In face of urbanisation
[b]Minsk is probably the only city in Belarus which population is growing quickly. At present, a fifth of all Belarusians live here and, in 2013, the figure rose by almost 20,000.[/b]Experts assess that Minsk’s density index is among the highest of the former Soviet states. However, it’s yet to be decided whether this is good or bad. Clearly, the process of urbanisation, which is truly multi-faceted and ambiguous, comprises positive and negative features. With this in mind, questions arise. Should the process be limited and is it possible to avoid negative consequences occurring as a result of city overpopulation?
Experts assess that Minsk’s density index is among the highest of the former Soviet states. However, it’s yet to be decided whether this is good or bad. Clearly, the process of urbanisation, which is truly multi-faceted and ambiguous, comprises positive and negative features. With this in mind, questions arise. Should the process be limited and is it possible to avoid negative consequences occurring as a result of city overpopulation?
The Head of the Social-Philosophical and Anthropological Research at the Belarusian national Academy of Sciences’ Philosophy Institute, Tadeush Adulo, shares his views on the urbanisation tendencies, the phenomena of our modern civilisation and its displays in Belarus and Minsk in particular. Mr. Adulo is a Doctor of Philosophy, Professor, acting member of the International Academy of Sciences (Health and Ecology), participant of the World Forum of Spiritual Culture, the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy, three international Globalistics scientific congresses and many other scientific forums.
Mr. Adulo, tell us please about yourself. What inspired you to turn to science and how long have you been studying urbanisation issues?
I came to science in the 1970s when a hot dispute between physicists and lyricists was common. As we know, the physicists won, but the latter’s condescending attitude to lyricists was ostentatious. They were lyricists in their souls as loved to travel, worked at students’ construction sites, wrote interesting poems and songs and played the guitar by student fires…
I’m a philosopher by speciality, graduating with honours from the Belarusian State University and later completing post-graduate courses. I worked as a senior lecturer for some time and then took a job at the BSSR Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Philosophy and Law (our Institute was named that way then). I worked here until now — becoming a Professor after defending a candidate and doctor theses.
I’ve never specially focused on urbanisation problems, but I could hardly pass this topic while working in the field of social philosophy. Our life and its social aspects are ever changing, so we need to anticipate their dynamics and predict the future. In the 1980s, I travelled across Belarus to study the life of villagers, workers and clerks and published works of my results. During the end of the 20th-early 21st century (which was a difficult period both for cities and villages), I analysed the problem of the villagers’ adaptation to new economic conditions. Later, from 2004-2007, the Russian State Social University realised a project of scientific-research works, ‘Problems of Society’s Social Consolidation in Process of Globalisation’. I represented Belarus in that work and guided the study. As a result, we received valuable information needed to understand the core and dynamics of the
Specialists assert that Minsk is probably the only Belarusian city whose population has risen by 100,000 in the recent decade. By comparison, other cities’ populations rise by around 4,000. What’s the reason?
According to the statistics, from 1999-2009, Minsk’s population rose by 156,300, not taking into account an increased number of pupils and students of secondary special and higher educational establishments, as well as those who daily come to Minsk for work from the suburbs. Minsk boasts the greatest growth of population, which is natural for all large cities, and especially capitals. The latter are characterised by an incredible centralising force. There are many reasons for this trend. Finances concentrate in capitals, alongside enterprises, educational, scientific-research, cultural and entertaining establishments, theatres, trading centres and sports facilities. Clearly, it’s easier to find a job, train a profession and enhance one’s social status in a capital. Although many state that life here is more expensive, many people are still eager to move. In Minsk, there are much more jobs and higher salaries. Moreover, it’s easier to develop careers here and satisfy spiritual-cultural needs. A psychological aspect also matters. No doubt, a capital registration enhances people’s social status.
Do you think it`s necessary to limit Minsk’s population?
As of December 1st, 2013, 1,920,200 people were registered in the city which equates to more than 20 percent of the Belarusian population. According to the Belarusian Statistical Committee’s data, last year, almost 20,000 people came to Minsk, but there were more dynamic years in the city’s history. Population growth changes in waves, but the positive tendency mostly preserves. We’re trying to find out whether this is good or bad.
Apart from the problems associated with large cities (of which economists, demographers and ecologists love to speak), such as polluted air or intricate transportation and water supply, there are some other problems. Large cities are subject to natural disasters, terrorist attacks or epidemics. With this in mind, scientists propose several arguments which explain the reasons for limiting Minsk’s population. Minsk is not simply a beautiful and hospitable city, but a major industrial centre, with all the related negative consequences. The harmful influence of large cities on the environment spreads to a diameter of almost 50km. Moreover, Minsk has no major waterway and is not connected to other regions by water transport. The city is gradually getting older. The number of its pensioners is rising negatively influences the social sphere. A psychological aspect of living in large cities is also present. Stress factors are common here and nobody is able to withstand these.
As a result, the problem of limiting our capital’s population remains acute and it’s unreasonable to rely on citizens’ initiative alone. To ‘unload’ cities, economic and administrative leverages are needed. Some countries chose to shift an overpopulated capital to a new place. However, the practice shows that this approach does not solve the problem. A capital remains as attractive for people as before, even after relocation.
Does Belarus’ inner migration reflect the global urbanisation tendency? Do we observe a reverse process — de-urbanisation? If not, what are prospects for the future?
Urbanisation is a global tendency, as industrialisation is progressing worldwide. Major industrial enterprises are in need of a workforce while fewer workers are needed in the smaller towns and villages (as powerful machinery is widely introduced there). Accordingly, many move from the rural areas to major cities, finding jobs and becoming residents. The process of urbanisation began in the early 20th century but was most active in the mid-20th century.
A similar process was observed in Belarus in late 1920s when the country’s industrialisation was needed. The latter was truly fast-moving in the USSR since the level of its industrial development (and, consequently, of its cities) was much lower in comparison to the West. The Soviet urbanisation had another peculiar feature; villagers were ‘carrying’ that burden. At that time, urban life was not simple but it was much easier than life in the villages. Young people were eager to move to cities to get an education and jobs. In turn, cities needed constructors, qualified industrial staff and engineers and the best villagers were attracted as a result.
Urbanisation was extremely active in Belarus in the late 20th century and, from 1950-2000, the share of urbanites rose by 47.5 percent. In the past 12 years, it has increased by another 6.1 percent. The figures indicate that Belarus is already a developed industrial state. On the other hand, agriculture has been developing efficiently as it’s been provided with modern industrial machinery and qualified personnel.
At present, Belarus is listed among highly urbanised states, such as the USA, the UK, Sweden, Australia, Japan and Canada. Meanwhile, the process of urbanisation reverses as urbanites move to the suburbs, where more favourable living conditions are available. This de-urbanisation is likely to occur in Belarus soon. The first signs are already being seen.
As I’ve already mentioned, capitals are attractive venues for living. However, some people would never dare to move to Minsk. Moreover, some Minsker pensioners, who spent their childhood in villages, leave their city flats to their children and move back to their native lands, or buy empty houses in the villages. Nowadays, it’s hard to find such houses close to Minsk. Our villagers are returning to life and many cottages have been built there recently. Pleasingly, we have no transport problems as cars are no longer a luxury, but an ordinary means of transport. Urbanites willingly move to well-functioning villages located near forests or lakes.
However, there is another tendency — Suburbanisation. The suburbs of large cities, including Minsk, are actively growing. This occurs because of local residents, urbanites and incoming villagers. As a result, city clusters are formed. With this in mind, the task of limiting Minsk’s population growth on the account of satellite-towns is required. Developing states are following the urbanisation path of the leading states which they passed in the 20th century.
Is it possible to somehow avoid urbanisation?
I think not. There are common laws of historical processes which we are unable to change. Really, we understand all the negative sides of large cities, including urbanisation. Generally speaking, mankind is worried about the consequences of industrial and post-industrial development. However, no other, more efficient social project has been invented. It’s impossible to achieve the necessary concentration of industry, mental power and culture without large cities to ensure a state’s dynamic development. If the USSR had remained an agrarian state, it would have lost the Great Patriotic War. In our modern times, not agrarian but industrially developed countries outline the policy and conditions of their co-existence. It’s possible to disagree with these principles of the world order but we cannot deny their presence.
Villages have been traditionally viewed as goddesses of the authentic folk culture, language and traditions. Do you agree?
You are right. This conventional wisdom does exist. However, I guess there is no need to extremely idolise villages. I recall the poem ‘Anna Snegina’ by the Russian poet, Sergey Yesenin, which figuratively describes the neighbouring villages of Radovo and Kriushi. The former could be certainly called a keeper of village customs but nothing of the kind could be said of the latter. Sadly, no Belarusian villages are identical.
The problem has another aspect. In our modern times, communication networks spread countrywide and village life, whose customs and traditions are expected to be stable and time-proven, is transforming. Villagers’ behaviour and culture, especially of the young people, are turning to urban standards. Accordingly, cities impose behaviour and thinking samples on villages, rather than vice versa. Like the urbanites, villagers watch the same TV programmes, listen to the same radio and surf the Internet. It’s well known what kind of spiritual culture is promoted on the TV and Internet. Of course, true cultural layers can be found there, but it’s not a simple task. To succeed, a person needs to boast a well formed view on our world to distinguish true culture from its opposite.
While commenting upon the situation in modern Russia, the Rector of the St. Petersburg Humanitarian University of Trade Unions, and a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexander Zapesotsky, noted, “We’ve lost the culture which cultivates in people humanism, artistry and the system of values which have been tested by millennia of our civilisation.” This refers not only to cities, but modern villages which are actually becoming more urbanised and absorbing greatly urban realities. We can regret the present situation but cannot move away from it.
Is there a need for ethnographers to hurry in recording and saving samples of our existing folk customs, songs and skills?
Definitely! Diverse projects aimed at folk art revival are being launched. Of course, we can revive weaving, pottery, smith-craft or willow weaving, but these would be different crafts as a result, lacking the true meaning of their historical epoch. In the past, these objects were vital for everyday life and people widely used them. But now, humankind has withdrawn from hand weaving, the plough or horses as the key driving force in agriculture. It’s impossible to turn our history back… and there is actually no need to do so. Reproduced objects (if any) would lack their authentic spiritual energy and the feelings which its creators (probably not professional) introduced in them. Such objects are well described in legends, songs and poems.
Agro-towns are our modern innovation. Have scientists analysed their pros and cons? Do other countries introduce a similar ‘bridge’ between cities and villages?
In my view, the construction of agro-towns, which are well developed settlements with production and social infrastructure, is the state’s repayment of its debts to villages. The latter took on all burdens of the Soviet industrialization, while contributing to the victory in the Great Patriotic War and restoration of the broken economy. As in previous years, they carried the heavy weight of the hasty reforms of the 1990s; this was especially true in Russia. A Russian practical scientist, Sergey Nikolsky, concluded, “Judging by industrial figures, everything done in the 1990s was a mere destruction of agriculture and villages.” In this respect, we can recall a price disparity on agricultural and industrial produce. Our villages experienced many more troubles as a result of the government’s ill-considered policy. Among them was the speedy creation of farms which resembled previous ‘collectives’.
It’s necessary to mention here that, in the 70s and 80s, Belarusian villages and agriculture on general were looking good in comparison to Western European states. They had access to good machinery and equipment, while qualified specialists — doctors and teachers — worked there. Social-cultural objects were common. Of course, some problems existed, but they were not as large scale as those of the 1990s.
Openly speaking, in those hard times, the Belarusian villages saved Minsk and the other big cities. Moreover, they ‘saved’ our neighbours also. People used to cross the border to buy our food at a low price. As a result, villages were affected. By receiving small salaries, their residents were unable to build new houses, or even to repair their existing accommodation. It was state support which helped the villagers, and the villages to survive. With this in mind, I’d rather talk not of a ‘bridge’ between cities and villages, but of cities’ repayment of their debt to villages.
Regarding the pros and cons of agro-towns, certain errors do exist, which is natural for any new initiative. For example, the location of agro-towns was not chosen correctly in some cases, while some houses were probably too ‘modest’. Actually, the state lacked much of the finance to construct larger homes, and it was considered that their residents should also contribute to their wellbeing. Dependency must not be encouraged. Agro-towns were aimed to attract specialists, and to boast a well-developed social sphere. Villagers’ labour conditions were supposed to be changed to resemble urban conditions. However, it’s clear that agricultural works would always distinguish them.
Meanwhile, the construction of agro-towns has partially solved the problem of disappearing villages in which only elderly people lived. Shall in this case our villages, which inspired artists and poets, lose their uniqueness, turning into standard town settlements?
In the West, a different approach to rural development is applied. Farms there might commonly occupy up to 180 hectares in the USA, 50 hectares in the UK, 23 hectares in France, and 13 hectares in Germany. In Russia, similar reforms were undertaken by Piotr Stolypin. Our agro-towns are mostly aimed at collective farming. A farmer would be unlikely satisfied with a modest house in an agro-town; they’d need large estates to accommodate the necessary machinery and cattle.
Generally speaking, much depends on individuals and their conscientious work. Agro-towns will produce enough food for our state if they have assiduous heads and devoted residents. Otherwise, they will fail to meet our expectations. It’s vital to strengthen discipline and enhance the responsibility of each person. This refers to cities and villages alike. Only then the idea of a ‘bridge’ would work.
What do you consider natural for Belarusian migrants’ psychology? Do they wish to forget about their village past, or do they prefer to keep in touch with it?
I’ve not specially studied the psychology of migrants but, being born in a village myself, I’m not indifferent to its future. In their minds and souls, migrants keep their homeland. We know of many examples when wealthy people make contributions to restore historical monuments in their homeland, or return to their native villages to revive them.
Belarusian villages have spawned many industrious and globally recognised personalities, among them have been writers, scientists, military specialists and doctors. We have all grounds to believe that this powerful and pure spring will never run out.
Interviewed by Valentina Zhdanovich