Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

Tobias Holzlehner

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Tobias Holzlehner

Research Areas

Russia, Circumpolar North, maritime anthropology, hunter/gatherer cultures, borderscapes, informal networks, migration, cultural change, organized crime, post-industrial landscapes

My general research interest focuses on processes of socio-economic and political transformation in the maritime borderlands of the Russia Far East and the Circumpolar North. In the course of the last years I conducted several research projects that scrutinized shifting social configurations and various forms of mobility in a time of rapid change. I examine in different ways overlapping and constantly moving sets of cultural formations, people and commodities alike, which seem to characterize a growing global and transnational culture. By tracing the connections between local maritime communities and global forces, my research contributes to basic questions which anthropology is facing on our increasingly “moving earth.” How can anthropology theorize culture and the social order in periods of radical transition? What are the elements and media of social and cultural stability? How do flows of goods, ideas and people create boundaries and focal points of interaction? In that respect, it is crucial to listen to local voices, how they perceive processes of globalization and transnationalism at the periphery of nation states, and essential to understand in detail the effects of transnational flows of goods and people on local communities. Learning from societies that went through sudden socio-economic collapse and rapid environmental change can thus help us to understand and confront the looming monsters of the Anthropocene in a more prepared way.

Ongoing Research

My current book project (Habilitation), Hunters and Traders in a Fluid World: A maritime anthropology of the Chukchi coast, is an attempt to draw a contemporary ethnography of Arctic sea mammal hunting communities along the Bering Strait coast in north-eastern Russia (Chukotka).

The twentieth century was for Russia a time period of deep-seated changes, revolutions, and systemic collapse. Especially in the Russian North, centuries old traditions and subsistence practices were replaced by new cultural and economic patterns, which accompanied and implemented the Soviet Union’s master plan of a new society for all of its citizens. Extraordinary resilience as well as novel strategies of coping with Sovietization, subsequent loss, and industrial collapse created new forms of communities. Revitalization of traditional hunting technologies and the resettlement of formerly abandoned native villages is only one aspect of the current realities that gave rise to new forms of habitation in the ruins of a volatile past.

Based on extensive fieldwork in the region since 1996, my goal is to sketch a microecology of a coastal landscape and to unravel the relationship between state politics and the maritime environment of the Chukchi Peninsula and its inhabitants. Embedding this ethnography into the history of the 20th and 21st century, the project outlines at the same time a social archaeology of an imperial shatter zone, tracing the ruination of the former Soviet Union at its easternmost end. Theoretically influenced by anthropological discussions of a new materiality and by literature from the emerging field of the archaeology of the contemporary past, I capture fleeting socio-economic shifts by analyzing access, infrastructural control, long-distance networks, and maritime commodity flows through a material lens. In the sense of a social archaeology of an imperial shatter zone, embedded in a littoral landscape, the book outlines a potential inroad for a productive incorporation of archaeological methods and theories into contemporary anthropology.

This project addresses three specific questions at stake: (1) What are the relations between landscape, mobility and adaptation? (2) What does it mean to live amongst and creatively use the flotsam & jetsam of a contiguous world? (3) Is there a distinct hunter and gatherer way, from an ontological perspective, to cope with cultural change? Walking through ruins and excavating the processes of remembering reveals yet one important fact: Chukotka’s maritime hunters and traders are truly skilled inhabitants of a fluid world, surrounded by a living ocean, volatile historic currents and a ubiquitous supply of drift objects.