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Scraps, Neighbors, and Committees: Material Things,

Place-Making, and the State in an Astana Apartment Block
University of Warsaw

Drawing on fieldwork in 200809, this article focuses on a courtyard (dvor) in a
Soviet-era apartment block in Astana, Kazakhstan. I explore the mundane material
maintenance of the courtyard, in particular the use of scraps, as a way to reflect on the
relationships between material agency, the formation of locality, and the state. Historically, the courtyard was an urban form through which the Soviet state sought to
define its citizenry. In the post-Soviet period the dvor persists as a space in which
citizens subjectivities and relationships to the state are formed. However, infrastructures fall into disrepair and are haphazardly patched up by residents. I argue that scraps
play important roles in the emergence of localities, both enabling and constraining
residents agency. They engender a sense of disconnect between the local community
and the state. Simultaneously, scrappiness also means that locality is unstable and
ephemeral. Scraps, in general, are an underappreciated element of urbanization; yet
they are significant actants in the making and unmaking of social and political
configurations. [Kazakhstan, place, courtyard, materiality, infrastructure]


ne July afternoon, several people gathered outside the apartment block at 5 Oktyabrskaya Street1 in Astana, to debate
something agitatedly. A man in his sixties was holding a
crumpled notebook with pages full of columns of handwritten numbers.
A small group of women surrounded him and peeped at the notes. I
recognized my landlady Aleksandra Stepanovna, the owner of two apartments in the building, and the elderly women who had lived in the block
for many years and who chatted on a bench in the courtyard nearly every
day. As I listened to the debate, I soon realized the notes they were
discussing were accounts for the purchase of valves and pipes to repair the
blocks plumbing. The man had bought the valves using funds pooled
from residents contributions, but somehow it was unclear how many
valves were needed, how many had been bought, how many had been
replaced, how much money was spent, and how much was left. The man
fetched two valves from the basement. The group examined them
closely, but they were unable to figure out if those were two of the old
broken valves, or of the new. Aleksandra Stepanovna and the man
descended to the basement together, only to see, in the light of the
flashlight I held for them, that old and new valves and pipes lay heaped
hopelessly together amid waste and small construction debris.
City & Society, Vol. 27, Issue 2, pp. 136159, ISSN 0893-0465, eISSN 1548-744X. 2015 by the American
Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI:10.1111/ciso.12057.

Neighbors, and

Who were these people to one another? Why were they dealing with
those valves and accounts? What were their relations to the blocks
material infrastructure? Was there a housing department somewhere
that should be involved? I lived at 5 Oktyabrskaya for nine months
in 200809, and in this article I draw on that experience to reflect on
the relationships between residents and the bits and pieces of infrastructure in the apartment block and courtyard. I study how residents everyday practices of material maintenance and the agency of mundane
material things shaped the forms and meanings of locality and defined
the relationships between local subjects and the state, in a context of
wide-ranging, multi-faceted social, political, economic, and legaladministrative transformations. Since the onset of large-scale construction works in a newly-designed part of the city following the selection of
Astana for Kazakhstans new capital in 1997, Astana has attracted considerable attention from international scholars (e.g., Bissenova 2014;
Buchli 2007; Koch 2010; Laszczkowski 2011a, 2011b; Wolfel 2002). In
contrast to the bulk of that work, the present article focuses not on the
spectacular recent developments, but on a mundane Soviet-era residential block. This focus allows me to highlight the entanglements of cityplanning power with other kinds of human and non-human agency
co-involved in place-making.2
I consider place-making as a dynamic, mutually constitutive relation
between human subjects (individuals and groups) and their material
environment (Low and Lawrence-Ziga 2003). Such relations always
occur in connection to other places and are influenced by outside actors.
In a post-Soviet context, the urban neighborhood courtyard, dvor, is a
compelling site to study place-making (see Richardson 2008:119128).
Basic social relations are tied, performed, and reproduced in the dvor. It
is a site of socializing and of childrens socialization under the watchful
eye of the retired elders. People meet, greet, talk, and sometimes trade in
the dvor. Important matters concerning the neighborhood are discussed
in this spacesuch as the interaction just described. In common usage,
the noun dvor also refers to a group of people brought together by shared
use of the courtyard. One can say, for instance, that the whole dvor
celebrated a holiday together (otmechali vsem dvorom). In Arjun
For Soviet
Appadurais terms (1996:178179), the dvor is a focal site for generating
locality as a phenomenological quality which expresses itself in certain urbanists the dvor
kinds of agency, sociality, and reproducibility, and the construction of
neighborhood as a situated community in which locality is realized. By
was the basic
the same token, however, the dvor is the site of ongoing politics which
perpetually produces and challenges community and locality (Creed city-planning unit
2006; Raffles 1999). For Soviet urbanists the dvor was the basic city- through which to
planning unit through which to mold the norms and forms of sociality
(French 1995:6263), while Caroline Humphrey (2005) argues that the
mold the norms
material infrastructures of the dvor both transmitted and diffracted ideoand forms of
logical intent. In the post-Soviet period, I contend, the dvor continues to
be a site where local subjects are formed and relations with the state are

City & Society

I argue that scraps and leftovers such as the above-mentioned reusable and non-reusable valves enabled and constrained residents relationships to one another, the courtyard, and the state. Stephen Collier
(2010) has shown how material infrastructures (heating pipes, in particular) had literally assembled Soviet cities by plugging together populations, apartment blocks, factories, and nation-wide networksand
how more recently the intransigence of those systems constrained
reforms of post-Soviet urban governance. I build on these observations to
argue that at 5 Oktyabrskaya heterogeneous material elements created
place. However, as shall become clear, the heterogeneity and partial
incompatibility of those material things and connections meant that the
place was a creatively improvised but unstable assemblage. Moreover, the
constitutive relations linking the local place to other places and projects,
including the state, were as inconsistent, ambiguous, and unstablein
short, scrappy (Smith 1988)as its material make-up. Thus I highlight
both the aggregative and disaggregative possibilities of scraps.

Scrappy place-making

lace, locality, and community are fragile achievements of complex

processes that involve a multiplicity of actors. Locality denotes not
simply a phenomenological quality of familiarity, but also a set of
relations, an ongoing politics (Raffles 1999:324). Likewise, community
must not be taken as an entity, least of all a stable or homogeneous one
(Creed 2006). Rather, it connotes a relation, marked by a fragile shared
sense of belonging derived from quotidian forms of interaction. Just
like place, it needs to be performed, recreated ever anew through interactions and material practices. Place-making is always a cultural as well
as a political-economic activity (Tsing 2000:338). The local emerges
through connections to other, often remote places and through the
multiple, contingent, and partly contradictory practices of numerous
actors involved in various situated projects (Raffles 1999:327).
These projects include forms of state power. The modern state
often appears as a prominent force that exerts a powerful impact upon
localities, molding and sometimes destructing them (e.g., Appadurai
1996:189191). However, the state is itself a network of actors located
in specific interconnected sites, and as such it greatly depends on material connections (Bennett and Joyce 2010; Harvey 2005). Among the
complex, open-ended processes that lead to the making and re-making of
places, forms of state agency thus coincide, collide, and collude with the
practices of dwellers and the recalcitrance of material things.
As the valves-counting episode above already indicates, and as I
show in more detail below, the material resources that residents at 5
Oktyabrskaya had at their disposal to maintain their block and courtyard
were usually scraps. By scraps I mean items disjointed from their original networks, incomplete, and heterogeneous, calling for new uses and
impromptu connections. Literary scholar Barbara Herrnstein Smith
(1988:148) speaks of scrappiness as the condition of incompleteness,

Neighbors, and

heterogeneity, and conflict generating human motivations and actions,

that nonetheless yields local orders and provisional stabilities. The
concept of scrappiness helps highlight disorderly implications of heterogeneity and hybridity that are normally not brought to the fore by related
terms used to refer to processes of social formation, such as bricolage,
patchwork, or collage, which evoke rather more harmonious associations. Victor Buchli (2000) has adapted this concept to an analysis of
individual home-makers quotidian work of signification in the Soviet
and post-Soviet domestic sphere. I follow his lead and explore the role of
scraps in the formation of locality in the dvor at 5 Oktyabrskaya. It might
be that scraps clatter especially post-Soviet spacethe collapse of the
USSR having been a breakup in quite a literal, material sense (see Scraps provoke the
Alexander 2007b, 2009b). But scraps proliferate everywhere where
things are being used, break down, wear out, expire, are being replaced or
improvisation of
rearranged.3 They provoke the improvisation of new orders, provisional
new orders,
to perpetual, while simultaneously constricting human possibilities by
their intransigent, well, scrappiness. I argue for greater attention to be
provisional to
paid to the roles that scraps can play in the politics of place-making. I
extend the concept of scrappiness beyond material scraps themselves. In
perpetual, while
my proposed use, scrappiness refers to the relationships between people,
places, and things that constitute social and material assemblages. It
describes the fragmentary, ad hoc nature of connections linking localities
to other places and translocal networks such as municipalities, nations,
and states, and their involvement in shifting social and politico- human possibilities
economic configurations, legal, and administrative regimes.
It is commonplace in the anthropological literature on place-making
to note that, as Appadurai, for instance, puts it, locality is ephemeral
unless hard and regular work is undertaken to produce and maintain
its materiality (1996:180181). Until recently, material things have
featured in phenomenologically inspired anthropological accounts of
place-making generally as objects of human action: symbolization, interpretation, exchange, material transformation or maintenance (e.g., Low
2000). In contrast, I follow Bruno Latours (1993) thinking about material things as mediators: active elements capable of altering the course
and effects of the agency of others, and even to provoke humans to
undertake particular actions. As mediators, I argue, mundane material
items have the capacity to shape and inflect the place-constitutive relations between local subjects as well as the external relationships that
connect a place to other sites and wider networks.
Simultaneously, I agree with Leo Coleman (2014) who has recently
pointed out that Actor-Network Theorys insistence on tracing material
connections, although important as a way to avoid reifying abstractions
such as the state or the social, can become limiting if it means
not taking into account the work of interpretation and ascription of
meanings to material things by human actors (see Navaro-Yashin 2012:
163165). Material things, I contend, exert agency not only through
participation in Latourian webs of mediators, but also in other ways,
including involvement in affective, hermeneutic, and phenomenological

City & Society

interactions through which human subjectivities, identities, and the

sense of belonging are formed. Therefore, analyzing the roles of scraps
and other material items in place-making requires to have it both ways:
to observe how material chains of action are linked and unlinked, and
also how those connections and disconnections lead to the rise or erasure
of human meanings.
In recent years, there has been a growing interest in social science for
the interactions between human actors and material infrastructures (e.g.,
Collier 2010; Harrison, Pile, and Thrift 2004; Larkin 2013). While much
of this literature has focused on cases of spectacular malfunction
(Bennett 2005; Graham 2009), other works are concerned with the more
mundane dynamics of disrepair and maintenance (Edensor 2011;
Graham and Thrift 2007), and various forms of bricolage through which
shards of broken-up systems are put together to form new mechanisms
reproducing social life. Anthropologists emphasize the agency of marginal actors, unconnected from centralized networks, in creatively conjuring up functioning infrastructures (Buchli 2000). For instance,
Abdoumaliq Simone (2003, 2004) celebrates the capacity of African
urban residents to draw on their social resources to make up for the
unreliability or outright absence of vital infrastructures and formal processes of organization. He highlights how residents put urban systems
together from below and thus manage the deterioration and precariousness of their cities.4 On the other hand, scholars stress the oppressive
and destructive effects of infrastructures (Rodgers and ONeill 2012).
Julie Y. Chu (2014) analyzes how disrepair and the slow decay of infrastructures in residential areas in urban China collude with government
officials and commercial developers strategies of forced eviction of residents and demolition of their homes to make room for profitable new
construction and land speculation (see also Anand 2012; Schwenkel
2013). Disrepairthe condition of things slowly but steadily falling
apartdistributes the destructive agency of the state across time and
among hosts of material actants, making it possible to avoid spectacular
confrontations between state agents and protesting residents.
My argument in this article builds on but also differs from these
contrasting views on the politics of infrastructural abjection (Ferguson
1999:236238), disrepair, and fixing, by emphasizing the constructive
potential of scraps and at the same time the centrifugal tendencies
inherent to them. I highlight how scraps, through their potential to form
new connections, occasioned forms of collective maintenance work
shared by a group of residents at 5 Oktyabrskaya that filled the void
created by the crisis of formal urban governance in the post-Soviet
period. That mundane material work led to the formation of place and a
situated community of neighbors. Yet, simultaneously the scrappiness of
those material items and of the social relations that they enabled and
mediated, implied a potential for instability and disaggregation of locality. Infrastructures are frequently assumed to play central roles in generating state effects (Harvey 2005; Mitchell 1999) and supporting
national identities. To draw an example from my own work, I show

elsewhere that in Astana government-orchestrated construction-works

on a large scale give substance to the reconstruction of the state as a
social, imagined, and material realitya process I call state-building
through building work (Laszczkowski 2014:152). But, drawing on
Giorgio Agambens (2011) work, Coleman (2014) argues that the relation between material connections and meaning is aporeticthere
is no deterministic correspondence between material structures and collective sentiment or identity. Thus, as I demonstrate below, the relationships between the local community that emerged at 5 Oktyabrskaya
and the state were ambivalent and at times openly antagonistic.

Neighbors, and

Urbanism in the USSR and after

he history of 5 Oktyabrskaya is tied with the late-Soviet and postSoviet history of urbanism as a form of place-making state power.
Following Rabinow (1989), by urbanism I mean a form of power
deploying knowledge and bureaucratic techniques to define the norms
and forms of the social environment in citiesthe management of
people and things to produce and maintain places in specific forms. To
Soviet planners, the city was the engine of social progress (Alexander
and Buchli 2007:1). Soviet urbanism undertook the formation of a new
kind of person (Crowley and Reid 2002:15), a new economy, society,
politicsin short, a new culture (Kotkin 1995:34). Every detail of
urban infrastructurefrom a piece of pipe to a family dwelling to a
cluster of apartment blockswas to partake in assembling the Soviet
social (Collier 2010:85). From the late 1950s, Soviet authorities emphasized the extensive construction of standardized four- and five-story (and
later higher) apartment blocks (French 1995:6996), which still dominate the landscape in many cities today. The residential cluster, including apartments, courtyards, shops, and service points, was conceived of as
a whole, designed to induce more collective forms of everyday behavior.
Tselinograd (as Astana used to be known in Soviet times) was redesigned
in 1963, with a new general plan that followed the then-ruling modernist
principles established in the 1920s and 1930s by the architect Nikolai
Milyutin (Alpyspaeva 2008:94; French 1995:3549). The plan entailed
the construction of a new street grid, lined with apartment blocks,
including the area where the building at 5 Oktyabrskaya was later built.
In the post-Soviet period, former Tselinograd followed a unique
trajectory of change. After Kazakhstans independence, the city was first
renamed Aqmola (1992), and, as mentioned, in 1997 the countrys
capital was relocated here from much larger Almaty. The following year
Aqmola was renamed again: AstanaCapital in Kazakh.5 Since then,
half a million people in search for better lives (Laszczkowski 2011a)
moved to the city from all over Kazakhstan, by far outnumbering Sovietera inhabitants.6 Monumental architecture has been used in Astana to
transform the formerly provincial, mid-size industrial town into a futuristic national capital. A new general plan was commissioned from the
world-renowned Japanese architect Kisho Kurokawa (Bissenova 2014).

Every detail of
from a piece of
pipe to a family
dwelling to a
cluster of
blockswas to
partake in
assembling the
Soviet social


City & Society

To manifest a vision of Kazakhstans future as an independent, technologically advanced state integrated into global markets, an expansive
new district was added beyond Soviet-era city-limits. This space was
filled with an eclectic array of grandiose government buildings, office
skyscrapers, housing estates for the elites and public employees, and
fanciful commercial venues. The Soviet-era city-center was also
renewed, even if renewal did not reach far off the main thoroughfares.
The development of the new capital became the pivot of Kazakhstans
state- and nation-building ideologies (Anacker 2004; Koch 2010;
Laszczkowski 2014; Schatz 2004; Wolfel 2002).
However, as Buchli (2007) points out, the creation of the new capital
evoked profound public questions as to the forms and values of social life.
One set of such questions, in particular, concerned the relationships
between government, city-planning, and the population. The telos of
urbanism changed compared to the Soviet era. Up until the later 2000s,
emphasis in Astana was placed on the construction of new seats of power
and spectacular venues built to impress domestic and transnational audiences. Residential development was treated as secondary, and while new
housing complexes were built, officials paid little attention to the
arrangement of courtyards. Even in the new estates residents commonly
complained about this shortcoming which caused a haunting feel of
emptiness. As a top city-planning official repeatedly assured me, the
Soviet-era aspiration to mold selves and society through hands-on management of neighborhoods was explicitly abandoned. This may be interpreted as the adoption of neoteric liberal views by local planners
(cf. Chikanaev 2008) or as a case of postmodern privileging of surface
appearance at the expense of substance (cf. Jameson 1991), but alsoas
an effect of the post-Soviet crisis of power and knowledge that left
planners hesitant to tamper with urban milieus.
The collapse of the USSR had shaken up most areas of social life
(Humphrey 2002). The situation was described, specifically with regard
to urban Kazakhstan, as chaos (Nazpary 2002). A central element of
change was the privatization of apartments and utility networks. Far from
a simple transfer of ownership, this was a complex process of trying out
and negotiating basic rights, roles, norms, and relations (Alexander
2009a; Struyk 2011). Households were suddenly burdened with the
responsibility for building-maintenance, while heat, light, gas, and water
were commoditized, breaking up previously taken-for-granted material
background ties between residents and the state.
Importantly, uncertainty was felt equally acutely inside municipal
bureaucracies (Alexander 2007a, 2007b; Humphrey 2007). City-building
in the sense of that totalizing, teleological form of governance established
in the Soviet era (gradostroitelstvo), was over (Collier 2010:124). Sovietera city executive committees in Kazakhstan were transformed into city
halls, akimaty (sing. akimat). Their members pondered what their new
roles vis--vis citizens and infrastructures might be while social norms and
values were in turmoil. One thing in particular that became unknown was
who was now responsible for shared spaces within residential units, such as

basements, hallways, staircases, and courtyards. Initially, maintenance was

the responsibility of municipal housing departments (domoupravleniya).
Those were large organizations (only two covered all of Aqmola) and
largely ineffective. In the late 1990s the so-called Apartment Owners
Committees (Komitety Sobstvennikov KvartirKSK) were established. A
KSK normally groups the owners of all apartments in a cluster of several
neighboring apartment blocks. The members elect a chairperson from
their ranks. The committee pools monthly fees from members, manages
maintenance and repair-work, and employs an accountant and, funds
allowing, a plumber, cleaning personnel, and other technicians.
In sum, the breakup of material and administrative chains of connection left both urban administrators and residents groping for ways to
deal with the heterogeneous mass of suddenly redefined material elements: buildings, pipes, wires, and so forth. This opened the way for
scrappy ad hoc local infrastructural solutions to proliferate.

Neighbors, and

The apartment block and its residents

n spite of the above-mentioned spectacular architectural developments in recent years, the bulk of Astanas built environment is still
predominantly composed of Soviet-built neighborhoods of apartment
blocks from the 1960s1980s. In terms of style and architectural form,
the building at 5 Oktyabrskaya, dating from the 1970s, is a typical
example of that architecture (see Figure 1). The building is a box of
gray brick, with five stories, four entrances, and seventy apartments. The
monotonous faade with square windows is broken by double vertical
rows of balconies between each pair of staircases. Residents have
glassed-up most of the balconies for protection from wind and frost.
Oktyabrskaya Street is located in the north-central residential part of the

Figure 1. 5 Oktyabrskaya Street. Photo by author.


City & Society

city, half-way between the Soviet-era city-center and an industrial zone

(see Figure 2). Positioned inside a quadrangle of north-south and eastwest roads, the block stands away from the street (see Figure 3). In front
of the building, there is the courtyard (dvor) with some trees, a few
benches to sit and have rest, a childrens playground, a laundry-drying
area, and a tiny grocery store with a steep, bright-red roof. Across the
dvor stands a twin building that was constructed at the same time as 5
Oktyabrskaya. The dvor is overshadowed by a higher, nine-story apartment block built at a later time at the dvors southern side.
Despite the typicality of their outward form, the building at 5
Oktyabrskaya and the twin block opposite were less typical in terms of
their specific social history. They had been built as so-called cooperative houses (kooperativnye doma). In the late-Soviet period urban
housing was generally state property. Apartments were distributed either
by municipal authorities or state-owned major enterprises (Morton
1980). Factory-organized housing was especially prevalent in those cities
where the municipal economy hinged on a few city-forming enterprises
(gradoobrazuyushchee predpriyatiya; Collier 2010:102).7 Some employers,
however, did not have the capacity to build, distribute, and manage
housing. Those citizens working, for example, in the potrebsoyuz (state
administration of the supply of consumer goods), airlines, healthcare, or
education, could enter a co-operative (kooperativ) for the building of
apartments. Such apartment blocks were constructed and maintained for
resident-members contributions, which meant that their occupants were
accustomed to relative independence and responsibility. The building at
5 Oktyabrskaya was an example of this type of housing. That fact was
later to have implications for locality in the post-Soviet period. Namely,

Figure 2. AstanaOrientation map.


Neighbors, and

Figure 3. 5 Oktyabrskaya Street and its immediate vicinity.

in a departure from the usual pattern, both 5 Oktyabrskaya and the twin
block across the dvor had their own separate KSKs. Long-standing residents explained to me that this was a legacy of the buildings co-operative
The changes associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union had
their resonances for social life in residential neighborhoods and individual apartment blocks. The privatization of housing and the redrawing
of state boundaries triggered mass residential mobility (Struyk
2011:208210). Large numbers of Russians and other non-Kazakhs
moved out from Kazakhstan. After Tselinograd became Astana and tens,
soon hundreds of thousands of migrants from across Kazakhstan started
moving in, Soviet-era residents continued to depart, selling or renting
their property to newcomers. During the 1990s and 2000s, up to threequarters of long-standing inhabitants left 5 Oktyabrskaya and were
replaced by various kinds of newcomers. As a result, the community of
residents was itself, in a sense, scrappy: composed of individuals with
heterogeneous backgrounds, brought into the block by various socioeconomic dynamics and legal regimes at various times, and only partly
integrated, with divergent interests and contrasting relationships to the
Some of the newcomers, having come to settle permanently, soon
were no longer perceived as strangers. By the time of my arrival they had
lived in the block for a good several years, in some cases for over a decade.
Together with the remaining old-time residents they formed a relatively
bounded group connected by everyday forms of neighborly sociality. The

City & Society

members of that group knew each other and their family members by
name, and addressed the elderly with the familial tyot or ded (auntie
and granddad, respectively) added to their first names. They greeted
each other heartily and often chatted in the dvor, where their children
and grandchildren played together. The women exchanged home-made
pickles and vegetables from their suburban garden patches, and the men
helped each other repair their cars. At the time of my fieldwork, members
of that group of neighbors generally aged between their early forties
and mid-seventies. They were all Russian or in any case Slav.8 The eldest
had migrated from various places in European Russia, Siberia, Ukraine,
and Belarus during Khrushchevs Virgin Land (Tselina) campaign, from
the mid-1950s to mid-1960s (Pohl 1999).9 The middle-aged had
been born in Tselinograd or in other towns in north-central Kazakhstan.
They had various educational and professional backgrounds. For
instance, the group included a retired construction-machinery operator,
a truck driver, an accountant, a tailor, an elderly taxi-driver, a retired
food-supply worker, a Soviet-era consumer-trade clerk, and a retired
Members of this group drew a clear boundary separating them from a
different kind of newcomers to the block: short-term tenants, usually
Kazakh wage-migrants from provincial towns and villages, to whom at
least one-third of all flats at 5 Oktybrskaya were rented. These migrants
tended to live in overcrowded conditions, sometimes several of them
sharing a single bedroom. The more established neighbors accused them
of unruly behavior such as littering and damaging the stairwells and
various items in the courtyard. The migrant tenants generally did not
partake in dvor socializing with other neighbors or in collective initiatives for the maintenance of the block and the courtyard. For these
reasons they were seen as not really belonging to the local community.

Fixing the dvor

ormally speaking, the dvor was municipal property and its maintenance thus a responsibility of the city hall (akimat). However,
as mentioned, following the post-Soviet crisis of knowing
(Alexander and Buchli 2007:3), throughout the 1990s and much of the
2000s municipal authorities lacked capacity or willingness to engage
consistently in the maintenance of residential units. At 5 Oktyabrskaya,
the municipality occasionally provided major elements of dvor infrastructure. At some point in the early 2000s, the akimat had the internal
roadway surrounding the dvor paved and new curbs installed. On
another occasion, a besedka (single-piece table with benches under a
plywood roof) and some ladders and slides for children to play were
placed in the courtyard. However, akimat involvement with the dvor
was inconsistent: for instance, an old fence was once removed, presumably to be replaced with a new one, yet that new fence never materialized. Everyday maintenance of the dvor was left in the residents

Aleksandra Stepanovna played a leading role in organizing residents

to weave through the available things (to paraphrase Latour, 2005:68)
in order to maintain the dvor. She and her husband, both northKazakhstani Russians who had lived in Tselinograd for all their adult
lives, had moved to 5 Oktyabrskaya with their then-schoolboy son in
1998. They bought an apartment from a former resident moving out.
Their second son was born there. Soon, the couple purchased another
flat in the same building, which they rented to long-term tenants (such
as me) for a substantial share in their household income. Aleksandra
Stepanovna was not employed by the KSK and held no official function
related to the maintenance of the block (she was a seamstress and her
husband, having tried many vocations before, repaired ATMs for a
bank). Nonetheless, she was often seen busy cleaning or repairing various
items in the staircases, the courtyard, or tending the greenery around the
building. Aleksandra Stepanovna valued a sense of neighborly community and was wholeheartedly dedicated to the good of the block (not
least, of course, because she owned two flats there, though other owners
were not so committed). By the time of my fieldwork she had become the
residents informal leader in matters of the maintenance of the courtyard
and the shared infrastructure of the building. At times, she had even
been able to de facto appoint and dismiss KSK chairs.
Aleksandra Stepanovna personally painted the fence surrounding
the laundry-drying area, using paint she purchased for KSK money. The
fence remained unpainted on the side of the other building, as with most
items for which the other KSK was responsible. Having left-over red
paint, Aleksandra Stepanovna renovated a concrete camel in the childrens playground. The railing around the playground was made of old
pipes that had been stored in the basement, their purpose long forgotten,
probably leftovers from some previous maintenance job. Aleksandra
Stepanovna had arranged for the owner of the small grocery shop in the
dvor to have the pipes soldered and put up around the playground. Thus
the shop-owner, a Kazakh woman who had recently migrated to Astana,
settled her bills for having connected the shop to the blocks water supply
and sewerage.10 Next, the small grass-patches at each of the buildings
four entrances had different fences still. Those had once stood in front of
the neighboring nine-story block. Then the owner of a newly-opened
boutique in the nine-story had them replaced with fancier fences, simply
dumping the old pieces behind the building. Using the Soviet-era
Pioneer Day as a pretext, Aleksandra Stepanovna mobilized a group of
male residents of 5 Oktyabrskaya to put up the fences. This was not a
professional job, however, so she had to constantly remind people not
to sit on the wobbly fences. For sitting, there were benches by each
entrance. Originally, there had been four identical concrete-and-wood
benches. At some point, two of those were replaced by the akimat with
more decorative, park-style items. Aleksandra Stepanovna could not
recall where exactly those had come from or why they were only two; she
suspected the other two had simply been stolen before they were even
installed. Finally, one of the most long-standing residents, a truck-driver,

Neighbors, and


City & Society

once brought an elegant heavy wrought-iron bench, which he had appropriated in circumstances likewise shrouded in the mists of favor-economy
and forgetting. However, the bench soon disappeared from outside the
block, only to be found in the courtyard of a nearby school. Aleksandra
Stepanovna commented with a self-assured tone entirely disregarding
the benchs unclear provenance: Technically, its ours. We could go and
bring it back anytime.
As outlined above, urban residential areas, especially in former
Soviet settings, are often considered focal sites of statist intervention,
through which governments seek to organize and control social life.11
However, these details show how at 5 Oktyabrskaya place was constituted through the contingent intersection of multiple agenciessome
from within the neighborhood, some from other placeswhile the influence of formal urban governance was limited and intermittent. The
emerging place was a scrappy assemblage in a double sense. First, it was
materially made up of what were mostly scraps: old pieces of pipe, leftover
paint, discarded fences, and other things jerry-rigged, re-used, recycled,
re-appropriated, orin some casessnatched from some other place.
Those heterogeneous items came together through the generally uncoordinated actions of diverse actors, each pursuing their own situated
projects. Aleksandra Stepanovnas coordination was only partial and
contingent on available items and coincidental opportunities. Benches,
fences, and other things appeared and disappeared depending on the
often obscure personal deals and exchanges of favors linking residents,
administrators, entrepreneurs, and outsiders.
The other sense of scrappiness here refers to the emergence of
place as a contingent spatiotemporal entanglement of processes such as
privatization, commercialization of urban space, reform of urban governance, or migration, none of which principally aimed at place-making.
This is not a case of large-scale phenomena impinging on the local,
but rather of translocal flows of action crosscutting locally, bringing in
people and things. Consider, for instance, the pipes used to make the
railing around the playground. They must have been brought to 5
Oktyabrskaya by the akimat or some other municipal organization. But
then they were just left in the basement because that organization,
probably itself undergoing reform, either had no use for them or no
capacity to retrieve them. Finally Aleksandra Stepanovna found new use
for the pipes. The partly undetermined mandate of the KSK, and the
political decisions that had created the KSKs in the first place, allowed
her to gain unofficial but effective control of courtyard maintenance.
Then the actual job of soldering the pipes was carried out thanks to the
shopkeeper who would not have been there if not for the politicaleconomic projects, devised in remote places, which had allowed the
establishment of private shops in neighborhood courtyards and triggered
migration to the new capitalplus, of course, the entrepreneurs
unknown personal motivations. The local place emerged as a continually improvised, scrappy assemblage out of such convergences of actions
widely distributed in space and time.

Neighbors, and

Figure 4. Residential block in the new part of Astana. Photo by author.

Furthermore, the ongoing material work of putting and holding that

Putting and
motley assortment of different things together simultaneously amounted
holding that
to the production of locality as a structure of feeling (Appadurai
1996:181) and the formation of local subjectsthe making of people
motley assortment
who think of themselves (at least sometimes) as belonging in and to a
place (Raffles 1999:334). On an individual level, the formation of local of different things
subjecthood is perhaps most clearly seen in Aleksandra Stepanovnas
case. Through the material work she performed in the dvor, Aleksandra
Stepanovna from an outsider became a local leader. Moreover, since
material elements are subject to interpretation and held to represent
human relations and collectives, in minor rituals of maintenance . . .
amounted to the
material connections are linked to collective identity (Coleman
production of
2014:470). Thus, at 5 Oktyabrskaya, a sense of collective local
subjecthood crystallized around particular items: the we in whose name
locality as a
Aleksandra Stepanovna, for instance, claimed the ownership of the fancy
bench. This does not need to imply that community was forged as a
structure of
fixed entity. Rather, community was actuated in specific moments and in
relation to particular matters of concern (Latour 2005).
Assemblages of specific things make places different, or make different places, giving rise to divergent identifications. The scraps made 5
Oktyabrskaya a place which residents found entirely different and separate from those areas elsewhere in the city where the government was
creating its new capital (compare Figure 1 with Figure 4). This was
expressed poignantly in the following comment by one dweller in the
building across the dvor, a Kazakh working-class man in his mid-fifties:
This here is the old city, and Nazarbaev [Kazakhstans president] is
building a new city there. . . . We are lost, abandoned people. We here
are Tselinograd people, and over there are Astana people. Although the
sense of despair was far less pronounced among those residents who, like
Aleksandra Stepanovna, actively took care of their block, these words

City & Society

indicate how the different material make-up of places produced juxtaposed identities (Tselinograd people versus Astana people). That
further implied a particular relation of this neighborhood and local
subjects to the state: a relation of abandonment, not belonging
together, a latent opposition that resulted from the scrappy constitution
of the local milieu.

The KSK takeover

he previous section has shown how scraps helped constitute place

and imbued it with particular characteristics. At this point,
however, let us return to the opening scenethe discussion about
valves and expenses. That scene and later developments reveal tensions
among neighbors, their only provisional ability to manage the material
infrastructure of the block and the dvor, and the susceptibility of place to
conjunctures of outside practices. In other words, they shed light on the
constraining and disaggregative dimension of scrappiness, which, as shall
be revealed shortly, eventually led to the unmaking of locality.
The man with the crumpled notebook, Mikhail Petrovich, was the
chair of the KSK at 5 Oktyabrskaya. In the Soviet period, he used to work
at the municipal electricity department and had been among the original
kooperativ members. More recently, however, he had moved out from the
block. He still owned an apartment there, in which his daughter lived.
On this account, the residents trusted himthey had known him for
long and apartment ownership was an incentive to care for the block. On
the other hand, Mikhail Petrovich himself did not live there any longer,
and rumor had it, he owned property somewhere in Russia. Like many
but far from all Kazakhstani Russians, he had obtained Russian citizenship, which meant he could emigrate with relative ease. Therefore, the
neighbors saw him as not quite in the same boat as the others. They
pondered how strongly committed he actually remained to their common
good. The day after the valve inspection I asked Aleksandra Stepanovna
if the point of the discussion had been money. She replied:
We were not quite counting money. We had given Mikhail Petrovich
some money before, he had bought some stuff, and we wanted to count
how much had been spent . . . But you see, I was counting, and I dont
know these things, then someone else was counting . . . We tried to do
it all at once, but . . . its very hard to count all this stuff, you need to
know these things, and thenIve never done audit, Ive never controlled anyone . . . And the documents, they always have to be signed
by someone [other than the chair, on behalf of the KSK], but he
[Mikhail Petrovich] comes when no one is around to sign the papers, or
as it often happens, the grandmas [babushki, elderly women] will sign
them [without inspecting] . . . He often makes the documents after
some time, like its only now that we see the bill for the stuff he bought
in May [two months before], so then its very hard to figure out what
goes with what, if you didnt follow . . . Some claim hes a thief, we
should get rid of himbut no one wants to do the job . . .

Neighbors, and

Many said Aleksandra Stepanovna should replace Mikhail Petrovich,

but she was reluctant. While she had long been practically in charge of
the block, she did not want to shoulder the responsibility that came with
a formal appointment. Moreover, she felt awkward with regard to
Mikhail Petrovich, as she had been the one to put him up for chairman
a few years back.
Soon, Mikhail Petrovich decided to retire as chairman. Nobody
seemed ready to replace him, and some residents began to suggest that a
thorough report on the KSKs finances should be demanded of him before
he was gone. Meanwhile, the KSK chair from the neighboring nine-story
building, a young and energetic Kazakh man, began to be seen around the
block, along with an akimat representative who aggressively demanded
that any meetings among the residents be registered with the municipality and conducted in his presence. Soon, the residents at 5 Oktyabrskaya
found themselves under pressure from the akimat to give up running
their own KSK and to accede to a common KSK with the twin building
across the dvor and the nine-story. Aleksandra Stepanovna and other
long-standing inhabitants were upset by what they interpreted as an
attempt at suppressing the blocks autonomy. They were particularly
offended by the chairmans plan to clear the basement at 5 Oktyabrskaya,
where the residents stored pickles and all sorts of things, to convert it
into commercial space. The neighbors believed that the akimat preferred
to group KSKs so as to have fewer of them do deal with and to more easily
elicit funds from the residents. They questioned the legitimacy of the
akimats actions.
The merger was effected through a hastily arranged meeting a few
weeks later. A small group of apartment-owners, in the presence of the
akimat representative and the chairman from the nine-story, voted in
favor of abolishing the separate KSK at 5 Oktyabrskaya. The vote was
held on very short notice, and only twelve voters were present, five of
whom voted against the motion. As one of the upset residents pointed
out, that was against KSK rules, which required a thirty-percent quorum.
The scrappiness
Nonetheless, Mikhail Petrovich soon tacitly passed the relevant documents to his counterpart from the nine-storyan act that other residents and recalcitrance
saw as treason, but had no power to oppose.
of the material
This story highlights the fragility of locality resulting from the
scrappiness of internal and external relations constituting place. The
things that went
fuzziness of the KSK as an administrative form, which had enabled
into the
Aleksandra Stepanovna to successfully coordinate maintenance work,
finally proved a liability. Residents lacked the knowledge and resources to
maintenance of
guarantee proper care of the block infrastructure and communal budget.
Even the pooling of funds was not a straightforward affair while some the dvor meant the
apartment-owners and tenants refused to pay their share. Second, the
assemblage they
scrappiness and recalcitrance of the material things that went into the
maintenance of the dvor meant the assemblage they made was hard to
made was hard to
grasp and managea point powerfully visualized by the confusing heap
of old and new valves and pipes in the basement. Additionally, the grasp and manage
internal tensions of the neighbors community and its contingency on

City & Society

They now had

even less control
over their block
and dvor than
before. From
their point of
view, that meant
an unmaking of


far-reaching external connections are further exposed if we consider the

role of Mikhail Petrovich. His commitment to 5 Oktyabrskaya was apparently less than complete, and so was other residents trust in him as their
chairman. As mentioned, this had to do with the Kazakhstani Russians
inconsistent positioning with regard to the two statesKazakhstan and
Russia, which suggests the breadth of the translocal networks of relations
on which locality may depend. Finally, the politics of place-making
involves competing claims by different actors about their position relative to the place in question and their entitlement to control it (Tsing
2000). At 5 Oktyabrskaya, the group of long-standing residents had been
outnumbered by newcomers, whose presence was the result of dynamics
including the commodification of apartments, Kazakhstans capital relocation, and migrationthe same processes that had contributed to the
formation of locality. The old-time residents questioned those newcomers local belonging and right to decide, just as they questioned the
legitimacy of the akimats attempt to strengthen its grip over of the
neighborhood. They saw the akimat representative and the KSK chairman from the nine-story as outsiders and usurpers of authority over local
affairs. However, when it came to deciding the fate of 5 Oktyabrskayas
KSK, the long-term residents were outvoted.
In the months that followed, little improvement was noted in the
maintenance of the building or the courtyard. The only ostensible difference was that the new KSK fired the sweeper at 5 Oktyabrskaya, an
impoverished female resident with a drinking problem, which resulted in
the courtyard hardly being swept at all. Nevertheless, the KSK takeover
had significance for the residents insofar as they now had even less
control over their block and dvor than before. From their point of view,
that meant an unmaking of locality (cf. Raffles 1999:346). The physical
structure of the block remained unchanged, yet the particular configuration of micropolitical relationships and sense of belonging came


he material world is hardly fixed, inscribed or explicitly signifying;

nor is it inherently ambiguous, polyvalent and open. . . . The material world is . . . whatever an individual agent or group requires it to
be, or . . . enables it to become in order to cope with contingencies and
realise individual or group interests, writes Victor Buchli, and he adds:
By applying a little bit of paint, inserting a strategically placed thin
partition, or . . . rearranging the furniture of a room, one can assert and
subvert entirely different and contradictory cosmologies of social being
(2000:187). Buchli makes an important pitch against overly deterministic theories of the relationship between spatial planning and social
life (e.g., Hillier and Hanson 1984), and in favor of a research sensibility
that addresses the roles of individuals and embraces the multivocality
and open-endedness of social action. A similar theoretical orientation
has also driven my analysis of place-making in the courtyard at 5

Oktyabrskaya. However, the results of this analysis suggest that the

affirmation of the individual ability to manage the undecidability
(Buchli 2000:5) of the material world, as expressed in these quotes, might
just need to be qualified. I have observed how place emerged out of a
tangle of human and non-human, local and outside agencies. It was a
dynamic and fragile construct which needed to be constantly maintained
and reproduced. The practices of its reproduction included quotidian
interactions among neighbors and more formal activities such as electing
KSK chairs, holding votes, and managing accounts. Equally important
for place-making was the material maintenance of the apartment block
and courtyard. At a time when the attention of planners in Astana was
focused on spectacular developments in a new part of the city while the
involvement of the formal place-making institutions of the state with
Soviet-built residential neighborhoods was limited and inconsistent, heterogeneous scraps enabled residents to creatively reproduce place and
perform community. However, scraps also constrained and resisted the
residents agency. The scrappiness of local arrangements, in the double
sense of material make-up and of the entanglement of the place and local
subjects in multiple translocal social, economic, and political relations,
simultaneously meant that locality was an unstable assemblage. Eventually, long-standing residents were deprived of their autonomy in managing the place.
Much has been written about the relationships between the state,
ordinary residents, and material infrastructures of urban residential areas.
Infrastructure has been seen to diffract the ideological meanings it was
designed to convey (Humphrey 2005); resist neoliberal reform of utility
provision (Collier 2010); help oppress particular classes of residents,
denying their social and political entitlements (Anand 2012); or slowly
fall apart, contributing to the creative destruction of places and communities (Chu 2014). The case of the apartment block and courtyard in
Astana highlights aporetic entanglements of state power with the agency
of residents and heterogeneous material actants. Mediated by the bits and
pieces of infrastructures, state agency was far from determining the shape
of locality. Various elements of state-provided infrastructure were creatively appropriated by residents and formed parts of emerging local
assemblages. This, however, is not a call to celebrate the creative powers
of infrastructural bricolage. As I have argued, scraps encapsulate within
them the potential both for crafting new connections and for conflict,
collision, and instability. They materialized multiple place-making connections and influences which variously colluded and collided with the
agency of urban administrators. Sometimes, they generated opposition
between the local place and the state. Plausibly, the historical conditions in post-Soviet cities were particularly conducive for scraps to proliferate and take center stage. However, rather than being a special case
unto itself, the scrappiness of post-Soviet urban place-making points to
the more general capacity of material things to stabilize and destabilize
places within networks of social and material connections, and sometimes to defy human efforts to produce and maintain order.

Neighbors, and


City & Society

Acknowledgments. This research was made possible by SocAnthMarie
Curie Early Stage Training networkMEST-CT-2005-020702. I wish
to thank Jutta Turner for drawing the maps used in this article, and
Catherine Alexander, Alima Bissenova, James Carrier, Svetlana
Jacquesson, Soledad Jimnez-Tovar, Natalie Koch, Joe Long, Andr
Thiemann, two anonymous reviewers for City & Society, and editor
Suzanne Scheld for helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. I also wish to thank the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, and its director Gnther Schlee for providing me with
an institutional home during the research project from which this
article is drawn.

Fictional address. A real Oktyabrskaya Street once existed in todays

Astana, but it was located in another part of the city. Likewise, the names
of all persons appearing in this article have been changed.
This article is drawn from a larger research project on the relationships between the transformations of the built environment and social
and political change in Astana (Laszczkowski 2012). The data used in
this article was generated through participation in the everyday life
of the apartment block, residents meetings, minor maintenance jobs,
and neighborly socializing in the courtyard, as well as informal extended
interviews with residents.
See, for instance, the recently growing anthropological literature on
ruins and ruination (Edensor 2005; Gordillo 2014; Stoler 2013).
Simone extends the meaning of the term infrastructure to include
the ability of residents to engage complex combinations of objects,
persons, spaces, and practices (2004:407408); he speaks in that sense of
people as infrastructure.
The city was originally established in the 19th century as a Tsarist
outpost called Akmolinsk (Dubitskiy 1990).
While according to official statistics the population increased
from around 275 thousand in 1997 to 650 thousand in 2010 (Regiony
Kazakhstana 2011:71), almost 70 thousand old-time inhabitants left
Astana between 1997 and 2003 alone (Tatibekov 2005:27). Moreover,
the number of newcomers might be underestimated, as for various
reasons many migrants go unregistered (see Zabirova 2002).
In Tselinograd this role was played by the agricultural machinery
producer, Tselinselmash (Alpyspaeva 2008:4560) and several other
Russian influence in Kazakhstan dates back to tsarist colonization
since the 18th century. Under Soviet rule, Russian and other Slav presence dramatically increased. The Slavs settled mainly in the northcentral and north-eastern parts of Kazakhstan where they formed
regional majorities (see Kaiser and Chinn 1995).
The Virgin Lands campaign had been a large-scale agricultural
development scheme intended to turn the steppes of north-central

Kazakhstan into a grain producing region. It entailed the relocation of up

to two million settlers into the area (Pohl 1999:2)
The shop itself was an ambiguous addition to the dvor. The
residents had initially opposed the idea of having it built, based on
Soviet-era principles of social and spatial organization: in Aleksandra
Stepanovnas words, We were used since the Soviet times to the following rule: whats there is there, and nothing extra is needed. Some
suspected the shopkeeper had obtained the necessary permits by bribing
someone at the akimat.
For non-Soviet settings, see e.g., Holston 1989; McDonogh 1999;
Rutheiser 1999.

Neighbors, and

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