Polessye as a “Landscape of Intervention”: Space, Rule, Technology, and Ecology at the European Periphery, 1915 to 2015

Project Leader: Dr. Anna Veronika Wendland, Herder Institute

Project Coordiantion: Dr. Silke Fengler, Herder Institute

Project Partner: Prof. Dr. Thomas Bohn, Professor of East European History at the University of Giessen, Prof. Dr. Claudia Kraft, Professor of European Contemporary History at the University of Siegen

Funding: Senate Committee “Competition” (SAW) of the Leibniz Association within the framework of the Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation

Duration: 11/2015 – 06/2019

The history of Eastern Europe has often been described as a never-ending sequence of violence and catastrophes. As a consequence, many historians depict Eastern Europe in the “Age of Extremes” (Eric Hobsbawm) as a traumatized region somewhere between the “bloodlands” and the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Such approaches refer to space as the key analytical framework. This project seeks to move beyond beaten paths. In order to challenge existing notions of modern East Europe, we reconsider its history through the lens of the concept of “space”, while at the same time bearing in mind the region´s traumatic historical experiences.

Our self-designed concept of a “landscape of intervention“, forms the core of the project. The term “landscape“, suggests that we do not regard space simply as a meaningless reference. Rather, we are interested in the interaction between landscapes, physical spaces, and historical actors. We understand “intervention” as a process, where historic protagonists not merely experienced pain and suffering, but developed strategies to adapt, to undermine, and to benefit from historic circumstances. These strategies were inextricably connected with landscape-specific characteristics.

The concept will be evaluated using the case study of Polessye, a natural and historically distinct landscape [Belarusian: Пале́ссе Paliessie, Ukrainian: Полі́сся Polissia, Polish: Polesie [pɔˈlɛɕɛ], Russian: Поле́сье Poles’e [pɐˈlʲesʲɪ], „woodland“, „land near the forest“]. Polessye is a region which encompasses one of the last large marshlands and alluvial forests in Europe. It is located on the border of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia. During the 20th century, human intervention transformed the region´s landscapes and living environments fundamentally: Polessye has experienced drastic changes in terms of regional development planning and land use, the exercise of power, and the introduction of new technologies. Polessye witnessed the destruction brought on by two world wars, the execution of genocides, and far-reaching attempts at centralization and modernization by various ruling powers. Since the 1930s, continuous efforts have been made to drain marshlands. Since the 1970s, the Soviet Union has made plans to transform the Ukrainian part of Polessye into an energy landscape. To that end, it constructed three large nuclear power plants and the necessary infrastructure. One of these plants, Chernobyl, has become the symbol of a modern “risk society” with its inherent technological risks throughout the world.

Projektbild Polesien
Landkarte von Polesien im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert (Quelle: Herder-Institut, Marc Friede)

The project is divided into three areas of examination:

1. Techniques of Ruling: Marshes and their Scopes, 1914-1941 (University of Siegen),

2. Land Improvement and Collectivization in Belarusian Polessye, 1965-2015 (University of Giessen),

3. Ukrainian Polessye as a Nuclear Landscape and the Transformation of the Local Identities, 1965-2015 (Herder Institute Marburg).

The three areas cover different periods and forms of intervention. We will invite experts with different scientific backgrounds to discuss and refine our concept. Based on theoretical and empirical findings from our three areas of investigation, we seek to test whether our concept is better suited than existing terminology and conceptual frameworks to understand and describe the complex relations between man, space, nature, and technology in Eastern Europe.

Techniques of Ruling: Marshes and their Scopes, 1914-1941

Principle Investigator: Prof. Claudia Kraft, University of Siegen

Postdoctoral Research Associate: Dr. Diana Siebert, University of Siegen

This project investigates both the aims and the methods of military and civilian intervention in times of war and civil war as well as in times of peace. To this end, Polessye serves as representative case study. How was power established over the inhabitants and the very sparsely populated region and landscape, which was considered to be resistant to foreign occupation?

In World War I, Polessye witnessed both, a theater of warfare and static battle. From 1921 to 1939 the Western part belonged to the Polish Republic, the Eastern part to the Soviet Union. Additionally, in 1939, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the Soviet Union occupied the Western part, too. However, in 1941, German troops seized this territory first as they invaded the USSR.

The ways in which natives and non-natives perceived Polessye in the period of interest differed significantly: some romanticized Polessye as a picturesque piece of art, while others viewed it as a place of industrial peat mining. Some stressed the low population density in this region or dismissed it as a swampy terra non grata, whereas others only recognized it as home to its Jewish shtetlech. Further still, some considered Polesia as a truly original Ukrainian, Belarusian, or Slavic landscape.

Some of the questions to be examined in this subproject include the following: How did the transfer of knowledge under Russian, German, Polish and Soviet rule inform their notions and subjection of space? What specific strategies of resistance, subordination, and appropriation did the locals develop in order to counter Polish, Soviet, and German rule? How did the city dwellers, inhabitants of shtetlech, and villagers react to the occupiers´ tactics of war, policies of administration, settlement, colonization, and modernization. In short: their ways of exercising power?

In this period, Polessye was fiercely contested and completely ignored. The region oscillated between cultural clashes and cooperation, between attraction and rejection, between terror and normality, between territorialization and renewed “wildness”, between political securitization and desecuritization, between attribution to the Other and attribution to the Self.

In analyzing archival material and assessing existing scholarly literature, we seek to better understand the mechanisms through which a landscape of intervention was produced, handed down, and destroyed. Our aim is to gain insight into the way in which it was remembered, recalled, and forgotten.

Projektbild Polesien
Pinsk Main Cemetery (Source: Diana Siebert)

Land Improvement and Collectivization in Belarusian Polessye, 1965-2015

Principle Investigator: Prof. Thomas Bohn, University of Giessen

Doctoral Research Associate: Artem Kouida, University of Giessen

The project investigates the Belarusian region of Polessye in the post-Stalin era, focusing on modernity in the Soviet context. It explores the extent to which Polessye served as a testing ground for agricultural and socio-cultural experiments. The general scheme of land improvement had been designed in the Khrushchev era. However, first steps towards a sustainable transformation were only taken with Brezhnev´s efforts to reform the agrarian sector.

In 1965, a comprehensive program to improve arable land was submitted in order to accelerate the development of the Soviet agrarian sector, which also affected the Pripyat Marshes. A total of approximately 2 million hectars of land were to be “optimized”. However, professional ignorance towards the use of drained land, and the insufficient scientific exploration of the soil caused erosion and silting. As a result, the term “Belarusian Karakum desert”, gained wider currency.

First of all, the study will focus on the general policies and decision-making processes. It will draw on archival resources of the Central Administration of Water Management in Pinsk, which was established in 1966 and reported to the Soviet Ministry of Water Management. Second, the study will investigate strategies of appropriation, adaption, and resistance by the local population. These strategies are reflected in minutes and reports made by local councils and party committees, as well as in petitions and oral history interviews. The question of agency arises: were locals merely objects of central planning and optimization? Or to what extent can they be considered subjects which responded to such challenges with their own strategies and approaches? How did they seek to benefit, circumvent and subvert the newly imposed demands? How did they react to newcomers from research institutes and labor brigades?

Projektbild Polesien
Water Canal (Source: Artem Kouida)

Ukrainian Polessye as a Nuclear Landscape and the Transformation of Local Identities, 1965-2015

Postdoctoral Research Associate: Dr. Svetlana Boltovska, Herder Institute

The project examines the history of the Ukrainian Polessye as a history of intervention in the context of the (post-)Soviet nuclear industry. Three nuclear power plants with the associated infrastructure were built there in the 1970s: Chernobyl, Rivne and Khmelnytsky. Thereby the “Atomic City” (atomograd) as a new type of urban commune found its way into this wetland. Construction sites and nuclear power stations gave the locals new job opportunities and attracted migrant workers from across the Soviet Union. Soviet propaganda presented it as success story of modernization, education and wealth creation. Nevertheless, there is very little reliable data about the true benefits to the region and the local perception of this development.

The disaster of 1986 brought to light the cost side of nuclear energy. Polessye became a landscape of intervention in a completely different way: through a comprehensive resettlement of the population, costly damage repair of acute impacts (between 1986-1992, up to 600,000 people were already involved in it within such a short time frame); through the returnee movement and the subsequent re-evaluation of the Chernobyl evacuation zone for scientific testing areas; and finally through the disaster tourism and illegal looting of the zone.

For Rivne and Khmelnitsky, however, the decommissioning of the Chernobyl nuclear plant resulted in an upswing in 2000. The development of the energy landscape is perceived and maintained there as a Ukrainian success story until today.

The project describes the new relationships created by the interaction of technological artifacts, actors and the landscape. At the center is the question of how the techno-political regime transformed local identities and lifestyles. The study is based on archival materials, visual sources, museum presentations and primarily on interviews with (former) citizens of the nuclear cities and with residents of the surrounding rural regions.

Projektbild Polesien
Employees on the way to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (Source: pripyat.com, Alexander Sirota)