Politico-historical and climatic processes of change continue to challenge the Baltic Sea Region (B.S.R.). Given, for example, the lasting effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, unsolved issues of environmental pollution, and the effects of the war on Ukraine, it seems critical to understand how crucial moments of change – turning points – are conceptualised, remembered, and narratively negotiated. Borrowing from Aristotle’s Poetics, the concept of “peripety”, denoting the unexpected reversal of circumstances in tragedy, promises a tool to examine the often-contradictory narrations of current and historical events within and beyond the B.S.R., as well as their impact on individual and collective sense-making through narratives as a foundation of human perception of reality.
Under this guiding concept, the conference, organised by the International Research Training Group 2560 (DFG) “Baltic Peripeties. Narratives of Reformations, Revolutions and Catastrophes” (Greifswald - Tartu – Trondheim), brought together research from Environmental History, Medical Humanities, Literature, Theatre, Security, Migration, and Memory Studies.
Following a cordial welcome by the Academic Director of the Alfried Krupp Institute for Advanced Study Greifswald, ULLA BONAS, Doctoral Fellows and Speakers of the Organising Committee VICTORIA OERTEL and NINA PILZ outlined potential avenues for interpreting turning points and investigating their experiences, significations, and narrative constructions. How change reflects in narratives and how narratives of change impact reality was further discussed by ECKHARD SCHUMACHER, Speaker of the IRTG “Baltic Peripeties”, who elaborated on the potentials and limitations of transferring “peripety” from Aristotelian drama to historical, contemporary, and fictional contexts.
The festive opening with representatives from academia and politics reflected the socio-political importance and strategic relevance in thinking about crises, turning points, and peripeties in the B.S.R. with regard to safeguarding democratic societies as well as strengthening the region’s economic and environmental prosperity. KATHARINA RIEDEL, Rector of the University of Greifswald, situated the project’s narrative approach within local expertise on B.S.R. research. His Excellency ALAR STREIMANN, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Estonia to Germany, then discussed the difficulties in defining the B.S.R. with its inherently ambivalent unifying forces, such as trade and cultural exchange, Christianisation and colonisation, as well as politics oscillating between warfare, ideological antagonism, and cooperation. Only with critical awareness of this shared cultural heritage, he emphasised, can current and future challenges be met. ERIK F. ØVERLAND, Counsellor and Special Envoy for Research and Education at the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway to Germany, added to this last aspect the dynamic field of foresight research. A multi-perspectivist approach to narratives of turning points could help forestall potentially fatal misjudgements, as increasingly unpredictable societal and political developments require new collaborative methods of policy planning. The importance of cross-cutting exchange between academia, politics, and society was underscored by the Minister for Science, Culture, Federal and European Affairs of the State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, BETTINA MARTIN. Understanding societal perceptions of crises is central to transparent democratic governance, she asserted, as exemplified by public debates on energy dependency and affordability, or the reception of refugees.
In her opening keynote, HANNA MERETOJA (Turku) then addressed the dynamics of master and counter narratives in times of global crises. Focusing on narratives of war underlying dominant narratives of the pandemic, four master narratives and their potentially harmful ethics were identified: the virus as an enemy combatant, healthcare providers as war heroes, patients as soldiers, and “us” as soldiers. By example of climate change denial and Russian narrative warfare against Ukraine, it then became apparent that not all counter narratives are progressive. Meretoja therefore proposed a narrative awareness as to cultivate agency and allow for intersubjective “narrative in-betweens”.
Session 1 considered receptions of dramatic change and how they may help us understand lived experiences of history. DACE BULA (Riga) combined personal narratives with ethnographical inquiry in her presentation on five neighbourhoods along the port of Riga, where residents’ identification with place is eroded by climate change and industrial interests. The emotional responses, Bula showed, may be understood through the concept of solastalgia, a homesickness felt while in the space of the home. KATHARINE HODGSON (Exeter) examined the polyphonic, “fractal” style of author Svetlana Aleksievich’s writing on catastrophes in Soviet history. While the Socialist Realist “master plot” establishes a teleological narrative with a predetermined outcome and thus presents no peripety, Aleksievich’s interpretation allows space for narratives of estrangement, alienation, and disenchantment. MARTINA ZAGNI (Greifswald) and KRISTA ANNA ZALĀNE (Greifswald) assessed peripety as an analytic tool for historical perspectives on literary studies. In Soviet poetry, Zagni demonstrated, Stalin’s death and the subsequent period of Thaw facilitated a shift toward more personal accounts rather than rigid representative literature. Zalāne then discussed Latvian reading practice before and after Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, noticing a change in the “digestion” of history through literature, where historical narrative becomes a form of care work.
The second session focused on displacement and population change during and after the Second World War, assessing shifting narratives of belonging and “foreignness” in connection with physical space and left-behind possessions. ELEONORA NARVSELIUS (Lund) looked at the effect of traces of displaced populations on current residents in East-Central European border cities. Understanding the home as a palimpsest, she studied mnemonic attitudes to appropriation processes and the effects of physical remnants on narratives of domestication, such as gratitude or sanctification. OLGA SEZNEVA (Amsterdam) also linked issues of belonging with belongings of displaced Germans in the Kaliningrad region, identifying trophy-taking (appropriation, a moment of transfer) and patrimony (inheritance, an indication of continuity and custodianship) as ways of understanding the reception and collecting of these objects by subsequent Russian residents. PEKKA HAKAMIES (Turku) examined experiences of the Soviet population in the ceded Finnish region of Karelia, emphasising that the lack of direct contact between evacuated Finns and Russian-speaking settlers led to a radical shift in ways of life, including place names and social practices like village planning and farming.
Delving into questions of remembrance, representation and re-conceptualisation, NANCI ADLER’s (Amsterdam) evening keynote gave insight into testimonies of Gulag survivors after 1991, concentrating on survivors’ loyalty to the Communist Party. While they often framed their experience as sacrifice to the communist cause, showing an ideological allegiance to the party, Adler read this not only as emotional dependence, but as an act of self-preservation within a context of public silencing and narratives of survival-heroism. In light of continuing evasion to remember the terror of the Gulag, she proposed studying personal accounts as one possibility to deepen and challenge how repression and its entanglements with belief, disillusionment, and survival may be historicised.
Opening the second day of the conference, session 3 discussed the (ongoing) aftermath of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine through the perspective of foreign policy and securitisation. Examining political responses to Russia’s history of aggression to understand how its place in the liberal international order transitioned from contestant to antagonist, VIACHESLAV MOROZOV (Tartu) noted that while Western countries previously tended to distance from Russia after aggressive incidents, the recent invasion marks the crossing of a line, because it challenges the order itself. MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD (Colchester) compared narratives of the invasion of Ukraine with Russia’s involvement in the ongoing war in Syria. He argued that Putin’s narrative of success in Syria, reflected in misinformation and top-down propaganda campaigns, transferred to the invasion of Ukraine, including the incorrect assumption of the country’s quick collapse. Bio-, zoo- and necropolitical approaches were presented by ANDREY MAKARYCHEV (Tartu) as a possible conceptual framework for post-invasion Russian Studies. In liberal political analysis, he argued, bodily and corporeal factors are often overlooked, although this perspective may offer new insights into Putin’s “politics of death” and conservative collectivism. Regarding the papers’ framings of the Russian invasion as a particular rupture embedded in larger processes, the discussion led by BO PETERSSON (Malmö) suggested to utilise the conceptual framework of the conference to further develop productive ways to understand narratives of change after this paradigmatic event.
The fourth session shifted focus to medical humanities, asking how health is narrated on individual and collective levels. VICTORIA OERTEL (Greifswald) and NINA PILZ (Greifswald) analysed the concept of peripety in philosophical and public discourse on disease. Whereas Oertel discussed the use of narratology to understand disease as a disruptive event in a person’s life, where a “plot” corresponds to a person’s self-understanding of their disease, Pilz demonstrated how public media discourses during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic expressed the sense of collective disruption as a peripety. SIDSEL BOYSEN DALL (Trondheim) outlined the experiences of informal caregivers as witnesses to the peripety of disease. Through reading groups for informal caregivers, the planned study aims to explore the impact of literature discussions on caregivers’ self-narratives and expectations for the future, as well as broader psychological effects. The possibility of recreating a sense of normalcy in the aftermath of mental health crises was evaluated by NINA PETERSEN REED (Trondheim). Narrative strategies in self-understanding of recovery are powerful, she observed, as linking events as a kind of plot may prompt those affected to pursue and enact meaning, such as one’s engagement with social expectations like family and work.
The keynote by LAURA ASSMUTH (Joensuu) discussed the intersecting consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war against Ukraine on cross-border mobility and translocal family lifelines. The pandemic’s disruption of labour migration, particularly from Eastern to Northern European countries, revealed inequalities and vulnerabilities that, together with the war’s violent alteration of mobility practices and family life, strongly upset notions of borders, identity, and belonging across the region. Future migration policies, Assmuth urged, must recognise these manifestations as well as migrants’ active role in shaping translocal familyhood.
The roundtable moderated by INGVILD FOLKVORD (Trondheim) and ECKHARD SCHUMACHER (Greifswald) further deepened discussions on the multidisciplinary applicability of “peripety” for understanding crises. Narrative, as a device for ordering experiences, is closely interrelated to change on various temporal levels, as illustrated by stories of Gulag survivors, which in response to political change in turn altered dominant perceptions of Soviet history. While HANNA MERETOJA (Turku) critically inferred that master narratives merely create an illusion of control over processes of change, LAURA ASSMUTH (Joensuu) stressed that narratives “from below” in contrast were often based on continuities, rendering turning points random. Similar narrative awareness must be applied to rhetorical battlefields of the present, as in the analysis of political discourses on Russia’s war against Ukraine, which point to both historically-founded and possible future divisions, for instance following transitional justice processes, as NANCI ADLER (Amsterdam) and ALEXANDER DROST (Greifswald) exemplified. In exchange with the audience, participants then discussed whether peripeties are inherently crisis-ridden. While some cautioned against deterministic, crisis-centred historiographies that “disregard the multi-layeredness of experiences,” others emphasised the future possibilities of crisis analysis for concerted change and new narrative imaginaries.
Examining negotiations of dramatic changes in environmental history, on the third day session 5 focused on the element of water and its impact on local populations. Questioning the narrative of the 1872 storm surge on the German Baltic Sea coast as the historically largest sea storm in the region, LAURA TACK (Greifswald) gave an overview of contemporary memory culture, including flood markers, coastal protection, and Instagram accounts, that illuminates the surge’s continuous remembrance as an uncontested peripety. Drawing attention to the lower Danube, MERVE NEZIROĞLU (Leipzig) discussed the legacy of the sunken island of Ada Kaleh. Recounting its rich cultural heritage, destruction in 1971, and later attempts to rebuild and preserve its mythical status, Neziroğlu positioned the romanticisation of the island in existing imaginations of Ottoman culture and narratives of nature versus culture, which, she theorised, allowed for positive self-perception of former islanders and Ada Kaleh’s legacy in the region. PAUL KIRSCHSTEIN (Greifswald) then investigated peripeties within the historiography of the Alta-saken, the iconic protest movement against the expansion of hydropower in Northern Norway, as an established turning point for Sámi rights activism. Sourcing 23 texts published between 1982 and 2023, Kirschstein dissected the event into competing narratives, changing historiographic perspectives, and turning points that affect the Sámi’s political position.
The application of “peripety” to comedic theory was the topic of CLEMENS RÄTHEL’s (Greifswald) closing lecture on Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (1684–1754). Events and plot points are of little importance for a comedy’s reception, he demonstrated; rather, character interactions and reactions to events constitute the essential comedic elements. By example of Diderich Menschenskræk (1724), Räthel argued that peripety in comedy occurs at the moment of knowledge transfer, involving the spectators in the production of meaning, as humour originates in the asymmetry of knowledge between audience and characters.
Bringing scholars from different disciplines and political representatives into dialogue, the conference highlighted the topicality, epistemological potential, and conceptual limits of “peripety” as a key to exploring and interpreting narratives of change in the B.S.R. The multi-perspectivist views on regional and local effects of disruptive events, as well as (inter-)subjective modes of storytelling by various actors, provided insights into narrative mechanisms – demonstrating how socio-political conditions may shape narratives, their competition for dominance and legitimacy, as well as their interdependencies. Concentrating on established turning points and dominant narratives, however, also bears the risk of obscuring everyday practices of meaning-making and excluding people with limited agency. In this respect, the contributions that focused on the careful deconstruction of narrative strategies, underlying selection processes, and power relations, seem particularly promising for further exploration of the complexity of regional dynamics.
Words of Welcome
Ulla Bonas, Academic Director, Alfried Krupp Institute for Advanced Study Greifswald
Victoria Oertel and Nina Pilz, Speakers of the Organising Committee, International Research Training Group “Baltic Peripeties. Narratives of Reformations, Revolutions and Catastrophes”, University of Greifswald
Eckhard Schumacher, Speaker of the International Research Training Group “Baltic Peripeties. Narratives of Reformations, Revolutions and Catastrophes”, University of Greifswald
Katharina Riedel, Rector of the University of Greifswald
H.E. Alar Streimann, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Estonia to Germany
Erik F. Øverland, Counsellor, Special Envoy for Research and Education at the Embassy of the Kingdom of Norway to Germany
Bettina Martin, Minister of Science, Culture, Federal and European Affairs of the State of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern
Hanna Meretoja (Turku): Master and Counter Narratives in Times of Global Crises
Moderation: Ingvild Folkvord (Trondheim)
Session 1 – Living Through the Change: Building Bridges Between Life and Narrative
Moderation: Martin Nõmm (Tartu)
Dace Bula (Riga): “I Missed Seagull Screams”: Narratives of Dwelling and Displacement in the Riga Port Neighborhoods
Katharine Hodgson (Exeter): An Assault on the Socialist Realist “Master Plot”: Svetlana Aleksievich’s Many-Voiced Narratives of Catastrophic Change
Martina Zagni (Greifswald) / Krista Anna Zalāne (Greifswald): Narratives Between Past and Future: Peripety as a Tool to Analyze Change in Life and Literature
Session 2 – Shifting Belonging: Understanding People and Practices in Repopulated Places
Moderation: Douglas Ong (Greifswald)
Eleonora Narvselius (Lund): “We just moved in, and this is it”: Dwelling and Home Space as a Site of (Dis)remembrance of the Vanished East-Central European Populations
Olga Sezneva (Amsterdam): The House of the Lost-and-Found: Belonging and Belongings in the Kaliningrad Region
Pekka Hakamies (Turku): Soviet Experience, Narrative, and Reality in Former Finnish Karelia
Nanci Adler (Amsterdam): Remembering, Representing, and Re-conceptualizing Repression: What we Learned from the Narratives of Gulag Survivors
Moderation: Margit Bussmann (Greifswald)
Session 3 – The Russia-Ukraine War as a Major Turning Point for the Baltic Sea Region
Moderation: Natalia Iost (Greifswald) / Discussant: Bo Petersson (Malmö)
Viacheslav Morozov (Tartu): The Peripety of a Contestant in the Liberal International Order: Russia’s Transition to Antagonism
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (Colchester): Dark Instruments: How Russia’s Information Operations Faltered in Ukraine
Andrey Makarychev (Tartu): Sovereign Peripeties: Bio-, Zoo- and Necro-politics in Putin’s Russia
Session 4 – Disruption, Diagnosis, Disease: Narratives of Medical Crises, Care and Recovery
Moderation: Sebastian Laacke (Greifswald)
Victoria Oertel (Greifswald) / Nina Pilz (Greifswald): Disease as Peripety – Negotiating Perspectives on Public and Philosophical Discourse
Sidsel Boysen Dall (Trondheim): Shattered Expectations in Caregiving Literature: Reflections on the Shared Reading of Schema Disrupting Fiction
Nina Petersen Reed (Trondheim): How May a Meaningful Everyday Life Be Re-created after Mental Health Crises?
Laura Assmuth (Joensuu): Familyhood across Borders in Times of Crises: COVID-19 Pandemic and Russia’s War on Ukraine as Turning Points for Migration and Mobility in Europe
Moderation: Terje Loogus (Tartu)
Roundtable – Peripeties in and out of Context
Moderation: Ingvild Folkvord (Trondheim) / Eckhard Schumacher (Greifswald)
Discussants: Nanci Adler (Amsterdam), Laura Assmuth (Joensuu), Alexander Drost (Greifswald), Hanna Meretoja (Turku)
Session 5 – Events, Landscapes and Water. Negotiating Dramatic Changes in Environmental History
Moderation: Erik Wolf (Greifswald)
Laura Tack (Greifswald): A Sudden Realization of Risk: The Possibly Largest Storm Surge on the German Baltic Sea Coast
Merve Neziroğlu (Leipzig): A Sunken Island’s Legacy: The Case of Ada Kaleh
Paul Kirschstein (Greifswald): Dramatic Developments: Identifying Turning Points in the Historiography of the Alta-saken
Clemens Räthel (Greifswald): Pragma and Peripety? The (Un-)Expected in Ludvig Holberg’s Comedies
Moderation: Benjamin Schweitzer (Greifswald)
Victoria Oertel (Greifswald) / Nina Pilz (Greifswald): Concluding Remarks