DIALOGUES: Towards Decolonizing Music and Dance Studies

Shifting Identities

A Musical Journey from the USSR to Post-Soviet Independent States


Razia Sultanova (University of Cambridge, UK)


Razia Sultanova




Razia Sultanova
Valeriya Nedlina (Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatoire, Almaty)
Kanykei Mukhtarova (University of Alberta, Canada)
Zilia Imamutdinova (The Russian State Institute for Art Studies, Moscow)

In the former Soviet Union, or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the process of establishing particular national identities and the challenge of separating from the cultural history of the USSR can be likened to a relationship of decolonization. The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, a process that resulted in fifteen new sovereign republics. It was the greatest geopolitical disaster in the history of Eurasia, and it led to a severe economic crisis and the notable decline in living standards of all post-Soviet states. Many scholars consider the dissolution of the USSR to have had a greater impact than the Great Depression. To this day, the post-Soviet states are engaged in establishing themselves economically, politically, and culturally. Specifically, their culture, art, and music are still experiencing the distinct challenge of separating from the “big brother” that is the USSR. All four of us, presenters of this ICTM Dialogues session, were brought up in the USSR and were caught up in the collapse of the Soviet Union that occurred in the middle of our lives and careers. For this reason, we consider ourselves to be some of the most recent witnesses of the particular phenomenon called “decolonization.” The aim of our session is to explore an alternative methodology to examine the musical situation in the post-Soviet space of Central Asia and Russian Muslims of the Ural-Volga area.

Sultanova shows how the current image of Russia has greatly changed due to millions of migrant workers arriving from Central Asia. They have brought with them their cultural values and Islamic way of life, which have impacted these cities in a variety of ways. The influx of the new migrant population in Russia numbers up to 1.2 million in Moscow and 1 million in St. Petersburg, making them the biggest Muslim cities in Europe. New sounds, particularly at times of religious holidays such as Ramadan, can be heard in the many Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Caucasian cafés and restaurants that have been established. Live music performances take place in the streets, bazaars, theatres, and concert halls of the two cities.

Nedlina explores methods for studying traditional music in post-Soviet Kazakhstan. Current Kazakh ethnomusicology borrows much from its Soviet past. During the Soviet era, studies of such local traditions as baqsylyq (shaman), dhikr (Sufi devotional rite), aitys (epic poet-singers’ competition), and dombyra shertpe kui (East Kazakhstan kui tradition), were either forbidden due to Soviet propaganda or considered not to have merit. Only in the last three decades have Kazakh scholars Saida Yelemanova, Bazaroly Muptekeev, Zhibek Kozhakhmetova, Saule Utegalieva, and others been able to initiate and establish studies of the local traditions.

Mukhtarova looks at new music-making at Central Asian Ethnojazz festivals that have recently begun to appear in Almaty (2003), Bishkek (2006), Dushanbe (2009), and Tashkent (2015). Supported by various international organizations and embassies, and including performances by musicians from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, these festivals have promoted jazz music and helped to develop a unique fusion of jazz and Central Asian musical traditions. Playing Ethnojazz that draws on diverse local sounds, these musicians have developed mutual understandings and joy in overcoming together, through music, national and ethnic conflicts that persist in Central Asia.

Imamutdinova investigates the religious musical culture of the Ural-Volga Russian Muslims (Tatars and Bashkirs) that underwent total destruction during the Soviet era, due to a strict Soviet atheist policy. An Islamic revival is currently taking place, doubly influenced to combination of the local pentatonic style and canonical Arabic modes in Qur’anic recitation, and the inclusion of elements of Muslim rap in religious chants.


Further References

Sultanova, Razia. 2021. “The Non-Russian Sound of Post-Soviet Moscow.” In Transcultural Music History: Global Participation and Regional Diversity. Section 4. Media and Transcultural Music History, Chapter 18, 341-353, edited by Reinhard Strohm and Susannah Salle. Berlin: Verlag für Wissenschaft und Bildung.
Imamutdinova, Zilia. 2017. “The Qur’ānic Recitation Traditions of the Tatars and Bashkirs in Russia: Evolution of Style.” Performing Islam 6 (2): 97-121. UK: Intellect. University of Leeds.
Nedlina Valeria. 2016. Kazakh Traditional Music in the System of Culture: the Reinterpretation of Heritage between 20th ‒21st centuries [Казахская традиционная музыка в системе культуры: реинтерпретация наследия на рубеже XX-XXI веков]. Almaty, Kazakhstan.


To our knowledge, our panel was the first international scholarly attempt to examine significant aspects of musical dynamics in post-Soviet Russia and Central Asia. Participation in this ICTM Dialogues session was an opportunity to share our scholarly observations on the current cultural processes in the former USSR. It was useful for us to look at post-Soviet Russia and Central Asian countries in relation to global processes, revising the traditions of the Turkic-speaking peoples and restoring their cultural processes.


Questions to Consider

What positive features of the Soviet period can we observe during the post-Soviet period? What positive Soviet trends could be re-introduced after three decades of independence and ideological freedom?

Which performances and musical research in the post-Soviet space reflect social diversity and power hierarchies? What progress has been made to further social justice in post-Soviet regions, especially Russia and Central Asian countries? To what extent has Indigenous knowledge on music been legitimized and differentiated from the dominant colonial power of the former USSR? What is the current state of Islamic musical culture studies, especially of post-soviet Central Asia Muslims?

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