Tag Archives: Charles Clover

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.

Putin and Gumilev

I am currently reading Charles Clover’s new book Black Wind, White Snow about Russian nationalism and Eurasianism, which I plan to review next week. I am also preparing a paper for the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Slavists on the subject of whom Putin cites in his speeches and what that means. I began the latter project believing that one could learn a lot about Putin from his choice of quotations, but as my research has developed, I have become a bit more sceptical. Whom Putin cites does tell us something, but not what some people seem to think.

The first few pages of Clover’s book (which has some good points) provide an example of the dangers of drawing too much from short quotations. Clover starts by mentioning Putin’s December 2012 speech to the Federal Assembly, in which the Russian president referred to the notion of ‘passionarity’ (roughly speaking, a nation’s willingness to make sacrifices) invented by the ethnographer Lev Gumilev (famous for his studies of steppe tribes and for supporting the notion that the peoples of Russia form a distinct Eurasian civilization). Clover writes:

It indicated a lot – a classic Kremlin signal … used to communicate to certain groups a message which only they could hear. It was a way of announcing in deniable terms what Putin probably could not say outright – that certain circles within the state enjoyed his understanding and support. … [Putin] was sending a subtle signal to the elite that new ideas had swept to power … these ideas would make themselves clearer 15 months later, in March 2014, when Russian soldiers quietly seized airports and transports across Crimea. … Putin was extolling chest-thumping nationalism, the martial virtues of sacrifice, discipline, loyalty and valour.

But did the use of a single term of Gumilev’s (‘passionarity’) really indicate all that? I think not. The 2012 speech was not the first time Putin had mentioned Gumilev. As far back as October 2000, when he visited the Lev Gumilev Eurasian National University in Astana, he spoke of the importance of the ‘Eurasian idea’ and of his desire to create a ‘Eurasian Union’. He mentioned Gumilev again in a speech in 2003. Yet, in the same period Putin was also making numerous statements about his desire for better relations with the West and about his belief that Russia is a European country. References to Gumilev did not at that time indicate an endorsement of Eurasianism, ‘chest-thumping nationalism’, annexation of foreign territories, or anything similar. It is a bit of stretch, therefore, to suggest that the very brief reference to Gumilev in 2012 heralded the annexation of Crimea. Nor could it be said to have meant that ‘new ideas had swept to power’, given that Putin had been referencing Gumilev for 12 years already.

Furthermore, if one looks at the one other occasion in which Putin not merely mentioned Gumilev but actually quoted him, it was for a purpose far removed from that claimed by Clover. On 26 August 2005, Putin spoke in Kazan on the occasion of the city’s one thousandth anniversary. He said:

Russia, developing as a multinational country, could organically integrate the richest heritage of the Volga land, or, as Lev Gumilev said, ‘the great steppe culture’. … Without exaggeration the principle of toleration, both national and religious, was central to the formation of Russian statehood. … Thanks to its multiethnic unity our country withstood many trials … the preservation of social, interethnic, and inter-religious peace is the basic, fundamental condition of Russia’s successful development. … In opposing nationalism and extremism the state must rely on all the Federation’s subjects.

In this instance, therefore, far from using Gumilev to promote ‘chest-thumping nationalism’, Putin used him to do the opposite – to buttress an argument against ethnic nationalism and in favour of Russia as a multicultural society.

All this shows that it is necessary to pay attention not only to whom Putin quotes, but also the exact words quoted. Clover’s statement about Putin and Gumilev is classic Kremlinology – drawing sweeping conclusions from a tiny clue (Putin’s use of the word ‘passionarity’). As part of my research, I have found that Putin has quoted or mentioned Gumilev five times in the last sixteen years. That surely indicates something, but it does not mean that by mentioning passionarity, ‘Putin was sending a subtle signal … that new ideas had swept to power’, nor that he ‘was extolling chest-thumping nationalism, the martial virtues of sacrifice, discipline, loyalty and valour.’