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CIAO DATE: 07/02

The Discourses of St. Petersburg and the Shaping of a Wider Europe: Territory, Space and Post-Sovereign Politics

Viatcheslav Morozov

Copenhagen Peace Research Institute
March 2002


St. Petersburg enjoys the image of being the most European of Russia's cities. The stories about the past and the present of Russia's northern capital resonate with such concepts as 'the new Hansa', the Baltic Rim or the Northern Dimension of the EU. However, the image of St. Petersburg - the capital of imperial Russia - might also be conducive to processes preserving or (re)creating dividing lines in the Baltic Sea region and in Europe as a whole. The present-day St. Petersburg certainly finds itself in search of new discursive departures that could show the way out of the present situation, that is generally regarded as unsatisfactory. This search is developing along various paths, some of which remain embedded in 'traditional' discourses, whilst others dare to step into the unknown.

My aim here is to evaluate these attempts, using the distinction between the modern politics of sovereignty and post-modern, post-sovereign political developments as signposts. This distinction may be also expressed in terms of territorial vs. spatial politics. I use these two notions - territory and space - as metaphors that are useful for grasping the ontological differences between the modern and post-modern approaches to international politics. Although the dichotomy builds upon the concepts of territory and space developed in political science (see e.g. Ruggie 1993, Featherstone et al. 1995, Paasi 1996, Newman 1999, Sassen 2000), I take the liberty of interpreting the terms in my own way, as metaphors not necessarily corresponding to the definitions elaborated by others. Accordingly, this paper is by no means to be taken as a study in territoriality or spatiality.

Sergei Medvedev (1998:50-52) introduces a distinction between space and territory in order to conceptualise some fundamental differences in societal developments in Russia and Europe. It may seem that he tends to reify this distinction as a sort of civilisational divide separating Russia from Europe. In Medvedev's account, Russian space is constructed in a binary opposition to authority and order: it is chaos and anarchy rather than freedom, and, quite naturally, 'it possesses a great destructive potential' (1999:50). However, this dichotomy may be prone to a rather different interpretation if one assumes that in the post-modern, post-sovereign world, politics develops in space rather than being territorially bound. A post-modern actor can have multiple identities and belong to different, often overlapping, communities that are spatial rather than territorial. As pointed out by Ole Waever (1997:300-301) in his often quoted article about the Baltic Sea region, while in a modern setting the only choice for a region wishing to establish itself as an actor is revolt aimed at elevating the region to the status of sovereignty, regionalism is one of the post-sovereign processes, which 'do not follow the structures of sovereignty, and [...] multiply authorities and identities in modes that overflow sovereignty - they create a multiplicity where the order of sovereignty becomes one reality among many' (1997:301).

In terms of the territory/space dichotomy, Weaver's argument may run as follows: during the modern era, political identity was chiefly territorially defined, with state borders being crucially important markers of identity, and all interaction across the borders took place between states (either directly between the central governments or under their strict control). In the post-modern environment, territory is still there, as are state borders, but their significance is not - or not always - decisive. Post-modern actors open new political spaces and work out new identities based on historical narratives, geographical images, shared cultural values, etc. While for a territorially defined actor national identity is supreme, a community operating in political space may be defined by reference to history and geography (the Baltic Sea region), to cultural/ethnic proximity (cooperation between states and regions populated by people of common descent, e.g. Finno-Ugric), or to common principles and shared values (international human rights movement), but any such list is by definition an open one. Such communities may operate as networks with no clear centre and open membership (cf. Weaver 1997:308-309, 312), or may tend towards centralisation and/or closeness (ethnic and religious communities, criminal groups etc.).

My key starting point is that at the present moment Russia as a whole, and in particular St. Petersburg, is facing a new situation which has no historical analogies - one might describe it, for example, as Russia having a need to integrate into the post-modern globalising world, while at the same time going through the still incomplete process of modernisation (Solovei 2000). I proceed from the assumption that some discourses are better able to cope with this task than others. It seems to me that inclusive, 'accessible rather than closed' (Neumann 1998:42), de-bordered identities are better positioned in the current environment. I therefore prioritise those discourses that promote openness and diversity and that construct identities as operating in political space rather than those that are anchored in a national or any other territory. This inevitably means that some other discourses are rejected, and therefore diversity can never be absolute. This is, however, an old paradox inherent in the very idea of democracy, and it is not to be treated here.

Although historically and culturally Russia perhaps may be equated with 'space proper' (Medvedev 1998:51), if one employs a different lens, other agendas become possible. One may argue that contemporary Russian foreign policy is mostly about territory and territorial demarcations. This is particularly manifest in the fear of separatism that is constantly expressed by Russian politicians and diplomats, not least in the case of Kaliningrad. Internally, Russia may interpret itself as a multiform and inclusive culture, emphasising its ethnic and religious diversity, the long tradition of tolerance, etc. While interacting with the outside world, however, Russian society feels vulnerable if deprived of a clear dividing line between 'us' and 'them': the dominant discourse tends to treat the blurring of the inside/outside divide as a threat to societal identity. Identity thus becomes securitised, with Westernisation identified as the main threat that is going to blur all boundaries and, consequently, to obliterate all identities (see Morozov 2002). This territorial self-entanglement prevents Russia from finding its place in a Wider Europe, and we should look for ways to transform the discourse to avert increasing isolation.

The need to look around for qualitatively new discursive resources is implicitly demonstrated by Sergei Medvedev himself. His story is about the circular nature of Russian history, about Russia being 'doomed to a vicious cycle of change between destruction and construction, [...] of expansion and hardening in space' (1999:48). By studying how the discourse actually operates we can always hope to find an opening that could help us to transform the territory/space dichotomy and to break this vicious circle. This may sound like wishful thinking in comparison with Medvedev's description of a centuries-old recursive development, but knowledge of how history works in a specific case can be no less revealing and is probably more empowering, than sweeping generalisations made from a distance.

My approach is not meant to be a substitute for the search for other, more structural explanations and solutions. However, it is my contention that 'hard' structure (economic and geographical factors, interests, etc.) does not provide sufficient ground for moving forward. From Andrey Makarychev's analysis of 'hard' structural factors determining the ability of the Russian regions to take part in globalisation, it may follow that the regions should, by now, be fully prepared to embrace globalisation and to avail themselves of its advantages: after all, they 'are not overburdened with tough geopolitical legacies and are pursuing mainly economic goals' (Makarychev 2000:27). Put another way, their concern is 'geoeconomics', not 'geopolitics', and it might therefore be understood as 'natural' for them 'to concentrate on the strategy of economic survival in a wider international context and to endorse the concept of 'civic security' (2000:29). Moreover, '[t]he major cities have at their disposal all the basic prerequisites for joining the family of international actors' (2000:33). Why is it then that 'geoeconomic thinking is not yet an overwhelming characteristic of the regional elites in Russia' (2000:30)? Why are there such obvious differences between regions in their ability to grasp the reality of globalisation? These questions cannot be answered without bringing in language as a distinct reality, without analysing the role of discursive practices in reproducing and reshaping our world.

I claim that St. Petersburg in particular possesses rather powerful discursive resources and a heritage that can be employed to break away from the confines of territorial politics. One should not, however, ascribe some immanent merits to St. Petersburg identity as being, for example, a priori 'European', 'open' or 'progressive' by virtue of its history, geographical position or socio-economic potential. As any other identity, it is constantly reproduced and reshaped by competing discourses, which use history, geography etc. as building blocks in this process. In order to conceptualise the interpretative politics around St. Petersburg, I introduce the term narrative to denote the stories which are firmly associated with the city and shared by several or all of the rival discourses. The narratives are less contested as such, but their meaning is often ambiguous, with every narrative being subject to diverging interpretations from within different discourses: the stories are the same, but every time they are told differently, with a changed emphasis and a new emotional load. The narratives open a vast range of possibilities, but only some of them are actualised in discourses. The narratives thus are equivalent to raw material which every discourse processes in its own way, and apparently the same stories are used to construct very dissimilar identities.

I start my analysis with a brief overview of the existing narratives, but then stay mostly at the level of discourses, since there is nothing in any story about St. Petersburg that could, in itself, ensure or prevent a break-away from territorial politics. One can argue that such a break can happen, or is happening, only if some of the existing discourses can be interpreted to that effect. It is therefore important for the analysis to be primarily focused on discourses: otherwise there is always the risk of sliding back towards a search for some essential, intrinsic features of St. Petersburg that make it 'more European' than the rest of Russia. This would not only be questionable in methodological terms, but would actually contribute to the continuing othering of Russia as 'non-European' and 'non-civilised'. The task of the present paper is therefore to investigate the discourses of St. Petersburg from the point of view of the territory/space dichotomy, and not to promote any kind of ideal solutions that are not based in the discursive reality. I suggest some additional stories that arguably could fit certain discourses only when I conclude that the discourses exist in the first place.

As already mentioned, the first section of the paper summarises the main narratives. The official discourse is evaluated in the second section, and the need for a 'softer' history for the city is substantiated afterwards. The attempts to elevate the status of St. Petersburg in the internal Russian hierarchy and its uneasy relationship with Moscow is the subject of the fourth section. Finally, I examine existing post-sovereign discursive departures and assess the obstacles and possible traps that these discourses face. The conclusion sums up the discussion and suggests the discursive moves that are necessary, or at least desirable, to bring the city out of its present territorial predicament into the wider European space.