This month sees the launch of Black Wind, White Snow by Charles Clover, former Moscow FT Bureau chief. Bijan Omrani, Editor of the Asian Affairs Journal, attended a speech by Clover this week at Pushkin House in London to mark the book’s release.
What reasons can be given for Vladimir Putin’s belligerence? How is it that he has chosen to steer Russia away from liberalism back towards authoritarian rule? A reasonable observer might rightly conclude that his decisions are driven by little more than short-term self-interest. Yet, this has not stopped Putin from attempting to present his policies as guided by a profounder philosophy. His irredentism, so he would own, is not drawn from the petty-minded desire of an ex-KGB man to restore the broken dream of the Soviet Union. His vision, he would say, is grander, timeless, almost mystical; of Russia, as he said in a speech in 2013, as a “civilizational state” responsible for the preservation of the peoples of “Eurasia”.
The ideas of “Eurasianism”, observes Clover, have over the last few years come to dominate public discourse in Russia. Russia’s geography, declares the new received wisdom, ineluctably dictates its political destiny. It is a polity based on the vast extent and nature of its land. It stands in opposition to other states, primarily the US, which derive their power from the dominance of the sea. Russia’s geography dictates that it looks towards Asia, and is the political heir to the historical empires of the nomadic steppe – the Mongols, the Central Asian Khanates, even the Scythians and the ancient Xiongnu. The Russian people are destined to be brothers of those who live on the Eurasian landmass, and will lead them in a fraternal empire based on Eurasian traditions. Hence, there is no room for the accoutrements of liberalism or democracy: strong leadership goes with the territory. Needless to say, the sea-borne powers are in perpetual conflict with Eurasia, and one of the pedal notes of history is the attempt by the Atlantic world to undermine the unity of the Eurasian empire.
For a theory espoused by Putin, an ex-KGB agent, the concept of Eurasianism has had a remarkably chequered past. Clover traces it to its emergence amongst White Russian émigrés as a response to the 1917 Revolution. Grounding Russia in the traditions of the Eurasian steppe was, they argued, the best way for Russia to deal with centuries of weakness engendered by the excessive influence of European ideas. Later, the Eurasian philosophy was taken up by the historian Lev Gumilev (1912-1992), who, despite the execution of his father by Stalin and his own imprisonment in a gulag, embraced Eurasianism’s repressive ideal. His message from the gulag was that the willingness of a people to suffer and sacrifice itself for a grand ideal was a mark of their own greatness and that of their nation. The Russians had this quality, which he called passionarnost, in abundance. It was something they shared with and had inherited from the peoples of the Eurasian steppe.
The successor to Gumilev as Eurasianism’s modern evangelist is Aleksandr Dugin. Dugin, under the influence of European far-right thinkers at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, reinforced Gumilev’s ideas with strands of thought drawn from Nazi philosophers such as Karl Schmitt and Karl Haushofer, as well as the work of the British geographer and theorist of Eurasian heartland power Sir Halford Mackinder. Dugin’s works, published from the 1990s onwards, became a vogue amongst Russian military officers, arguing as they did that Russia’s geography itself required Russia to maintain strong armed forces. The western interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and especially in Iraq in 2003, not to mention the chaotic attempt at liberalisation, gave further credence to the Eurasian reading of history that the Atlantic nations were engaged in a perennial attempt to undermine Russia, and that a return to unity and strong leadership were in the best interests of Russia. Dugin’s work, as a result, has been taken up by supporters of the Russian establishment and grown markedly in popularity over the last two decades.
The works that Dugin published in the 1990s, notes Clover, offered uncannily accurate predictions for what Russia would do. Dugin predicted the strong revival of the Russian Orthodox Church, not so that it became the established church of the Russian state (something which, in a Eurasian world-view, would be taboo) but that there would be a “symphony” of the Orthodox Church and the State. Russia would work to consolidate its sphere of influence, including Georgia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, but this would not include the Baltic states, which are, according to Dugin, not Eurasian in character. Russia would also attempt to eradicate the presence of “western” values which had intruded since the collapse of the USSR. The Russian response to gay rights is a bellwether for this notion, and also related to this is the return to media censorship and the effective destruction of NGOs with international links.
The doctrine of Eurasianism is now, it seems, so popular amongst the Russian “coffee-house nationalists” and the Russian blogosphere, that it is now as much of a threat to Putin as it is a support to his leadership. Putin is a pragmatist, and before the doctrine of Eurasianism took such a deep hold, it is unlikely he would have taken military action in his near abroad to the detriment of Russia’s economic position. However, as Clover points out, the dominance of Eurasianism has changed the context of pragmatism. Belligerence in the Russian near-abroad now makes sense in the new context of the Eurasian discourse, regardless of the suffering that might be caused to Russian economic interests. The dream of the steppe now taking over the Russian mind-set might yet live to be the ultimate revenge of the Mongols.