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  • Writer's pictureBasak Gizem Yasadur

Music Against Imperial Russianness - An Interview

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

By chance, I discovered a Siberian indigenous music group called Otyken.

I was super interested in their music after listening to a couple of their songs. They include throat singing in their music and also utilize instruments such as vargan (jaw harp), khomys, morinhur, leather drums. But then, the more I listened, I started to wonder why such an ethnic representing band has some songs in Russian.

This question led me to reach out to Ms. Gulnaz Sibgatullina, and her opinion paper called: Changing The Tune: Can Russia’s Ethnic Minority Musicians Challenge Imperialist Connotations of Russianess?

Ms. Sibgatullina was super kind, grounded, and helpful. Despite having a very busy schedule, she agreed to interview me about her opinion paper and I appreciated it so much. I genuinely admired her unique approach to this topic and I consider myself very lucky to be able to get in touch with her.

· Can you tell us about yourself and your academic path?

I was born in Tatarstan, a republic in Russia. The experience of up in the 1990s, immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, meant that everyone around me was very much aware of their ethnic and national identity. Back in the 1990s, Tatarstan had special privileges, and we could study in both Russian and Tatar, so I was lucky to be raised bilingual.

My family soon moved to Moscow, in part in order to give a better education to my brother and me. There I could further pursue my interest in learning languages and went to the Moscow State Linguistic University to study International Relations. This university was well-known in Soviet times, and some of the practices were still strong even in the 2000s.

The language education was very professional, but you could not choose: on the first day at campus, students would find their names in the pre-assigned lists. You could end up learning Arabic, Kazakh, French, or Chinese for the coming five years, and there was no chance to change the course.

My assigned languages were German and English: an unexpected but fortunate set. I was lucky to spend a semester studying abroad in Germany at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz. My parents have been engaged in research, so from an early age, I had the desire to pursue a PhD degree. Thanks to my mentors at the universities of Leiden and Amsterdam, I got the chance to do PhD research in the Netherlands. Leiden, a small and quiet city in the Netherlands, was at first in sharp contrast to the Moscow megapolis. But I look back on my time spent there from 2014 until 2019 with warm memories and miss its fairy-tale-like city center.

My PhD project focused on the relationship between the state and religious institutions in post-Soviet Russia. In my book, published in 2020, I discuss how particularly Islamic authorities grew closer to the Russian Orthodox Church in their language, ideas and modus operandi.

This can be explained in part by the fact that under President Putin, the Russian state has forged close relations with religious institutions to gain popular support and legitimisation. Emulating the Church meant safety from repercussions, access to funds and political support from the state.

Currently, I am working as an assistant professor for illiberal regimes at the University of Amsterdam. It is a fascinating stage in my career, as there are many possibilities to work with students while also doing research. I recently received a research grant from the European Commission to spend time in Washington, DC, working with colleagues at George Washington University—a collaboration that I have been enjoying a lot.

· I loved reading your opinion paper. I felt like it was such a unique way to see the strong bond between fine arts and identity. What was your main inspiration to make this opinion paper? How would you describe the link between music, identity and International Relations?

I believe art is always political.

Especially the work that has been produced in Russia over the last two decades has a clear political agenda. Think of Pussy Riot and street-art group Voina, among many others. One of the areas for political expression has been music: for some reason, lyrics and video clips have been long ignored by the Russian authorities, which allowed impressive forms of self-expression up until recently. Rap and punk music have channelled the frustrations of the young generation dissatisfied with the current government; many alternative artists have been experimenting with visuals to invent new symbols and language for talking about the transformations in Russian society. In my piece, I wanted to bring attention, in particular, to artists from ethnic minorities who also actively participate in cultural resistance, challenging the boundaries of ethnic minority identity and the relationship between majority-minority groups in the country.

Myself Tatar, who grew up in Moscow and now lives abroad, I struggle to fit into national stereotypes. Therefore, the art of AIGEL music band, to which I refer in my piece, has been particularly attractive to me.

Aigel is a talented poet and singer who skillfully combines Tatar ethnic motives with contemporary electronic music, taking the minority language out of limited spaces designed and accessible only to native speakers.

Indeed, the Otyken band that you’re referring to is another example of making the “ethnic” something valuable, worth cherishing and being proud of. In Russia, where minority rights are under pressure and there is a strong incentive to Russify, reviving and respecting minority traditions is an act of courage.

The piece was written in the first month of the war in Ukraine. I wanted to show that there are many Russians who care about the deeds of their government and try to resist it. Because direct protest forms have been coupled with serious risks, the anti-war position has been expressed in other ways – music and art being one of the tools to show support for Ukraine and build solidarity in Russia.

· Generation Y in Russia witnessed a major regime change. How can you describe this generation? Do you think this is a generation that dreams of a great Imperial Russia or a generation that is brave enough to defend the rights of minorities like Manizha on the Eurovision platform?

I am wary when we speak in generalisations, such as “generation Y” or “generation Z”. In countries like Russia, many other factors – such as place of birth or economic status – may engender strong differences even across same-age cohorts; not to mention unique characteristics specific for individuals. At the same time, it is true that people born in the 1980s or in the 1990s have witnessed the tectonic transformations that Russia underwent with the fall of the Soviet Union. And this shared experience differentiates people of this generation from the one preceding or the one following them.

One of the features of this generation, in my opinion, is that in Russia they have been deprived of social and political participation. The older Soviet generation still has a strong grip on power, and the ruling elites have not changed much in the last thirty years.

The younger generation, Gen-Y, had little opportunity for growth, development, and career advancement. They are now in their 30s and 40s, without any prospect of quick changes in how the system works, which cannot help but breed frustration and apathy.

Moreover, this generation had to bridge between the Soviet norms inherited from their parents, on the one hand, and the new realities of living in a globalized world with an aggressive market economy, on the other. The parents’ wisdom does not only work anymore, it is often counterproductive. The rule to keep savings at home in a piano will not protect from high inflation; the advice to act like everyone else will deprive of chances in the increasingly competitive market. One would argue that the generational struggle is not something unique to Russia; yet, the position in which Gen-Y found itself in this country has been aggrandised by the debacle of the Communist ideology and thorny transition to democracy.

· These days, I listen with great admiration to Оtyken, a local music band from Siberia with Hakas origins. On website of Otyken, it is written that they were banned from Instagram and Facebook channels in Russia. Do you think it is a reflection of the ‘Russianness’ discourse? Can we consider this discourse as the Russian version of Cancelling Culture?

Russian authorities curtailed access to Facebook and Instagram in March after their parent company Meta was declared an “extremist organisationby a court in Moscow. The decision was part of a broader crackdown on the freedom of speech following the invasion of Ukraine in February. The ban was a blow to those who have been using these platforms to generate income. However, the majority of Russian users have installed VPNs allowing them to circumvent the ban.

Those in Russia, who have been following Otyken, have the opportunity to continue doing so; for others, who had no interest in or did not know the band, the decision of the Russian authorities has not changed much. Thus, I would not regard this as a direct attack on Otyken. The band, however, draws on social media to gain visibility and attract followers in the period when these platforms evolve into virtual battlefields. Especially in the context of the ongoing war, Russian-language social media can quickly become very toxic (in that sense, not very different from English-language pages, though).

For experimental bands, such as Otyken, that intentionally cross boundaries and bend traditional frameworks, reactions on social media can be very harsh. They must have experienced both a lot of hatred and a lot of love simply because they have become visible.

Being a minority representation means also addressing multiple audiences, which obviously multiplies the risks. Not only some Russian bigots may come to trash your online page, but also members of your own ethnic group can accuse you of disrespect, if not treason.

The war has placed Russian ethnic minorities again into the spotlight – for better or worse. Outside observers noted that disproportionately many ethnic non-Russians fight and die on the side of the Russian army; in September, following the mobilisation, several ethnic regions in the country protested the recruitment. It is unclear how Russia will transform in the coming years. Making audiences—both in Russia and abroad—aware of minorities’ existence, of their struggles and grievances seems like the right step towards more inclusive societies.

Check Out Ms. Gulnaz Sibgatullina's Opinion Piece Here:

Check Out Ms. Gulnaz Sibgatullina's Book, Languages of Islam and Christianity in Post-Soviet Russia Here:

Check Out Pussy Riot Here:

Check Out Voina Here:

Check Out Aigel Band Here:

Check Out Otyken Band Here:

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Feb 25, 2023

An interesting article. Thank you for this unusual study of music.

However, the best selection of songs is on Spotify. There's also a great opportunity to promote your own songs with spotify promotion

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