Category Archives: Post-Socialist

Soviet Monuments

Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument in Moscow. Photography
Worker and Kolkhoz Woman monument in Moscow. Photography: Andrey S. Shulgin

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.

Monuments and Memorials

Monuments and Memorials in Changing Societies: A Semiotic and Geographical Approach

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:

  1. There has been no extended discussion of how the material and the symbolic levels of monuments actually convey political meanings.
  2. There has been no extended discussion of how monuments actually reinforce political power.
  3. 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.

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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.

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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.


Zombie socialism and the rise of neoliberalism in post-socialist Central and Eastern Europe


Many scholars have asked themselves if and for how long they should use the concept of “post-socialism.” We review some ways in which post-socialism is no longer used productively and suggest that one way to analyze the enduring effects of socialism (a useful role for the concept of post-socialism) is by paying attention to how economic and political elites in Central and Eastern Europe continue to use the ghost of state-socialism as the ultimate boogeyman, disciplinary device, and “ideological antioxidant.” We call this blend of post-1989 anti-communism and neoliberal hegemony “zombie socialism,” and we argue that it is a key component of contemporary capitalism in Central and Eastern Europe. We illustrate briefly some cases of zombie socialism, using data such as EU 28 statistics on labor, wages, work–life (im)balance, income tax, housing, and housing policies to show the effects of this hegemonic discourse. The presence of zombie socialism for almost three decades in Central and Eastern Europe made some of these countries “more” capitalist than countries with longer capitalist traditions in Europe. We join others who have suggested that there is nothing to transition any longer, as the “transition” is long over.

For a quarter of a century we have condemned communism increasingly stronger. Five years from now we will probably fight it as Ceausescu [in the 1980s] was fighting the Fascism [of the 1930s] … At a more profound level, condemning real-existing communism has been perverted in condemning any social claim: Do you want a salary raise? You are communist. Do you want public services? Do you want to tax the rich and ease the burden on small producers and wage earners? You are a communist and you killed my grandparents. Do you want public transportation instead of highways? You are mega-communist and a retarded hipster. (Rogozanu 2014Rogozanu, Costi2014. “Condamnarea ritualică a comunismului și de unde începe reformarea stângii[The Ritualic Condemnation of Communism and from Where Does the Reformation of the Left Begin].” Accessed July 15, 2016. [Google Scholar])

Introduction: socialism from post- to ghost

The quote above expresses in a nutshell a political and cultural process spreading in many Central and Eastern European (CEE) societies. A hybridization of ritualistic anti-communist incantations and a neoliberal doxa has shaped economic, political, and cultural dynamics of ex-socialist countries. In such instances, state-socialism resurfaces not as institutional, spatial, or mental “legacies” and “leftovers” of socialism, but as a “ghost,” kept alive by the winners of the (now extinct) post-socialist period. In this article we ask: Who benefits from invoking state-socialism, in what contexts do such inflections occur, and with what effects? On a more general level, what role does the ghost of socialism play in the political economies and class dynamics of CEE countries? To understand the switch from “legacy” to ideological ingredient of neoliberalism in CEE, we introduce (and elaborate on below) the metaphor of “zombie socialism” to capture how keeping the socialist past alive in public discourse – almost three decades after its end – buttresses neoliberal politics and new configurations of inequalities.

During the last two decades, one key question that has underlined scholarship on ex-socialist countries across several disciplines has been to what extent post-socialism is still a relevant analytical category. After ascending as a denominator of all things post-1989 in Central and Eastern Europe, several scholars in geography, anthropology, and sociology have pointed out that the concept of post-socialism has become less relevant (Boyer and Yurchak 2008Boyer, Dominic, and Alexei Yurchak2008. “Postsocialist Studies, Cultures of Parody and American Stiob.” Anthropology News 49: 910.10.1111/anne.2008.49.issue-8[Crossref][Google Scholar]; Cervinkova 2012Cervinkova, Hana2012. “Postcolonialism, Postsocialism and the Anthropology of East-Central Europe.” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 48: 155163.10.1080/17449855.2012.658246[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; 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]; Dunn and Verdery 2015Dunn, Elizabeth C., and KatherineVerdery2015. “Postsocialism.” In Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences: An Interdisciplinary, Searchable, and Linkable Resource, edited by Robert A.Scott and Stephen M.Kosslyn19New YorkWiley.10.1002/9781118900772.etrds0261[Crossref][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 (1): 113131.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Hirt 2013Hirt, Sonia2013. “Whatever Happened to the (Post) Socialist City?” Cities 32: S29S38.10.1016/j.cities.2013.04.010[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Horvat and Štiks 2012Horvat, Srećko, and Igor Štiks2012. “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-socialism, the European Union and a New Left in the Balkans.” Monthly Review 63: 3848.10.14452/MR-063-10-2012-03[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Humphrey 2001Humphrey, Caroline2001. “Does the Category ‘Postsocialist’ Still Make Sense.” In Postsocialism: Ideals, Ideologies Practices in Eurasia, edited by Chris Hann1214LondonRoutledge. [Google Scholar]; Pickles 2010Pickles, John2010. “The Spirit of Post-socialism: Common Spaces and the Production of Diversity.” European Urban and Regional Studies 17: 127140.10.1177/0969776409356492[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Rogers 2010Rogers, Doug2010. “Postsocialisms Unbound.” Slavic Review 69: 115.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Stenning and Hörschelmann 2008Stenning, Alison, and KathrinHörschelmann2008. “History, Geography and Difference in the Post-socialist World: Or, Do We Still Need Post-socialism?” Antipode 40: 312335.10.1111/j.1467-8330.2008.00593.x[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Tuvikene 2016Tuvikene, Tauri2016. “Strategies for Comparative Urbanism: Post-socialism as a De-territorialized Concept.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 40 (1): 132146.[Crossref][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]; Wiest 2012Wiest, Karin2012. “Comparative Debates in Post-socialist Urban Studies.” Urban Geography 33: 829849.10.2747/0272-3638.33.6.829[Taylor & Francis Online][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]). Against this backdrop, we indicate one location where one may find continued relevance of socialism (and its “post”). Socialism – as a zombie and ghost – is important in the production of neoliberal monoglossia and guilt by association for those who challenge the dominant wisdom of trickle-down economics, thus supporting the worldview and, ultimately, the interests of the winners of post-1990 transition.

To evidence the works of zombie socialism, we start with a section where we review the main critiques of the concept of post-socialism. In the same section, we present case studies of zombie socialist political discourses from Hungary and Romania, as an entry into elaborating on this metaphor. We then discuss the effects of zombie socialism in several social policy domains and the actual conditions of life of post-socialist societies. We use national-level macroeconomic indicators; wages to GDP ratio, the share of minimum wages to all jobs, work–life imbalance, social spending and taxation, and housing statistics. We develop our discussion of housing markets and policies in greater detail to drive the point that zombie socialism can inspire policies that effectively jettison an entire area of social policy, ignoring growing problems experienced by different social groups such as the poor, the young, and the elderly, and contributing to social dumping. The data do not systematically focus on city/metropolitan regions, but rather provide a broad overview of socioeconomic and ideological factors that underpin local developments.

Three caveats are necessary. First, we are aware that in constructing a master narrative for the entire region we erase important national and especially sub-national dynamics, but there are enough arguments to support the idea that the processes that we outline in this article are present at different scales for much of the post-1990 historical cycle. Second, our argument is most likely limited to Central and Eastern Europe, rather than being applicable to the former Soviet Union (FSU). Socialism still carries – increasingly – positive connotations in parts of the FSU, where the zombie may come alive in some new form, as is the case, for example, in the “Donetsk People’s Republic.” As countries in the region follow different paths, both in terms of policy orientations and economic developments, the role that socialism plays in the collective imaginaries of these post-socialist societies may diverge as well. Third, we cannot substantiate the conscious character of the decision of politicians to invoke state-socialism when promoting neoliberal measures, and increased social dumping. We can indicate, however, instances where the two go together, a situation indicative of how “zombie socialism” is a form of symbolic domination of the hegemonic groups in CEE societies (Burawoy 2012Burawoy, Michael2012. “The Roots of Domination: Beyond Bourdieu and Gramsci.” Sociology46: 187206.10.1177/0038038511422725[Crossref][Google Scholar]). Zombie socialism may be employed in different ways for different aims. It may work as a means of gaining support for certain policies and budgetary allocations, as a justification for pragmatic decisions, but also as a way of framing policy priorities and ignoring certain claims in favor of others.

Zombie socialism: ghostly state-socialism after the end of “transition”

In order to spell out what zombie socialism is and how it works, we begin this section by situating our arguments in the sizeable literature on post-socialism and focusing our attention on some renewed analytic strategies for approaching socialism and post-socialism. We then offer several examples of zombie socialism, most notably focusing on two particularly relevant vignettes, one from the early 2000s (Hungary) and another one from 2014 (Romania).