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Unsettling the Union: An Interdisciplinary Symposium

General Programming

dateApril 14, 2023 timeFriday, 10:00am–6:00pm EDT location The Heyman Center, Second Floor Common Room, Columbia University locationVirtual Event
  • Harriman Institute
  • Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies Armenian Center
  • Department of Music
  • Gevork M. Avedissian Chair of Armenian History and Civilization
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
email address [email protected]
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required. See details.
Friendship of the People by Stepan Karpov, lithograph of Soviet citizens carrying symbols of The Soviet Union

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.


time9:00am EDT


time10:00am EDT

Opening Remarks

time10:10am EDT

Panel I: Music & Identity
Trolling the Komsomol: The Irreverent and Anti-Imperial Critique of Soviet Ukrainian Punk

Maria Sonevytsky

Associate Professor of Anthropology and Music

Bard College

Culture Two and a Half: Authorship and Nation-Building in the Kazakh Opera (1934–1949)

Nari Shelekpayev

Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures

Yale University


Knar Abrahamyan

Postdoctoral Fellow, Society of Fellows at the Heyman Center for the Humanities; Assistant Professor in Music Theory & Race, Department of Music

Columbia University

time11:20am EDT

Panel II: Women & Resistance
Ukrainiannness as a Resistance: National Identity among Ukrainian Female Prisoners in the Gulag

Oksana Kis

Visiting Professor of Anthropology

The New School; Head of the Department of Social Anthropology (The Institute of Ethnology, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine)

From Lilies to Liliths: Soviet Armenian Feminist Verse and the ‘Woman Question'

Arpi Movsesian

Lecturer of Russian and East European Languages and Literatures

Rutgers University


Bruce Grant

Professor and Chair of Anthropology

New York University

time12:30pm EDT


time1:30pm EDT

Keynote I
Russia, a Pariah Nation or a Multi-Polar World Order: Shifting Perspectives

Choi Chatterjee

Professor and Chair of History

California State University, Los Angeles


Yana Skorobogatov

Harriman Assistant Professor of Russian and Soviet History

Columbia University

time2:30pm EDT


time2:45pm EDT

Panel III: Landscape & Soundscape
Aral: The Life and Death of a Sea

Sarah Cameron

Associate Professor, History

University of Maryland

The Winds of Change: Sound and Belief on the Kazakh Steppe

Margarethe Adams

Associate Professor, Critical Music Studies

Stony Brook University

Chair: Aziza Shanazarova

Aziza Shanazarova

Assistant Professor, Department of Religion

Columbia University

time3:45pm EDT


time4:00pm EDT

Keynote II
Ends of Empires: Confidence and Crisis in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union

Ronald Grigor Suny

William H. Sewell Jr Distinguished University Professor of History

University of Michigan


Khatchig Mouradian

Lecturer, MESAAS

Columbia University; The Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist (Library of Congress)

time5:00pm EDT

Concluding Remarks