Episode 64 – In Conversation with Vera Smirnova  (The Urban Lives of Property Series II)

In this second part of the series Urban Lives of Property, Hanna and Markus talk to Vera Smirnova, a human and political geographer to discuss property and territory from a Russian perspective. Smirnova’s genealogical account moves from the Czarist period to this day, illuminating also the current Russian invasion of the Ukraine. Smirnova offers a tour de force through Russia’s moving history of the last 150 years, addressing practices of serfdom, enclosures in the early 20th century, land collectivization following the Russian revolution and waves of privatization after 1991. Throughout this period the institution of property is shown to be fuzzy, insecure, and informal, a legacy that continues to this day as evidenced in current urban planning legislation and extra-legal practices of land grabbing. Similarly reflecting a pliability for powerful political interests, territory has been historically considered as vast, borderless and expansive. Smirnova identifies three ontologies of territory (commoning, assembling and peopling) that have determined the dynamics of Russian state territorialization as evidenced in the accounts of 19th century geographers and anthropologists whose ideas continue to influence foreign policy today. As decolonial rhetorics have been integrated and instrumentalized for Russia’s geopolitical strategy for the past century, Smirnova “thinks between the posts” – postcolonialism and postsocialism – and considers the role of Russia today in postcolonial discussions. Her reflection on the Russian land commune (obshchina) is a fascinating, as Smirnova discusses the origins of the land comnune, the persistence during feudalism and state-building, its instrumentalization during land collectivization and its ongoing powerful imaginary.

Episode transcript


Hanna Hilbrandt

Hanna is Professor of Social and Cultural Geography at the University of Zurich. Her research on processes of financialization in Mexico City has recently been published in Environment and Planning A (see here). In addition, Hanna’s work explores spaces of mundane transgression, planning conflict, and housing marginality.

Markus Kip

After studying philosophy and theology in Munich and San Salvador, he continued with sociology in Berlin and New York, and obtained his PhD in Sociology from York University in Toronto in 2016. He is the author of “The Ends of Union Solidarity: Undocumented Labor and German Trade Unions” (2017) and co-editor of “Urban Commons: Moving beyond State and Market” (2015). Twitter – @MetroKipster

Our guest:

Vera Smirnova

Vera is an assistant professor in Geography and Political Science at Kansas State University. Her work falls at the intersection of political geography, urban and territorial politics and explores the relations between land and power and their various manifestations in pre-and post-Soviet Russia. In particular, it tackles the question of how rights to land ownership and other modes of the appropriation of space are negotiated and how territorial policies are performed through formal and informal technologies of power. Through this lens, Vera researched Russian land privatization reforms, as well as perceptions of territorial integrity in Russian political and geographic thought. Her work has appeared in various outlets, among which are the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, Geoforum, and Geographica Helvetica. Vera is also a co-Chair of the Eurasian Geography Specialty Group at the American Association of Geographers and an adjunct researcher at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at the University of Kansas.

Articles by Vera discussed during the conversation:

Smirnova, V and Golubchikov, O (2023) More-Than-State Ontologies of Territory: Commoning, Assembling, Peopling. Annals of the American Association of Geographers: 1-17

Smirnova, V (2022) From the commune to the ‘borderless world’: Russian conceptions of land and ownership. Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists

Smirnova, V. (2019) Territory, enclosure, and state territorial mode of production in the Russian imperial periphery. Geographica Helvetica 74, 13-25, [https://gh.copernicus.org/articles/74/13/2019/gh-74-13-2019.html]


Vorbrugg, A. (2019). Not about land, not quite a grab: Dispersed dispossession in rural Russia. Antipode51(3), 1011-1031.

Visser, O., Mamonova, N., Spoor, M., & Nikulin, A. (2015). ‘Quiet food sovereignty’as food sovereignty without a movement? Insights from post-socialist Russia. Globalizations12(4), 513-528.

Verdery, K. (1999). Fuzzy property: Rights, power, and identity in Transylvania’s decollectivization. Uncertain transition: Ethnographies of change in the postsocialist world, 53-81.

Blomley, N. (2016). The territory of property. Progress in human geography40(5), 593-609.

Pipes, R. (2007). Property and freedom. Vintage.

Deyermond, R. (2016). The uses of sovereignty in twenty-first century Russian foreign policy. Europe-Asia Studies68(6), 957-984.

Cover Image:

Photo by Vera Smirnova, from the British Library, of a microfiche with the periodicals about the Russian land enclosure