Relicts of the Ancien Régime – Socialist and Imperial Legacies & The City

Relicts of the Ancien Régime – Socialist and Imperial Legacies & The City

David Leupold, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
13.09.2023 - 15.09.2023
Stefan Kirmse, Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient

Take the controversial re-opening of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or the destruction of Soviet landmarks across Latvia and Lithuania in the wake of the war in Ukraine: in cities across the world, a struggle is unfolding for the renegotiation of the urban landscape, with its competing visions of past and future.

Held at the Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO) in Berlin, the workshop “Relicts of the Ancien Régime – Socialist & Imperial Legacies and the City” set out to explore the ways in which materialisations of past polities – from the bygone Habsburg and Ottoman empires to the now defunct regimes of state socialism – continue to shape experiences with urbanity today. Understanding these materialisations as relicts of an ancien régime, the workshop sought to explore the totality of the remains – both physical and immaterial – that survived the demise of the political entities to which they owe their existence. Encouraged and guided by Ronald G. Suny, William H. Sewell Jr Distinguished Professor of History (University of Michigan), the organisers and international participants examined a vast geography encompassing Armenia, Georgia, Croatia, Germany, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine – blending together conceptual prisms and analytical perspectives from the fields of architecture, anthropology, sociology, history, and urban planning.

In his introductory talk, DAVID LEUPOLD (Berlin) explored the material remains of the socialist city as relicts of a lost horizon. Drawing on semiotics, he suggested that “socialist materiality, in its congealed material form, continues to embody the apparent contradiction of being a relic of the past and, at the same time, a signifier of an abandoned future horizon”. Rather than mere objects for “post-Soviet nostalgia” these remainders of a discarded social utopia may possess the inherent potential to haunt the present with the past’s unfulfilled future. This haunting feature of discarded utopias was to form an important theme, in particular, for the first panel, which explored material pasts as “lingering presence”.

Focusing on the Byzantine legacy of today’s Istanbul, MALTE FUHRMANN (Berlin) showed how this material legacy – rejected by the hegemonic regime of memory – can manifest itself, for example, as pop-up ruins that emerge unexpectedly during reconstruction projects, such as the remains of an ancient city that resurfaced from beneath the train tracks of Istanbul’s now defunct Haydarpaşa Railway Station. That material remains may instill a sense of yearning for the past (hüzün) and inform national imagination was then demonstrated by AHMED NURI (Amsterdam). Similarly engaging with literature, SONA MNATSAKANYAN (Berlin) discussed Mkrtich Armen’s novel Yerevan (1931) to argue that a similar yearning for the past may have already informed the thinking of writers at the dawn of the socialist project.

However, material remains stayed mostly invisible in the case of Soviet-era cultural institutions, as POLINA GUNDARINA (Leipzig) suggested, and constituted rather an “ordinary heritage” made of “banal objects”. Gundarina also explained that while socialist architecture was at the heart of “decommunisation efforts” in many formerly socialist countries, resulting in their “demolition, abandonment and reappropriation”, in post-Soviet Russia houses of culture have remained widely “functional and usable in day-to-day urban life”. However, such material continuities are not confined to individual buildings; they may include whole towns such as the former nuclear town Ștei in Romania – as demonstrated by LILIANA IUGA (Aachen) – and infrastructural networks, too. Conducting research on Aktau, a mid-sized Kazakh city located on the shores of the Caspian Sea, DARIA VOLKOVA (Weimar) shed light on the importance and vulnerability of the city’s Soviet-era water infrastructure, demonstrating how the “anticipated brokenness of the infrastructure” triggered discussions about the Soviet experience and its material legacy today. In a similar vein, SIMON SACKERS (Leiden) used the example of Dushanbe/Tajikistan to investigate what it meant “to inherit an energy grid once envisioned for the public provisioning of a largely decommodified Soviet common”.

Yet, residents may also reclaim the materiality left behind by defunct polities as their own, as demonstrated by DILNOZA TASHEVA (Prague) in her talk on place attachment in the Soviet-era micro-districts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. Such processes of re-appropriation may go hand in hand with other forms of rewriting the material landscape. Thus, MIKHAIL ILCHENKO (Leipzig) raised the need to reimagine the legacy of Soviet-era housing architecture in light of the war unleashed by Russia on Ukraine. In particular, Ilchenko shared insights from his fieldwork on the “socialist city” (sotsgorod) of the Kharkiv Tractor Plant (KhTZ), illuminating how the residents’ perception of the district is changing as “Ukrainian society is experiencing the most radical and dramatic shift in the narratives related to the Soviet past”.

In a similar vein, HAYKUHI MURADYAN (Yerevan) explored the case of Goris, a small town in southern Armenia, to see how the image of the city changed twice in fundamental ways. First, during Khrushchev’s Thaw, Axel Bakunts, a prose writer native to Goris who had perished during Stalin’s Great Terror, served as the centerpiece of a new memory narrative, which, from the 1960s, reimagined the town as “Bakuntsian Goris”. Following the dissolution of the USSR, then, a newly-built church alongside monuments devoted to the Armenian national revolutionaries Andranik Ozanian and Garegin Njdeh came to dominate a reconfigured, and increasingly, more ethno-nationalistic iconographic landscape.

The multilayered nature of materiality, described by JEREMY F. WALTON (Rijeka) as a “pentimento” – in allusion to a painter’s changes hidden beneath a subsequent layer of paint – emerged as one of the central themes of the workshop. Shifting towards discussions on inter-imperiality, Walton used the example of post-socialist Zagreb to show the ways in which urban space emerged as a contested site where the material remains of different polities – from the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires to the Kingdom and Socialist state of Yugoslavia – formed complex palimpsests. Overall, the study of material objects provided a unique lens to perceive history as an ongoing, dynamic process rather than as a fixed and distinct past, promoting a more nuanced perspective that transcends the dichotomy of past and present. Such palimpsestic enmeshments also resonated with SOLMAZ YADOLLAHI's (Cottbus-Senftenberg) research. She explored how material remains of the pre-revolutionary period – such as Lalehzar Street in the heart of Teheran – are semiotically reinterpreted by the current regime in the context of large-scale urban development projects. Yet, not only material vestiges are subject to re-evaluation – as JONAS LÖFFLER (Köln) demonstrated with regard to how the urban musical culture of late Tsarist Tiflis/Tbilisi became reinterpreted in the Soviet and post-Soviet period.

Tying in with the overall theme of the workshop, in his keynote speech RONALD G. SUNY showed how the focus on the socialist city after Stalin opens up a distinct perspective on the Soviet experiment. It is a distinct “optic” that highlights how the past informs the present as a “living legacy of socialism”, which lives on not only in infrastructure and residential architecture, but also as an immaterial legacy: in place attachment and everyday practices, institutionalized hierarchies, and lingering expectations. The talk further reflected on the legacy of post-Stalinism and proposed a critique of the rhetoric of homo sovieticus that has influenced many Western ideas of the USSR and its people. Suny contended that portraying Soviet (and by extension, Russian) citizens as passive and inherently inclined towards authoritarian rule was inaccurate. Instead, he argued that a majority of Soviet and post-Soviet citizens not only demonstrated a genuine interest in democratic participation but also, on numerous occasions in recent history, actively took to the streets to ensure their demands were heard. Yet, those “momentary victories” were ultimately “usurped” by anti-democratic forces. Ultimately, Suny did not fail to impress his audience when he stated rather provocatively that the combined effects of the fall of the Soviet Union and Russia’s war in Ukraine, fed by a mixture of late tsarist nationalism and Putinist neo-imperialism, have led to “retrospective amnesia” about the Soviet experience. It was refreshing to hear someone talk sense in an international academic landscape that has indeed, in many ways, fallen back into Cold War habits and categories.

Conference overview:

Opening Talk

David Leupold (Berlin): Relicts of a Lost Horizon? The City of the Future in a Future-Less Now

Ronald G. Suny (Ann Arbor): The Past as Present and Just the Opposite: The Living Legacy of Late Socialism

Panel 1: “Not Even Past” – The Past as Lingering Presence

Malte Fuhrmann (Berlin): Byzantium’s not Dead: Eastern Roman Haunting of Turkish Cities

Liliana Iuga (Aachen): Appropriating the Soviet built legacy in Romania – Ștei, the story of a Cold War relic

Panel 2: Writing the City, Writers of the City

Sona Mnatsakanyan (Berlin): From Soviet Censorship to Post Soviet Activism: A Critical Analysis of Mkrtich Armen’s Novel Yerevan

Ahmed Nuri (Amsterdam): Diverse Perceptions and Depictions of Post-Imperial Istanbul within Turkey’s Literary Field: Memory, Nostalgia, and Neo-Ottomanism in Flux

Haykuhi Muradyan (Yerevan): Constructing the Soviet image of city in 1960s and the post-Soviet transformations: political and cultural aspects. The case of Goris, Armenia

Panel 3: Socialist Cities in a Capitalist World I

Dilnoza Tasheva (Prague): Reevaluation of Soviet housing estates in Bishkek through residents’ place attachment

Simon Sackers (Leiden): Refiguring bygone energy currents in Dushanbe

Daria Volkova (Weimar): Repairing and Reimagining Soviet Housing Infrastructure in Aktau, Kazakhstan

Panel 4: Socialist Cities in a Capitalist World I

Mikhail Ilchenko (Leipzig): Socialism Re-Imagined: Urban and Symbolic Transformations of the Soviet-Era Urban Legacy

Polina Gundarina (Leipzig): Making Sense of Urban Space After 1991: Post-War Soviet Houses of Culture in Ekaterinburg

Tigran Harutyunyan (Yerevan): The system from “above”. Urban projects of the late 1990s and early 2000s as a logical continuation of the Soviet policy

Panel 5: Contested Pasts, Commodified Pasts

Jeremy F. Walton (Rijeka): Commemorative Contradictions: On Post-Imperialist and Post-Socialist Sites in Zagreb

Solmaz Yadollahi (Cottbus-Senftenberg): Assembling Tehran’s Urban Heritage: Tracing the socio-spatial dynamics surrounding the beautification of Lalehzar Street

Jonas Löffler (Köln): Contested Cosmopolitanism. The Urban Musical Culture of Late Tsarist Tiflis/Tbilisi and its Twentieth-Century Transformations

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