Music & Entertainment in Kazakhstan


A review of Music and Entertainment in Post-Soviet Kazakhstan: Ideology and Legacy, by Margarethe Adams.

Margarethe Adams’ dissertation investigates the postsocialist articulation of political ideologies in post-Soviet Kazakhstan through a study of public holidays and popular expressive culture. After the collapse of the USSR, each of the former fifteen national republics has grappled with the multiethnic character of their populations, the previously Russian-dominated public culture, and the nationalist impetus to rehabilitate the titular nationality. In Kazakhstan, the state has accommodated different ethnic and religious groups and promoted interethnic “harmony” and interfaith “peace,” while also instituting the Kazakh diaspora returnee program to raise the size of Kazakh population in the country and enforcing the mandatory use of Kazakh language in the official sphere. Adams investigates these processes by differentiating between several ideologies — socialist internationalism, globalism, nationalism, Eurasianism, and Islam — and exploring their mutual co-articulations.

Chapter 1 serves as the introduction to the dissertation and outlines Adams’ methodology of attending to large-scale ideologies and local social relations as mutually constitutive. Drawing on two years of ethnographic field research with various ethnonational communities in Almaty, Kazakhstan and with Kazakh diaspora in Mongolia and China, Adams situates her work within the scholarship on postsocialism and ethnomusicology as well as studies of transnationalism and globalization. Following Caroline Humphrey and Svetlana Boym, Adams focuses on the everyday life and the uses of nostalgia in political projects. In ethnomusicology, Adams is on the cutting edge of expanding the traditional field boundaries to include approaches from media and communication studies. Theoretically, Adams sees nationalism and globalism as historically overlapping, similar in their workings and coterminous. Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s concept of friction is central to the author’s discussion of the articulation between transnational processes and local settings.

Chapter 2 offers a broad overview of Kazakhstan’s history and a summary of the musical culture. The historical account begins with a geographical description of Kazakhstan’s location and proceeds to the formation of the first Kazakh state in the sixteenth century, the Russian Imperial colonization, the Soviet takeover, collectivization, sedentarization, and mass deportations in the 1930-1940s. The account of the music culture outlines musical figures present in Kazakh culture, musical instruments, and their relationship to nomadic life style. After an account of contemporary musical institutions in Almaty and their development, Adams shares her personal experiences of learning how to play the Kazakh instrument of kobyz.

Chapter 3 is an in-depth study of the celebration of the Independence Day and an analysis of political ideologies at play. Adams investigates performances by a series of singers, the content of songs, television broadcasts of the event as well as viewers’ reactions. She notes that the older performers exhibited signs of Soviet-era quality such as active body language of clapping, upright unmoving posture, and the static emotional range of nostalgia and sentimentality. In contrast, younger performers, returnee Kazakhs, and television broadcast of movies and music videos reflected a more Kazakh-centric view of independence. The performance by an ethnic Russian singer and her song about Russia and Kazakhstan exemplifies the ideology of Eurasianism, an ideology positing Kazakhstan as an intermediary between Europe and Asia. Adams concludes that although the Soviet holiday blueprints are still active for celebrating today’s multiethnic culture, Eurasianism and ethnonationalism are also prominent in the celebration of Independence Day.

Chapter 4 discusses a sequence of winter holidays to exemplify how calendars, an essential tool of nation-building, order and punctuate the everyday life. Adams organizes her discussion around Eviatar Zerubavel’s framework of “rhythmicity.” Despite the profound reconfiguration of time and geography since 1990, the Soviet-era ordering of space and holidays, Adams discovers, resurfaces in the everyday lives and habits of people. Through an in-depth analysis of television watching practices and content analysis of broadcasted Soviet movies, Adams links the notion of time and the celebration of holidays with particular type of national subjectivities.

Chapter 5 is an in-depth investigation of the imagery around Nauryz, the spring solstice and Zoroastrian New Year, to reveal the “friction” between Kazakh-centered nation-building and alternative portrayals emphasizing globalist orientations and cosmopolitan sensibilities of professional and amateur performers. Adams studies documentaries and television skits to reveal the propensity to claim these ancient and ostensibly pre-Islamic and pre-nation-state symbols as Kazakh and producing the ethnos as a timeless group. Yet, Adams also reveals the micro ways in which the agelessness of Nauryz and of the Kazakh nation is complicated by individual performers who integrate Russian or Western elements into their presentations.

Chapter 6 illuminates the transnationalism fostered by large-scale foreign institutions such as Israeli, American, and Korean religious networks and compares them to cross-border networks of Kazakh and Uighur diaspora based on kinship and family. Through her study of institutionalized celebration of Easter and Passover, Adams contrasts the personalized nature of Korean American Church in Almaty with the distanced nature and conservatism of Israel sponsored synagogue. In her discussion of transnational connections between Kazakh and Uighur communities in China, and Mongolia and Kazakhstan, Adams illuminates how awareness of the existence of co-ethnic community across the border fosters national identification outside the state’s nation-building project.

Chapter 7 studies the sixtieth anniversary of WWII Victory Day to investigate how the Soviet legacies and memories reverberate in contemporary Kazakhstan. Drawing on a combination of personal accounts/memories and televised skits, Adams reveals the persistence of Soviet modes of narrativization whereby WWII veterans play a central role in transmitting first-hand knowledge. The memorialization of the WWII as a shared experience between Russia and Kazakhstan extends into and reinforces the political framework of Eurasianism.

Chapter 8 addresses the processes of “nationalization” of Islam in Kazakhstan where the government downplays its political aspects and appropriates for the nation-building project cultural elements such as architectural monuments and prominent historical figures. Drawing on speeches by President Nazarbayev at the Council of World and Traditional Religions, Adams highlights the political use of Islam to promote Kazakhstan’s role as an intermediary between the Muslim world and the West. Her argument is that this rhetoric of interfaith harmony resembles the Soviet-era “friendship of the peoples” ideology, and provides the basis for regional leadership in the same way that Eurasianism does.

The innovativeness of Adams’ study is her attention to co-articulation of national and transnational ideologies. In contrast to most studies that investigate only one or two specific political frameworks, Adams offers an account that traces simultaneous interaction of six different ideological discourses. This work contributes to growing scholarship on cultural production, religion, and nation-state in Central Asia (for instance: Laura Adams, The Spectacular State: Culture and National Identity in Uzbekistan, Duke 2010; Eva-Marie Dubuisson, The Value of a Voice: Culture and Critique in Kazakh Aitys Poetry, PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2009; Adrienne Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Princeton 2004; Jeff Sahadeo and Russell Zanca, eds. Everyday Life in Central Asia, Indiana, 2007).

Zhanara Nauruzbayeva
Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies
Columbia University

Primary Sources

State-orchestrated public holidays and concerts in Kazakhstan
Speeches of the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev
Tang and Kazakhstan television broadcasts
Kazakh and Russian song lyrics

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2011. 249 pp. Primary Advisor: Donna Buchanan.


Image: Photograph taken by Margarethe Adams at Almaty, Kazakhstan on Victory Day, May 9 2009.

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