‘Two things can be true at once:’ Leora Eisenberg on the importance of exploring Central Asian dance and music

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Leora Eisenberg entered Harvard University’s Ph.D. program in fall 2021 and is studying Central Asian Soviet history. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude from Princeton University with a B.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures. She is the recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship (Tajikistan) and a Princeton-affiliated Labouisse Prize to conduct research in northern Kazakhstan. Leora currently studies ethnic cultural production in Soviet Central Asia.

This interview was conducted in December 2023 over Zoom. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Portrait, Leora Eisenberg

Megan: In summer 2023, I spent eight weeks living with a family in Dushanbe, Tajikistan while studying Persian on a Critical Language Scholarship. While I was there, one of the family’s former host daughters came to visit. Leora Eisenberg had done the CLS program in 2017 and was studying Central Asian culture and history at Harvard. We spent one very long, hot afternoon walking through Dushanbe, stopping periodically for juice and air conditioning, while I pestered Leora about her research. Being a retired dancer, I was and continue to be especially interested in her research on dance in the Central Asian republics.

How did you become interested in music and dance in Soviet Central Asia?

Eisenberg: I rejected any study of music or dance for a very long time, probably because my whole family are professional musicians. My mom is a musician. Her twin sister is a musician. My brother is practically a professional violinist at this point. Music was a big part of my upbringing—I sang for many years, I played piano, I played flute, I sang in choir in college. But I didn’t want to study any of this. I think it was a typical situation of someone rejecting the world they come from. 

In my first year of college, I spent the summer in Tajikistan in 2017, when I received a Critical Language Scholarship to study Persian. There were different extracurricular cultural lessons available—music and calligraphy, that kind of thing—and I took dance classes. I thought that Tajik dance was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. I’m a pretty bad dancer, and I still am, but those classes were amazing. I continue to take dance classes in various areas of my life. I dance tango pretty seriously now. Themes of music and dance kept coming up in my own life and work, but I kept ignoring them. 

I worked on language policy in my academic life for a long time, but I don’t think it reflected my sensibilities or interests as a scholar or a person very much. (Although I have always loved learning languages.) And then finally, about a year ago, when writing a paper for a course, I realized that I, as a historian, can study music and dance to discover important things about societies – while also enjoying the fact that Tajik or Uzbek or Kazakh dance is just very beautiful.

Megan: Can you talk to me a little about the focus of your current research?

Eisenberg: I’m really interested in the development of national—and by “national” I mean ethnic, in the Soviet sense of the term—Uzbek and Kazakh music and dance over the Soviet period. For most of Central Asia, that’s between incorporation into the Soviet Union in the 1920s to the collapse of the Soviet state in 1991. Contrary to popular knowledge, the Soviet Union was not exclusively a Russifying state. The state was invested, especially in the ‘20s and ‘30s, in developing different ethnic groups’ cultures, languages, and territories. It explicitly fostered the development of various facets of ethnic identity.

Megan: Towards what end?

Eisenberg: The Soviet Union was trying to position itself as an anti-imperial state. Remember, this is right after World War I. This is the age of self-determination. A lot of ethnic groups are forming their own states. The Soviet Union understood that to get these ethnic groups to buy into the idea of the Soviet Union, it needed to give them some “acceptable forms of self-determination,” as my advisor, Terry Martin, would say. This means sponsoring the development of—not creating wholesale, necessarily—culture. The Soviet Union canonized and standardized literature, poetry, music, dance, and theater for many of its constituent ethnic groups. This isn’t to say that the state wasn’t Russifying, because it was: the Russian language was necessary for social mobility, and the Russian culture was lionized. But two things can be true at once. 

Megan: Over the summer, we talked about how different genres of performance are associated with different Central Asian republics. Can you speak more about this?

Eisenberg: This is such a great topic. Central Asia has five different republics [Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan]. We tend to think about Central Asia as a unit, but in reality, the five republics are all very different. Felt is made in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where people were more nomadic, and where they raised livestock. Uzbeks and Tajiks under the emirates of Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand were sedentary, and made silk. So you can see these differences even down to the fabrics. 

These differences are also seen in performance culture. In Bukhara, Khiva, and Kokand, there was an established court culture of performance and an extant cadre of professional musicians and dancers. This isn’t to say that dance wasn’t important for Kazakhs. I’m not saying that. But, in addition to there not being a court culture, the Kazakh famine of 1931-1934 killed 40% of the Kazakh population and sent approximately another 10% over the border to Xinjiang, in China. This was a tremendous loss of human life, which obviously irreparably damaged the development of culture. We have no way of measuring how many musicians and dancers perished in the famine. This led to real limitations on the development of Kazakh dance for the future. It never really developed a dance infrastructure of the kind that Uzbekistan had until the post-Soviet period.

Kazakhstan certainly refers to itself as “the land of song,” as we see in Soviet-era tourist materials. I’ve heard locals in Uzbekistan call their home the “republic of dance.” But it’s hard to tell whether these were names they gave themselves or whether they were given by someone else.

Megan: For the republics that did have an existing framework of cultural production, what was the process by which the Soviets leveraged it?

1939 performance at the opening of the Fergana Canal in Uzbekistan

Eisenberg: Well, they all had some kind of existing framework. There were people singing and dancing in all of these republics. It’s just about how formalized it was. In the 1920s and 1930s, we see an explosion of ethnographic research in these areas, largely but not exclusively taken on by European representatives of the state. These researchers were really invested in gathering dances, songs, folk tales, and other indigenous traditions of cultural production. These were later edited, let’s say, into more “acceptable” forms. This often just means Europeanization, but we can also look at it as making something legible to a
broader audience. 

We certainly see the sponsorship and construction of cultural institutions in the European form—theaters and symphonies, for example. But we also see the sponsorship and creation of institutions of cultural education: dance schools and conservatories. These hire Europeans to train the first generation of indigenous performers—musicians, dancers, choreographers—who then help to train further generations of cultural producers. This isn’t just exclusively the realm of Uzbeks or Kazakhs. As I hope my dissertation will show, it’s always a multi-ethnic endeavor.

Megan: What happened following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991? Did Soviet-era cultural projects and producers lose their standing once the Central Asian republics became independent?

Eisenberg: Interestingly, Soviet-era cultural projects became exceedingly important after the fall of the Soviet Union. The newly independent Central Asian republics relied heavily on them in the formation of their new state identities. People don’t expect me to say that, because the expectation is that the Soviet Union just Russified, wherever it went. But, as I pointed out before, the Soviet Union was invested in the distinct cultural development of different Central Asian ethnicities as part of its anti-imperialist positioning.

Megan: What specific songs or trends circulating within the region now—pop culture trends, maybe— are tied to this Soviet and pre-Soviet history?

Eisenberg: The unspoken thing is that Russian music is very prominent in all of the Central Asian republics, in Tajikistan especially. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are also extremely economically dependent on Russia; Kazakhstan less so, but it’s politically dependent on Russia, certainly. So all these places are listening to Russian music, though less and less so after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

Something quite popular in all these places is “wedding music.” I don’t mean stuff you’d walk your daughter down the aisle to, but wedding dance music. This broadly falls into this category of something called “estrada,” which is a very broad term, meaning something along the lines of  “performance music.” It’s not necessarily the same thing as pop music, but it often is.

Megan: Speaking of pop music, we spent all summer in Dushanbe listening to “Chiki Chiki Bom Bom

Eisenberg: I don’t know this one.

Megan: It’s a bop. I’ll find it for you.

(After a “Chiki Chiki Bom Bom” interlude) Eisenberg: I love it. (Even though I don’t think it would be classified as “estrada,” a topic for another day.) I hope to make a career out of providing the historical value of popular music. We’re also seeing a kind of emergence in Kazakhstan of some pretty high-quality ethno-hip-hop. There’s a song called “Saukele,” for example, which is the traditional headwear for women. It’s all about how a Kazakh woman should be. In large part, this is rooted in the Soviet-era standardization and canonization of national culture.

Megan: What are you looking forward to as you continue your research?

“Saukele” by RaiM & Artur

Eisenberg: I’m just generally thrilled to talk to cultural producers from the Soviet era in Central Asia. I think we forget that 2023 means the Soviet Union fell 32 years ago. People who were born in 1991 are now 32. If you were building a career in the Soviet Union, you’re at least 50. If you had a really well-established career, you’re probably in your eighties or nineties. So I think a lot of the value of my work—aside from whatever contributions I make to the field in terms of my argument—is the sheer fact that I’m preserving stories that have not been recorded. These people are dying, literally. I left Central Asia in August and since then two people I wanted to speak with for my work have passed away. 

I also think that one of the contributions of my research is that I’m not just looking at one Central Asian republic, but two. I’m acknowledging their differences. If we continue to talk about one and say, “okay, all of Central Asia was like this”—it’s not as rigorous and sensitive an analysis as we could or should be doing. When we look at more than one republic, we understand a much broader range of realities that were happening in the Soviet Union, and now in 2023 a much broader range of realities in Central Asia.

This interview was conducted by Megan Wright.

Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Nowruz Dancers in Astana, Kazakhstan | Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons


Megan is an Eli Whitney student at Yale University (class of 2026) studying Economics with a Certificate in Persian and Iranian Studies. Previously, she spent more than a decade as a professional dancer in San Francisco and New York and studied labor relations at the City University of New York's School of Labor & Urban Studies.