Official Culture and Tactical Discourse in Soviet Central Asia

Claire Roosien

Rereading Kiril Tomoff, “Uzbek Music’s Separate Path: Interpreting ‘Anticosmopolitanism’ in Stalinist Central Asia, 1949-52,” The Russian Review 63, 2 (April 2004): 212-240.















Musicians and audience members depicted in the Uzbek-language periodical Mustum, 1936


What do we talk about when we talk about Soviet culture? In the past twenty years, the category has expanded to include far more than the European sphere it once connoted. Since the time Kirill Tomoff published his article in 2004, the institution formerly known as the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) has become the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES). Central Asia and the Caucasus, not to mention Siberia and the Far East, are now well represented in conference programs and journal publications. One by one, some departments formerly known as “Slavic” are renaming themselves to include the more inclusive, albeit nebulous category of “Eurasia.”[1] Yet scholarship on non-European portions of the Soviet Union still tends to appear with qualifications about “Soviet Muslims,” the “Soviet East,” the “Soviet Caucasus” and “Soviet Central Asia.” Much like it was in the Soviet Union itself, Central Asia too often remains a marked category, a deviation from the European norm. What would it mean to talk about Central Asian culture as part of Soviet culture, and Soviet culture as inclusive of Central Asia?

Tomoff’s article examines the reception of a cultural campaign that took place over the course of just three years — a campaign emanating from Moscow, using the language of “anticosmopolitanism,” which began with Stalin himself. Yet Tomoff argues that in Central Asia, the campaign provided a vocabulary for ideas with local resonance, staking out positions that could not have been predicted by those in the center. In so doing, Tomoff shows Central Asians not as aberrations from a Soviet European norm, but as participants in a shared conversation. In my response to the article, I identify two important consequences of this approach for today’s scholars. First, Tomoff shows how scholars can investigate the ways that local elites made tactical use of official discourse, rather than passively receiving it as a top-down imposition. Second, Tomoff’s approach emphasizes the importance of paying attention to culture in a field of study on Central Asia that has, in recent years, turned increasingly toward economic and socio-political approaches.


The Tactics of Official Discourse

The period Tomoff examines — the four-year period between 1949 and 1953 — is a peculiar one in Soviet history, particularly for Central Asia. The wartime construction of a Soviet Islamic religious establishment created a limited sense of opening for local cultural actors, even as the Terror continued to cast a long and silent shadow.[2] The immediate postwar moment was also arguably the first time that Central Asians could take the category of nation for granted after the years of national cultural construction and the attacks on “bourgeois nationalism” in the 1930s. In this moment, Tomoff shows, Uzbek elites mobilized the now legitimized category of the nation in tandem with “anticosmopolitanism” to articulate an anti-Europeanizing position. Tomoff examines two groups of elites: the “old guard” composers, who had written Europeanized homophonic and polyphonic works in an Orientalist vein inflected bynineteenth-century Russian composers; and a younger, more numerous cohort of composers, who advocated a return to musical monophony, particularly the courtly classical music tradition, the shash makam.[3] Focusing on a four-year period and a technical debate about musical form, the article may seem an odd selection for this retrospective on The Russian Review’s contributions to the study of Soviet culture. However, in analyzing the conflicting ways that composers mobilized official discourses to debate a long-maligned musical form, the article has much to offer to scholars of Central Asian and Soviet culture. Tomoff’s case study is a lesson in the tactical use of official discourse, including the discourses of anticosmopolitanism, the nation, and the Soviet category of the “East.”

To understand the value of Tomoff’s approach, it is necessary to place the article in a broader historiographical context. When Tomoff published his article, Soviet “nationalities studies” was booming. Terry Martin’s The Affirmative Action Empire had appeared two years before, and Francine Hirsch’s Empire of Nations was on its way.[4] When Hirsch described an “empire of nations” and Martin an “affirmative action empire,” they showed the extent to which the nation was a creation and an administrative tool of the Soviet state. Their work triggered an avalanche of innovative studies on the process of nation-making on the ground, a deluge that continues to this day.[5] Although nations were imagined by Soviet ethnographers, as Hirsch showed, and enshrined in Soviet administration, as Martin revealed, the newer studies have demonstrated that local elites were as instrumental in the construction of Soviet nations as intellectuals and bureaucrats from Moscow.


In their constructivist approaches to the nation and their critique of the “prison-house of nations” narrative, these studies represented a fresh approach. They responded to a body of Cold-War and early post-Soviet era scholarship that tended to counterpose the “Soviet” to an essential “nationality.”[6] For the Sovietologists and their successors, authentic Central Asianness was not just not Soviet, it was anti-Soviet. Consequently, many of them subscribed to a primordial idea of the nation: the nation predated the Soviet Union, and the nation could be its undoing.

To generalize broadly, the scholarship published around 2004 represented the nation in two ways: as inherently oppositional; or, conversely, as a category created or at least co-opted by the state. Tomoff’s analysis suggests a different, more nuanced reading of the situation: in taking advantage of Soviet ethnophilism and the roaring campaign against cosmopolitanism, Uzbek musicians neither marched in lockstep with Moscow nor launched a revolt against it. Instead, they mobilized around a local agenda that was compatible with “Sovietness.” This strategy enabled a group of Uzbek elites to defend an old cultural form against a new, European one. In so doing, they called into question the Europeanizing assumptions of their non-indigenous observers.

Importantly, the nation was only one of several categories that Uzbek composers used to defend their stance in the debate about the shash makam. According to the brigade that censured them, some defenders of the shash makam spoke of it not as a “national” form, but as the cultural heritage of the “East” more generally. Indeed, the expansive “East” was perhaps the more accurate category in which to locate the origins of the shash makam, which belonged to a Persianate courtly repertoire equally characteristic of Tajik and Turkmen cultures as it was of Uzbek ones. Until 1949, the shash makam was not exclusively associated with the Uzbek nation.[7]

For Tomoff’s composers, the category of the nation, like the auto-orientalizing “East,” became a way of articulating Sovietness beyond the limits of European domination. Today, there is still much to be learned about how the nation was used as a tactical discourse, rather than a static and essentializing identity. The question for researchers becomes not merely “What is the nation?” or “what does it mean to be Uzbek (or Tajik, Turkmen, Azeri)” but “What does the nation do?” In treating the nation as a starting point rather than a destination, researchers can avoid essentialist nationalisms while also acknowledging the role the category of the nation played in shaping gender relations and social hierarchies, challenging and justifying extractive environmental policies, responding to cultural imperialism, and ultimately, articulating a vision of non-domination.

It makes sense to talk about national identity and its creation in the Soviet period. But today, to stop with “national identity” is to end the conversation when it is only beginning. As Samuel Hodgkin has put it: “To read Soviet multinational literature as a mode of thinking about national identity is to knock on an open door.”[8] Here, to literature, we might also add the other manifestations of “national form”: music, architecture, costume, handicrafts, performance culture, and so forth. What scholars can now consider, building on the foundation laid by nationalities studies, is how the “national,” like other official categories, became a tactical discourse. Through examining national republics in this way, researchers can contribute not just to our understanding of Soviet cultural identities, but also to questions that have preoccupied historians beyond the parameters of nationalities studies. 

Does Culture Matter?

In attending to Central Asians’ tactical use of official discourse, Tomoff’s piece also suggests a reason to pay attention to the ongoing importance of culture — not solely as a space for performing identity on behalf of the multinational system of representation that legitimized Soviet hegemony, but as a venue in which local elites debated future imaginaries for their communities within and beyond the Soviet context.

While “nationalities studies” began with studies of cultural production — often the easiest research to conduct when Sovietologists lacked archival access — in recent years, the field has moved away from the study of culture. Botakoz Kassymbekova has argued that early Soviet rule functioned “despite cultures” in its administrative practices. In this sense, Central Asia was not much different from other parts of the Soviet Union, functioning through personalized networks and ad hoc practices. As Kassymbekova has shown, early Soviet administrative practice operated through tactics of violence and co-optation regardless of the national identity of administrators and their subjects.[9] This form of personalized governance had little to do with the rhetoric of “national in form, socialist in content.” Similarly, recent work in economic history shows the breathtaking lack of attention to on-the-ground realities in economic and environmental policy.[10] Economic policy was dictated from above. Although administrative practices became more institutionalized, less ad hoc, and less openly violent over time, the same is arguably true for the late Soviet period.

However, as Kassymbekova acknowledges, these tendencies should not be taken as a sign that culture did not matter. Although early Soviet administration functioned “despite cultures,” it also built an infrastructure to support the arts, one which apotheosized culture as a space for national self-representation. The first function of this system of national representation was to legitimize Soviet empire: in an age of decolonization, it justified the continued existence of a multinational polity governed from the former imperial metropole.[11] In this sense, Soviet multinational culture can be interpreted as propaganda, a smokescreen obscuring the cruel realities of economic and political domination.


Yet cultural production, however burdened with the work of political legitimation, was one domain that could not be outsourced to non-Central Asians. Uzbek novels had to be written by actual Uzbeks; Roma performers had to perform their own nationality; Kazakhs had to compose their own national epics (or someone had to fake it on their behalf).[12]In this context, the arts — music, literature, visual and performing arts — as well as certain academic fields (e.g. history) become a space in which a degree of local initiative was necessary in order to perform its legitimizing function. In the context of cultural production, the system of multinational cultural representation thus worked in two ways. On the one hand, it justified Soviet empire; on the other, it created a space in which Central Asians could interpret official discourses in a way that suited them, despite the strict parameters within which they worked.[13] In the Socialist Realist novel, Central Asians reimagined “reality in its revolutionary development.” In music, Tomoff shows, some composers likewise took opportunities to assert a “separate path.”


The arts and culture thus became a medium through which local elites envisioned the cultural and socio-political order they wished to inhabit. In fact, because the Soviet Union was so invested in portraying itself as a non-colonial, egalitarian polity in contrast to its Cold War foe, representing polities of non-domination became the order of the day. These politics of representation, however, were never stable. The same representation of non-domination that served Soviet interests abroad could also serve as a cudgel in the domestic sphere.


It is not my intention to promote a “paranoid” reading of Soviet-era artistic production, seeking evidence of anti-Soviet dissent or conspiracy. While some works might lend themselves to such a reading, many Central Asian cultural producers situated themselves as critics within the system, rather than conspirators seeking to overthrow it. While some writers, composers, poets, and performers emphasized Russian tutelage, others tried represent an egalitarian revolutionary order. In so doing, they implicitly critiqued the aspects of their lived reality that did not accord with that representation. Tomoff’s article looks at the cultural field both as an arena for creative self-expression as well as a space for political negotiation. It was one of the few domains in which Central Asians could assert a vision of non-domination, especially as the internal “East” became a propaganda set for the East abroad.[14]


Conclusion: New Directions in the Study of Soviet Central Asia

At the time Tomoff wrote “Uzbek Music’s Separate Path,” the majority of Anglophone scholarship on Central Asia relied on Russian-language archival material, and Tomoff’s article is no exception.[15] Tomoff’s interpretation of the “anticosmopolitanism” debate is mediated through the writings of the brigades that visited to inspect the Uzbekistan Composers’ Union, along with the Russian-language letters written by Uzbek officials to their Russian superiors. While Tomoff’s article makes an exemplary reading of Russian-language sources, it raises more questions than it can answer, especially about what was being said in Uzbek rather than merely in Russian. In Central Asia, there was a decades-long precedent for parlaying ideological diversity into formal “camps” and imaginary conspiracies.[16] To what extent were the “separate path” and the two camps a paranoid interpretation of the inspection brigade? How was the conflict over the Uzbek “separate path” represented in the Uzbek-language press? Today, a growing number of scholars are working in both Russian and the national languages of the Soviet Union, including an outstanding cohort of scholars from Central Asia. As this body of scholarship grows, it will become possible for Anglophone readers to see Central Asia not only through the eyes of Russian-speaking outsiders, but also through the conflicted, contested words of Central Asians themselves.  

Claire Roosien is an assistant professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Yale University.

[1] Ani Kokobobo, “What’s in a Name? Are We Slavic, East European, Eurasian, or All of the Above?” ASEEES NewsNet, August 2020 (

[2] Eren Tasar, Soviet and Muslim: The Institutionalization of Islam in Central Asia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017); Jeff Eden, God Save the USSR: Soviet Muslims and the Second World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

[3] I follow Tomoff in using this transliteration.

[4] Francine Hirsch, Empire of Nations: Ethnographic Knowledge & the Making of the Soviet Union, Culture and Society after Socialism (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005); Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire: Nations and Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939, The Wilder House Series in Politics, History, and Culture (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001).

[5] Among the earliest was Adrienne Lynn Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2004); more recently have followed Ali F. Igmen, Speaking Soviet with an Accent: Culture and Power in Kyrgyzstan, Central Eurasia in Context (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012); Brigid O’Keeffe, New Soviet Gypsies: Nationality, Performance, and Selfhood in the Early Soviet Union (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013); Adeeb Khalid, Making Uzbekistan: Nation, Empire, and Revolution in the Early USSR (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015); Abashin, Sergei Nikolaevich, Natsionalizmy v Srednei Azii : v Poiskakh Identichnosti. Sankt-Peterburg: Aleteiia, 2007; Victoria Clement, Learning to Become Turkmen: Literacy, Language, and Power, 1914-2014 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018); Diana T. Kudaibergenova, Rewriting the Nation in Modern Kazakh Literature: Elites and Narratives, Contemporary Central Asia: Societies, Politics, and Cultures (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017).

[6] Edward Allworth, The Modern Uzbeks: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present: A Cultural History (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1990); Audrey L. Altstadt, The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule, Studies of Nationalities (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 1992).

[7] In Tomoff’s 1949 case, the “East” was condemned as a counterrevolutionary construct. However, as Masha Kirasirova has shown, it had a longstanding official status in the Soviet Union and would soon be celebrated as a discourse of solidarity with the foreign “East” during the Cold War. See Masha Kirasirova, “The ‘East’ as a Category of Bolshevik Ideology and Comintern Administration: The Arab Section of the Communist University of the Toilers of the East,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 18, 1 (2017): 7–34.

[8] Samuel Hodgkin, The Nightingales’ Congress: Literary Representatives in the Communist East, unpublished book manuscript.

[9] Botakoz Kassymbekova, Despite Cultures: Early Soviet Rule in Tajikistan (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016), 17-18.

[10] Julia Obertreis, Imperial Desert Dreams: Cotton Growing and Irrigation in Central Asia 1860-1991 (Göttingen: V&R Unipress, 2017).

[11] On this topic, see Hodgkin, The Nightingales’ Congress.

[12] On Kazakh oral poet Jambyl, perhaps the most egregious example of official falsification of “national” culture, see Konstantin Bogdanov, ed., Dzhambul Dzhambaev: Prikliucheniia Kazakhskogo Akyna v Sovetskoi Strane (Moskva: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2013); on Roma performance, see O’Keeffe, New Soviet Gypsies.

[13] Kassymbekova emphasizes that early Soviet administrators in Central Asia used official discourses without “understanding” them; in later generations, arguably, we might replace “misunderstanding” with “reinterpretation.”

[14] Kirasirova, “The ‘East’.”

[15] Perhaps the most notable exception from the early 2000s is Marianne Kamp, The New Woman in Uzbekistan: Islam, Modernity, and Unveiling under Communism (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006).

[16] See, for example, the so-called “Botir Gapchilar” in Uzbekistan. Khalid, Making Uzbekistan, 374.