Peer-reviewed articles Squatting and the moral economy of public-private relations

The case of late Soviet and early post-Soviet squatting helps to elucidate how squatting is structured in regard to public-private relations and what the political component of squatting can be in a society not based on private property. The self-help occupying of vacant flats was not restricted to subcultures.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2016, pp 57-67
Published on on June 23, 2016

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The case of late Soviet and early post-Soviet squatting helps to elucidate how squatting is structured in regard to  public-private relations and what the political component of squatting can be in a society not based on private property. The self-help occupying of vacant flats was not restricted to subcultures. With very few exceptions, the squatters were not trying to mobilize external support. Subcultural groups excluded from the official distribution of resources created their semipublic free spaces by squatting. By analyzing the moral economy of public-private relations, it is shown that the direct appropriation by squatters was similar to a common symbolic appropriation of state housing based on place-making practices, by Soviet urban dwellers. Squats as a form of practical “Eigen-Sinn”, or self-will, challenged the Soviet system of resources allocation.

Keywords: squatting, Russia, property relations, moral economy, public-private relations.

If we define squatting as the unauthorized use of previously unoccupied dwellings or property, then it is obviously a widespread phenomenon, not restricted to movement-related cases in Western Europe. To interpret different forms and meanings of squatting practice fruitfully, specific historical contexts have to be explicated. The legal and cultural dimensions of property relations deserve special attention: the idea of “living in […] a dwelling without the consent of the owner”1 implies an “owner” and institutionalized forms of “consent”. Both are historical products and should not be taken for granted. Squatting in late socialist and post-socialist Russia is a promising case due to the specifics of property relations: the modus of collective property was dominant not just for the means of production, but in the urban housing stock as well; here, squatting carried an aspect of privatization of public property, rather than collectivization of private property.2 However, it cannot be reduced to this: whereas squatters, with very few exceptions, did not produce legitimizing discourse, squats were reaching out into alternative, non-official publics. The present article disentangles public-private relations in the case of squatting in Leningrad/St. Petersburg and shows how their specific configuration has influenced squatting.

Squats in the second-biggest Soviet city were not entirely the product of liberalization, even though the loosening of state control changed opportunity structures: squatting by nonconformist artists and musicians was reported as early as the 1970s. Between 1988 and 1992, according to my findings, more squatting took place, but the quantity declines from then on. The late 1980s and early 1990s was the time of the fundamental restructuring of property relations, and squatting in Leningrad/St. Petersburg was one of the many forms of informal appropriation and exchange practices, though rather a marginal one. Only a few interviewees claim to have developed any distinctive self-identification as “squatters”; some even described themselves as “not real squatters”, despite their unauthorized use of dwellings for longer periods. Squatting took on a rather non-spectacular and non-ideological character: people occupying a room, a flat, or several flats in a building, were reluctant or hesitant to make a statement. By explaining “silent squatting”, this paper argues, we can better understand the moral economy of Soviet housing and public-private relations. The paper is intended to show, that the appropriation by squatters was not very different from the legitimate form of symbolic appropriation of state property by the Soviet people.

The empirical foundation of this contribution consists of 16 semi-structured interviews conducted between spring of 1998 and spring of 1999, with people who were involved in squatting in Leningrad during the 1980s and 90s. Most interviewees had been living and/or working at squats, sometimes at more than one. Some interviewees used such spaces regularly, being members of relevant subcultural networks, or were involved in similar informal housing practices like “black leasing” by local housing administrations in cooperation with the police. Interviews lasted from 20 to 90 minutes, most lasting about one hour, and combined a narrative segment on squatting experiences and a segment of questions and answers. A numbering system is used in the quotations to protect the interviewees. I also conducted two expert interviews: one about occupation by homeless people and one about housing relations in the context of privatization. Further research material included publications in local newspapers and subcultural periodicals. The interviews were conducted as part of my diploma thesis in sociology about squatters, parts of which were published in Russian.3 However, the present article is an original work and is less influenced by a case of squatter movement in West Berlin in the 1980s.

The paper focuses on the time between the late 1980s and the late 1990s. This period is especially relevant in regard to the massive change in property relations in the (former) Soviet Union. In addition, some conditions in the housing sphere provided partially vacant houses as resources for squatting. After 1992, the quantity of squats declined, probably as a consequence of the opening opportunities for formerly “countercultural” youth, and the institutionalization and commodification of cultural activities. Further factors of decline were the development of rental relations and disappearance of squatting opportunities due to the increasing commercial use of dwellings in the historical center.

The next epoch of squatting documented in three cases was 2003 to 2005. Its protagonists were mainly (anarcho-) punks connected to the Punk Revival-network; some were activists of other left-wing subcultures and anarchists.4 The most prominent squat was Klizma/Pekarnia near the Narvskaia metro station, which existed from 2003 to 2004 and was used as a place for concerts and parties, face-to-face communication, organizational activities, such as preparations for anarchist MayDay in 2004 and  antifascist demonstrations, and as housing. An effort to create a dwelling place and cultural center in one house made it similar to both the artistic squats and the residential squat-communes of the aforementioned earlier period. However, the protagonists in this new wave were openly political and interpreted their squatting explicitly as a form of anti-capitalist action, as de-commodification of housing, and not merely as a form of living intended to offer an alternative to an alienated modernist way of life. Therefore, it can be viewed as a new type of squat for Russia, one which has stronger similarities with squats in Western Europe connected to left-wing movements. Between 2008 and 2011, another wave of squatting occurred. It seems to have been born by a different, loosely connected network of people identifying themselves as squatters, who combined elements of self-help, anti-capitalist ideas, and an orientation towards a do-it-yourself (DIY) culture and alternative lifestyle. Whereas these later series are  interesting from a transnational comparative perspective, their reconstruction does not seem essential to answering the main question of the present investigation.

Public-private relations

Explaining “Eastern European” squatting vis-à-vis the public-private-distinction, one of the “grand dichotomies” of Western thought,5 implies certain risks. The idea of a deficiency, or even a complete absence of private and/or public spaces in the Soviet Union and Russia is widespread.6 Soviet-type societies obviously did not develop independent political publics as communicative spheres besieging the state in a Habermasian sense. Still, a wide range of spheres of public communication and action existed, most of them influenced by the regime.7 The private and the public must be understood as multilayered categories, connected by a “dynamic, interactive tension”.8 For an analysis of squatting, two such layers are of special importance: relations between state-controlled and informal public spheres, and the public-private dimension of property relations.

Instead of focusing on “non-Western” deficits, the study of public spheres in state socialist societies can direct its focus towards the Eigen-Sinn (self-will) of people: individuals in hierarchical relationships and regimes do not just reproduce imposed meanings and follow the rules, but develop plural interpretations and practices for dealing with those.9 The interests and practices of Eigen-Sinn range from calculated collaboration to open resistance. Eigen-Sinn includes the use of “hidden transcripts”, i.e. discourses that take place “beyond direct observation by powerholders”.10 They consist of “those offstage speeches, gestures, and practices, that confirm, contradict, or inflect what appears in the public transcript”, or open interactions between the subordinate and the dominating actors.11 Challenging the relations of symbolic power, hidden publics are implicitly political.

The performance of hidden transcripts constitutes alternative public spheres, hidden from the control institutions. “Hidden” and “public” are not opposing, but refer to two different public-private-dimensions: hidden vs. open and collective vs. individual.12 In the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, specific spaces of communication on matters of everyday life were evolving out of the (not entirely emancipated) private realm, and were sharply separated from the official public sphere.13 It may be added, that the separation itself was regulated by the practical Eigen-Sinn of citizens. The small informal publics could be located physically in different kinds of places — in the kitchens of private apartments, in rooms of communal apartments, in cafes or in tourist bivouacs: rather than depending on certain kinds of places, the publics transformed these.14 For the publics that were connected to the subcultural milieus, squatting was one way of creating communicative spaces in the tradition of Eigen-Sinn.

The moral economy of Soviet property relations

Another layer of the public-private-distinction explains why the late- and post-Soviet squatters remained mostly silent about squatting practices, except for practical questions, and did not produce legitimation discourses — a public-private dimension of Soviet property relations in the housing domain. These relations should be studied as an interplay of cultural, economic, and legal aspects.15

The Soviet system of housing relations was a system of allocation.16 The citizens typically got access to urban residential housing (separate apartments or rooms in communal apartments) without acquiring full property rights to it, including the rights of disposition. The alteration of physical structures within apartments was restricted as well.17 Yet it was not renting in the sense of a landlord-tenant relation, which is a contractual relation typical for market economies and based on ownership. A “contract” as a specific form of exchange must include “the freedom of parties to forge their agreement as they wish” and the ability to deviate from pre-existing prototypes.18 Most Soviet citizens did not rent their apartments from other private agents on the market on such conditions. People considered themselves to have received housing free of charge after applying for improvements in housing conditions, and then waiting for several years or longer. In fact, the “free” housing was financed from the social consumption funds formed on the not-paid wages.19 A further difference from a rental relation is, that the monthly payments (kvartplata) were standardized and subsidized, i.e. indirectly financed by the population in the same way. A life-long use right was created and then fixed by a registration at the given address (propiska, see below). Through the registration of children in the apartment, a use right for the next generation was established, without the possibility of formal inheritance. Soviet tenants did not correspond to the ideal type of tenants in market economies.

To explain how public goods, including housing, were provided in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union, Sovietologists often used the idea of a social contract on the macro-level, between the society and the regime. An “implicit agreement dictated by the state and accepted by the workers”,20 so the idea, promised state provision of basic social services, almost free of charge, in exchange for political consent.21 When the contract failed, loyalty was revoked, leading to the failure of the system, prompted by protests and disrespect for public property. Indeed, according to the survey conducted in St. Petersburg in 1990, one third of the interviewees, and more than 60% of the school and vocational school students  interviewed, justified the theft of state property.22 Less than 20% of respondents justified thefts for private property. Against this background, squatting as the direct appropriation of state property appears quite logical.

However, the informal economy, including petty thefts and the illegal use of collective property, was common before the massive economic crisis.23 Its persistence can be explained using a concept of moral economy, interpreted as a popular consensus about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of practices and relations in the economic sphere, connected to the significance of specific social goods.24 Welfare transfers, Steffen Mau insists, can be interpreted as welfare exchanges, whose acceptance depends not just on the self-interest of actors, but also on moral plausibility.25

The moral economy of Soviet property relations was shaped by the Soviet system of resource allocation. The conception of social justice addressed exchange with state institutions. As benefactors, working individuals shared their work resources, as beneficiaries, they received use rights in and access to the collective property and communal goods: housing, health provision, education, childcare, etc. The moral obligation to give resources and the moral right to use communal goods were, however, not conjugated in detail. In this context, the direct appropriation of communal goods became legitimate. “In contrast to the difficulties that many individuals presently encounter in extracting value from their property, under Soviet rule many people were able to benefit from use rights to those same objects”.26 The direct appropriation of state housing did not have an illegal character. Rather, it was symbolic.27 By improving and personalizing their rooms or apartments, the dwellers were appropriating it actively and developed a “de facto sense of ownership for the spaces they inhabited”.28 Due to the underdevelopment of contractual relations, the moral economy of Soviet housing was based on the symbolic privatization of public property, rendering squatting marginal, but not unique.

The legal framing of squatting

The legal framing of public-private property relations in the Soviet Union was contradictory: theft of “socialist property” was considered a crime (or, in less severe cases, an administrative violation). But the (Soviet) Russian legislation has been peculiar on similar phenomena, which cannot be classified as classic “theft”. It was only a relatively short phase, between 1994 and 1997, when the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation included an article (148.2) referring directly to urban squatting — “unlawful occupancy of another’s real estate, committed with a mercenary purpose, if attributes of larceny are absent”. Article 148.2 was part of the broader legal framework aimed at reflecting and regulating relationships involving private property in Russia during the post-Soviet transformation.29 Private ownership of real estate was seen as a pillar of new economic relations and “market economy”, and was supposed to be protected by criminal law as well. Some articles of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR (and the later Code of 1996) could be used to punish squatting as well, mainly in the context of other relations besides property relations.30 Still, legally speaking, there were no squatters in the Soviet Union.

The practice, as reconstructed in the interviews, conformed to these legal conditions: squatting did not come with specific legal risks, even if the members of subcultural networks were subjected to other forms of legal persecution. “They [police] would not know what we actually did wrong”.31 In the 1970s, most squats were evicted promptly, but later, in the 1980s and the 1990s, interactions with the police differed widely. In some cases, the squatters were beaten up, or windows were repeatedly smashed in order to make the dwellings inhabitable, but there was no legal prosecution. In other cases, the police officers just verified the identification and the residence permits of inhabitants and were satisfied when people proved to be not really homeless, nor criminal, and when there were no complaints from neighbors. The rare police raids were focused on other topics, primarily drugs. The legal non-framing of squatting as an offence to property paralleled the specifics of state property in the housing sector.

The housing system as a context of squatting practice

St. Petersburg was founded 1703 with the intention of creating an exceptional city; it was to become a new model capital for the Russian Empire. The utopian myth of well-regulated European beauty and the complementary anti-utopian myth of the cold, inhuman city saturated its symbolic space.32 Later, the Soviet myth of “Leningrad, cradle of three revolutions” and the parallel identity of “an ordinary city” developed.33 Even today, these myths influence the perception of the historical center, located inside the industrialization ring of factories, where most of the squatting took place.

Living in the symbolically rich historical setting has not provided a purely romantic experience for most of the inhabitants. The official housing statistics focus on variables that conceal social inequality; such as the average space in square meters per person.34 The high percentage of people living in communal apartments (kommunalka) indicates absolute housing deprivation.35 In communal apartments, each householde, whether an individual or a family, has its own room (some families, more than one) and shares a kitchen, hallways, and facilities; they cannot choose their neighbors. The high levels of relative housing deprivation are stable, as indicated by the survey’s data.36 Consistent to the findings of social movement studies, the constant absolute or relative deprivation has not been enough to fuel a large mobilization on social justice in the housing sphere. Housing and urban movements of the past 30 years have mobilized against local threats posed by construction projects to recreational zones or cultural heritage, for the self-management of residents, against price rises and the deterioration of communal services, or for the interests of small shareholders in housing construction who lost their money.37 None of these were notably related to squatting.

An aspect of deprivation, which is directly relevant for squatting, was the bad condition of the housing stock. The development of Leningrad into an over-industrialized city in post-war Soviet Russia devaluated the historic center symbolically and aggravated a common real-socialist practice of disinvestment in historical centers.38 In the mid-1990s, up to 15 million square meters of housing stock in the city needed major reconstruction, two thirds of which was located in the historic city center. However, in the early 1990s, the city authorities had practically stopped the clearance and the renovation of dilapidated buildings. The city was badly affected by a radical drop in housing construction in Russia.39 The citizens of St. Petersburg practically lost every chance to improve their housing conditions by public means.

The most important resources for squatting were apartments in buildings, which were located in the historic city center and partially cleared of tenants by city authorities for capital repair. The majority of the squats the interviewees told me about were apartments (in some cases, rooms in communal apartments) located in such buildings. When a building was to be renovated, dwelling units could not be rented out any more. On paper, they ceased to exist as inhabitable dwellings. The tenants were resettled in other dwellings, mostly on the city periphery. The clearance of a communal apartment required several new apartments. This was costly and time consuming. Some apartments remained vacant in partly inhabited buildings. As the buildings were not cut off from utilities including electricity, water, and central heating, these were the most suitable for squatting.

As an immediate effect of freezing the capital renovation program in the 1990s, some buildings in the historic center were “lost in transition” and stood partly cleared for several years. In the short term, the partial clearing of houses for capital renovation supplied resources for squatting. In the long run, some of these houses were included in the informal system of black leasing. In the interviews, several such cases were described on Nevskiy Prospekt, near the Pushkinskaia metro station, and around Shkapina and Rozenshteina streets. This practice had been known since the 1970s; after prices rose at the end of the 1980s, it became more popular among artists to occupy an apartment for an atelier first and then negotiate with the housing administration (REU).40 As another interviewee reported, concerning squats near the Baltiiskaia metro station, a local police officer “used to come and give us broad hints like ‘You know, you should really talk to the REU’”.41 The inhabitants gave in and wrote a letter to the REU asking for the lease of a storeroom in the name of a non-existent firm, but considered it a bribe for being left alone, and not as rent.

The black leasing did not end in the 1990s: the complex of buildings between Shkapina and Rozenshteina streets, which I visited in 1999, was included in the system of black leasing until at least 2004; the unofficial tenants included migrants from former Soviet republics. Some of the buildings were demolished in 2009, after construction elements had repeatedly collapsed, and they were subsequently replaced by new housing complexes belonging to a private investor. Cleared kommunalkas became less available as resources for squatting: between 1992 and 1997, the number of kommunalkas declined by 20%,42 but the vast majority were cleared by private investors and were practically inaccessible to squatters.

Squatting practices

The unauthorized occupying of housing in the Soviet Union took on very different forms; far from all of them were interpreted by the actors and/or their counterparts as being specific squatting practices. In the following, I would like to give an overview of different forms of urban occupying in Leningrad between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s. Some of them — but not all — occurred in the context of subcultural networks. The forms of squatting have been defined according to the main activities and the motivations and interpretations of the squatters themselves, and classified empirically by the author. The four defined forms of squatting are:

1 In early 1990s, Shomina observed “numerous accounts” of collective, organized housing seizures in newly constructed buildings by families with many children, construction workers, or refugees.43 An abrupt decline in housing output in the context of the overall economic crisis led to worker’s dissatisfaction and desperation on the part of some people in the housing queue. Their deprivation was exacerbated by perceived injustice, corruption, and inefficiency in the distribution of available housing, as thousands of houses remained empty for considerable periods. In many cases, according to Shomina, local authorities were forced to legalize the use of occupied apartments and to issue appropriate papers. Shomina describes the squatting of new buildings from Moscow as different to St. Petersburg. However, in Moscow there were also some cases of squatting in houses partially or entirely cleared for capital repair (Petlurovskii on Petrovka Street, which developed into an independent art-center and lasted for five years; Bulgakovskii a squat of hippies etc.).

2 Unlike squatters of the first type, the inhabitants of what is called a residential squat (zhiloi squat) did not intend to legalize the use of the occupied space by acquiring a permanent residence permit and thereby become “normal” tenants. Still, they tried to create a home, at least temporarily — the occupation was not just a protest action. Below, I will describe this type of squatting in detail.

3 Artistic squats are better known than other kinds (most prominent among them are Pushkinskaya 10, Na Fontanke (No. 145), Synovia doktora Pelia, and several occupied by the Rechniki group).44 Artists, writers and musicians are known to have been living in artistic squats as well. But, more importantly, they used these places for creative work and communication. The artistic squats comprised more than the coexistence of some isolated ateliers; rather, they constituted meeting points. Cultural events (parties, concerts, discussions, exhibitions) were integrated into everyday life. At the height of the artistic squats, between the mid-1980s and 1992, there were no comparable “official” art centers, and in the Soviet system of resource allocation there could not be. The self-identification as a “squat” was marginal, in comparison to that of “artistic community” or, later, the project of creating an art center.45

4Ateliers and band rooms: Such places were occupied and used for rehearsals and socializing. This type of practice began to spread around the mid-1980s. People might stay there overnight regularly (a friend of the two musicians who occupied a place on Malyi Prospekt on Vasilievskii Island),46 but the place did not change its main function. In some cases an artist would squat a place to use as an atelier. This form of occupation could be regarded as sharing features with the “artistic squat”, although only a small group or just one person. Such squats were rather closed to outsiders and did not constitute a public space. One painter I interviewed referred to the specific risks of squatting an atelier: when another artist offered to share a squatted apartment, she refused because of the fear of losing her works and materials in case of eviction.47 She preferred to rent a small apartment informally from a housing committee (REU) instead.

These forms are not mutually exclusive, but may represent different stages of one and the same house: in some cases, an apartment was occupied by an individual artist, a hippie, or a group of people, and then more and more parts of the same house were squatted, leading, to the development of a more public artistic squat. The forms of squatting characterized by Hans Pruijt as “alternative housing strategies” and “entrepreneurial squatting” look quite similar. However, his typology focuses on squatting that is “organized by, or at least supported and/or inspired by, a social movement”.48 Most of the parameters he uses to identify different types are not applicable to the silent, small-scale, self-help squatting of apartments in Leningrad/St. Petersburg, where alternative identities were instrumental, but the identity as “squatters” remained marginal; no collective action system developed around squatting. Moreover, the distinction between an “artistic squat” and an “atelier or band room”, rather than describing a type of “entrepreneurial squatting”, permits emphasis on the artistic squat’s collective — and public — character.

Some forms of unauthorized use of dwellings would not qualify as squatting because of their episodic or short-term character, yet  these still help to define a field of relevant practices and meanings. People from alternative artists’ networks or the hippie-oriented Sistema49 would use certain vacant housing units for face-to-face communication/hanging out. Such “special places” were open to practically anyone who would adapt to the rules of the tusovka50 as an informal public sphere,51 albeit a short-lived and episodic one. One example from my study is a former caretaker’s lodge in a house on Pushkinskaya Street (though not in the well-known No. 10), where one interviewee recounted that she and her acquaintances “just hang out from time to time”.52 The practice is akin to other forms of temporary appropriation of liminal spaces popular in the 1990s among St. Petersburg youth, such as visiting certain roofs.

In the context of social movements in Russia, buildings were also briefly occupied buildings as a protest actions. In Leningrad, the movement for the defense of historical heritage developed in the mid-1980s and became a catalyst for a large-scale democratic movement, providing networks, activists, and shared protest know-how.53 The groups involved emphasized the conservative orientation of mobilization — preserving historical buildings from demolition, and, more broadly, preserving the historical identity of the city as relevant for meaningful everyday life — which was a relatively safe field, in comparison with openly anti-Soviet rhetoric. The first action was conducted around the house of the 19th-century poet Anton Delvig, which was about to be demolished to make way for a new metro station. During the performance-like rally, the activists addressed the surprisingly large audience from the inside and from the roof of the cleared and emptied house.54

Another related phenomenon is the crack house (priton). In some cases, residential squats would end in this manner.55 An occupied apartment was reduced to a place for the consumption of hard drugs, heavy drinking, and (in some cases, paid) sex. Such squats were open and their circle of users was not defined, nor expected to commit to any specific activity. This type of place was bound to attract the attention of police and neighbors.

In the following section, I concentrate on artistic squats and residential squats, because there the squatting was neither a means to acquire permanent residence permits, nor a short-term type of action. Thus, it stands out as a practice of its own. Furthermore, this practice should be understood as being connected to specific meanings of squatting: as a space for an alternative way of life, or as creative spaces. Here, the public-private relations were re-interpreted and negotiated, making squats a form of practical Eigen-Sinn.

Residential squats: communes vs. kommunalkas

Residential squats were not necessarily inhabited by members of Sistema. In some cases, people far from such milieus experienced lack of resources and sought a free accommodation. Migrants from other regions of the (former) Soviet Union or Russia were especially vulnerable if they could not obtain a residence permit. The system of propiska restricted access to workplaces, and vice versa, to get a propiska in a given city, an individual had to have a job there. Furthermore, the rents in the free housing market were four to five times higher than the kvartplata for a state accommodation.56 One interviewee described a squat at the end of Ligovskii Prospekt, on the outskirts of the historic center. The squat existed approximately between 1978 and 1984, and was occupied mainly by ordinary families with “baby strollers in the yard”.57 One empirical case might show characteristics of different types of squats, where some subcultural actors were also migrants for example.

Two main interpretations of residential squats by former inhabitants were reconstructed from the interviews:

  • a commune-squat of people who know each other, share interests, and are attracted by ideas of independent and collective living;
  • a kommunalka-squat: a forced solution, in which inhabitants are pushed together mainly by their need for housing.

These interpretations are not mutually exclusive. The most striking case was a squat in 4-ia Sovetskaia, which was described, with reference to the same period, as a commune in one interview, and as kommunalka in another.

Whereas commune was a reference used by some, if not all interviewees, the concept of kommunalka-squat was produced during the research. Russia, and especially Leningrad/St. Petersburg, has had a long tradition of urban collective living. Communal apartments were habitats in which up to 40 % of Leningraders lived (in the 1980s, up to 25%). In this world turned upside down most intimate functions were relegated to the public realm.58 Kommunalkas as a form of collective living could not establish a tradition of self-regulated cohabitation and self-government of dwellers. “In the Soviet times, in the cases when the tenants could not come to an agreement, the order usually came from an outside authority such as housing administration”.59 A possible explanation is that in the kommunalkas, people shared a flat not by choice nor could they influence who would become their co-dwellers. Neglected privacy leads to “oversensitivity to violations of privacy and its substitutes”.60 Collective living in the kommunalkas did not foster the development of an independent public realm.

The “usual kind of kommunalka also presented another kind of stress — the need to share accommodation with people of radically different social background”.61 Whereas this problem would not affect commune-squats, it certainly affected kommunalka-squats. An example: In a squatted apartment on Siezzhinskaia Street, there were people “claiming to be something more, artists or musicians maybe, not without something special of a kind […] but this bohemianism was a bit… stinking”. The space was shared with “strange pastry sellers” from Kiev.62

The poor living conditions in squats and the poverty-related lack of resources to improve these boosted the negative aspects of kommunalka. In many cases, the inhabitants shared not just the kitchen and the facilities, but rooms as well. The overcrowding was stressful. “It is very demanding, when there are so many people, when you do not have even a corner for yourself”.63 In the context of overcrowding, lack of privacy, and heterogeneity, conflicts sparked off.64

The creation of (temporary) privacy in relation to the outside world was an easier task. This could be achieved by putting a new lock on the door (which was done not in all cases, however; see below). The clearing of debris and trash was a further step towards establishing a “home”. In some cases, the supply of electricity, water, and especially hot water had to be restored. The “home” would still be in a relatively bad condition.

Some self-help squats therefore reproduced the public/private structure of their predecessors —the cleared communal apartments. Still, the squatting was an (albeit small-scale) alternative to a state system of allocation of housing resources.

Hidden publics

The inhabitants of the occupied apartments had more influence on the choice of co-habitants than dwellers of state-run kommunalkas. Sometimes the search for and invitation of new neighbors was very well reflected, and a candidate had to be approved by all dwellers. Still, sometimes, new people moved in step-by-step, staying overnight and so on: “Look, I know him, and he knows you. Could I stay here for a night?And then another night. And then he is visited by his friends from outside, and they stay overnight”.65 I assume that squatting as an act of appropriation engenders some degree of moral “obligations” to tolerate appropriation by others. Personal networks were central to the recruiting of new co-squatters; the so-called tusovka and its sub-scenes were especially important for the information flow and recruiting.

To return to the interviewees’ two main interpretations of residential squats, we can say that the kommunalka-squats were typically closed (zakrytyi), whereas a commune-squat could be closed or open (otkrytyi). The public-private structure of an open squat differed from the one described above: it functioned as a meeting point for all who knew about its existence, i.e. competent members of the communicative scene in question, or tusovka. This openness took different forms. Some occupied apartments were used as vpiska (an address for couch-surfing). Most Vpiski were actually not occupied apartments, but rather in some form possessed by members of tusovka, and allowed people from the subcultural Sistema to travel across the Soviet Union.66 Furthermore, open squats, or open houses, were centers of communication for subcultural youth from Leningrad/St. Petersburg as well. The door of one “open home” squat on Svechnoi, occupied by people connected to the Sistema, was not locked: “A squat is not your own apartment, its very idea is to be available for all people. So, if you install new locks and say, ‘Well, we live here now’, it would not be a squat anymore”.67

Some inhabitants lived in the city already and had an actual roof over their head and propiska, but they wished to try an independent, autonomous life and were restricted in resources to realize it in everyday life, aside from in the heterotopias of Sistema. One of the central ideas expressed by many interviewees is freedom — interpreted as independence from parental control68 or other forms of control, as ability to discuss non-pragmatic things freely, or to create something of one’s own together with sympathetic people. Such freedom can be negatively associated with risks or inability to plan with a longer perspective (“a state of slippery footing”).69 The squats were rather short-lived indeed. Still, the “open squats” offered an alternative to the public spaces of socialist Leningrad; these were to a high degree controlled by state authorities and failed to develop a public character.70 In this sense, some residential flats had much in common with artistic squats.

For an alternative art scene in Leningrad, getting access to legitimate galleries and concert venues was hard: “By the 1970s, a fully-fledged alternative art scene was starting to emerge. Scandalous successes were common, helped by intrusion of the police […]. With the space in galleries and exhibition halls hard to get, one strategy was to hang pictures in a studio or private living space”.71 Artists and musicians occupied what could be defined as “liminal spaces”, such as the clubs attached to palaces and houses of culture.72 In this context, artistic squats provided individual artists with places to work and to perform. On the collective level, the squats were well interconnected through personal links in Leningrad as well as between Leningrad and Moscow.73

As space resources, artistic squats were not committed to one form of cultural production: the desire to engage in creative work, in aesthetics different from Soviet academism, as well as the distance from official institutions, were common ground for the networks of “second culture” and their squats. “There were artistic and remarkable people”, who “suited each other because of the somewhat special inner sound”.74 The combination of visual arts, music, literature, and performance was programmatic for the group centered around Timur Novikov, best known at the times as “Novye hudozhniki” [the “new artists”], which was connected to squats at Fontanka 145. In this context, the squats fostered new expressive practices and cultural communities. The most prominent case here is techno, whose introduction and development in Russia at the very beginning of the 1990s can be traced back to the parties in squats at Fontanka 145, Svechnoi Pereulok, and Obvodnyi Kanal.75 The emergent character of squatted “free spaces” enabled the development of transformative spaces of electronic dance music.

Another kind of liminal spaces appropriated and created by non-official publics can be described as “partly squatted”. Two cases are documented from the 1980s, where well-known artists and musicians got rooms in communal apartments in an official way, and then gradually started to use other, empty rooms. The apartments functioned as ateliers, galleries and meeting points, foci of communication for artists’ and musicians’ networks: the central figures were Boris Grebenshikov on Sofyi Perovskoi76 and Timur Novikov on Voinova.77 The continuity of legal and non-legal forms of appropriation of free spaces is obvious. Thus the central quality of these spaces was not their legality (or illegality), but their communicative function.

Artistic squats and some open residential squats were meeting points and offered an alternative to the coercive “public privacy” of communal living in a kommunalka.78 They can be considered a form of a “private-public” sphere, an informal communication sphere guided by the norms of everyday interaction and different from the official public realm.79

Soviet property relations and squatting

The way the squatters in Leningrad/St. Petersburg interacted with the built space by inhabiting it, returning it to sustainable conditions and re-creating it in accordance with their aesthetic choices, was not so different from the practices of squatters in other historic and national settings. What stands out is that their appropriation was at the same time not very different from the legitimate way of (symbolic) appropriation of state property by the Soviet people as described above. The squatters did not have institutionalized property rights — but the majority of Soviet citizens in urban areas did not have them either, and neither were they classic tenants.

How did this similarity influence the interactions and overall mobilization chances of the squatters? Judging by the interviews with squatters and publications in mass media, there was no negative or hostile perception of squatters on the part of non-official outsiders, i.e. neighbors or other inhabitants of St. Petersburg. The squatters were, in fact, not considered a problem. A survey of the perception of different forms of deviant behavior conducted in the mid-1990s in St. Petersburg suggests that 40% saw the seizing of empty buildings as “negative” or “very negative”.80 This seemingly high level was, in comparison with drug consumption or prostitution, in fact one of the lowest, and comparable to attitudes towards freeriding on the public transportation system. One quarter of respondents could imagine seizing empty housing themselves.

On the other hand, the homeless people occupying the housing were considered a problem. As stated by Svetlana Stephenson, when homeless people (described pejoratively as bomzhi, derived from an official acronym) occupy empty housing, they find themselves quickly evicted. They are thought to turn the places into bomzhatniki (bomzh-nests).81 Several squatters in my study reproduced this negative attitude. First, indirectly, in reference to tenants: other inhabitants of the building, they said, would prefer “more or less decent” squatters to homeless people otherwise living on the street. When asked about conflicts with the neighbors, interviewees 10 and 11 expressed this sentiment: “Quite the opposite, our neighbors were happy, that there were no bomzhi here”. Second, several interviewees described difficult relations with the homeless people occupying other parts of the building.82 The homeless are perceived to cause trouble, by attracting the attention of the authorities, stealing, or breaking things and degrading the places they occupy.83 Therefore the squatters join in the mainstream tendency to disparage the street homeless because they do not want to be degraded by association.84 It was not the occupation of the vacant flats in itself that became central to the self-identification of squatters and their perception in relation to other groups. What they were doing — their everyday practices in the occupied flats — was important. Did they inhabit or “disinhabit” the flat? Did they maintain it, make repairs, or reduce it to an uninhabitable condition? Did they live a quiet life and not disturb their neighbors?

To sum up, the gross of squatters in partially cleared houses of mixed habitation in Leningrad/St. Petersburg were able to merge quite well with their “civil” neighbors. This was possible due to the specific property relations in the housing sphere when the “appropriating by doing” was a dominating mode.


What does it take in terms of social, political, and historical constellations for squatting to take place as it is typically defined — as living in or using a dwelling without the consent of the owner? “In a society, which is based on private property, this seemingly natural, simple form of appropriation, which does not care about property titles, is bound to be a rebellious form of resistance against these conditions.”85 Even an “un-political” self-help occupation challenges the system of property ownership and needs to be legitimized to the public.86

The situation in the Soviet Union was different. The economic and legal systems were based not on private, but on state ownership of the means of production and the main communal social goods. The socialist principle “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” was once propagated for the allocation of housing resources as well. However, the moral economy of Soviet housing was not based on detailed exchange with the state institutions. This fostered the moral legitimation of direct appropriation of state property.

Most squatters in houses of mixed habitation in Leningrad/St. Petersburg were able to merge quite well with their neighbors in spite of possible aesthetic differences because the appropriation of housing-by-doing was a dominant mode. The squatters did not need legitimation efforts, if the housing objects in question were not claimed by other private persons, i.e. belonged to “no one”. From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, at the time of fundamental restructuring of property relations, squatting in Leningrad/St. Petersburg was a marginal practice. Still, several circumstances fostered squatting: partly emptied buildings in the historic center, cleared for renovation, but inhabitable; ambiguous and poorly legitimized property relations; political liberalization and the development of informal communicative milieus.

The political character of squatting was not based on the critique of the moral economy of private property and the commodification of housing. Instead, it challenged the Soviet allocation system, which was aimed at full state control of housing and human resources, in a way quite similar to “Schwarzwohnen” or unofficial occupancy in the GDR.87 The silent squatting in Leningrad/St. Petersburg can be interpreted as Eigen-Sinn: it was a way of direct self-help beyond the state regulation of housing resources. The subversion was not completely private, even if self-help squats tended to reproduce the public-private structure of legal communal apartments. Some squatted apartments and houses (artistic squats or open residential squats) became meeting points and centers of informal public spheres of artistic and other informal milieus, fostering the development of free spaces. Being shaped decisively by the late Soviet situation, they constituted “private-public” spheres as an alternative to the official public realm. They were a form of practical Eigen-Sinn, which can be lived without being openly negotiated. ≈


1              Hans Pruijt, “Squatting in Europe”, in: Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles, ed. Squatting Europe Kollective (Wivenhoe…: Minor Compositions, 2014), 17.

2              Udo Grashoff, Schwarzwohnen: Die Unterwanderung der staatlichen Wohnraumlenkung in der DDR (Göttingen, V&R Unipress: 2011), 83.

3              Tatiana Golova, “Skvotery v Peterburge: praktika zahvata i obraz zhizni”, in Molodezhnye dvizheniia i subkultury Sankt-Peterburga, ed. Vladimir Kostiushev (St. Peterburg: Norma, 1999). Another expert interview with an experienced anarchist activist in St. Petersburg was made in spring 2015 and gave my findings a longer perspective.

4              The description is based on the 2015 expert interview (NI1) and a web archive on squatters in the former Soviet Union (, accessed at June 25, 2015).

5              Jeff Weintraub, “The Theory and Politics of the Public/Private Distinction”, in Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, ed. Jeff Weintraub and Krishan Kumar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), 1.

6              Lewis H. Siegelbaum, “Introduction” in Borders of socialism: private spheres of Soviet Russia, ed. himself. (New York, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006); Ingrid Oswald and Viktor Voronkov, “The ‘Public-Private’ sphere in Soviet and Post-Soviet society. Perception and dynamics of ‘Public’ and ‘Private’ in contemporary Russia”, European Societies 6 (2004).

7              Gábor T. Rittersporn, Jan C. Behrends, and Malte Rolf, “Öffentliche Räume und Öffentlichkeit in Gesellschaften sowjetischen Typs: Ein erster Blick aus der komparativen Perspektive”, in Sphären von Öffentlichkeit in Gesellschaften sowjetischen Typs: Zwischen partei-staatlicher Selbstinszenierung und kirchlichen Gegenwelten, ed. Gábor T. Rittersporn, Malte Rolf, and Jan C. Behrends (Frankfurt am Main…: Peter Lang, 2003), 9.

8              Siegelbaum, “Introduction”, 13.

9              Thomas Lindenberger (ed.), Herrschaft und Eigen-Sinn in der Diktatur. Studien zur Gesellschaftsgeschichte der DDR (Cologne: Böhlau, 1999).

10           James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990), 4—5.

11           Ibid.

12           Jeff Weintraub, “The Theory and Politics”.

13           Oswald and Voronkov,  “The ‘Public-Private’ Sphere”.

14           Julia Fürst, “Friends in Private, Friends in Public: The Phenomenon of the Kompaniia Among Soviet Youth in the 1950s and 1960s”, in Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet Russia, ed. Lewis H. Siegelbaum (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

15           Uriel Procaccia, Russian Culture, Property Rights, and the Market Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

16           Olga Bessonova, Zhilie: rynok i razdacha (Novosibirsk: Nauka, 1993).

17           Susanne Reid, “The Meaning of Home: ‘The Only Bit of the World You Can Have to Yourself’”, in Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet Russia, ed. Lewis H. Siegelbaum (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

18           Procaccia, Russian Culture, 8.

19           Yelena Shomina, “Housing Movements in Russia”, in Environmental and Housing Movements: Grassroots Experience in Hungary, Russia and Estonia, ed. Katy Lang-Pickvance, Nick Manning, and Chris Pickvance (Aldershot: Avebury, 1997), 144.

20           Linda J. Cook, The Soviet Social Contract and Why It Failed (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993), 19.

21           Cook, The Soviet Social Contract, 48.

22           Viacheslav Afanasiev and Yakov Gilinskii, “Deviantnoe povedenie v usloviiah totalnogo krizisa: osobennosti, tendentsii, perspektivy”, in Obraz myslei i obraz zhizni, ed. Yakov Gilinskii. (Moscow: ISRAN, 1996), 159.

23           See Olga Smolyak, “Sovetskie nesuny”, Otechestvennye zapiski 2012 No 1.

24           Thomas Clay Arnold, “Rethinking Moral Economy,” in American Political Science Review  95 (2001), 93.

25           Steffen Mau, The Moral Economy of Welfare States: Britain and Germany Compared (London: Routledge, 2003).

26           Jessica Allina-Pisano, “Property: What Is It Good For?” Social Research 76 (2009): 192.

27           Reid, “The Meaning of Home”, 159.

28           Aleksandr Vysokovskii, “Will Domesticity Return?” in: Russian  Housing  in  the  Modern  Age: Design and Social History, ed. William C. Brumfield and Blair Ruble (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1993), 275.

29           Sergei Ivashchenko, Ugolovnaya otvetstvennost za nepravomernoe zavladenie chuzhim nedvizhimym imushchestvom. (Candidate of science thesis, Moskovskii Iuridicheskii Institut, 1998).

30           Ivashchenko, Ugolovnaya otvetstvennost.

31           Interview 4.

32           Nikolai Anciferov, Nepostizhimyi gorod (St. Petersburg: Lenizdat, 1991).

33           Grigorii Golosov “Identity Contests. Local History and Electoral Politics in St. Petersburg”, in Composing Urban History and the Constitution of Civic Identities, ed. John J. Czaplicka, Blair A. Ruble, and Lauren Crabtree (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2003).

34           Nikolai Kornev, “Zhilishchnaia stratifikatsiia v tsentre Sankt-Peterburga”, Teleskop: nabliudeniia za povsednevnoi zhizniu peterburzhtsev (2005) No 1.

35           Catriona Kelly, St. Petersburg. Shadows of the past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014), 70; Kornev, “Zhilishchnaia stratifikatsiia”, 77.

36           Kuanshybek Muzdybaev, Dynamika urovnya zhizni v Peterburge (St. Petersburg: Smart, 1995), 85; Kuanshybek Muzdybaev, Kachestvo zhizni naselenija Peterburga: 1990—2004 gody (St. Petersburg: Leontief Centre, 2005), 61.

37           Karin Kleman, Olga Miryasova, and Andrei Demidov, Ot obyvatelei k aktivistam. Zarozhdaiushchiesia sotsialnye dvizheniia v sovremennoi Rossii (Moscow: Tri kvadrata, 2010); Shomina, “Housing Movements”.

38           Isolde Brade, “Metropolen Osteuropas im Wandel — das Beispiel St. Petersburg”, in Die Städte Russlands im Wandel: Raumstrukturelle Veränderungen am Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts, ed. Isolde Brade (Leipzig: IfL, 2002).

39           Shomina, “Housing Movements”, 146; Muzdybaev, Dynamika urovnya zhizni, 86; Viacheslav Kostrov, ed, Nedvizhimost Peterburga: Spravochnik (St. Petersburg: Nedvizhimost Peterburga, 1998), 84.

40           Interviews 8 and 14.

41           Interview 10/11.

42           Rekonstruktsiia tsentra Sankt-Peterburga: Investicionnaia strategiia (St. Petersburg: Leontief Centre, 1999), 22.

43           Shomina, “Housing Movements”, 149—50, Construction workers previously were prioritized in allocation of housing, if they had been working for a certain number of years.

44           Pushkinskaya 10 was, as the result of an exceptional struggle for the creation of an independent art center, legalized and is still in existence. The “Rechniki” group squatted several places. Their squat on Furmanova/Gagarinskaya Street existed until 2009.

45           According to an interview with one of the central actors of Pushkinskaya 10 (interview 8), the concept of “squat” was used by some in reference to a place of chaos and idleness, i.e. in perceived opposition to the art center the artists wished to create.

46           Interview 4.

47           Interview 15.

48           Pruijt, “Squatting in Europe”, 17.

49           Sistema — an ironic self-description of communicative spheres of urban youth countercultures in late the Soviet Union, influenced by hippies, punks etc. See Tatiana Shchepanskaia, Sistema: Teksty i traditsii subkultury (Moscow: OGI, 2004).

50           The idea of a tusovka (from tusovat’sia “hang out together”) was based on direct communication of actors united by shared practices and styles. During the 1980s, the concept was a self-description of one informal public sphere, centered on creative work, informal economic activities, and self-destructive behaviors. The distance from official cultural institutions and normal biographies was essential (Elena Zdravomyslova, “The Cafe Saigon Tusovka: One Segment of the Informal-public Sphere of Late-Soviet Society”, in Biographical Research in Eastern Europe: Altered Lives and Broken Biographies, ed. Robin Humphrey, Robert Miller, and Elena Zdravomyslova (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), 144). Later, tusovka became a designation of informal communicative milieus centered on kindred subcultural identities (see Shchepanskaia, Sistema, 45).

51           Zdravomyslova, “The Cafe Saigon Tusovka”.

52           Interview 12.

53           Boris Gladarev, “Istoriko-kulturnoe nasledie Peterburga: rozhdenie obshchestvennosti iz duha goroda”, in Ot obshhestvennogo k publichnomu, ed. Oleg Kharkhordin (St. Petersburg: EUSPb, 2011), 111—115; Aleksei Kovalev, “Istinnaia istoriia Gruppy Spaseniia”, Pchela  No. 10 (1997); Elena Zdravomyslova, “Mobilizatsiia resursov demokraticheskogo dvizheniia v Leningrade (1987—1990)”, in Sotsiologiia obshchestvennyh dvizhenii: empiricheskie nabliudeniia i issledovaniia (Moscow, St. Petersburg: ISRAN, 1993).

54           Gladarev,  “Istoriko-kulturnoe nasledie,” 108—111.

55           Interviews 2, 3, and 14.

56           Based on the description on the “Communal Living in Russia“-website (, accessed June 25, 2015) and an expert interview.

57           Interview 14.

58           Katerina Gerasimova, “Public Spaces in the Communal Apartments”, in Sphären von Öffentlichkeit in Gesellschaften sowjetischen Typs. Zwischen partei-staatlicher Selbstinszenierung und kirchlichen Gegenwelten, ed. Gábor T. Rittersporn, Malte Rolf, and Jan C. Behrends (Frankfurt am Main…: Peter Lang, 2003).

59           Ilya Utekhin, “Filling Dwelling Place with History: Communal Apartments in St. Petersburg”, in Composing Urban History and the Constitution of Civic Identities, ed. John J. Czaplicka, Blair A. Ruble, and Lauren Crabtree, (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center, 2003), 104.

60           Utekhin, “Filling Dwelling Place with History”, 90.

61           Kelly, Shadows of the Past, 68.

62           Interview 2: she herself came to Leningrad in 1990.

63           Ibid.

64           “Later, it became really uncomfortable. Because when everyone has a room of his own, then if you are in a bad mood, you can always go to your room, and you have a circle of people who know you well and whom you understand. But when there were so many people, the atmosphere was tense. Because all people have … their wishes and needs, — and when strangers start to dictate the rules, it gets annoying” (Interview 3).

65           Interview 3.

66           Shchepanskaia, Sistema; Alexander Zapesotsky and Alexander Fain, Eta neponiatnaia molodezh (Moscow: Profizdat, 1990).

67           Interview 3.

68           It was normal for students or working youth to live with their parents, at least until marriage if not longer.

69           Interview 8.

70           Gladarev, “Istoriko-kulturnoe nasledie”.

71           Kelly, Shadows of the Past, 233; Iulia Valieva, ed., Sumerki Saigona (St. Petersburg: Zamizdat, 2009).

72           Kelly, Shadows of the Past; Valeriy Valran, Leningradskii andegraund: Zhivopis, foto, rok-muzyka (St. Petersburg: Novikova, 2003).

73           “Skvoty. Iz istorii skvotov i skvoterskogo dvizheniia”, accessed June 25, 2015,

74           Interview 14.

75           Oleg Azelickii and Kirill Ivanov, Ravoluciia: Kak eto bylo na samom dele (St. Petersburg: Amfora, 2007).

76           Sergei Debizhev, “Format bytiia”, in Valieva, Sumerki Saigona.

77           “Liudi i Skvoty. Piterskie ugly”, Ptiuch no. 11 (1996).

78           Gerasimova, “Public Spaces”, 186.

79           Oswald and Voronkov, “The ‘Public-Private’ Sphere”.

80           Viacheslav Afanasiev and Yakov Gilinskii, Deviantnoe povedenie i socialnyi kontrol v usloviiah krizisa rossiiskogo obshchestva (St. Petersburg: ISRAN, 1995), 94.

81           Svetlana Stephenson, Crossing the Line: Vagrancy, Homelessness and Social Displacement in Russia (Adlershot: Ashgate, 2006), 150—151.

82           Interviews 7, 9, and 10/11.

83           Still, there are exceptions: “We tried to live in peace with them” (interview  4).

84           Stephenson, Crossing the Line, 151.

85           Roland Roth, “Leben scheuert am Beton: Streifzüge durch die Geschichte der Hausbesetzungen in der BRD”, in Wer sind die Instandbesetzer? ed. Volkhard Brandes and Bernhard Schön (Bensheim: Päd.extra-Verlag, 1981), 37.

86           Roth, “Leben scheuert am Beton”, 38.

87           Grashoff, Schwarzwohnen, 12—13.

  • by Tatiana Golova

    PhD in sociology from the University of Magdeburg, Germany. She works on social movements, political radicalism, and cultural sociology. Among her publications is Hate Crime in Russia (2010).

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