Centres and Peripheries in the Post-Soviet Space

Relevance and Meanings of a Classical Distinction

by Alexander Filippov (Volume editor) Nicolas Hayoz (Volume editor) Jens Herlth (Volume editor)
Edited Collection 286 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • 1 Introductory Remarks on the Meanings of the Centre-Periphery Distinction in General and in the Post-Soviet Space in Particular (Alexander Filippov, Nicolas Hayoz and Jens Herlth)
  • 2 This Is Not a Centre: Post-Soviet States in the Quest for Political Values (Svyatoslav Kaspe)
  • 3 Shades of Periphery: A Typology of States in New Eastern Europe (Mikhail Minakov)
  • 4 The Function of an Imperial Centre for the Former Imperial Periphery (the Cases of Independent Tajikistan and the Russian Far East) (Leonid E. Bliakher)
  • 5 Russia between Imperial Dreams and Modernisation (Galina Michaleva)
  • 6 Armenia Leaving behind the “Post-Soviet” Title? Opportunities in the Centre-Periphery Context (Valentina Gevorgyan)
  • 7 Does the Establishment of Democracy on the Periphery Lead to a Reduction of the Dependency from the Authoritarian Centre? The Case of Armenia (Edgar Vardanyan)
  • 8 The Post-Euromaidan Decentralisation Reform in Ukraine (Valentyna Romanova)
  • 9 Second-Class Citizens? Kyiv’s Policy towards the Residents of the Conflict-Torn Eastern Regions of Ukraine through the Lens of Citizenship (Natalia Shapovalova and Valentyna Romanova)
  • 10 Permanent Periphery of the Baltic States (Dovile Jakniunaite)
  • 11 Between Centre and Periphery: On Cultural Identity of Neoconservative Writers (Zakhar Prilepin, Vasilii Avchenko and Andrei Rudalev) (Anna Razuvalova)
  • 12 The Centre and the Periphery in Post-Soviet Poetry: Oleg Chukhontsev, Irina Ermakova and Maksim Amelin (Alexey Salomatin and Artem Skvortsov)
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • List of Contributors
  • Series index

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Alexander Filippov, Nicolas Hayoz and Jens Herlth

1 Introductory Remarks on the Meanings of the Centre-Periphery Distinction in General and in the Post-Soviet Space in Particular

Abstract: This introductory chapter discusses the heuristic value of the centre-periphery distinction as a tool for the analysis of social, political and cultural processes in the post-Soviet space. The disintegration of the Soviet Union was tantamount to the end of a state structure that was based on a hierarchic relationship between a strong centre and various “peripheries”. However, the end of this quasi-imperial structure only strengthened the analytical potential of the centre-periphery distinction; when seen as a form of differentiation inside societal structures or organisations, this distinction allows for an instructive insight into processes of modernisation and democratisation in the countries that emerged from the breakup of the Soviet Union. It can as well help us to theoretically grasp the neo-imperial tendencies present in Russian society – and in Russian politics. As the approach of this volume is interdisciplinary, the aim of this introduction is to show how the centre-periphery distinction is used in various research traditions, ranging from political science and sociology to history and cultural studies.

Keywords: centre, periphery, space, territory, post-Soviet, Soviet Union, empire, horizon, borders, Russia, culture, history, semiotics, democracy, civil society

Almost thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union – a state that had all the elements of a heavily centralised imperial structure, including a centre and its inner and outer peripheries – it may be asked to what extent it still makes sense to use the distinction centre-periphery to describe political and social realities in the post-Soviet space. Obviously, on the one hand, it would not make sense in the way the distinction has been used by the Soviet Empire, and in fact by all empires, as a hierarchic relationship between a dominant centre and controlled peripheries. On the other hand, the distinction centre-periphery does not lose its meaning just because the underlying imperial structure does not exist anymore. The history of this distinction has not yet come to an end. The USSR is not anymore, but it casts its shadow as a political, economic and geopolitical reality with a post-imperial centre, Moscow/Russia, aiming at controlling its internal peripheries and trying also to keep its “close neighbourhood”, the former Soviet republics and now independent states, as a space of influence and control.

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However, a reverse perspective, the view from the periphery, is questioning the idea of a “post-Soviet” space. Countries once part of the Soviet Empire, such as Georgia, Ukraine or recently also Armenia, are not seeing themselves anymore as part of the “Russian orbit”.

Such perspectives are important and prominent, but they represent only part of the story. There are other aspects, other conceptions of centres and peripheries which are underlining not only spatial meanings but also more social and cultural ones. These meanings change not only from one discipline to another or from one social field to another, for example from politics to economics. They change also from one country to another, particularly in the post-Soviet space. And it matters from which side you are looking at the other side of the distinction: from the periphery or from the centre. Moreover, more or less conflictual relationships between centres and peripheries, between different political actors or between social groups are concerning the distribution of power and opportunities in society or between countries. They are about access to power, rights, equality and democracy. Therefore, it is crucial to discuss the centre-periphery distinction as a multi-dimensional phenomenon with multiple meanings.

The Centre-Periphery Distinction in a Spatial Perspective

This volume assumes that the distinction centre-periphery is relevant. It is first a distinction used by diverse disciplines not only in social sciences but also in cultural studies to catch asymmetric relationships between political and social units, between countries, regions, cities or political actors. Such relationships between centre and periphery can be understood not only in a territorial or spatial sense but also as communication or interaction between units. The uneven distribution of resources, prestige, power and accessibility of information produces inevitable differences between privileged and less privileged places. This raises the question to what extent space is still important as a central aspect of the centre-periphery distinction. Space matters even though the world is a globalised world where the social reality of, for example, markets, scientific communication or technical networks cannot be understood anymore exclusively in spatial ←12 | 13→categories. The question is less to what extent space matters than how social realities cope with space and territory. How does space relate to the interaction between centres and peripheries, how does it relate to communication, to values, rights or organisations?

The centre-periphery distinction is not simply a useful analytical distinction. Centres and peripheries do exist, already for the simple reason that there are actors ascribing the economic, political or cultural position of a country, region, city, group and movement to one or the other side of the distinction: as centre or periphery. Observing the world from one or the other side necessarily produces a difference, for example, between cities and rural periphery. However, there is the tendency to privilege centres over peripheries. With Luhmann, on one hand, we could consider such a persistence of seeing a hierarchy between centres and peripheries as an inadequate metaphor, more appropriate for the analysis of traditional societies than modern society (Luhmann 2002: 251). On the other hand, one could object that the modern world society inevitably creates huge regional differences between successful centres and disadvantaged peripheries (countries of the south), differences which are in the focus of studies of economic dependency, as will be shown below.

Moreover, the centre-periphery distinction also stimulates an inflationary use of the space metaphor prominent in the social sciences. Space-oriented conceptions of centre-periphery relationships seem to dominate, but as mentioned already, non-spatial perspectives are underlining other meanings of the centre-periphery distinction.

What is a space that requires the distinction between a centre and a periphery? On the one hand, since the concept of periphery presupposes the concept of a centre, a periphery without a centre would be unthinkable. However, historically a centre can of course break down and its periphery would survive, but not anymore with regard to a centre. On the other hand, we could imagine a mathematical figure which can have a centre, but no periphery, such as, a circle or a sphere, although “περιφέρεια” literally means circumference of a circle. However, this ideal representation is completely irrelevant for most social and political contexts. The situation is different with the natural sciences, such as astronomy, geology or biology. They certainly have to deal with uneven spaces. The core and the mantle inside the planets, the centre and periphery of galaxies, centres and peripheries of explosions, epidemics and so on are good examples and good analogies for the social sciences, where the distinction first arose in ←13 | 14→economic geography. In that sense, the model for certain theories about the world economy based, for example, on the idea that there is a (capitalist) western core with dependent peripheries is the “pattern of the solar system with a star (the sun) at its core and several planets on its periphery” (Berend 1995: 130). But most probably, the reality of a “world system” is more complex and should be conceived, as Berend (1995: 131) suggests, rather in terms of a universe with several solar systems (i.e. cores) each having their own planets (i.e. peripheries).

The centre and the periphery are positions in a space that are separated from each other in such a way that, more often than not, a positive value is attributed to the centre and a negative value to the periphery. What is central is important, what is not important is peripheral (Schroer 2012: 241). Since the centre dominates the relationships between the two, they are asymmetrical (Jakniunaite in this volume). The centre has more resources and more importance, therefore it gets usually more attention than the periphery. It can be regarded as the place of power, even of an “evil power” from which the orders are reaching out to the periphery. It can as well be the place where the production of meaning is taking place, from where elements of worldviews are spreading to the periphery, where they have to be interpreted or adapted.

Thus, and more generally, the centre and the periphery are social positions in a space that are arranged in a particular way. It can be described formally, such as calculating the distance from a geometric centre, which can be found according to rules equating the territory with a mathematical figure. But one could also imagine that the places of power or resources are described in other terms than as a geographical space. In that sense, a spiritual centre may lie on the periphery of a civilised world, but then it is not clear why this place (such as a small town) should be called both a centre and a periphery at the same time! Reasoning with space (metaphors) is creating problems. In this regard, Luhmann (1995: 404, n. 54) once wrote, “Above all, space seems to be the basic model for the development of logic. One learns about space from logic. Just as it is impossible to build a house where a house already stands, it must also be impossible to conceive of one house with the exact same properties of another. To the degree that logic expands in nonspatial relationships, the degree of freedom and control in fixing contradictions grows”.

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Centres and Peripheries in the Context of Modernisation and Economic Dependency

Spatial conceptions of centres and peripheries are particularly prominent in comparative studies concerning world economy, economic history, regional economies or modernisation processes. By using the notion of core rather than centre, these studies are underlining the spatial inequalities between more advanced “core” regions and less developed regions of the “periphery”. Countries are analysed with regard to their position in a core-periphery model. The distinction core-periphery can be used to highlight specific relations between core and peripheral countries, for instance, disparities, tensions, conflicts or cleavages. Such studies can come, in the case of the European Union for example, to the conclusion that the relations between its core countries and its peripheral countries are more and more conflictual (Magone, Laffan, and Schweiger 2016). Other studies focusing on Eastern Europe underline persistent disparities between European core countries and those not yet integrated into the European Union with countries of the former Soviet Union, still lagging far behind West European levels (Berend 2016: 317). Here again, the relationships between the centre and the periphery are considered as asymmetric and benefiting the core. The question then is whether peripheral positions can be changed and to what extent peripheries can catch up and modernise (Berend 1995: 130, Minakov and Michaleva in this volume).

This question is in the focus of studies presenting states as part of an unequal economic “world system” as analysed by scholars like Wallerstein (Babones and Chase-Dunn 2012; Hahn 2008: 414). In this volume, Mikhail Minakov and Galina Michaleva are using, in their analysis of post-Soviet states, this distinction of core states and peripheral states, with an intermediate category of semicore or semi-peripheral states in between. Minakov, combining political and economic indicators, shows how post-Soviet states such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, including non-recognised territories, remain peripheral states whose stability and security depend on the interests of external powers. On the other hand, countries in Eastern Europe, such as Russia or other emergent powers, may consider “the hegemonic capitalist west” with its core countries as one of the main reasons of their peripheral or semi-peripheral position, which they would like to leave (Hopf 2017). Countries closer to Europe, such as Poland or Hungary, are moving in the opposite direction: They would rather try to ←15 | 16→overcome their semi-peripheral position within Europe (Bluhm and Varga 2019: 282).

Nationalism in all these countries is also about “catching-up”, about strategies to leave the peripheral status and to become more central – whatever this means. Berend (1995: 130) had a point when observing that core and periphery are “historical categories with ever-changing references. Certain peripheral areas catch up, while certain parts of the core break off and lose their central character”. Economic dependency is not a fate, and politics matters, as political regimes have the choice to modernise or to isolate their countries. Neo-imperial or nationalist discourses are not stopping peripherisation; rather they are epistemological obstacles standing in the way of modernity and the process of modernisation.

The failed modernisation and the “backwardness” of the USSR were among the main reasons of its breakdown. Nowadays, “backwardness” and peripherisation in the post-Soviet space and, more generally, in Eastern Europe are not only the result of “globalized capitalism” but also of political regimes which have built up in many countries of the former Soviet Union in the last decades a kind of peripherical and parasitical or corrupt modernity, a mix of state capitalism and powerful networks of patronage, clients, families and friends by which political and economic elites are exploiting their countries and contributing to the creation of new peripheries (see Michaleva in this volume).

Moscow may still be the metaphor of an imagined centre; it may still pretend to have its territory “under control”, but people keep leaving the country because research or business opportunities (“brain drain”), education systems, health systems or living conditions in “Western” cities offer better conditions or are pointing to more attractive social realities and spaces. The control over people and peripheries no longer implies the control of social realities. Former centres can become peripheries. Peripherisation is a risk and a tendency that can be observed in many world regions, not only in Eastern Europe. In that perspective, it may be said that “global society is socially divided into centre and periphery; the face of modernity is a landscape of light and shadows. One lives either in the centre or in ‘peripheral modernity’ (Marcelo Neves), where life is infinitely more difficult than in the brightly lit cities of the ‘first world’ ” (Brunkhorst 2005: 113). Periphery here is synonymous with social exclusion on a large scale.

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Centres and Peripheries as a Relationship Between Social and Political Actors

Peripheries are not only about dependent spaces but also about the relationships between actors of the centre and the periphery. The focus here is on a dynamic structure where peripherality acquires a “permeable function that shifts peripheries at the centre as ‘peripheral centres’ or ‘central peripheries’ ” (Huber and Kamel 2016: 4). Indeed, in his already classical study on state formation and nation building, Stein Rokkan adds to the territorial conception of periphery (horizontal periphery) an alternative view of space described as vertical periphery, a space of an interaction system composed of actors in power positions in the centre and less influential actors in the periphery (Rokkan 1999: 114 f., 2000: 146 f.). Both peripheralities are relevant: territorial differences as well as differences among population, groups and elites.

From this, recent studies conclude that the periphery should be considered as a dynamic opportunity structure implying a repertoire of actions (Huber and Kamel 2016: 4). Its key aspects are distance, difference and dependency. This is a kind of de-construction of the dominant idea that the centre is active and the periphery submissive. For Huber and Kamel (2016: 4), marginality is not a fate and “does not prevent peripheries from opposing and, at times, undermining the centre”. In that sense, peripheries may confront a hegemonic centre with counter-hegemonic alternatives. Looking at the agency of peripheries could mean here examining the agency of marginalised communities, such as ethnic, religious or gender peripheries. Peripheries are considered then as bottom-up processes of self-empowerment, which may result in political, social and culture change (Huber and Kamel 2016: 11).

Such a perspective that takes into account the narratives of the “powerless” in the periphery vs the “powerful” of the centre is focusing on the role peripheries may play in the transformation of autocracies. Social or political actors, such as opposition movements, can position themselves as periphery in a conflict with a more or less discriminatory or repressive centre. Protest movements against corruption or discrimination in Eastern Europe can generally be considered as actions and claims in the name of imagined centres of rights and citizenship against central ←17 | 18→governments and political parties considered as discriminating. In that sense, the conflicts of such movements are also bringing in the distinction inclusion/exclusion. In both perspectives, it is about moving to the centre.

In this volume, Gevorgyan and Vardanyan adopt a similar perspective in their analysis of the case of Armenia, where the revolution organised by civil society and political opposition was the starting point for the political transformation of the country, implying also the change of centre-periphery relationship. As elsewhere, exclusion and peripheralisation of parts of the population are creating favourable conditions for protest and even revolutions. More generally, in several post-Soviet countries, protest was about the politics of exclusion and corruption of the state elites associated with the centre. Marginalised groups and communities at the periphery created the conditions for political change (Temirkulov 2008). This protest was and is also about leaving the post-Soviet semi-peripherical status in order to establish modern political, legal and economic structures. Moving closer to the “European space” can be seen as an effort to “catch up” with modernity.

On the other hand, the picture is more ambivalent: Particularly in the context of the return of nationalism in Eastern Europe, the dream of joining an idealised European centre associated with progress and prosperity goes more and more hand in hand with the political imagination of a different kind, the idea of a renewed grand nation maintaining the illusion of an autonomous centre. In a radical way, this could mean, as in the case of illiberal populists in Hungary, Poland and other countries, that “only if the nation stops trying to be like the West will its citizens stop leaving for the West” (Krastev and Holmes 2018: 127). So, between the poles of the “authoritarian periphery of the East” and the “democratic centres of the West”, there is still a lot of space for ambivalent national brands imagining their own “strong centre” and hiding the peripherical status.


Like all empires, the Soviet Empire was also based on the distinction centre–periphery. Although the Soviet Empire no longer exists, relationships between centres and peripheries still shape realities in the region. The book analyses the relevance of this distinction for the understanding of political, economic, and cultural realities in the post-Soviet space. Case studies provided by scholars from different countries of the former Soviet Union explore the potential of the distinction in historical as well as in economic and political perspectives


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2020 (August)
Russia Eastern Europe Empire dependency Ukraine Armenia Baltic States
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 286 pp., 13 fig. b/w, 3 tables.

Biographical notes

Alexander Filippov (Volume editor) Nicolas Hayoz (Volume editor) Jens Herlth (Volume editor)

Alexander F. Filippov is a professor of sociology and of philosophy at the National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, and editor-in-chief of the Russian Sociological Review. His research interests include history of sociology, sociological theory and German sociology Nicolas Hayoz is a professor of political science at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), with the focus of teaching and research on political developments in Eastern Europe, mainly in the post-Soviet region, as well as on political sociology, political theory, and politics and law Jens Herlth is a professor of Slavic literatures at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). His research interests include Polish intellectual history, Russian and Polish literature in the context of the history of ideas, and the relationship between literature and the social sciences


Title: Centres and Peripheries in the Post-Soviet Space