Natalia Mamonova - Development Studies (ISS)

Land Grabbing in the former Soviet Union"The fact that Russia and Ukraine have a long history of large-scale agriculture, is among the reasons why there is hardly any resistance to the land grabbing."

Natalia Mamonova’s PhD research is a part of the ERC-project "‘Land Grabbing’ in Russia: Large-scale Investors and Post-Soviet Rural Communities". Her project aims at exploring the ‘black box’ in the ‘land grab’ debate: the concealed but accelerating process of domestic and international large-scale land acquisitions in the transition countries of the former Soviet Union, focusing on the two largest agricultural producers in the region: Russia and Ukraine.

Natalia, a native Russian born in Ukraine: “It’s interesting to look at my countries from a different, outside angle. It helps me to understand them better than if I would obverse them from inside.” She researches to what extent and how global land grabbing has occurred in Russia and Ukraine. “I’m looking at the implications for local communities, and at how local communities have resisted or modified these land deals, if at all,” Natalia explains.


"They control the largest share of post-Soviet farmland. This is actually the ultimate Soviet dream come true."


Ultimate Soviet dream
After the Soviet Union collapsed, land from former collective enterprises was distributed to the rural population by means of land-share certificates. However, land recipients did not become private farmers as land reform intended, and land remained in control of collectives. Domestic oligarchs and foreign investors began acquiring Russian farmland after land sales were legalised in early 2000.

Ukraine still implements a land sales moratorium, although this has not stopped land investors from land grabbing. “There haven’t been any distributive land reforms,” Natalia says. “The former collective enterprises were transformed into large-scale agricultural enterprises, which in size exceed their predecessors. They control the largest share of post-Soviet farmland. This is actually the ultimate Soviet dream come true.”

Rural resistance and naïve monarchism
“The fact that Russia and Ukraine have a long history of large-scale agriculture, is among the reasons why there is hardly any resistance to the land grabbing,” Natalia explains. Furthermore, she uses the concept of “naïve monarchism” in her analysis of rural resistance. Natalia: “The rural belief in the benevolence of the ruler: the Tsars, the socialist party leaders and nowadays, Putin, deflects the rural politics of dissent. People appeal to the ruler for help and protection from arrogant nobles. Peasants use their naivety as a shield from repression; and, although, these actions do not challenge the existing order, they do help peasants resolve local injustices.”


"Peasants use their naivety as a shield from repression; and, although these actions do not challenge the existing order, they do help peasants resolve local injustices."


Nouveau-riche palaces
In suburban areas, the situation is different. Real estate companies grab farmland with no compensation to its official owners i.e. peasants, and construct country houses and palaces for the Russian nouveau riche. Natalia: “It’s a drastic transformation of land use and a violation of the peasant’s property rights. Furthermore, land prices increase drastically in such areas. All this creates a feeling of inequality and dissatisfaction among the rural population, which has led to protest and the emergence of several rural social movements in some suburban areas.”

Once a journalist...
Natalia’s PhD research ends in January 2016. However, she has already done all the required work for her article-based PhD: three published papers, one of which single-authored. “But I still feel like I haven’t told the whole story yet,” the former journalist states. “That’s why I’m planning to write and publish one or two more papers. And next year I hope to give some guest lectures at the Stavropol Agrarian University in Russia.”  


"Many well-known conferences often lack a good discussion. Development Dialogue is different."


Conferences
Besides four fieldwork trips, Natalia has also travelled a lot abroad for conferences. “It is very important and inspiring to present your research findings at international conferences. Our staff really encourages this. I also participated in the organization of two international conferences in Moscow and Bucharest, and I was among facilitators of the famous “Land Sovereignty” conference at Yale University one year ago.”

ISS also hosts many interesting conferences, for example the annual Development Dialogue, which brings together PhDs from all over the world.  Natalia: “Many well-known conferences often lack a good discussion. Development Dialogue is different. The senior ISS academic staff is asked to read the papers by participants in advance, which leads to a deep discussion and very useful feedback.”

Like a sponge
All PhDs at ISS are obliged to pass three main seminars: the research design seminar after the first year of research, the post-fieldwork seminar and the full-draft seminar. Natalia: “It’s all a very good assessment. It brings together the people who can discuss your work and give you good advice. It also motivates you to be on time with your research and perform better.” 

The Research in Progress seminars, intended to provide an informal venue for the presentation of ongoing research by ISS scholars and other scholars from the wider development studies community, are also very popular. Natalia: “There is even a waiting list for these seminars! Altogether, this creates an environment in which you can absorb everything like a sponge and enrich your knowledge.”


"It’s a competitive and inspirational environment, and one in which you don’t want to be inferior; this motivates you to go beyond your boundaries."


Push boundaries
But the ISS environment is also very demanding. Natalia: “It depends on your ambitions, of course, but as a PhD you should be prepared to work harder than you expect. You’re surrounded by great people: not only the academic staff, but also your fellow PhDs. They all have fascinating backgrounds with work experience in NGOs, social movements or other areas. It’s a competitive and inspirational environment, and one in which you don’t want to be inferior; this motivates you to go beyond your boundaries.”

Challenge your teacher
As a PhD, you’re expected to become an excellent scholar, not just an excellent researcher, Natalia says. “You shouldn’t present just another case study. They expect you to bring new knowledge and insights, question existing assumptions and every time try to push the boundaries further. You’re even encouraged to criticise your teacher – unimaginable in Russia! One of my teachers said, if a student can become better than his teacher, then the teacher is doing a good job.”


Update

On November 23rd 2016, Natalia Mamonova successfully defended her PhD thesis on 'Rethinking Rural Politics in Post-Socialist Settings'.