Columbia University in the City of New York

Harriman Institute

An art work depicting symbols of the Soviet Union.



Unsettling the Union: An Interdisciplinary Symposium
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Important Note

Registration required. Please note that all attendees must follow Columbia’s COVID-19 Policies and Guidelines. Columbia University is committed to protecting the health and safety of its community.  To that end, all visiting alumni and guests must meet the University requirement of full vaccination status in order to attend in-person events.  Vaccination cards may be checked upon entry to all venues. 

Location Note

This event will be in person at the Heyman Center (First Floor, East Campus Residential Center, Columbia University) and live-streamed online. Please register for both in-person and virtual attendance via the link.

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?

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


10:00 AM | Opening Remarks

10:10 AM | Panel I: Landscape & Southscape

Chair: Aziza Shanazarova (Assistant Professor, Department of Religion, Columbia University)

Sarah Cameron (Associate Professor, History, University of Maryland): Aral: The Life and Death of a Sea

Margarethe Adams (Associate Professor, Critical Music Studies, Stony Brook University): Sounding the Secular State: Understanding Kazakhstan through Nuances in Belief, Music, and Sound

11:20 AM | Panel II: Women & Resistance

Chair: Bruce Grant (Professor and Chair of Anthropology, New York University)

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): Ukrainiannness as a Resistance: National Identity among Ukrainian Female Prisoners in the Gulag 

Arpi Movsesian (Lecturer of Russian and East European Languages and Literatures, Rutgers University): From Lilies to Liliths: Soviet Armenian Feminist Verse and the ‘Woman Question

1:30 PM | Keynote

Chair: Yana Skorobogatov (Harriman Assistant Professor of Russian and Soviet History, Columbia University)

Choi Chatterjee (Professor and Chair of History, California State University, Los Angeles): Russia, a Pariah Nation or a Multi-Polar World Order: Shifting Perspectives

2:45 PM | Panel III: Music & Identity

Chair: 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)

Maria Sonevytsky (Associate Professor of Anthropology and Music, Bard College): Trolling the Komsomol: The Irreverent and Anti-Imperial Critique of Soviet Ukrainian Punk

Nari Shelekpayev (Assistant Professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Yale University): Culture Two and a Half: Authorship and Nation-Building in the Kazakh Opera (1934–1949)

4:00 PM | Keynote II

Chair: Khatchig Mouradian (Mouradian, Lecturer, MESAAS; Columbia University; The Armenian and Georgian Area Specialist (Library of Congress)

Ronald Grigor Suny (William H. Sewell Jr Distinguished University Professor of History, University of Michigan): Ends of Empires: Confidence and Crisis in Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union

5:00 PM | Closing Remarks