You are using an old browser with security vulnerabilities and can not use the features of this website.

Here you will see how you can easily upgrade your browser.

Out to the Countryside - Looking for the lost village

Art discovers life in the countryside. Janna Kapustnikova: Polesien, 2012.

Art discovers life in the countryside. Janna Kapustnikova: Polesien, 2012.

“How beautiful life in the countryside is!” one might think when looking at the idyllic depictions in magazines that arouse the wish to live there - own farmhouse, a vast landscape, blossoming gardens, self-sufficiency from ecological cultivation, neighborly assistance. These are the wishes and dreams of many city dwellers. Since 1990, however, there has been ongoing talk of decaying, aging, and dying out villages, unemployment, and structural poverty, especially in the East. The Slavicist Magdalena Marszałek takes a closer look, examining "the village as a space of imagination and an experimental field in Eastern Europe".

Social attention and cultural studies have focused on the development of cities, their topographies, urban culture, and ways of life over the last decades, while transformations in the countryside have largely gone unnoticed. The research project “Experimentierfeld Dorf” involves German and Slavic philologists, comparative literature scholars, and landscape architects as well as associated historians and ethnologists from the universities in Halle, Constance, Potsdam, and Weimar. The researchers want to remediate this and focus on the village - one of the “oldest residential and settlement forms in the history of European civilization”. Their goal is to raise awareness of rural life and its global changes, spark dialogue, and offer insight into the future design of the villages based on their findings.

The wide gap between reality and imagination

Prof. Magdalena Marszałek from the Institute of Slavic Studies heads the subproject at the University of Potsdam. Together with the young researcher Yaraslava Ananka, she examines perceptions of the Eastern European village in literary texts, films, and other media as well as where these come from. “Of course, there is always the question of the relation between the perceptions and the actual changes and living conditions in the countryside. What constitutes a village nowadays, and what fictions are presented in literature and movies? We see a chasm between imagination and reality. The village is often regarded as an allegory. It is not about the living village per se, but it is used as a means of discussing various social problems. The village becomes a stand-in for the rest of society,” says Marszałek.

While Ananka focuses on the history of the Belarusian village as a literary phenomenon and on its tradition, Marszałek focuses on the Polish village. “My observation is that the village in Poland was largely forgotten in the euphoria of liberal transformation in the 1990s. It played no role in public debates although it also changed radically – for example, the transition to market economy and the question of whether small family enterprises would be able to survive. These problems continue to affect 30-40% of Polish people. Over a third of the population lives in the countryside and, to a large extent, belongs to the so-called “transformation losers”. For about 10 years, sociologists and cultural anthropologists have been looking more closely at this population, because they articulate a lot of dissatisfaction, a dissatisfaction arising from being neglected. “To a certain extent, this also applies to post-socialist villages in Brandenburg where large production cooperatives were closed. There it was possible, however, to emigrate to and integrate into large cities in western Germany. Due to the sheer number of people affected In Poland, integration into large towns and cities was hardly an option, leaving to work abroad as a best-case scenario. According to Marszałek, the “losers” in the social upheaval remained in the countryside. There is now a growing awareness of the social and cultural discrimination against the rural population. Mainly young Poles have demonstrated against the stark urban-rural disparities in Polish culture, drawing attention to this situation in “coming-out” happenings, for example with T-shirts that read “I come from the countryside”. This is a new approach, a new self-awareness, she thinks.

A look back

This has sparked public discourse and exciting debates, which are also being taken up in literature and movies. The researchers are concerned not only with how and what changes are taking place in the countryside, but are also looking more closely at the socialist times and even further back into history, which has yet to be properly reappraised. One Polish film, for example, asks the exciting question: Is there a memory of serfdom in the countryside? After all, it wasn’t that long ago that peasants had to work like slaves. This secondary enslavement of the peasants lasted until the 19th century and was abolished in Central and Eastern Europe only between the 1820s and 1860s. How did the relationship of masters and servants develop when the peasants were free but had no land? After the October Revolution in Russia and World War II in Central Europe, communists brought “social justice” in a brutal way. What these literary sources reveal – often between the lines – about the sometimes very violent processes of the agricultural reform will continue to be very interesting. These questions were not adequately researched in socialist times, but their answers may offer valuable insight into how societies work today. After all, many of today's so-called middle class come from the former peasantry...

The Project

„Das Dorf als Imaginationsraum und Experimentierfeld im östlichen Europa (postsozialistische Dörfer)“, a subproject of the research group „Experimentierfeld Dorf. Die Wiederkehr des Dörflichen als Imaginations-, Projektions- und Handlungsraum“ (The Village as an Experimental Field: The Return of the Rural as a Space of Imagination, Projection, and Social Interaction) examines the images of rural life in literature, movies, and other media against the backdrop of social, economic, and cultural transformations in post-socialist Europe.
Participants: Prof. Dr. Magdalena Marszałek (PI), Yaraslava Ananka, M.A. (both University of Potsdam)
Duration: 2015–2018
Funding: Volkswagen Foundation within the funding initiative “Key Issues for Academia and Society”

The Researchers

Prof. Magdalena Marszałek studied Polish philology and theater studies in Krakow and Slavic studies, art history, theater, film and television studies in Bochum and has been Professor of Slavic Literary and Cultural Studies/Polish Studies at the Department for Slavic Studies at the University of Potsdam since 2012 and an associated member of the University’s Department of Jewish Studies.

Universität Potsdam
Institut für Slavistik
Am Neuen Palais 10, 14469 Potsdam
Email: magdalena.marszalek@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Yaraslava Ananka, M.A. is a research assistant at the chair for Slavic Literary and Cultural Studies/Polish Studies.
Email: ananka@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de

Text: Ingrid Kirschey-Feix
Translation: Susanne Voigt
Published online by: Daniela Großmann
Contact for the editorial office: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de