Repossession: Notes on Restoration and Redemption in Ukraine's Western Borderland

Abstract

In the borderlands between the Ukraine and Poland, where a dynamic new Europe meets the ruins of the Soviet Union, lies a commune where people dispossessed by socialism can build new lives. This commune, its anarchist founder “Viktor,” and its paradoxical logics are at the center of an essay by Karolina Szmagalska-Follis in Cultural Anthropology’s May 2008 issue. Viktor’s emphasis on the commune’s self-sufficiency “was borne out of the disorder of a transitional state,” Szmagalska-Follis writes, “but the specific shape which the commune took- the totalizing collective organized around work – emerged as an unexpected testimony to the durability of imperial forms.”

Literally built amidst the ruins of a nuclear base, the commune harbors people released from prison without the necessary papers for jobs, people who have escaped from human trafficking and people seeking political asylum. In the commune, they grow their own food, patch the roofs of old barracks and recycle Soviet vehicles, participating in the “all-embracing domain of collective work and life” that Viktor has aspired to provide. Viktor’s logics are reminiscent of Soviet logics, but also reach back to a pre-Bolshevik peasant anarchism that once gave rise to “free” egalitarian communes. Viktor also embodies and idealizes resourcefulness, ingenuity and a subversive disregard for authority -- qualities often described as uniquely “Ukrainian,” borne of centuries of hardship dependency and rebellion against the neighboring regional powers. Viktor and the commune thus provide new angles on the way postsocialism is playing out on the ground. They also provide a inspiring example of reconstructive change, “measured not by wholesale reforms and political transformation, but by fixed roofs and mended lives.”

Editorial Footnotes

Previously, Cultural Anthropology has published essays on the subjects of post-socialism. Paul Manning's essay "Rose-Colored Glasses? Color Revolutions and Cartoon Chaos in Postsocialist Georgia" (2007), Ralph Litzinger's essay "Memory Work: Reconstituting the Ethnic in Post-Mao China" (1998), and Jessica Winegar's essay "Cultural Sovereignty in a Global Art Economy: Egyptian Cultural Policy and the New Western Interest in Art from the Middle East" (2006) are good references.

Cultural Anthropology has also published essays on minor political traditions. Jack Kugelmass's essay "Bloogy Memories: Encoutnering the Past in Contemporary Poland" (1995), Alejandro Lugo's essay "Cultural Anthropology and Reproduction in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico: Tropes at Play among Maquiladora Workers" (1990), and Teresa Caldeira's essay "The Art of Being Indirect: Talking about Politics in Brazil" (1988) are good references on the subject.

About the Author

Karolina Szmagalska-Follis is a postdoctoral fellow in Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism program at the University of Pennsylvania.

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