C. Geering: Building a Common Past

Building a common past. World heritage in Russia under transformation, 1965-2000

Geering, Corinne
Kultur- und Sozialgeschichte Osteuropas / Cultural and Social History of Eastern Europe.
Göttingen 2019: V&R unipress
502 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Laura Demeter, Fellow of the Leibniz-ScienceCampus "Eastern Europe - Global Area"

The publication traces over five main chapters the trajectory of the "world heritage’ understanding in Russia from its inception, to its re-interpretation as UNESCO World Heritage in the late 1980s and its subsequent re-interpretation following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. This study brings a significant contribution to current body of literature that highlights the involvement of the socialist countries, such as the GDR, Cuba, Poland, and Romania, with international organisations in the field of heritage preservation during the Cold War and beyond.[1]

The author adopts a long-term perspective in order to highlight developments in conservation in Soviet Russia starting from the 1960s and after the political transformations in the 1990s with an outlook towards international developments. The main question addressed by the author is ‘how Soviet world heritage in Russia was re-interpreted as UNESCO World Heritage and re-integrated in a changed international setting following the disintegration of the Soviet Union’ (p. 24). To answer this question, the author exemplarily discusses heritage sites located in the former Soviet Russia, that have been inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage sites in the 1990s. The contribution of this book lies in analysing places less known to the wider public, such as in the Northwest of Russia (the Solovetskie Islands and Kizhi Pogost), Northeast of Moscow (Vladimir and Suzdal, Sergiev Posad), and in the Autonomous Republic of Tatarstan. The author aims to contribute to situating the Russian world heritage approach into three bodies of literature. Namely, within the larger framework of international cooperation during the Cold War, the initiatives of international organisations, and the development of the system of heritage conservation in late Soviet Russia and early Russia Federation.

Furthermore, the publication demonstrates that political changes of 1991 and the emergence of the Russian Federation, did not trigger a rapid shift of the Russian approach to ‘world heritage’. Moreover, these developments emerged prior under the conditions created by the World Decade for Cultural Development (WDCD), such as the adoption of the World Heritage Convention in 1988 by the Soviet Union. Informed by rich archival documentation and field studies, the involvement of the Soviet Union with UNESCO is discussed, by equally revealing the criticism raised by the Soviet authorities regarding the framing of the World Heritage Convention and the world heritage program in general.

The author shows in the second chapter that Soviet authorities manifested their interest between 1945-1988 to establish the international discourse on heritage protection, in particular in the event of armed conflict. The concept of ‘world heritage’ as ‘heritage of all humanity’ was embraced by the Soviet Union as a shared responsibility to guarantee that no damage was done in the context of war, demonstrating a continuation with the 19th century understanding. This approach was triggered by the damages inflicted during the Second World War in a first stage, and nuclear threats starting the 1970s. Thus, Soviet authorities didn’t reject the idea of ‘world heritage’, but rather supported their own approach within the international heritage discourse, which meant guaranteeing nations’ sovereignty. Only during the 1980s the Soviet Union embraced its participation to the World Heritage program in the context of peace. Thus, the post-war Soviet participation in the heritage program was strongly associated with claims of political legitimacy of communism, sovereign cultures, and its superiority over other political systems.

The discourse on heritage preservation in the political context between 1965 and late 1980s, in respect to international developments, was discussed in the third chapter. Following central constitutive elements of the soviet heritage discourse were problematised: the notion of monument and historic town, the establishment of conservation areas, and the notion of ecology of culture.

The state structures and relationship with international organisations were introduced in the fourth chapter. These reveal that natural and cultural heritage were the subject of attention of different state institutions and normative frameworks. The author positively contextualised the involvement with environment protection and the increasing role assigned to heritage preservation for touristic purposes. The prioritisation of natural conservation in detriment to cultural heritage preservation was highlighted based on the ‘Man and the Biosphere Program’. This is considered by the author as the singular active engagement of the Soviet Union with issues of conservation within UNESCO before 1988.

The increasing opening towards international cooperation starting with the 1980s was highlighted in the fifth chapter. A particular attention was attributed to the perestroika reforms introduced by the political leader Gorbachev. This facilitated a wider implication with UNESCO’s heritage program, but also larger local institutional development. The involvement in the UNESCO World Decade for Cultural Development, the proposal for ‘Revival of Unique Historical Areas’, and the first nominations for the World Heritage List were consequently anaylsed. These developments laid the basis for the post-soviet transformation discussed by in the sixth chapter of the book.

The last major chapter focuses on the efforts towards internationalisation pursued on the background of major political transformations, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states, and nonetheless of major economic constraints and transition to a market economy. The re-contextualisation of the World Heritage initiatives from the soviet period reveals changing discourses and administrative structures. Despite the re-writing of the heritage discourses in the nation-building processes, heritage practices demonstrate rather continuity from the soviet period. The complexity of the post-soviet transformation and internationalisation efforts are exemplarily problematized by the fate of orthodox religious sites, multi-ethnic heritage sites and the prioritization of cultural sites opposed to natural heritage. The author demonstrates continuities from the soviet period in dealing with ‘world heritage’, but also an increasing interest during the 1990s in the internationalization of heritage processes.

The author concludes in the seventh chapter that despite officially embracing UNESCO policies by ratifying the World Heritage convention in 1988, the period of transformation until 2000 was marked rather by the re-interpretation and re-integration of earlier discourses and practices, than a replacement of the earlier soviet approaches to world heritage.
The publication successfully captured the increasing awareness concerning world heritage preservation starting from 1965 until 2000. By adopting a long-term approach, the historical study analysed the involvement of soviet Russia and Russian Federation with international organisations in heritage preservation. Thus, this contribution adds value to research dealing with the world heritage awareness during the Cold War in the Soviet context and following political transformations of the 1990s, moving beyond the Western dominant narrative when analyzing UNESCO and the awareness of ‘world heritage’ preservation.

[1] Nelly Bekus, Transnational circulation of cultural form. Multiple agencies of heritage making, in: International Journal of Heritage Studies (2019); Laura Demeter, Picking up the Pieces from the Communist Past. Transitional Heritage after 1989 in Germany and Romania, PhD Thesis at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca, Italy, December 2017, online available; Alicja Gzowska, Exporting Working Patterns. Polish conservation workshops in the Global South during the Cold War, in: Abe Journal Architecture beyond Europe, Dossier: Socialist Networks 6 (2014); Pablo Alonso González, Cuban Cultural Heritage. A rebel past for a revolutionary nation, Gainesville 2018.

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