates is a meta-narrative that would match the significance and extent of the meta-change in question. Extant studies focus on forms and appearances of urban processes rather than on the new ontologies of the urban, which may be understood not simply as a reflection or projection of new institutional and social order but as a key mediating instrument that “mixes” the ideological and the everyday and thus renders the new totalizing ideology its concrete practical contours and control over the production and reproduction of social relationships.

My intention in this paper has been to start problematizing the relationships between transition and the urban. To this end, I debated the importance of revisiting transition on three key levels, which in their cumulative co-construction offer a better understanding of the centrality of the urban in the spectacular post-socialist dynamics. Firstly, at the level of ideology, it is important to understand transition as a totalizing doctrine, which completes the subjugation of the whole world to capitalism and firmly crowns neoliberalism as the only global order. Like the rise of state socialism in the twentieth century, transition is a process of planetary reach and significance that has already radically changed the destinies of peoples, irrespective of whether living within or outside the spaces of (post)socialism. Secondly, at the level of practice, it is important to properly account for the spatializing effects of that ideology – which is not simply “domesticated,” but subsumes pre-existing practices altogether, alienates them from their own ideological history, and recasts them under the exigencies of capital(ism). Thirdly, at the level of the urban, while urban change is usually portrayed merely as a projection of larger societal changes, the urban needs to be seen the central stage through which the societal change is mediated; new meanings, social relations, and class divisions are construed; and through which transition achieves its practical, corporeal completeness.

Cities are actually an important social framework and material locale for the production and reproduction of the new relationships of (neoliberal) capitalism, including class (trans)formation and the production of uneven development. The urbanization of transition is thus a fulcrum of social and spatial regulation. In other words, urbanization is a major institutional dimension of transition, not simply its playground.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


Thanks to Anna Badyina for providing me with useful suggestions. Some ideas feeding into this article were previously presented at the Friction Spaces Lecture Series at Leuven (thanks to invitation from Manuel Aalbers and Mirjam Büdenbender) and at the Sixth International Urban Geographies of Post-Communist States (Cities after Transition) Conference. Usual disclaimers apply.


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