Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe

Red. Kerstin Jacobsson
Routledge, Abingdon – New York 2015

In academic discussions on urban activism, the question of defining what an urban movement is remains unresolved. There are different opinions on whether we may speak about a distinct “urban movement”, “urban social movement” or simply a social movement active in a city. Manuel Castells, founder of the sociological discourse surrounding this issue, proposed various perspectives in his works, on the one hand regarding the city as one of many areas subject to capitalist relations of production and consumption, but on the other hand arguing for a distinct nature of the social and spatial urban reality and the processes involved. As a result, he sometimes looked at diverse urban claims and conflicts as unique to the city, and sometimes as typical for all communities. So questions about definitions touch upon more important (and also not completely resolved) issues of defining the city as a separate object of study, socially and culturally distinct in the diverse spheres of the urban society’s functioning. And although we usually know intuitively whether we find ourselves in a city or outside it, the diversification of urban spatial forms and kinds of city life makes it difficult to formulate convincing and clear definitions. When we want to define various dimensions of urban phenomena, their origin and mutual relations, the matter becomes even more difficult. Each person undertaking an analysis of urban movements must decide for herself or himself and specify the object of his or her attention.
In Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, the editor Kerstin Jacobsson adopts a relatively broad understanding of an urban movement, additionally arguing for combining hitherto separate currents in sociology: research on social and urban movements respectively. She starts from a broad definition of a social movement as “collective action efforts aimed at challenging the present state of affairs by people with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interaction with the elites, authorities and/or opponents”, specifying that the subject of interest will be narrowed down to phenomena connected with “shaping the life in the city”. So the book is oriented towards activities identifiable in a city rather than more or less defined actors of urban life. She thus seems to dodge the problem of defining an urban movement, rather than resolving it, as we might expect from determining conceptual boundaries.
We could leave the matter to definitional fundamentalists, were it not for the fact that it produces some distraction and a large diversification of analysed cases. So on the one hand we have examples of typically urban conflicts resulting from post‑transition spatial changes, as in Ioana Florea’s very vivid article about monument protection in Bucharest, additionally invoking the question of whether reproduction of historical memory must assume material forms, as well as the theme of nationalism, rarely considered in this context. On the other hand, in the text on Ukraine old women spending time together in front of their houses are named as representatives of urban civic activism. Likewise, Karine Clément’s article on Kaliningrad, although important in its analysis of the potential of generalisation of claims – from local to political, especially controversial in Russia – seems to describe matters which are not particularly characteristic for the city as such. As a result, one of the aims of the book, that is analysing urban movements and activism, can hardly be considered as achieved.
The thematic diversity of the book is both its defect – for it does not permit the editor’s promises to be fulfilled – and a virtue. For the book outlines the most important problems and fault‑lines of conflict present in the cities of Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, in most cases the authors come from the countries described in the articles, which is not a rule in publications of this type. It allows us to believe that they are familiar with the social and cultural context of their analysis. Of course, this by itself does not guarantee the accuracy of their findings – as shown, in fact, by the protest against the text on the Polish case by Dominika V. Polanska, organised by the Warsaw squatters described in it during a promotional event – but it allows us to hope for at least a partial overcoming of the colonial dependencies too often observed in works describing post‑socialist societies. Another ambition of the book is to analyse the cases of urban activism (I deliberately do not call it urban movements) which have so far been “under the radar”, escaping the attention of researchers either investing their energy in complaining about poor civic activity in post‑socialist countries or perceiving its manifestations mostly in the formalised non‑governmental organisations funded from abroad. This goal is definitely achieved, although we again observe problems with definitions and large diversification of cases, the result being that although the book presents a rich picture of urban activism in the region, it is not convincing on the theoretical and programmatic level. For the same reason, filling the gaps in the existing research is only partly successful. The diversity of contexts, scientific approaches and analysed cities proves problematic, if we wish to achieve what the editor proposes in the introduction and afterword.
Another important aspect of the book is the issue of the separate and distinct character of the region. This collection of articles does not address broader issues of post‑socialism, despite the fact that post‑socialism seems to be the unspoken factor determining the boundaries of the region described. On the arbitrarily defined trajectory of research on post‑socialism, stretching between transitology and ethnography or postcolonial reflection, the book is closer to the latter, which is certainly a positive thing. We know from other studies that the characteristic features of the region during the post‑socialist changes do not originate from the accelerating processes of adapting to an imagined model of the capitalist economy of the West, but rather from tangible unpleasant results of simultaneous and compressed occurrence of changes. What in the case of urban conflicts in France or Great Britain was spread over many decades, took only 15–20 years in the countries abandoning nominally socialist systems. The authors of the texts keep this fact in mind, but they find it difficult to move from the level of detailed description towards a synthesis confirming the distinct character of social processes going on in the region and, consequently, the importance of the described cases for creating a theoretical discourse on urban movements in a more general perspective. For conflicts connected with privatisation, a varied repertory of protest (from individual instances to political formalisation) or making use of informal networks of influence are not characteristic only for the countries east of the Oder. It is similar with the neoliberal changes in management or the commodification of various aspects of urban life. More important in this context are such questions as the nationalist tones in the behaviour of urban activists (the article on Bucharest mentioned above), building an opposition between modern urbanity and backward non‑urbanity (with the example of Serbia and Croatia) or discourses of Europeanisation (Lithuania). It is these elements which may serve as examples differentiating Central and Eastern Europe from countries with long‑time experience of urban activism. In the context of urban and regional research, post‑socialism is, as Tauri Tuvikene calls it, a “de‑territorialised concept” rather than a specific “container” or “condition”, and yet it is these two last terms which define the framework of the book. These elements are also easily translatable into the Polish context, where local governments are avidly pursuing “adaptation to European standards”, uncoordinated infrastructural modernisation (delayed by at least 30 years) or creating the city as a product, and the phoniness of such actions is revealed in the mass privatisation, corporate‑style management or reluctance in the use of spatial regulations. Reactions of urban activists to these developments have an obviously local nature, but one that is specific for the region as a whole.
The book Urban Grassroots Movements in Central and Eastern Europe may therefore be a good pretext to look at the spatial and social processes in the region through the prism of specific cities, conflicts and behaviours of social actors. The issues of the nature of (urban) social movements and the consequences of the assumed distinctiveness of post‑socialist cities and their significance for urban studies are left unresolved, perhaps fortunately.

Karol Kurnicki