Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Movements of Peoples and the Genesis of "Soviet Spaces"

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Movements of Peoples and the Genesis of "Soviet Spaces"

Article excerpt

Abstract

The Soviet Union was mysterious for so long in part because it was closed to most outsiders. In retrospect, Soviet Power is remarkable because of the way it organized and commanded its sequestered space. This paper tries to explain how the USSR came to be a "heterotopia"--unlike spaces with which we are familiar. Russia's historical record shows administrative centralization alternating regularly with decentralization over hundreds of years. And although the pattern remained operative in the Soviet period, it remains possible to speak of a distinctly Soviet space--which included an extended space of incarceration, a characteristic domestic space, a space of planned cities, and a vast space of environmental ruin.

How to integrate numerous diverse ethnic groups had been an ongoing concern for the empire- building Great Russians since the sixteenth century. When a successor regime emerged after the collapse of the Russian Empire, it drew on its radical convictions about the transformability of human nature and learned from the Habsburg Empire's disintegration as it reassembled and reorganized as much as it could of the original empire's space. But the extraordinary displacement of people under conditions of mobilization in the First World War and the practices developed to manage legions of displaced persons would shape the Bolsheviks' sense of the possible. It was less Marxist ideology, than the legacy of late Imperial population movements that gave rise to peculiarly Soviet spaces. Moreover, the experiences of 1914-1918 modified German thinking about the possibility of massively reorganizing space in a way that would prove influential in world politics twenty years later. In various ways the otherness of Soviet space has outlived the Soviet political system.

Movements of Peoples and the Genesis of "Soviet Spaces"

The last empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, would be noteworthy if only because it occupied a sixth of the earth's landmass for the better part of a century. But Soviet Power left a legacy that is a constant reminder of the singular order it fashioned. A demographer writing recently of the remarkable reduction of death rates worldwide since the 1950s points out that planetary expectation of life has jumped by almost 19 years, or about two-fifths. "Practically the only countries to register no appreciable improvements in the life expectancy over this period were the handful of 'European' territories within what was once the Soviet Union; in the Russian Federation in particular, gains over these four and a half decades were almost negligible." (1) A particular space bears the mark of historical forces, assumptions and decisions that deserve to be better understood.

Given that international tourism has been shrinking the world for at least a century and a half, it should come as no surprise that travel writing should seek grist for its mill in difficult-toreach places shaped by Soviet Power. Daniel Calder professes "anti-tourism" in a book on his visits to three ethnic republics in the general area of the lower Volga, "Mother of Russian Rivers." (2) The places are not untouched by the twentieth century. He finds fast food restaurants, and, in Izhevsk, Udmurtia, the home of the Kalashnikov A-47 rifle. Yet it is their abnormality that attracts. It finally dawns on him that he had been traveling to write a book, "a book about . . . the ghosts haunting the ruins of collapsed empires, howling and moaning, with nobody to listen except other ghosts." (3) And he diagnoses the dislocation of "the denizens of these lost zones" with respect to what might be called the Post-modern condition:

   They don't have the illusion of connectedness to the hum, the
   throb, the buzz of the modern world, or a sense that their history
   is of any significance. They are merely footnotes to another,
   greater history, that of the Russian people. And so they know that
   nobody knows who they are. … 
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