Unsettling the Union: An Interdisciplinary Symposium

General Programming

April 14, 2023 Friday, 10:00am EDT The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University Virtual Event
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration details to come.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, erupted into world history as the most large-scale war on European soil since World War II. The unprecedented war prompts an urgent call for a critical reassessment of Russian imperialism, raising anew the question of the Soviet Union’s geopolitical status and nation-building legacy. While scholars have extensively studied the economic, social, and political stakes of Soviet communism and totalitarianism, much of the Anglophone academic discourse remains driven by the so-called “Red Scare” that to this day overshadows and obscures the USSR’s role as the heir and promulgator of Russian Empire’s colonial agenda.

Unsettling the Soviet Union’s “friendship of the peoples” paradigm, this symposium foregrounds the perspectives of the marginalized ethnic and racial minorities by bringing together scholars from the various disciplines that can offer novel methods and theories for analyzing the Soviet Union as a colonial empire: anthropology, ethnomusicology, history, literary studies, religious studies, and Slavic studies.

Participants will present on themes including racialization, colonial resistance, cultural assimilation, nation-building, urban development, historical memory, and environmental colonialism. They will reflect on how cultural specificities within their examined geographic regions may challenge historiographic periodization that has traditionally focused on shifting policies of the various state leaders. How have cultural workers and local bureaucrats shaped the discourse of nation-building in their respective republics? What alternative modes of colonial relationality can provide a more nuanced perspective on Soviet minority politics than the classic center/periphery binary? How did environmental, historical, and social factors contribute to the dissolution of the USSR? And ultimately, how can the reassessment of the Soviet legacy enhance our understanding of present-day geopolitics and provide tools for resisting further expansionist aggression?

This event will be in person at the Heyman Center and live-streamed online. Please register for both in-person and virtual attendance via the link.

Please email [email protected] to request disability accommodations. Advance notice is necessary to arrange for some accessibility needs.


Margarethe Adams

Stony Brook University
Associate Professor, Critical Music Studies

Sarah Cameron

University of Maryland
Associate Professor, History

Bruce Grant

New York University
Professor and Chair of Anthropology

Oksana Kis

The New School, Visiting Professor of Anthropology
The Institute of Ethnology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Head of the Department of Social Anthropology

Arpi Movsesian

Rutgers University
Lecturer of Russian and East European Languages and Literatures

Nari Shelekpayev

Yale University
Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

Maria Sonevytsky

Bard College
Associate Professor of Anthropology and Music

Full conference details to come