Geograafia ja välitööd Nõukogude piiritsoonis

Tiina Peil


Geography and field work in the Soviet borderline zone

Tiina Peil, University of Tallinn


In this paper I examine the range of spatial, material and corporeal practices constructive of (geographical) fieldwork in a Soviet frame where ‘it was secret what was secret’. Estonia, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945, formed its north-western border to Northern Europe and thus movement in the coastal areas and at sea came under strict control and subject to permitting. Nevertheless, some Estonian scientists continued to pursue field studies. An analysis of what their work entailed in between the 1950s and 1980s with special attention on surveying and the role of maps (which in official view were considered to be extremely powerful and dangerous devices) is attempted based on in-depth interviews and field diaries. The period was by no means uniform and the subtle changes in the system’s performance provide insights into its functioning. This with its physical manifestations of checkpoints and military installations and encounters with the Soviet armed forces, as well as mental manipulation of people forms my primary focus. However, the ethics and politics of fieldwork and publishing, as well as the ambiguous identity of the field scientist are highlighted in these extreme conditions where geography – often defined as a discipline of critical observation – was exercised under constant observation. In reflection, Soviet geography had to do without two of the discipline’s key components: it could not openly discuss issues around human—environment relationships as people were banished from the landscapes, and not use maps, either as a source or for presenting the findings.

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