In-Between Futures: Urban transformation in an East Ukrainian frontline city

  • Anna Balazs

Student thesis: Phd


Mariupol is a city of half a million inhabitants near the South Eastern border of Ukraine. A centre of Soviet steel industry in the larger part of the 20th century, the city found itself on the periphery of the new Ukrainian state after 1991, facing multiple layers of marginalization and economic stagnation in the following three decades. However, unlike many other localities in the postsocialist region, Mariupol did not experience a total collapse of industrial production, as both of the local steel plants continued their operation within the frameworks of a newly formulating market capitalism. The combination of these factors created a specific dynamic of continuity and change in the city during the first decades of postsocialist transformation. Despite the momentous and often traumatic experiences caused by the disintegration of the Soviet system and the resulting political and economic uncertainty, a significant part of the material and institutional infrastructure has been maintained in a relatively unchanged form. The outbreak of the Donbas war and the temporary takeover of Mariupol by the separatist forces of the Donetsk People’s Republic in 2014 presented a turning point in this timeline, forcing government authorities as well as local inhabitants to reconsider the future trajectory of the city. With the occupation of large parts of the Donbas region by separatist militia, Mariupol obtained strategic importance for the Ukrainian state as an outpost of independent Ukraine near the war zone. Added by the presence of humanitarian organizations in the city as a reaction to the conflict, Mariupol experienced a wave of external interest and financial resources unprecedented in the post-1991 period. In addition to these changes, the urban administration ruling in the city since the 1990s had been replaced by a new group of politicians coming from the managerial circles of the steel factories. Combined together, the above factors facilitated a multi-layered urban transformation, challenging the status quo of the previous decades and opening up new temporal horizons in a place of long term decay and stagnation. Based on the material collected during 11 months of fieldwork in Mariupol, my dissertation explores how the residents experience this period of intense social change by investigating their temporal reasonings and everyday practices directed to various spheres of urban life. Looking at the way they approach different aspects of the contemporary urban ensemble in a Soviet-planned industrial city, I show how the material and cultural legacy of the Soviet period is being preserved, rejected or reinvented by different categories of locals. Exploring how the future of Mariupol is being negotiated in the administrative, personal and economic spheres, I ask how the teleological and material foundations of the Soviet city are being readjusted among the contemporary economic and political conditions. Addressing the Donbas war, and the military violence of 2014 in particular as a “critical event” (Das 1996), I ask how the shifting geopolitical fault lines of the post-Cold War world manifest themselves in the lives of residents in a post-Soviet borderland. The dissertation demonstrates how this moment of re-evaluation prompted by the war leads to the reconfiguration of local temporal horizons.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStefaan Jansen (Supervisor) & William Wheeler (Supervisor)


  • borderland
  • conflict
  • future
  • anthropology
  • urban change
  • postsocialism

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