The post-socialist city: The current critique and directions for future research

Business centre in Ulan-Ude, capital city of the Republic of Buryatia, Russia
© Nadir Kinossian

Since the collapse of state socialism in Europe, various aspects of transition, including the transformation of cities, have attracted scholarly attention. Despite the momentous scale of such changes, the influence and visibility of research into the post-socialist city remain limited.

The current criticism is summarised in the following points: i) research on post-socialist cities remains on the “periphery of contemporary urban theory” (Ferenčuhová and Gentile 2016); ii) continued dependency on the Western centres of knowledge production (Borén and Young 2016; Sjöberg 2014); iii) parochialism, as scholarship on the post-socialist city is perceived as a regional phenomenon (Ferenčuhová 2016; Tuvikene 2016).

These observed shortcomings give rise to the questions:

Can post-socialist city debates contribute more to urban theory, and in what ways?

While some problems of theorising from the East have material roots, e.g., limited availability of research funding and hostile political environments, there are also issues related to theory.

First, post-socialism emphasises change and tends to divide the process of transition into the distinct stages of before and after. It also treats change as unidirectional and irreversible, and presents both state socialism and capitalism as homogeneous and somewhat static phenomena. This approach fails to capture continuity, adaptation, reversals, as well as the heterogeneous and evolving nature of capitalism itself. The post-socialist city cannot be explained by a single event: Transition involves periods of rapid reform, retrenchment, reversal, and further reforms, all conducted within unstable institutional environments whereby current choices and legacies of the past interact over time (Horak 2007). Socialist legacies, therefore, should be seen not only as obstacles to transition (Gaddy and Ickes 2013) but also as constitutive elements of new regimes (Golubchikov et al. 2014).

Second, post-socialism also emphasises macro-level structural change and its implications for various dimensions of the urban, such as governance (Campbell 2006), urban space (Axenov et al. 2006), housing (Stenning 2000), social justice (Smith 1994), and marginalisation (Round and Williams 2010). Post-socialism is often framed as part of neoliberal globalisation (Golubchikov 2016). The neoliberalisation thesis, however, should be taken with caution because the outcomes of transition vary across countries (and does the degree of neoliberalisation). Critics of the meta-narrative approach argued that research should focus more on “the concrete specificities of state rule and economic practice” and “contingent and conjunctural outcomes of post-socialism” (Pickles 2010: 136). While structure-induced conceptualisations capture transformative processes, they pay limited attention to the mechanisms and the agency behind such processes. Also, various forms of state intervention in urban development (via planning policy, provision of infrastructure and services, and housing construction) play a strong transformative role but are not market-driven and hence fit poorly into neoliberal narratives.

This indicates the need for more nuanced research concerning market-driven and state-led urban development (rather than presupposing the dominance of marketisation). Analysis of the agentic qualities of the post-socialist city (e.g., Borén and Young 2020; Grubbauer and Čamprag 2019; Gunko et al. 2021) connects urban regime theory (Savitch and Kantor 2002; Stone 1989) with the growing debates on human agency in regional development (Grillitsch & Sotarauta 2020; Jolly et al. 2020), thereby creating avenues for better understanding the complexity of actor relations and the modalities of urban governance, beyond localism and the crude and limiting dichotomy of liberal vs. state-led (Alami et al. 2021; Peck 2021).

Third, the mainstream conceptualisation of the post-socialist city seems to divide urban transition into discrete (albeit interconnected) elements such as the institutional transformation, socio-economic and political change, and urban change (Sýkora and Bouzarovski 2012: 46). Such an approach treats causality as unidirectional and sequential, implying that the sources of change reside in the economic and political environments, to which cities simply respond. This division appears somewhat rigid, failing to recognise the idea of co-evolution of cities and their political and economic environments. Such a conventional dual model of urban transition (driving force vs. recipients) needs to be revised in favour of a more dynamic model based on the notion of co-evolution of cities and their economic environments (Sunley et al. 2017). Recent studies on state intervention in urban development in Russia (Kinossian 2017; Müller 2011; Zupan et al. 2021) expand the concept of production of space to the post-socialist context, demonstrating how the state experiments with spatial practices and reforms itself by upscaling successful local projects and formats of spatial intervention.

To summarise, scholarship on post-socialist cities can be revised along the following lines.

  • It should better connect with the theories and concepts mentioned above (urban governance, neoliberalisation, production of space), and respond to current and future urban problems and challenges, including economic inequality, spatial polarisation, environmental crises, and the consequences of economic restructuring — problems that are common to diverse world cities and regions — by reflecting on the assumptions of Western urban theory from the research based in the East.
  • Within the transforming world, conceptual frames such as post-socialism and transition fail to adequately grasp the dynamic processes in Central and Eastern European (CEE) and former Soviet Union (FSU) countries as they seek to form new development paths, economic roles, political alliances, and positionalities vis-à-vis centres of economic and political power. Therefore, instead of looking backwards, it should refocus on the evolving institutional arrangements, governing mechanisms, and policies, underling the constant adaptation of cities to changing economic and political environments.
  • The post-socialist city should also avoid measuring itself against the “supposed normality” of the Western city (Gentile 2018). Instead, broader international comparison should be an overarching theme of research on cities in the Global North, South, and East, helping to overcome the current “colonial” structure of knowledge production (Edenson and Jayne 2012; Robinson 2004, 2011).

Transition has produced various socio-spatial results; studying them may help to test theories in different political and institutional contexts. In that sense, the original contribution that is sought to theory development need not be a radical alternative to existing theories; instead, it may involve the adjustment, negation, critical evaluation, or creative application of theories (Western or home-grown) in the non-Western context.

Nadir Kinossian is a senior researcher at the Department of Regional Geography of Europe at the IfL.


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