Crackpot theories: Eurasianism

As a regular feature of this blog, I intend to cover themes studied in the courses that I teach at the University of Ottawa on the topics of ‘Russia and the West’ (Autumn semester) and ‘Irrationality and Foreign Policy Decision Making’ (Winter semester). I will post an entry each week relevant to the topic of that week’s class. This week in ‘Russia and the West’, the class will be looking at Russia’s relationship with the East, to determine to what extent Russia might be considered an Eastern rather than a Western country. With that in mind, this post will take a brief look at the theory of Eurasianism.

Simply put, Eurasianism contends that Russia is neither Western nor Eastern but something entirely distinct – Eurasian. Dreamt up by Russian émigrés in the 1920s this idea languished in obscurity until resurrected in post-communist Russia in the 1990s, since when it has acquired a degree of political influence and also morphed into a somewhat extreme form in the writings of philosophers such as Aleksandr Dugin.

Eurasianism derived from a late nineteenth intellectual desire to discover distinct national roots of Russian culture. A notable figure in this movement was the critic Vladimir Stasov, who sought to liberate Russian art from European influences. He and others promoted a revival of Russian folk traditions. The best known result was Igor Stravinsky’s music and Vaslav Nijinsky’s choreography for the ballet The Rite of Spring, which celebrated Russia’s supposed Eastern roots.

Eurasianism inspired a drive to find non-Western influences in all aspects of Russian life. This included re-evaluating the impact of the Mongol conquest of Russia, analyzing Russian flora and fauna to demonstrate their uniqueness, and so on. In the process, Eurasian scholars undoubtedly made some original and useful contributions to our understanding of Russia. However, they cherry-picked their evidence. Items which suggested Russia’s distinctiveness were emphasized, while others which suggested the opposite were downplayed. Further problems then arose when the research on Russian distinctiveness was allied to some rather dodgy geopolitical theories and turned into a political movement.

The most prominent of these theories were the geopolitics of Harold Mackinder and Otto Spengler’s theory of the decline of the West. According to Mackinder’s ‘heartland theory’, Siberia and Central Asia together constitute the pivotal geographical area in the world. ‘Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World,’ Mackinder wrote. Seen from the point of view of modern Eurasianists, this means that Russia should seek above all to control Central Asia, which implies a restoration of the old Soviet borders or at least some form of closer union between Russia and Central Asia, such as the new Eurasian Union.

Heartland2

Heartland theory is, of course, utter rot. The United States has remained the world’s greatest power for the best part of a century without, until very recently, exerting any form of control over the ‘heartland’. Mackinder was entirely wrong.

As for Spengler, in his 1918 book The Decline of the West he claimed that civilizations rise and fall as they develop from youth to senility. Western ‘Faustian’ civilization, he said, was reaching senility. By contrast, Russia was a young civilization waiting for its energy to burst forth, but it was trapped in a state of ‘pseudomorphosis’ by the dominance of the West, which had therefore to be cast off. Unfortunately for Spengler, the West failed to decline in the hundred years following the publication of his book. He too was entirely wrong.

Spengler’s ideas nevertheless influenced Soviet thinker Lev Gumilev (1912-1992), in whose writings Eurasianism finally jumped the shark into the realm of pure loopiness. According to Gumilev, ethnic groups live and die as their levels of ‘passionarity’ (a sort of mystical life force) rises and falls from youth to old age. It reminds one somewhat of General Ripper’s obsession with America’s ‘precious bodily fluids’ in Doctor Strangelove.  Again, the conclusion is that Russia should ally itself not with the decrepit West but with the fresh, virile forces of the East.

Eurasianism has a touch of truth to it, enough to make it compelling to some. Overall, though, it is a crackpot theory, based on some rather bizarre and obviously false ideas from a hundred or so years ago. If they have any sense, Russians should definitely not use it as the basis for any type of political action.

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9 thoughts on “Crackpot theories: Eurasianism”

  1. Hey Paul,

    Congrats on the blog. Any thoughts on Strelkov’s recent appearance with Dugin. What is signifies.

    I’ve been reading a lot of “what about Russian fascism” rubbish from Ukrainians. From what I’ve read Putin’s never met the guy and his claim to be a Kremlin advisor is just self-promotion.

    Could one see any connection between Strelkov’s recent exile apparently with Moscow’s acquiescence and his association with Dugin?

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    1. Thanks, Tim. My own view is that those who say that Dugin is an important influence on Putin are wrong. I see no evidence for it. Putin gives no indication of being a Eurasianist. The Eurasian Union should be seen not as a sign that Putin is casting off the West for a Eurasian future, but rather as a sign that Moscow is pursuing what it calls a `multi-vector` foreign policy – ie it will seek better relations with the West, if it can, but at the same time will also seek closer ties with the East. This is a pragmatic, not an ideological policy.

      Strelkov`s meeting with Dugin perhaps reveals why the Kremlin got rid of him. Whatever his merits as a military commander, politically Strelkov (like Dugin) is somewhat of an extremist, whose agenda was not, I think, that of Moscow. Thus, he had to go.

      Paul

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  2. Good to see a site that attempts to look objectively at Russia and its relationship with the rest of the world rather than just regurgitate the dross that the Western media often pumps out.using as their source the opinions of “experts” who are still bunkered down in their adversarial, Cold War mentality.

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  3. Well, Lev Gumilev is a well-respected, legendary figure; scientist, philosopher, poet. I wouldn’t dismiss him as ‘loopy’. No Sir, definitely not.

    And Dugin… Dugin too is a talent, a brilliant guy. Whatever you may think of his ideas, he does impress.

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  4. Very amusing what kind of loony theories about Gumilev could create someone who apparently never read him.

    Especially amusing is attempt to connect his theory of ethnogenesis with eurasianism. You know, those were actually never connected. Theory of ethnogenesis is one of many attempts by historians to come up with explanation of civilizational and ethnic birth, grow and degradation (Gumilev’s is pretty sound in it’s basics btw as far as those theories go).

    Another is in mold with general historical theme of Gumilev’s works on history of steppe civilizations and connections between ethnic and political history and geography.

    Plus “Dreamt up by Russian émigrés in the 1920s” is quite a stretch. Eurasianism as a thought school is stemming from slavophiles of 19th century. Arguably eurasianists are slavophiles.

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    1. Eurasianism did indeed evolve from Slavophilism, but Eurasianism as such is generally dated as starting with the publication of ‘Iskhod k vostoku’ in 1921, so I stand by my claim.

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      1. I don’t argue that Eurasianism did exist, and that it was developed by Russian émigrés, What I point out is that Eurasianism is not some frivolous concept dreamt out by few exiles. It’s pretty natural development of already existing school of thought.

        And btw this school of thought, and Gumilev as a historian with strong ties to them have nothing to do with mentioned in your other posts Dugin and his modern “Eurasianism”. Which is his very own right wing cocktail of western philosophers and mysticism misnamed after popular historical school to attract people.

        Anyway. What did really made me respond to such an old post is this:

        “Spengler’s ideas nevertheless influenced Soviet thinker Lev Gumilev (1912-1992), in whose writings Eurasianism finally jumped the shark into the realm of pure loopiness. According to Gumilev, ethnic groups live and die as their levels of ‘passionarity’ (a sort of mystical life force) rises and falls from youth to old age. It reminds one somewhat of General Ripper’s obsession with America’s ‘precious bodily fluids’ in Doctor Strangelove. Again, the conclusion is that Russia should ally itself not with the decrepit West but with the fresh, virile forces of the East.”

        That reminds me a bit of an old soviet joke about a guy insisting that Beatles can’t sing because he heard few lines from their songs performed over the phone by his friend. To put it simply things you wrote have very little to do with Gumilev and nothing with his Eurasianism. So I’m really interested if you actually read any of his works.

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