Emptiness and Order

From the Series: Emptiness

Image by Ricardo Hernandez.

On April 27, 2019, I attended a talka—a day of communal labor—in Mazciems, a village by the Latvian-Russian border that was built in the late-nineteenth century next to a railway station on the St. Petersburg–Warsaw line. In contrast to its history as a bustling transportation hub, its current residents described it as empty (tukšs). Talka brought together concerned county citizens, though not necessarily residents of Mazciems, to do something about the mess that had emerged after most of the residents had left. Those participating in talka were particularly excited about the presence of a young man who had bought some of the abandoned railway workers’ barracks. There was hope that his presence—and his capital—could help revive life in the village.

I went along with the group heading to the former school building with abandoned apartments on the second floor. Once we opened the door to one of the apartments, it took a while until our eyes began to distinguish objects where we had initially seen a mess: a chair, a clock, clothes, boxes with a variety of items from pens to screws, empty beer bottles, books, newspapers, a birth certificate, and a Komsomol card (Frederiksen, this series). Similar scenes opened up behind the doors of other apartments. As one participant described it, ”there were lots of hard liquor bottles, remnants of food, dirty dishes, newspapers, dirty pampers, a mummified cat, a swallow’s nest, most of the window panes had broken glass, a classic bardak [mess] of alcoholics.”

Inside an abandoned apartment. Photo by Dace Dzenovska.

Participants of the talka approached this mess with the assumption that value and waste had collapsed into each other and that even if the value of things could not be restored to what it had been before the collapse, there was value to be extracted from the mess. Ilva, a museum specialist who had grown up in the nearby town, wanted people to put aside anything that looked like it might be valuable for a future museum, mainly objects and photos, while Teodors, the Latvian railway company’s historian of industrial heritage, was interested in everything related to the railway. Things were to be brought out from the buildings and laid out in front of the club where Ilva and Teodors would go through them and determine whether they held any potential value as museum, archival, or research items. The young man—the new owner of the railway barracks—sorted his own private mess. He had already put the buildings up for sale with the specification that their best use would be to take them apart for historical details or raw material.

Items of potential value. Photo by Dace Dzenovska.

In addition to fitting into one or the other of the broad categories—waste or value—the found objects reminded people of their own and other people’s past lives. Someone found a pornographic journal that created lots of laughter, someone else found bubble gum wrappers that those of us of a certain age used to collect as children. Soon the grass in front of the former school was covered with objects. Ilva was going through the laid-out objects, marvelling at old photos—“just look, what beautiful people,” she said, when I came up. She had already put aside an old railway dispatcher phone, phone numbers listed according to the old dispatcher system, loads of suitcases, a samovar, some lamps.

“That’s for the museum,” I heard over and over that day. This was a fuzzy category, not least because there was no museum and no clear plan to establish one. The category of “that’s for the museum” deferred final determination of value to the future. In the meantime, items marked for potential museum value, as well as items that did not seem like waste, but whose value was unclear, were placed in the cupboard in the school building that had turned from a trash heap of history into a capsule for the future. Things of potential and unclear value were to sit there during emptiness—a transitional stage between the old order that had collapsed and the new one that was not yet visible.

The collapse of social orders, Boris Groys (1995, 99) writes, “is a chance for museums, as these collect precisely from the rubbish pits of history.” He is, of course, talking about the collapse of communism. But what exactly had collapsed in Mazciems? Surely, the old socialist order had collapsed, but so had the new capitalist one. Most of the buildings had been abandoned in the 1990s, when life was supposed to have taken off after Soviet socialism.

Talka, then, was about making order out of the chaos wrought by postsocialist capitalism. It was materially present in the abandoned buildings where value was mixed with garbage and where lives had turned into rubbish heaps. But it was not just things and people that were being sorted that day. The place itself was being taken apart and sorted. It seemed nearly impossible to keep things, people, place, and buildings together. The order that had collapsed could only be reordered by placing things, people, and buildings into different spatial circuits and according to different orientations to the future (Bryant and Knight 2019; Dzenovska 2019). The new owner of the old railway workers’ barracks wanted to take the buildings apart and sell them in pieces for valuable ornaments. Many of the locals had already moved away, even if not far, while the remaining residents, of whom only two participated in the talka, were perceived by most of participants of talka as left-over humanity—old, social outcasts, or not of the nation.

The mess was sorted, but only insofar as it tidied up the in-between space between the old world that had ended, and the new world that could not yet be seen. This in-between space could not be definitively sorted. It was obscured under the term “museum,” which suggested a potential future value. A lot remained unsorted in the process of sorting, not because what remained unsorted did not fit into categories, but rather because sorting it definitively would reveal spatial and temporal trajectories that suggested an ending. Nobody could say it, even if some may have thought it.


Bryant, Rebecca, and Daniel M. Knight. 2019. The Anthropology of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dzenovska, Dace. 2019. “The Timespace of Emptiness.” In Orientations to the Future, edited by Rebecca Bryant and Daniel M. Knight. American Ethnologist website, March 8.

Groys, Boris. 1995. “The Role of the Museum When the National State Breaks Up.” Proceedings of the ICOMON Meetings. Madrid: Museo Casa de la Moneda.