Book review: Black Wind, White Snow

As British journalist Charles Clover explains in the preface, his new book Black Wind, White Snow arose out of a meeting he had in Kiev in 1998. Somebody suggested that he read the Foundations of Geopolitics by Alexander Dugin, a philosopher/geopolitical theorist/political activist generally considered an extreme and rather dangerous nationalist. Subsequently Clover got to know Dugin, whom he describes as ‘a funny, hip, and altogether likeable guy as well as one of the most interesting, well-read intellectuals I have ever met.’ Black Wind, White Snow is Clover’s attempt to explain the phenomenon that is Dugin – where his ideas came from and how (in Clover’s opinion) they came to exercise a powerful hold on contemporary Russian political thought.

Dugin is often described as a ‘neo-Eurasianist’, and so to achieve his goal, Clover spends the first half of his book explaining the origins of Eurasianism through an examination of the lives of linguist Nikolai Trubetskoi and ethnographer Lev Gumilev. Trubetskoi was one of the contributors to the 1920 volume Exodus to the East, which is normally considered the founding document of Eurasianism, and Gumilev was supposedly responsible for introducing many Eurasianist ideas into the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia.

Clover’s style is journalistic, focusing far more on the lives of Trubetskoi, Gumilev, and Dugin than on their ideas. Given their interesting personal stories (especially Gumilev), this makes for an often fascinating read. The second half of the book, which focuses on Dugin, is sometimes hard to follow, due to the complicated collection of characters Clover introduces, as well as the numerous conspiracy theories he recounts. Clover has researched his subject well and interviewed many of the key players. This is a much better book than many I have reviewed on this blog.

Clover makes it clear that he regards Eurasianism as pseudoscientific nonsense, a point of view with which I am sympathetic. To Clover, Gumilev was more of a poet, like his parents Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, than he was a scholar. As Clover writes, ‘Lev’s histories were often fanciful and, strictly speaking, not very scholarly; he invented people, he invented documents, or transported things magically through time so that they would fit his narrative. … His opponents accused him of complete disregard for the evidence.’ His doctoral thesis Ethnogenesis and the Human Biosphere was rejected not because of political pressure (senior Communist Party members actually tried to get his institution to pass it), but because it was poor scholarship which ‘argued theory into the realms of science fiction.’ Clover cites ethnographer Sergei Cheshko saying, ‘Gumilev’s conception was basically poetry. … It was utter, unprovable nonsense, but it was good to read, like a novel.’

As for Dugin, Clover describes him as a sort of postmodern fascist, ‘his political projects born of the same stuff as surrealist art’. For instance, a youth movement Dugin set up was ‘undertaken with a postmodern wink to the audience’, and was ‘almost a self-parody of itself’. Clover remarks: ‘To this day I wonder: does he actually believe it or not?’ Regardless of the answer, he considers Dugin dangerous. Eurasianism, Clover writes, is defined by ‘its arbitrariness, its flimsiness, and its fakery’, but has ‘become the officially sanctioned national idea’ due to Dugin’s sponsors in the Kremlin and among important people in the military and security agencies. Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, and the current war in Ukraine were, Clover implies, Eurasianism in action, as Russia pursues an alleged plan ‘to remake the Russian Empire in all but name’.

At this point, I part company with Clover. He notes that ‘Dugin himself is circumspect about his connection to the events of the last two years [in Ukraine], insisting that he simply has a knack for getting it right, and is not some “whisperer” in the ear of mandarins or a behind-the-scenes influencer.’ This is surely correct. Eurasianism does have some influence on Russian public discourse, but it is just one set of ideas among many, and by the time those ideas influence public policy they have become highly bowdlerized. As Dugin says in Clover’s book: ‘there are whole circles that stand between me and the government … that add on to the concentrated idea of Eurasian geopolitics, conservative Traditionalism, and the other ideologies I am developing … and create a watered-down version.’ Again, this seems correct.

Somewhat ironically, Clover accuses Russian nationalists of being conspiracy theorists, but is also something of a conspiracy theorist himself. Describing various fringe far right Russian groups, he can never resist speculating that they are all pawns of the Kremlin, despite providing evidence to the contrary. ‘The stars of the new era were not the politicians … but rather the unseen puppet masters behind the scenes’, he writes. Clover cites Pavel Zarifullin, a leader of the Eurasian Youth Union, as saying that ‘the movement was autonomous’, but then adds that ‘The Eurasian Youth Union was the first of a series of Kremlin-backed unofficial street gangs tasked with controlling the streets of Moscow’. A spokesman for the group ‘Russian Image’ tells him that, ‘We do not have direct cooperation from the Kremlin’, but Clover still concludes that, ‘the evidence of Kremlin involvement is too great to ignore’. The 2008 war with Georgia suspiciously coincided with a summer camp organized by Dugin and Zarifullin in South Ossetia. It was the ‘tail that wagged the dog’, claims Clover; ‘it may have emboldened [South Ossetian leader] Kokoity to continue to escalate a low-level conflict to an extent that forced the Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili to intervene with a badly planned and bloody operation’.

More generally, Clover notes that from 2003 onwards the Russian government moved in a nationalist direction because that was where public opinion was headed. He cites theatre producer/political activist Sergei Kurginyan as saying, ‘They [Kremlin leaders] brought us in not because they love our ideas, but because they are reading the public opinion polls, the sociological research’. And yet, a little later Clover blames the Kremlin for the rise of nationalist feeling, complaining that ‘nationalism of all types [was] allowed to flourish by the Kremlin’. This seems contradictory.

Together with some other things that I have read recently, Black Wind, White Snow has persuaded me that I ought to take Eurasianism and Dugin a bit more seriously than I have in the past. But I’m still not convinced that they matter quite as much as Clover thinks they do.

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Book review: Black Wind, White Snow”

  1. Dugin is definitely a talent and ‘passionary’. A visionary. If you watch his lectures and videos (as I have) you’ll realize it almost immediately…

    Eurasianism is neither science or pseudoscientific nonsense. It’s a political movement. Like, say, Nasser’s pan-Arabism…

    Like

    1. Yeah, I was very disappointed with Mother Jones. The anti-Russian sentiment is everywhere, even on a lot of the “progressive” left. But I was glad to see that a fair number of commenters weren’t buying it.

      Like

  2. Nice review, Paul; fair and balanced, I would say, with credit where credit is due. Clover is certainly not stupid, but the British mindset that Russia is always up to something nefarious, and is not quite civilized, is strong.

    I am in agreement with your disagreement, I guess it would be, that Eurasianism is the national ideal as pursued by the Kremlin. It is merely, as you suggest, one consideration among many. If anything lends it prominence, it is NATO’s aggressive expansionism.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dr Robinson,

    Thank you very much for reviewing Black Wind, White Snow. I greatly appreciate, admire and respect your expertise and knowledge of Russian affairs: historical, military and political.

    After reading your review, I will definitely purchase the book. I was somewhat dissuaded from purchasing the book after listening to Charles Clover’s public lecture on Black Wind, White Snow last month. Clover’s public oratory and presentation skills leave a lot to be desired.
    I wish to correct you, Clover is an American. I can assure of that, after listening to him speak for an hour and a half. Clover is now the Financial Times correspondent in Beijing – he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Johns Hopkins University. I believe you have confused the American Charles Clover with the British Charles Clover; the former environment editor of The Daily Telegraph.

    The main reason why Clover’s book interests me so much is because I want to learn the origins of Eurasianism. I’ve never heard of and know nothing about Lev Gumilev and Nikolai Trubetskoi. So the opportunity to learn more about these men, their background, how and why they formed the ideology of Eurasianism – will be fascinating. I hope Clover’s book will explain why Eurasianism appealed to so many prominent White émigrés. The book Exodus to the East was written by White émigrés, yet it is also attributed as being the founding document of the Eurasianism. It will be fascinating to understand why prominent White émigrés conceived of and adopted an ostensibly anti-Western and anti-liberal democracy ideology.

    You are right to point out that Clover himself indulges in the same conspiracy theories that he accuses and derides Russian political figures and public of incessantly indulging in. However, this is par for the course for Western journalists writing about Russia and Russians. Kremlinology is practised by most Western journalists covering Russia – especially those of an Atlanticist persuasion. Nothing happens in Russia or to Russians without the nefarious hands of the Kremlin and its ubiquitous special services being involved.

    Western media, journalists and academics have made Alexander Dugin to appear far more important and powerful than he could ever dream to be. Dugin is not the éminence grise of the Kremlin, Dugin does not influence Putin nor does he decide Russia’s foreign policy. It is important to remember that Dugin was dismissed from his job as the head of the Department Sociology of International Relations at Moscow State University in June 2014. Many students and faculty at Moscow State University took exception to Dugin’s views regarding the Ukraine crisis. If Dugin is as all powerful and influential as so many so-called Western Russia experts claim – how could Dugin be dismissed from his position at Russia’s most distinguished institute of learning? Dugin is a convenient stereotypical “mad Russian” bogeyman for lazy and ignorant Western journalists, academics and think tank policy wonks.

    Dr Robinson you are “fair and balanced” in a un-Billy O’Reilly way!

    Like

    1. Thank you for bringing up the points you did in your penultimate paragraph. I wanted to ask Professor Robinson if there is any actual substantive evidence provided by Clover that Dugin gets financial support or backing from the Kremlin. I’m skeptical of the claim for the very reasons you mentioned.

      Like

  4. I’m disappointed! The quote provided earlier raised my hopes that it would a top-level toxic volume of mad-barking Russophobia in the best traditions, exemplified by Gessen, Kasparov or Ed Lucas. Turns out that the book is rather… toothless?

    Did Mr. Clover at least call us Russians brainwashed nationalists, and Putin – new Hitler, hell bent on “Resurrection of the Russian/Soviet Empire”?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As far as “Kremlinology” goes:

    My own take on understanding Russia is a bit different.

    Basically, Putin is less the supreme decider and more the supreme moderator. Various indigenous power sectors inside and outside of Moscow do various stuff. If stuff works mostly on their own volition, it was Putin all along (and the stuff doer gets a promotion). If stuff does not work, consequences for whoever did it are bad, but the badness is connected to the severity of the fuckup.

    There is one I think big difference in addition. From what I get, Putin loves having options. A more interesting take on why the FSB,SVR, GRU etc. loathing for each other is “working as intended” is that it means that they will present pretty different takes on what is going on (because they will rarely be of the same opinion). This gives Putin the opportunity to chose the version he will follow further. In the US, well, it seems that there are “joint operations” in which the CIA, NSA,FBI whatever get together, work out what they will tell the boss, and then present him with a united storyline which he then cant really go against.

    Like

  6. For what it is worth, I asked my father-in-law, a Russian pensioner who spends all day listening to radio news, what he thought of Dugin. Who? he asked. Then told me all about Zhirinovsky. Also, I have a radical lefty friend who lives in Moscow and is an old friend of Dugin, whom he describes as ‘mostly a poet’.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s