Post-Soviet Public Space

Loss and (re-)construction of public space in post-Soviet cities

Carola Silvia NeugebauerLela 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,

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.

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