Accepted paper:

The language of material ruin in the former Gulag periphery of Magadan


Norman Prell (University of Aberdeen)

Paper short abstract:

The isolated region of Magadan has experienced the end of the Soviet Union as a historic breakdown, separating the region’s heroic construction in the past from its chaotic post-Soviet decline. This paper tries to understand the experience of historical collapse through the language of material ruin.

Paper long abstract:

After the discovery of gold at the upper Kolyma River in the late 1920s, the isolated region of Magadan (Northeast Russia) developed into one of the country's enormous industrial construction sites that had initially been planned under the rule of Joseph Stalin. A crucial part of the discourse of the region's heroic construction has evolved around the famous Kolyma Road, the region's most important industrial infrastructure that had originally been built by Gulag prisoners under Stalin. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the local narrative of construction suddenly started to lose its legitimacy. Since then the region has continuously suffered from economic decline and emigration, most visible in the abandoned settlements and ruined industries along the Kolyma Road. In this paper I want to explore the experience of historical collapse with regard to the effects of a cultural landscape that had been eagerly built up over several decades only to fall back into a kind of abrupt and enigmatic ruin that often took people by surprise while leaving them without historical agency. Concentrating on the construction and destruction of the Kolyma Road itself, I examine the ways in which temporal narrative changes under the effect of sudden material ruin. In particular, I want to show how the post-Soviet road, considering its material and non-material properties, relates to an interpretative space that provides well for a critique of the overwhelming narrative of development and progress.

panel P55
Ruined bodies and aging buildings: architecture, oblivion, decay