Soviet factory towns have turned out to be unworkable under a globalised market economy – but these cities continue to live. I traveled to Georgia’s metal town of Rustavi to find out more.
Yerevan’s Circular Park: Commercial Interests, Illegal Construction Deprive Citizens of Much Needed Green Space (Part 1)
By Amalia Margaryan and Ani Hovhannisyan
“Yerevan’s Circular Park was envisaged as a green space, some 2,500 meters long and averaging 120 meters wide, to provide residents with a respite from the noise and fumes resulting from a fast-developing urban landscape in the Armenian capital.
Little of the green remains today. Cafés, amusement parks and other assorted commercial establishments have been built on the land over the years.
Hetq reporters filed a query with the Yerevan Municipality and obtained copies of 57 contracts between private companies and Yerevan Municipality on privatization, construction and rent in the Circular Park.”
By: Johanna Bockman
This article was originally posted in the March NewsNet; for a full list of sources please see the original.
Over the past three years, I have been conducting a historical study of gentrification and displacement in Washington, DC. At the same time, I have also been working on a project about the 1980s debt crisis from the perspectives of the Second and Third Worlds. I find it stressful to work on very different projects and follow several, very different literatures – for example, on the one hand, American urban sociology and, on the other, Eastern European Studies focused on economics and finance. It often seems like I am operating in two different, unconnected worlds. This sense of disassociation results at least in part from the post-1989 reorientation and ultimately destruction of networks that had once connected these worlds and literatures. Here I explore these connections and apply the lessons of post-socialist studies to a less conventional space, specifically Washington, DC.
Post-socialism may seem irrelevant to DC since it has long been a major center of capitalism. However, one could argue that everyone, and especially major actors in the Cold War, have experienced “the global post-socialist condition” in some form or other(Gille 2010). The city of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank reshaped Soviet and post-Soviet space, relating to it in new ways. Yet, there are many DCs. For example, in the late 1970s, the city of Black Power forged DC into a democratic socialist space, connecting many parts of the city to the socialist and Third Worlds. After 1989, within DC, the city of the IMF and the World Bank implemented the same shock of post-socialist neoliberalism that Black Power fought against. The lessons of post-socialist studies should, in fact, be helpful to the study of DC. Here I have put together a list of potential applications of these lessons.
In the early 1990s, a nationalist paramilitary group called the Mkhedrioni stripped Tbilisi of its central heating infrastructure, pipes and all, and sold it illicitly in Turkey. To this day, most buildings are heated by private boilers. At the same time, tens of thousands of internally displaced people (or IDPs) were pouring into the capital, fleeing civil war in separatist Abkhazia, occupying whatever empty buildings they could find. Many are still in place. Then there was the 2002 earthquake that destroyed or destabilised much of the Old Town. Many formerly Soviet cities suffered in the years immediately after the collapse of the Union, but Tbilisi got a rougher deal than most.
What purpose does an architecture biennial serve in a city like this? The high-end example of self-important institutions like Venice won’t cut it here. Tbilisi is a relatively small city and its architectural scene is close-knit, but its problems are profound, and they need intellectual as well as practical solutions. The inaugural Tbilisi Architecture Biennial (TAB), held in October and sponsored in part by Creative Europe, attempted to offer some. The artistic directors — Tinatin Gurgenidze, Gigi Shukakidze, Otar Nemsadze, and Natia Kalandarishvili — decided to make “informality” the central theme of the event, with the title Buildings Are Not Enoughreinforcing that TAB was as much about ideas as the built environment.
Informality has been a buzzword in architecture for years now, but what took place in Tbilisi was not an exercise in taste-making. The city’s appearance is defined by a million private modifications and extensions, responses to natural disasters, economic hardships, and population flux. Nowhere is this more evident than in Gldani, the Soviet suburb where the Biennial was based. Here, the uniform, prefab nature of the rows of apartment blocks is constantly and conspicuously disrupted by informal interventions: balconies bricked in against the cold, heating pipes knocked through walls, endless garages erected out of scrap metal.
- Carola Silvia Neugebauer, Lela Rekhviashvili, (2015) “Loss and (re-)construction of public space in post-Soviet cities”, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 35 Issue: 7/8, https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSSP-04-2015-0042
This Special Issue of the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy is devoted to the question of the transformation of public spaces in post-Soviet cities. The Special Issue seeks to contribute to the existing body of multi-disciplinary literature on public urban spaces in general and to the discussion on public spaces in post-Soviet cities in particular. Given the diverse urban contexts and trajectories of post-socialist space and the limited research at hand, the Special Issue aims to advance the understanding of public space and its (re-)production in post-Soviet cities, while paying special attention to the consequences of change, i.e. to the controversy surrounding the (re-)construction and loss of public space. The aim of this editorial is to embed conceptually the interdisciplinary and empirically rich papers presented here in the hope of stimulating much needed future research on public space in the post-Soviet region. The editorial summarises the main arguments of the papers included and brings forward initial observations in terms of contextual specificities, characterising and framing the ongoing transformation of public space in post-Soviet cities.
The Special Issue builds on the acknowledgment in interdisciplinary academic literature of the importance of public space as a site for power and resistance and as a facilitator of social and economic exchange, as well as a stage for art, architecture and performance (Orum and Neal, 2009). Public space brings social cleavages into the open, while at the same time shaping them. Public space is, in consequence, a highly interesting issue for urban research, local practice and urban life. This is especially true with regard to the transformation of publicness and public space in post-Soviet cities, which has so far lacked scholarly attention apart from notable exceptions such as an edited volume on “Urban Spaces after Socialism” (Darieva et al., 2011). This lack of scholarly attention is regrettable given that critical debates on the transformation of public space can serve as an opportunity to better understand post-Soviet societies; their cleavages and cohesion, functioning and negotiation, inherited and newly adopted values and concepts.
Our interest in the transformation of public space in post-Soviet cities stems from both its promising theoretical value for different disciplines in the social sciences and its practical relevance in terms of local quality of life and future urban development. Both interests are linked on the one hand to the fundamental and abrupt shifts in society and space which took place after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 and on the other hand to the specific and long-lasting experience of Soviet state socialism, in contrast to other urban trajectories in Europe. So, even though the boundaries of the public/private dichotomy and the relevance of public space in the Soviet Union are still debated, there is a considerable consensus among scholars which suggests that public spaces in the Soviet period were of limited use, due to extensive political control and surveillance which effectively turned the ideal of “everyone’s space” into “no-one’s space” (Zhelnina, 2013). Recent developments in post-Soviet cities also imply ambivalent but relevant trends for public space. They suggest new liberating opportunities for reconstructing public space after 1990, and at the same time imply the loss of publicness due to new exclusive hierarchies (Darieva et al., 2011) caused by a number of fundamental, post-socialist shifts. Among these shifts are:
the ideological and political shift, which among other things puts into question the meaning of public space for state representation, nation building and collective identity/memory on the one hand (Virág Molnár, 2013) and the level of state control and surveillance over urban space on the other hand;
institutional reforms, which triggered hybrid urban governance and planning arrangements (Stanilov, 2007; Lankina et al., 2008), offering new opportunities for civic participation in urban space as well as producing new exclusive decision-making practices (Tynkkynen, 2009);
economic changes, which are linked to the emergence of new types of economic infrastructure such as central business districts (CBDs), shopping malls and revitalised city centres, as well as the emergence of new economic practices such as privatisation and commercialisation on the one hand, and tenuous informal practices on the other; and
the social shift, which includes processes of socio-economic polarisation and marginalisation in urban communities as well as changing values and concepts, underlying citizens’ perceptions and treatment of urban public space.
Across the former Soviet Union there are countless examples of monolithic structures rising high from the ground to shelter, collect or govern the citizens living in their shadows.
These strange, sloping forms, concrete parabolic rises and angular designs signify an age of futuristic optimism manifest in the built environment. But what is the relationship between monuments or buildings designed by one regime and passed onto a public for whom that no longer applies? What is their legacy? How are these spaces recontextualised in contemporary society?
The theme of the Venice Architectural Biennale this year was ‘Reporting from the Front’. Curator Alejandro Aravena invited participants to respond and reflect on the role of the architect in the struggle to improve living conditions for all. Titled VDNH Urban Phenomenon, the Russian pavilion showcases the ‘global significance’ of the 2,379,000 sq m VDNKh park in Moscow.
By Federico Bellentani
Monuments and memorials are built forms with commemorative as well as political functions. They can articulate selective historical narratives focusing attention on convenient events and individuals, while obliterating what is discomforting for an elite. While articulating historical narratives, monuments can set cultural agendas and legitimate political power. Thus, elites design monuments to convey the kinds of ideals they want citizens to strive towards.
This is particularly evident in transitional societies associated with regime change (Grava 1993: 19-10). In transitional societies, monuments and memorials are used to set cultural and political agendas and to educate citizens toward dominant meanings (Tamm 2013). Nevertheless, individuals can differently interpret and use monuments in ways designers might have never envisioned.
This post argues that a connection between analytical frames developed in the field of cultural geography and semiotics can contribute to a better understanding of the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials in regime change.
Three limitations of the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on monuments and memorials
There is a significant geographical and semiotic literature looking at the multiple interpretations of monuments and memorials. Cultural geography has assessed the role of monuments in perpetuating cultural norms, social order and power relations. Since David Harvey (1979) analysed the political controversy over the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris, several publications in human and cultural geography have appeared documenting the cultural and political significance of monuments (Wagner-Pacifici and Schwartz 1991; Hershkovitz 1993; Johnson 1995; Peet 1996; Withers 1996; Atkinson and Cosgrove 1998; Osborne 1998; Dwyer 2000; Whelan 2002; Hay et al. 2004; Benton-Short 2006). Despite variety in empirical analysis, this geographical research has based on two common assumptions. First, monuments play an important role in the definition of a uniform national memory and identity. Second, monuments are tools to legitimise and reinforce political power. These two assumptions can be seen as interdependent: in practice, the national politics of memory and identity embodied in monuments can legitimise and reinforce political power.
While assessing the role of monuments in perpetuating power relations, geographers have rarely discussed how the materiality of monuments can effectively convey political messages and thus legitimate political power. Furthermore, geographical research has tended to focus on the elite intentions, while underestimating how monuments are interpreted at non-elite levels.
By inviting questions on ‘readership’, semiotics has sought to overcome the restricted focus on the designers’ intentions that has characterised the geographical approach. Inspired by the debate around the conflation between memory, history and place (e.g. Nora 1989), semiotics has begun to analyse monuments as communicative devices to promote selective “discourses on the past” (Violi 2014: 11, my trans.). Discourses on the past always present a “partial vision” focusing attention on selective histories while concealing others (Eco 1976: 289-290). As a consequence, discourses on the past can affect present and future identity as well as the ways in which individuals represent themselves and relate to each other (Violi 2014: 18). Several semiotic analyses have aimed to explain how monuments can establish specific understandings of the past addressing the effects a given material representation of memory has had at the societal level (Pezzini 2006; Sozzi 2012; Abousnnouga and Machin 2013).
Despite the efforts to focus attention on ‘readerships’, the key limitations identified in the geographical perspective persist in the semiotic analysis of monuments and memorials. Semiotic analysis has scarcely discussed how the materiality of monuments actually conveys political meanings. Moreover, it has largely considered non-elite interpretations as spontaneous reactions to more prominent elite meanings.
In brief, the geographical and the semiotic perspectives on the interpretations of monuments and memorials have grounded themselves on three key limitations:
- There has been no extended discussion of how the material and the symbolic levels of monuments actually convey political meanings.
- There has been no extended discussion of how monuments actually reinforce political power.
- Little attention has been paid to how monuments are interpreted at the non-elite levels.
A holistic perspective on meaning-making of monuments and memorials
A holistic perspective connecting analytical frameworks in cultural geography and semiotics can overcome the limitations identified in the section above, developing a theory that conceives the interpretations of monuments and memorials as depending on three interplays: a) between the material, symbolic and political dimensions; b) between designers and users; and c) between monuments, the cultural context and the built environment.
Published in the Journal of Conflict Transformation Feb. 2018
- Identity Construction and the Politics of Memory
- Georgia: History Revaluation
- Soviet Memorial Sights of Tbilisi
- Memorial Sites of Modern Tbilisi
- Dealing – Away – With the Past
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.”
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.”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.