Life among Soviet ruins: – the past is still present
Most people in Northwestern Russia and on the Kola Peninsula live in apartment blocks constructed during the time of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev; many of these apartments are in a serious state of decay.
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How does living in the ruins of the Soviet legacy affect the inhabitants, their prospects for the future, and how they remember the past? For these people, the past has not gone, according to Professor Bjørnar Olsen.
The archaeologist is usually based at the Arctic University of Norway (UiT), but this year he is group leader of the CAS project After discourse: Things, Archaeology, and Heritage in the 21st Century. Based in Oslo for a year of interdisciplinary work, Olsen has selected colleagues to join his research group from Sweden, Estonia, USA, UK, Iceland, Spain, and Norway. The co-workers have been chosen based on their interests in the project’s three main themes: the materiality of memory, the affective aspects of material encounters, and the ethics of things (see facts). Usually, they would only meet in the field—at workshops and conferences—but this year these scholars, with their varied experiences and competencies, have gathered together at CAS, and Olsen is excited to see what will come out of the experience.
Olsen’s group mainly works with outdated or discarded ‘things’, which have thus started their redundant “afterlife”, such as modern ruins and seaborne debris. They start from the position that ‘the past is present’, especially now that past human actions are so evident that a name has been given to our current geological period: the Anthropocene.
We recently interviewed Olsen about his hopes and expectations for the collaborative After discourse project:
– This year is experimental, and is already extremely fruitful. One of our goals is to rethink concepts such as heritage: how we think about the past, the role of things, and the material world. The Anthropocene can in many ways be seen as our past accumulating around us—a past which manifests in various ways, such as melting glaciers, ruined metropolises, archipelagos of seaborne debris, and toxic materials in fish and marine mammals. This is our legacy, our heritage, and our past made present.
Ambitiously, these researchers aim to ‘develop a new platform for debating archaeology and heritage in the twenty-first century’.
From texts to things: – Making theory accessible
In the project abstract you write that ‘things are back’. When did they disappear?
– They didn’t disappear at all in archaeology, but in the humanities and social sciences more generally, ‘things’ occupied a marginal position during much of the twentieth century, he says, and arguesthat this ignorance, and at times even contempt, even came to affect the way things were conceived in traditionally thing-oriented disciplines such as archaeology.
– Thus, we started to look for more fashionable social and symbolic approaches. This became especially evident in the 1970s and 1980s. Cultural studies, humanities, and social sciences were at that time influenced by the so-called linguistic turn: the idea that text and language provided a model for how to understand and see the world.
– Even we, archaeologists, took on this approach to interpreting things. This was in many ways a liberating and creative turn, but in our enthusiasm many of us forgot the difference between texts and things. Obviously, things exist in the world very differently from in text or speech, and to treat them equally is therefore limiting.
– While we speak primarily to communicate, things do much more than that. A house, a car, or a bridge acts on, works on, and makes up a material environment with which we bodily interact. Even in their afterlives, as waste or ruins, they continue to be present and to affect us.
Thus, Olsen welcomed the theoretical turn from texts to things in the 1990s and especially in the 2000s, and this motivated the title for his current CAS project. He was influenced by such theorists as John Law, Bruno Latour, and others associated with Actor–Network theory, which is rooted in science and technology studies.
– These theorists made us realize the tremendous importance things play in society: in keeping it together, stabilizing it, and making it work. Just think of how many actions and processes today are delegated to things: things work for us.
Read also: – We are not in control of the afterlife of things
However, Olsen remains skeptical of some of the propositions of this theory, such as an overemphasis on relations and networks as constitutive of the significance of things: a thing, such as an axe, has certain inherent qualities that are genuine and specific to that object; these are not just “produced in relations”, he argues. Unlike a word, the ability to replace the axe with another thing is limited. He is also curious about why largely successful things became a matter of concern, while the less lucky masses of ruined and discarded things seem to escape serious consideration.
Furthermore, when assessing how things are addressed and accredited importance, another conspicuous feature for Olsen was the repertoire of positive and basically human qualities and virtues consistently ascribed to them. Things become ‘actors’ and ‘delegates’ and, like decent humans, they have ‘agency’, ‘vitality’, ‘personality’, and ‘biography’. They become very much like us, Olsen argues. The otherness and the dark side of things are mostly forgotten.
– Things are not just vibrant and playful actors; they are also withdrawn, boring, and dangerous. To take away their not-so-pleasing aspects is a reduction of them and a construction of sameness. An important part of this project is to explore how things are different from humans.
Simply taking a further theoretical turn is thus insufficient for Olsen, and he argues that a successful turn to things must also be ‘grounded in the tactile experiences that emerge from direct engagements with things—including broken and stranded things’. Thus, his research group investigates what consequences this ‘material turn’ has for archaeology and heritage studies, and Olsen argues that archaeology can provide an important corrective to what he terms the ‘fashionable theoretical turn to things’:
– Archaeology can contribute significantly, with intimate experiences from direct engagement with soiled and broken things, with matter and nature. We are out there in places many people have not heard of, digging and searching in all kinds of weather. New theoretical insights may be gained from this kind of down-to-earth-experience: a kind of theory on the ground.
One gloomy side of things is the environmental aspect of the things that surround us. What happens to these things—when they break down, become waste, and continue their life after their functional period has ended— is an important aspect of the archaeology of the contemporary past. In fact, this was already on the agenda in the 1970s and 1980s when American archaeologists such as Bill Rathje started to investigate modern garbage and landfill sites.
Things outlive us—they have an afterlife. They become waste, discarded material, and thus archeological material. They don’t cease to exist. In retirement, their role is unpredictable.
Involuntary remembering: Life among Soviet ruins
Olsen’s research group works a lot with modern ruins, in particular on the Kola Peninsula in Northwestern Russia. This area saw heavy industrialization throughout the Soviet era, during which the population increased dramatically. New settlements and towns were established, which were part of huge networks: here, they provided goods such as fish and mining products, for which they received the goods they needed in return.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of these settlements went ‘off-line’, and a comprehensive process of abandonment and ruination began. However, those people who stayed here have to live with a ‘Soviet heritage’: they live in apartment blocks constructed during the times of Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev. When they go out they see Soviet town planning, monuments, and iconography—all of which relates to a number of issues in Olsen’s CAS research project.
– Usually, we experience heritage as something optional—something old and nice that we can visit on Sundays. But what happens if we conceive of this Soviet material legacy that people live with as ‘heritage’? The people living in these areas are stuck with this past. This is a heritage, but not an optional one.
In our modern conception, Olsen notes, the past is seen as ‘ended’. It is over and gone and can only be recalled by, for example, historical reconstructions or by visiting museums and heritage sites.
‘But just look around you’, he says, and asks:
– To which age does Oslo belong? How do we identify its present? By excluding all entities that are more than ten, fifty, or one hundred years old? What would be left of it—in fact, of any place—if we exclude the past that is still present? The city that we experience today is actually the outcome of an accumulated past that conditions our conduct in the present. And for those living with the heavy and manifest Soviet legacy, this presence becomes an imperative.
– For these people, the past is here and now. It’s a present and a pressing past that is not something they can easily escape.
Olsen observes that this heritage is existential rather than optional, and he terms it a form of ‘involuntary remembering’. Here, two-thirds of an apartment may be ruined, yet people live in the remaining one third. Whether a building or a monument is demolished or preserved is part of our society’s politics of memory.
So, when is it OK to demolish a building?
– We have many examples of buildings and monuments associated with traumatic pasts and dramatic events—which are removed because they are offensive to the public environment. One should be respectful of arguments both for preservation and demolition. But in some sense these arguments also reflect the belief that we are in control of the past, Olsen says.
We might take away what we consider to be the most painful part, but demolishing buildings and monuments has a weak effect in the long run, because things are too many and often follow their own material trajectories, he argues. They somehow have their own ‘heritage management’ and survive despite our wish to forget them or get rid of them.
– This demonstrates a kind of amassment of the past, which goes far beyond our own ability to interact, design, and control it.
Karoline Kvellestad Isaksen
The research group works together also when not at CAS. Check out their external website here!