The Great Departure: Staying and Leaving as Tactics of Life After Post-Socialism 2010 – 2012


During the last decade, Latvian migration to Western Europe, also known as “the Great Departure,” has become a mass social phenomenon. It is estimated that about 10% of Latvia’s residents are on the move. The Great Departure, however, is not only about leaving. Its contours are equally tangible for those who have stayed behind. People across Latvia’s cities, towns and villages report that there are less children in schools, that the streets of many of Latvia’s cities are notably emptier than they used to be, that it is difficult to find someone to fix your roof, and that social life has broken down, because everyone has left.

This project analyses the Great Departure as a complex interplay of leaving and staying as tactics of life that emerge in an historical moment shaped by neoliberalism, nationalism, European integration and, most recently, fiscal austerity. It brings ethnographic engagement with staying and leaving to bear upon analysis of contemporary forms of capitalism and state power in Europe. The research asks what are the forms of power in relation to which staying and leaving emerge as historically specific tactics of life? It analyses these forms of power as effects of postsocialist transformations that are discernible in the ways in which people make sense of and act upon life in the present with twenty-five years of postsocialist democratization, liberalization and privatization behind them.

Principal Investigator

Dace Dzenovska


European Social Fund

Professionals' Advisory Group

The project was carried out as part of an interdisciplinary research programme on rural development at the University of Latvia (ESF project: Nr. 2009/0222/1DP/




The project posits staying and leaving as nodal points through which to connect analysis of the present with analysis of the present’s futures. In order to undertake this analysis, I pay particular attention to temporal and spatial imaginaries that can be discerned in the actions of those who stay and leave. These chronotopes of action are especially telling with regards to the effects of postsocialist transformations upon people’s sense of themselves as acting subjects. While much of literature on postsocialist transformations in Eastern Europe has interrogated the governing discourses and practices that aim to remake former socialist subjects into good neoliberal, liberal, European or national subjects, as well as people’s responses to them, this project traces the effects of postsocialist transformations through analysis of how people make sense of and act upon life in the present with twenty-five years of postsocialist democratization, liberalization and privatization behind them. The research also puts analysis of staying and leaving as tactics of life after postsocialism in conversation with debates about modes of endurance in late liberalism.


The research involved two years of ethnographic fieldwork with residents in rural Latvia, as well as with policy makers in Latvia and the United Kingdom who have attempted to tackle outmigration by producing knowledge about it and by devising policy interventions.


The project addressed questions of broad public interest in Latvia. It involved continuous collaboration with stakeholders, such as rural residents, local governments, policy makers and the media. The project produced not only academic outputs, but also policy recommendations. Moreover, the project’s academic outputs were produced in a style accessible to the public, thus they were widely read and debated.