Tag Archives: Russia

Sochi and the spatialities of contentious politics

By Helen Pallett


Image credit: Sacha Krotov

With the Winter Olympics drawing to a close at the weekend, global attention has moved away from Sochi, at least until March 7th when the Winter Paralympics begins. The Sochi Winter Olympics have been notable, not only for the achievements of the athletes involved, but for their politics. The site itself was heavily monitored and policed to curb the activities of ‘extremists’ out to disrupt and injure, and many activists were arrested or forcibly moved from the location. But Sochi itself also took on a broader political symbolism as an emblem of the struggle for LGBT rights. Some states such as the US deliberately sent prominent gay sports people to Sochi to head-up their delegations, whilst many news outlets, such as The Guardian, The New Statesman and Channel 4 in the UK, took the opportunity to highlight their support for the cause of equal rights, particularly through the use of the symbolic rainbow flag. President Putin meanwhile notoriously told gay people that they were very welcome in Sochi but that they should leave children alone.

The Sochi Winter Olympics then was a moment of contentious politics, created by the increasingly draconian laws being passed recently in Russia regarding LGBT rights, and the releasing of several prominent activists from prison, in the run up to when the world’s eyes would be on Sochi for the games. But there is also a complex spatiality to this contentious politics. In a study of the contentious politics of immigrant workers’ rights in the United States Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard and Kristin Sziarto argued that it was important to understand the role of scale, place, networks, positionality and mobility in shaping and forming part of this politics.

Scale is important to understanding the contested politics of Sochi, as movements and debates occurred at multiple overlapping and interrelating scales. From the policing or transgression of the micro-spaces around the Olympic site, to the scale of Sochi as a city which became an emblem of the LGBT rights struggle, to the scale of Russia as a country and legal and political context of the Winter Olympics, to the global scale of the Olympics itself with the world’s attention on developments in Sochi. These different scales interacted with one another, influencing  other processes and producing new political effects, which in this case served to magnify the issue of LGBT rights beyond this one city.

The politics of place are also clearly at play in Sochi, with the city becoming so much of an emblem of broader struggles for LGBT rights, linked to its fleeting importance at a site for a major sporting event. Sochi’s reputation as a resort for Russia’s wealthy and extravagant elite only served to increase the controversy around the games. Like with many other social movements and instances of contentious politics the topology of networks was important to the visibility of the LGBT rights struggle around Sochi, connecting Russian and Sochi-based activists to other LGBT activists globally, and importantly, being passed through high profile media networks from Twitter to the international news outlets. The struggle for LGBT rights was also passed through significant sporting networks, reaching far beyond the pool of athletes involved in this Winter Olympics to the delegations sent by other countries to the games, or to other sportsmen and sportswomen who chose this particular moment to be open about their own sexuality or to affirm their support of LGBT rights.

The mobility of many members of these networks was also a significant factor in their success in making LGBT rights into such a significant issue around the games, whilst attempts to curb the mobility of activists’ and other individuals’ bodies around the Sochi site was an important way in which Russian authorities attempted to resist and undermine the struggle.

Finally, Leitner and colleagues assert that socio-spatial positionality is also an important component of such politics, bringing into focus difference and inequality. In this case, the difference in Russia’s stance on LGBT rights was an important vector of difference in comparison to significant moves towards the fulfillment of LGBT rights, such as gay marriage, in much of Western Europe and North America, which had important implications for how the political struggle played out and was resisted by the Russian Government. But equally the struggle for LGBT rights around the Sochi Winter Olympics was very successful at forging alliances between different groups of activists, different national LGBT rights movements, and between activists and sports people or sports fans. That prominent news outlets also felt the need to show their support to the cause shows the strength of such alliances.

Attention to the complex spatialities of social movements and contentious politics, such as the LGBT rights struggle, can illuminate the  interactions of different tactics, arenas, allegiances and oppositions in the movement, as well as highlighting the multiple locations or levers of the political struggle ‘on the ground’.

books_icon Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard & Kristin Sziarto 2008 The spatialities of contentious politicsTransactions of the Institute of British Geographers 33(2): 157-172

60-world2 Pussy Riot members among group of activists arrested in Sochi The Guardian, February 18

60-world2 5 reasons why Sochi’s Olympics may be the most controversial games yet The Guardian, January 31

60-world2 Channel 4 goes rainbow to wish “good luck to those out in sochi” Channel 4, February 6

60-world2 Putin cautions gay visitors to Sochi BBC News, January 17

A British Arctic Policy for the Twenty-first Century

by Benjamin Sacks

HMS Alert's 1875-76 expedition to the Arctic. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

HMS Alert’s 1875-76 expedition to the Arctic. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Britain retains significant interests in the Arctic Ocean, according to a recently published commentary in The Geographical Journal. To the general reader, this point may be somewhat surprising: physical geography aside, the United Kingdom’s more famous interests in the South Atlantic and Antarctica tend to make headlines. The Cold War, in particular, popularised the Arctic environment as the preserve of Russia, the United States, and Scandinavia. In 2007 and 2010 the House of Lords formally discussed Britain’s supposed lack of a coherent and tangible Arctic policy, proposing that the House of Commons, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the National Oceanographic Centre formulate at least a mission statement outlining British objectives in the region. Britain’s intimate relationship with Canada, and increasingly with Norway, have also been cited as key motivators to both expanding Arctic goals and defining the terms of Arctic activity. Various Parliamentary committees have discussed the possibility of establishing a powerful Arctic scientific research body similar in scope and size to the British Antarctic Survey.

The Arctic has long drawn British explorers, entrepreneurs, strategists, and naval planners. The British Empire brought Canada’s vast Arctic territories into the public imagination, and the Second World War catalysed a strong bilateral British-Norwegian relationship which continues to the present. In the twenty-first century, this exploration- and defence-based relationships have been complemented with an increasing range of corporate and public interests, from environmental activism and scientific inquiry to petroleum and rare earth minerals exploration.

Yet as of present, the British government has yet to publish or promote a formal Arctic policy. Duncan Depledge (Royal Holloway) suggests that this is because London remains concerned ‘about over-committing itself where the UK’s interests are often peripheral in relation to wider global concerns’ (p. 370). But as Depledge contends, Britain’s economic and strategic interests require a strong Arctic presence.

From a defence point-of-view, Britain both retains and will need to increase its Arctic interests. In a 2012 white paper authored for the United Royal Services Institute, Depledge and Klaus Dodds recalled their first-hand experiences observing a series of joint operations between Britain and Norway. Referring to it as the ‘forgotten partnership’, the authors stress Norway’s strong reliance and confidence in its North Sea neighbour to ensure the North Atlantic’s protection in the event of conflict. Physical geography also plays an important role: extreme weather training remains as important as ever for British forces.

Scientific and corporate interests are no less important. Beyond never-ending Parliamentary quibbling over white paper naming and policy terminology (pp. 370-72), London has repeatedly claimed that it wishes to become a leader in environmental protection and rehabilitation. World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and BBC Earth awareness programmes have accomplished significant strides in raising public awareness for ‘saving’ the Arctic from excessive human development. Ultimately, Depledge stresses the need for clarifying British Arctic policies across defence, scientific, environmental, and corporate spheres, as well as recognising Britain’s position as a non-Arctic state. Britain will need to work with Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, and the United States to seek common ground while respecting national interests.


Duncan Depledge 2013 What’s in a name? A UK Arctic policy framework for 2013, The Geographical Journal 179.4: 369-72.

books_icon Duncan Depledge and Klaus Dodds 2012 Testing the Northern Flank: The UK, Norway and Exercise Cold ResponseThe RUSI Journal 157.4: 72-78.

Red Cross Red Crescent: A Geographical Life

800px-Croixrouge_logosby Benjamin Sacks

In the August 1924 edition of The Geographical Journal, the Royal Geographical Society republished a notice from Monsieur Raoul Montandon, then-president of the Geographical Society of Geneva. The Geneva group was finalising a new series, entitled Materiaux pour l’Étude des Calamités, in honour of the International Red Cross Committee. Both the Geneva and London societies, as well as G Ciraolo, president of the Italian Red Cross, hoped to galvanise as much support as possible amongst geographers to assist in editing Materiaux. In so doing, the societies sought to fashion a truly international journal, bridging the divide between medicine, international affairs, and geography.

The joint call came at a propitious moment in the Red Cross and the RGS’s history. The non-sectarian, non-governmental movement, which celebrated its one hundred and fiftieth anniversary this week, had recently recovered from its massive undertakings on both sides in the First World War, and was well-poised to take advantage of international sympathies, as expressed by the League of Nations, in particular, towards preventing another world war. Indeed, geographical societies, the Red Cross, and the League of Nations were deeply linked.

The Red Cross (and Red Crescent after 1919) stands as one of the few success stories in twentieth century international cooperation. Geographers and explorers became involved early in the organisation’s modern development. Fridtjof Nansen, a geographical polymath who sailed schooners, reached towards the north pole on drifting ice flows, sketched arctic landscapes, tested scientific theories in Greenland, and served as Norway’s (then newly-independent from Sweden) first ambassador to the United Kingdom, helped lead the Red Cross’s humanitarian efforts in Russia and Armenia immediately following the vicious Civil War. For these efforts, he was awarded the 1922 Nobel Prize. He worked with both the Red Cross and the League of Nations until his death in 1930, hoping to prevent another catastrophe on the scale of the 1914-1918 war.

Nansen was by no means alone in aiding the Red Cross’s mission. An examination of The Geographical Journal‘s obituaries revealed a number of geographers and explorers who worked with the Red Cross and to spread geographical knowledge. May French Sheldon, one of the first women elected to the RGS fellowship (1892), was an itinerant explorer in the mould of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg who travelled three times around the world and was the first female to lead an expedition into Central Africa. In the First World War she embarked on an international lecture tour to raise money for the beleaguered Belgian Red Cross.

Just as Sheldon fashioned her own geographical career, Prince Iyesato, head of Japan’s Tokugawa family (who had lost power in 1867, but were eventually restored to leading the House of Peers) was elected a Life Fellow of the RGS for his lifelong interest in and support of geographical endeavours. As an unofficial patron, he travelled to London to attend the Society’s 1930 centenary celebration. In the 1920s, he directed the Japanese Red Cross, sending volunteers to aid in the Great War’s aftermath, as well as undertaking responsibilities on behalf of Japan at the League of Nations.

books_icon 1924, Scientific Study of Natural Catastrophes, The Geographical Journal, 64, 2, 191-92.

books_icon Brown, R. N. Rudmose, Obituary: Fridtjof Nansen, The Geographical Journal, 76, 1, 92-95.

books_icon 1936, Obituary: May French Sheldon, The Geographical Journal, 87, 3, 288.

books_icon 1940, Obituary: Prince Iyesato Tokugawa, The Geographical Journal, 96, 6, 451.

books_icon Austen, Nancy Virginia, 1921, “Prince Tokugawa, Heir of Japan’s Last Shogun“, New Outlook, 129, 514-15.

60-world2Red Cross celebrates 150th anniversary“, BBC News, 17 February 2013.

Content Alert: Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, Volume 37, Issue 3 (July 2012) is Available Online Now

Volume 37, Issue 3 Pages 337 – 476, July 2012

The latest issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break for a full list of articles in this issue.

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The Geographical Journal Content Alert: Volume 178, Issue 1 (March 2012)

The latest issue of The Geographical Journal is available on Wiley Online Library.

Click past the break to view the full table of contents.

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Approaches to Russia’s North Pole Ambitions

The Soviet Nuclear Icebreaker 'Arktika' was the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole (1977). © Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

The open sea may be international waters under maritime law, but large swaths of the world’s oceans fall under the influence of major powers. The United States and Japan dominate Pacific affairs, thanks to their control over various island groups and the importance they attach to the Pacific economy. Similar situations exist for the United Kingdom in the South Atlantic and France in the western Indian Ocean. Several states contest the strategically important South China Sea. The Arctic Ocean has long been Russia’s backyard, home to historically prominent naval and merchant shipping lanes, vital fishing grounds, and home to some of its surviving indigenous peoples.

In 2007, however, Russia’s influence in the Arctic became a controversial issue when two submarines, Mir-1 and Mir-2 planted a Russian flag on the seabed below the North Pole. The Guardian reported that Moscow’s act ‘prompted ridicule and skepticism among other contenders…with Canada comparing it to a 15th century land grab’. The flag-planting was largely ceremonial, but it did indicate Russia’s ambitions to tap into the region’s vast suspected oil and rare earth minerals reserves.

Fortunately, Arctic tensions between local states have not escalated since the 2007 episode. But Russia’s behavior did pique the interests of a number of think-tanks and policy institutes, both intrigued and concerned about what Russian actions could mean for the future of international maritime law, as well as US-Russian and European-Russian relations. In ‘Polar Partners or Poles Apart?’, Leonhardt A S van Efferink (Royal Holloway, University of London) discussed the position of two important American institutes: the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation. The article, published in the March 2012 issue of The Geographical Journal, compared the two institutes’ visions. While not choosing one side or the other, van Efferink suggested that the divergent futures could lead to either an ‘inclusionary’ or ‘exclusionary’ region (7).

The Brookings Institution, he argued, sought to remove the Cold War ethos from the Arctic control issue. While acknowledging the US Geological Survey’s 2008 estimate that the Arctic held roughly thirteen per cent of the planet’s undiscovered oil and thirty per cent of undiscovered natural gas (tremendously high figures, if true), the report stressed that collaboration, neutrality, and mutual good faith should be paramount for all parties involved (5-6).

The Heritage Foundation’s standpoint follows a so-called ‘neo-Realist’ perspective, unsurprising given its conservative roots. Their report holds that the United States should take action in the Arctic to limit Russia’s growing influence in the region and quell any designs for Russian Arctic oil production (7-8). Whichever course the Arctic issue eventually follows, it will be vital to international interests, not just the Arctic’s neighbours, that it be dealt with in a cautious, responsible, and ultimately beneficial manner.

Tom Parfitt, ‘Russia Plants Flag on North Pole Seabed‘, The Guardian, 2 August 2007.

Leonhardt A S van Efferink, ‘Commentary: Polar Partners or Poles Apart? On the Discourses of Two US Think Tanks on Russia’s Presences in the “High North“, The Geographical Journal 178.1 (Mar., 2012): 3-8.

Carceral Geography: Prisons, prisoners and mobilities

by Fiona Ferbrache

Sunday evening, Radio 4 broadcast Dying Inside, a documentary exploring the increase in number of older prisoners (over the age of 50) in UK prisons.  Old prisoners comprise around 9% of approximately 88,000 inmates.  The broadcast exposed some of the realities that older prisoners may face: premature ill health, in particular diabetes and coronary heart disease; and the likelihood of dying behind bars.  One of the key features of this programme was the producer’s (Rex Bloomstein) interviews with older prisoners.  He brought their stories to life by replaying some of these conversations and the rasping voices of elderly men.  The broadcast illustrates a qualitative carceral geography where prisoners are embodied bearers of gender, age and culture.

Carceral geography is also the focus of Moran, Piacentini and Pallot’s (2011) paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Their work draws from empirical research on the Russian Penal system, and mobility theories.  The authors argue that much mobility has been conceptualised in a way that emphasises association with freedom and autonomy.  The downside is that mobility is seldom considered as an instrument of power that disciplines and limits a subject’s agency.  As the authors indicate, the academic question ‘why travel?’ is seldom answered: ‘because I had no choice’.

Addressing this under-theorised area of mobility, Moran at el. explain how carceral geographies can help scholars to acknowledge more disciplined forms of mobility.  In their example, power is fundamentally expressed through the (poor) conditions of transporting prisoners between a remand centre and the prison in which sentences will be served (often hundreds or thousands of kilometers apart).  An association between prison, enclosure and static space that comes (perhaps too easily) to mind, is satisfyingly challenged in this paper through the concept of carceral mobilities.

  Dying Inside, 2012 [Radio broadcast] Radio4, 15 January 2012 1700

 Moran, D., Piacentini, L. & Pallot, J. (2011) Disciplined mobility and carceral geography: prisoner transport in Russia. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2011.00483.x

J. Pallot took part in a discussion on On womens’ prison in Russia – From our Own Correspondent, BBC World Service, Wednesday 11th May 2011.