Tag Archives: Eurasianism

Interview with Alexander Dugin

On 31 August, I interviewed Alexander Dugin in Moscow. Below is my translation of the interview.

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Alexander Dugin.

Paul Robinson (PR): I am writing a book about Russian conservatism and wanted to talk with you as a well-known Russian conservative. In the West, many people talk of a ‘conservative turn’ in Russia. Do you think that this is the case?

Continue reading Interview with Alexander Dugin

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.’

What Putin really really wants

Political commentators regularly line up to tell us ‘What Putin wants’ (see for instance this, this, and this). In the early years of Putin’s rule, analysts tended to the view that Putin was non-ideological, and that he was above all a pragmatist, perhaps even an opportunist. More recently, though, there has been a tendency to regard the Russian president as having become more conservative in his outlook. Yet, despite this, there have been very few serious efforts to attempt to understand his beliefs. For the most part, ‘What Putin wants’ is assumed to be self-evident, based on the particular commentator’s own attitude (normally very negative) towards the actions in question. Little genuine research is done to back up the assertions. In particular, the conservative ideas dominating much of contemporary Russian discourse remain understudied, as do their historical and philosophical roots. ‘As a result,’ I wrote in an article a few years ago, ‘Western commentators nowadays, lacking any knowledge of Russia’s conservative heritage, are unable to place contemporary Russian government within the correct intellectual context.’

A new book by veteran historian Walter Laqueur, entitled Putinism: Russia and its Future with the West, constitutes a rare effort to come to grips with the subject. Drawing on a solid knowledge of Russian intellectual history, Laqueur attempts to analyze the ideology guiding the current leadership of the Russian Federation, and thereby to answer the question ‘What is Putinism?’

Laqueur’s answer is that it isn’t fascism, but it is something close to it – a paranoid, nationalist, far right doctrine, made up of six components: ‘religion (the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, Russia’s holy mission, the third Rome, and the New Jerusalem), patriotism/nationalism (with occasional leanings towards chauvinism), geopolitics Russian style, Eurasianism, the besieged-fortress feeling, and zapadophobia (fear of the West).’ Underlying the contemporary search for Russian identity, Laqueur says, is a ‘conviction that Russia is not Europe and that there is a giant conspiracy to destroy Russia. Accompanying it is another set of beliefs that whatever went wrong in Russia is the fault of foreigners.’ Laqueur concludes that ‘Among the Russian weaknesses is the fatal belief in all kinds of conspiracy theories and strange ideas, such as neo-Eurasianism, neogeopolitics, confabulation, and zapadophobia, accompanied by an enduring persecution mania and the exaggerated belief in a historical mission.’ In these circumstances, a ‘retreat from authoritarian rule toward a more democratic system seems … unlikely.’

To reach this conclusion, Laqueur embarks upon a potted history of Russian politics, and then upon a rather rambling examination of various other subjects including conservative and far right philosophy, demography, post-Soviet attitudes towards Stalin, and Russian foreign policy. The effect is somewhat incoherent, as the text leaps backwards and forwards in time and space and from topic to topic. But an overall theme does emerge, namely that a lot of Russians believe in a lot of really crackpot ideas.

In some respects, I agree with this. I share, for instance, Laqueur’s negative appraisal of Eurasianism. The reactionary pronouncements of some high-ranking members of the Russian Orthodox Church are also fair game. And Laqueur’s observation that Russian political culture has a paranoid streak is accurate. There are, however, some weaknesses in his thesis. In the first place, he doesn’t do a very good job of showing that the loopy rantings of far-right philosophers and historians really have an impact on how Russia’s rulers think, let alone prove that they have any impact on their behaviour. He says, for instance, that the Russian government’s current alleged support for Eurasianism (which I think in any case is much exaggerated) ‘has to do in part with their aversion toward Europe, which (they feel) rejected it, but it is also a reflection of the immense popularity of the ideas of Lev Gumilev’. But are the ideas of Lev Gumilev really ‘immensely popular’? I can’t say that I see any strong evidence for that assertion. Laqueur then goes on to say: ‘Putin and his colleagues believe that the long search for a new doctrine has ended and that in [Ivan] Ilyin they have found the prophet to present their much-needed new ideology’. But is that really so? I have suggested elsewhere that Putin is fond of Ilyin, but it is not clear how many others share his preference, and in any case Ilyin could hardly be said to be the sole source of the modern ‘Russian idea’, even if it could be shown that such a thing exists. It also makes little sense on the one hand to claim that modern Russia is Eurasianist in orientation and on the other hand to say that Ilyin is the country’s prophet, given that Ilyin most definitely was not a supporter of Eurasianism.

Laqueur does not appear to like the conservative trend in Russian thinking, and as a result emphasizes its negative side to the detriment of anything positive which might be found in it. One can see this in his treatment of Ilyin, which concentrates almost entirely on the favourable things the philosopher had to say about fascism. But there is more to Ilyin than that. Similarly, while it is true that contemporary Russian politics contains more than its fair share of crazy talk, not all Russian conservatives are loony conspiracy theorists. As Paul Grenier showed in a recent article, ‘anti-Western Eurasianism is part of contemporary Russian conservatism. But it is only one part.’  Russian conservatism, Grenier notes, is very varied, and its adherents contain many intelligent, creative, and in some instances even quite liberal people. It deserves a deeper and if not sympathetic, at least more empathetic, analysis than Laqueur is willing to give it.

Grenier comments that, ‘If we wish to understand Russia in something like its true complexity, we have to take the trouble to listen to it, to let it speak in its own voice instead of constantly projecting onto it all our own worst fears.’ Laqueur’s Putinism doesn’t do this. My worry is that rather than deepening its readers’ understanding of Russia, this book will serve only to convince them that Russians really are a bunch of crazies with whom no civilized conversation is possible.

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.