Looking West from Russia: The Eurasianist Folly

October 21, 2015 Topic: Society Tags: RussiaEurasianismEurope

Looking West from Russia: The Eurasianist Folly

Eurasianists who see Russia’s soul in raiders from the eastern steppes have always led their nation to danger and decay. Progress and prosperity have come under leaders who looked West.

KARL MARX once described a situation where the weapon of criticism gives way to criticism by weapon. It’s a remark that captures the latest round of tensions between the West and Russia quite well. Are we witnessing a collision between two different systems of values—or one between two different interpretations of a common system of values?

If we are about to launch yet another “crusade” and our outlooks are fundamentally different, then the conflict admits of no solution other than that there can be just a more or less prolonged “peaceful coexistence” as a prelude to an eventual head-on collision. If Carthage is innately and essentially vicious, it must be destroyed. The question is who is Carthage and who is Rome. And that question is really not very difficult to answer: Rome survives. All the rest is a matter of tactics and methods. The possibility for maneuver and resourcefulness is locked within this narrow alley.

That is precisely what both Moscow’s and Washington’s approaches looked like throughout a greater part of the classical Cold War. The zero-sum game was played best in the limelight of ideological irreconcilability at the most acute moments of political confrontation (in Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Cuba in 1962, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979–1989). Meanwhile, as the Soviet model continued to corrode, certain ideas pushed their way to the surface. First, they gained a niche for themselves within the domain of the official Marxist-Leninist ideology, then pushed the latter away and replaced it with values and concepts that were very unusual for that time.

A more or less similar process, naturally with certain allowances for the pluralistic nature of the Euro-Atlantic ideological universe, proceeded in the camp of the antagonists of the Soviet-Communist bloc. Very soon these processes brought into being the term “convergence,” understood first and foremost as a mutual penetration and interweaving of values and principles underlying the socio-political systems of capitalism and socialism (as interpreted in the Soviet Union).

Inside one bloc, the free market economy began to be mentioned ever more frequently as the sole way of overcoming chronic economic problems (by no means canceling socialism but, on the contrary, making it stronger). In China and Vietnam, this ideological ploy, masking a fast-tracked transition to a fundamentally new mode of life, is still deployed by the authorities. In the meantime, the West suddenly remembered that the system of communist ideological formulas was a direct descendant of the great Western ideas that took shape in the era of the Renaissance. Much later, those ideas took root in Eastern Europe and Asia, where local radical fanatics adjusted the life’s work of two bearded German thinkers to the practical needs of attaining, at last, the ultimate and resolute truth—first in their own haven, and then the world over.

The advent of perestroika, or “new political thinking,” was a direct outcome of convergence. Moreover, it was a foreign-policy offshoot of that concept. Incidentally, all that graphically manifested itself in the heritage left to us by our outstanding contemporary, Andrei Sakharov. Many believe that the father of the “new political thinking” was Mikhail Gorbachev. Indeed, that phrase was one of the former Soviet president’s hobbyhorses. But the roots of that outlook can be traced back to the 1970s, when a group of ambitious and talented people at the administrative staffs of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee, at the Foreign Ministry and at the Soviet Academy of Sciences’ think tanks succeeded in their efforts to push through to the high-ranking officials the idea of a fundamentally new approach to European identity and security. That idea took the shape of the Helsinki Process. In the most general terms, Helsinki was a certain common understanding of the priorities and values of a future long-term pan-European sociopolitical development.

For nearly twenty years, these common values existed in some sort of clandestine form. At the turn of the 1990s, they were adopted officially by the heads of state and enshrined in the Paris Charter, which proclaimed a strategic goal of building a united Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok. But alongside this process, a movement in other conceptual directions started gaining momentum. It would be appropriate to mention the most significant of them—the concept of the split of Europe and the concept of Europe’s dissolution.

A very large party of the Bourbon persuasion—“They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” per Talleyrand’s alleged quip—was campaigning for a split of Europe. By tradition, Europe had always had a strong Russophobic line of thought. The followers of this trend professed this emotional and intellectual negativism towards Russia mostly because Russia was a strong and vast country and for that sole reason immanently dangerous. In that sense, tsarist autarchy and Communist totalitarianism did not make much difference. Only such factors as strength and geopolitics mattered. Russia began to be liked only when, after December 1991, its traditional, historical image collapsed and the above-mentioned factors diminished into insignificance. It was in that period that a majority of the European public at large (including the Russophobic wing) eagerly recognized Russia’s right to share common values with Europe—even though President Boris Yeltsin’s use of “common values” in practice in the autumn of 1993 bred some very strong doubts among rather large groups of quite democratically-minded Russian society.

Yet most significant was the belief that the more smaller “Russias” that exist, the more easily they are recognized as being “democratic.” This reminds me of a remark made by François Mauriac: “I love Germany so much that I am glad there are two of them.” In our case, the feeling of happiness would be directly proportional to the number of newly emerged states.

As Russia started showing signs of revival, debates over common values grew ever more vigorous. Those debates were tightly linked to day-to-day political realities and priorities, which became especially evident during the Yugoslav crisis.

In the meantime, the real discussion of pan-European values has proceeded and is still going on, not along the border between Russia and the rest of Europe but inside each individual country of Greater Europe. For instance, there is a discussion of the cultural and civilizational sources of Europeanism—it is worth recalling the fate of the European Constitution, which was dismissed because it was impossible to achieve consensus on inclusion of a provision about the leading role of Christianity in the formation of European identity.

Meanwhile, the U.S. fears that a powerful and long-standing opponent may emerge in Europe not just to U.S. geopolitical leadership, but also to a far more important cultural and civilizational one. Many in the United States are perfectly aware that whatever material wealth may be amassed in North America—and however superior U.S. science and education may be—a united Europe has an immeasurably greater quality impact on people’s minds and hearts by virtue of its very special historical and cultural heritage. That heritage can offer an effective, worthy competition to U.S. “soft power” better than anything else.

Thus the attempts to “dissolve” Europe in a vague and uncertain Euro-Atlantic space, stretching everywhere and nowhere, but invariably governed from Washington. This policy has met with active support from the “New Europe” group of countries between new, united Germany and new, segmented Russia. Those who may find this assumption of mine questionable should recall the rifts between “old” and “new” Europe that have taken place until recently.

Clearly, the wish to keep the EU core under control is the United States’ underlying motive. As for “New Europe,” it remains under a pall of historical fear over Russia’s “imperial genes.” True, efforts to heal those fears were not exactly the strongest side of Russia’s foreign and cultural policy lately. Subconscious fears are to be cured and not cultivated. This is the only correct way to address the strategic tasks facing Russia in the twenty-first century, a time when the factor of territory does not really matter. It is far inferior to such a factor as time gained or time lost.

The point at issue is a debate among Europeans inside Russia and outside of it about the degree of common and distinguishing features in the concept of Europeanism. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote: “The more nationalist we are, the greater Europeans (‘universal humans’) we will become.” Russia’s Slavophiles, those wonderful disciples and followers of German and, consequently, European romanticism, dedicated themselves mostly to Russian folklore, culture, customs and historical skills of self-government. (Those skills, incidentally, were very similar in type and moment of emergence to many European socioadministrative entities, in particular, Eastern European ones.) The Slavophiles were essentially quite European, as they saw the Russian sociocultural phenomenon as a very bright and distinctive part of the pan-European trend.


MANY RUSSIAN Westernizers, however, interpreted Russia’s Europeanism in a far more mechanical and one-dimensional fashion. Very important for them were superficial similarities, while dissimilarities were often interpreted as negative and even disgraceful traits of backwardness and savageness. In some respects, the Westernizers were quite fair (for instance, as regards serfdom); in others, very wrong. But the problem is that even serfdom in Russia looked pretty much like European phenomena observed in earlier historical periods. In the meantime, many European thinkers (and Russians too) were trying to put up an intellectual Great Wall between Russia and Europe, proposing no end of strongly biased ideological concepts and going to great lengths to prop up that wall with historical arguments they had selected arbitrarily or torn from historical context.

Among such helpful concepts was Karl Marx’s theory of “the Asiatic mode of production,” which some of his followers would transplant to Russia. According to that theory Russia was destined to always remain a despotic, clique-ruled Asiatic society, with its very special social system based on state ownership of natural resources. This concept helped achieve the desired ideological aim: Russia, contrary to all basic historical and social parameters, was at bottom not European. A strong barrier was created that provided the fundamental, almost metaphysical separation of eternally reactionary and static Russia from eternally dynamic and progressive Europe. That theory opened up vast opportunities for the Western European Russophobic trend, and many politicians on the left and the right are still using it today. Heraclitus said: “The counterthrust brings together, and from tones at variance comes perfect harmony.” In this particular case, harmony occurred between the advocates of the “Asiatic mode of production” and the seemingly conflicting concept of Eurasianism.


CONCEIVED AS anti-Marxist, Eurasianism emerged mostly on Russian soil and was expected to explain the disaster that happened in 1917. It proceeded from the rejection of Russia’s Europeanism on ostensibly very different grounds. To a large extent this outlandish construct still fills, completely or partially, the vacuum that has developed in the proto-Marxist-Leninist minds of contemporary Russia’s half-educated establishment with the lifting of the haze of historical materialism.

The Eurasianists accepted many of the ideas of their predecessors, whose morphological understanding of Russian identity relied on the works of their predecessors, starting from Vladimir Odoyevsky, the Slavophiles and, later, Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontiev, who caused a noticeable impact on the minds and hearts of Russia’s intellectual elite in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It will not be an exaggeration to say that Vladimir Odoyevsky’s historical constructs were welcomed and developed by his contemporary Alexander Herzen. Herzen maintained that the West (to be more precise, Europe) had walked a long and glorious way, but had entered (already then!) the organic phase of disgraceful senility. Precisely for that reason, it invariably stumbles whenever it comes to doing the last historical job—translating the socialist dream into reality. Capable of this is only a new generation, the young and energetic type possessing a unique territory—the Slavdom in general and Russia in particular. Russia without Europe and, to a certain extent, against Europe.

On the whole, the Eurasianists are persistent in their efforts to collect and emphasize the elements of Russian distinctiveness and denial of historical similarities at the European and world levels. They meticulously collected the facts of Russia’s unique geographic features and of the ethnic composition of its population, stressing its kinship with the indigenous people inhabiting the Asian steppe, and keeping in sight even the aspects of race. Remarkably, priority in their studies is attached not so much to the people, as to the territory. It is this basic principle that some “place-development” concept is derived from as an absolute value. Nonlocal features are not utterly ignored, but they are always made subordinate to the local center of attraction and invariably cloaked in local garb. The reverse action of magnetism is practically ignored. The local flavor is transferred to the religious domain. Religion’s merger with territory results in the opposition of Orthodoxy to other branches of Christianity, and inside Orthodoxy itself the Eurasianists are particularly enthusiastic about proto-Orthodox religious phenomena, including various forms of paganism, which had ostensibly prepared the soil for Orthodoxy. The main antagonist of the “Russian religion” is seen not in paganism, and not even in Islam or Buddhism, but rather in Catholicism and other Christian confessions.

While the Slavophiles never claimed that Europe was alien to Russia, the Eurasianists postulate precisely that. In Eurasianist writings, one can invariably taste disgust towards Europe and emotional attraction to Asia. Eurasianists invariably get emotional and enthusiastic whenever they mention kinship, including spiritual kinship, with Asia, and both Russian and Orthodox factors get drowned in this feeling. In Soviet reality, beneath the veil of internationalism, the Eurasianists saw (in the words of Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy, a founding Eurasianist) a “spontaneous, ethnic identity and non-European, semi-Asian face of Russia-Eurasia”; they discovered “not an invented ‘Slavic’ or ‘Slavo-Varangian’ Russia, but the real Russo-Turanian Russia-Eurasia, heir to the great legacy of Genghis Khan.” In that sense the Eurasian constructs are in stark contrast with the ideas of the so-called Russian World (of course, if the term “Russian” is not applied to the Turanian peoples of the steppe), let alone of “Slavic unity.”

This transformation of the image of real Russia into that of the direct heir of the Genghis Khan’s empire is accompanied by the worship of the state, which has the “natural right” to infinite and limitless violence over an individual and any sociocultural and religious institutions. As Georges Florovsky wrote,

the Russian fate turns again into the history of the state, not only Russian, but Eurasianist, and the very essence of Russian historical existence is confined to “domesticating place-development” and to formalizing its statehood on an ever wider basis.

It is very clear that such official maximalism in combination with the rejection of European Russia and the exaggeration of its Turanian-Genghis-Khanian pseudoroots is an exact replica of propaganda products of late Stalinism. Only Stalin’s profile is missing. But profiles come and go, while the Eurasianist dreams remain. It is quite obvious that in the twenty-first century, in the age of growing interdependence, the doctrines described above are doomed. Attempts at implementing truly Genghis-Khanian plans for creating giant superstate structures, based on the territorial and ethnic “place-development” fantasies in the entire space of Eurasia, or a greater part of it, have been made more than once. They’ve all failed.

Among those attempts was the Napoleonic project to create a France-led, united Europe (incorporating a considerable part of Eurasia); Hitler’s Third Reich project that ended with the defeat of Nazism and its theories, which in some significant respects were very much reminiscent of the Eurasianist ones; and the Stalinist project of “socialist Eurasia,” which ended with the relatively peaceful collapse of the empire. There are enough reasons to postulate that the chances of Genghis Khan’s remote descendants look no better than those of his near descendants. And if the specter of Eurasianism still haunts Europe and its environs, the odds of it taking material shape are close to nought.

As for the possibility of creating a pan-European “center of power” over decades to come, I believe that speculations on that score are not utterly groundless. True, amid the Ukrainian crisis, when, according to Matthew (6:34), “today’s trouble is enough for today,” it is hard to foresee fundamental long-term trends of Europe’s future development. And yet, without forgetting the past and at the same time looking into the future, one cannot but recognize that the boldest and most successful steps in building Russia as a great and influential power were taken by Western-oriented rulers—Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Alexander II. As for major isolationist projects (Nicholas I and the Stalinist version of the Soviet system), they ended either in military failures or in decay. Resumed attempts at translating into reality the dreams of global greatness with no resources beyond willpower are strategically deficient.


NO LESS faulty is the eupeptic hope that Russia may dissolve in featureless and one-dimensional globalism. Between the growing mutual dependence and the dissolution of big countries and cultures in that process, there lies at least a whole historical era. Only naive provincial neophytes and advocates of the utterly irrelevant “new political thinking” concept can ignore this.

So what do we have left? Russia is not part of some world center other than Europe. Only together with Europe could Russia form a center that deserves to be called “the center of power.”

Currently we are witnessing Europe’s attempts to shape its own long-term foreign policy proceeding from cooperation between “Old Europe” and the United States, while weakening and isolating Russia. This policy is strategically hopeless. None of Europe’s major actors, except for Britain, may like it. Such a configuration is a rudiment of the era where there were two large blocs plus the nonaligned movement, which is already a matter of history. The United States has existed all by itself all the way and it will continue this way; it finds NATO quite enough. And NATO has one voice, and the voice’s tone color is unmistakably American.

In that connection of tremendous importance was the attempt by the German and French leaders to play their own active role in settling the current Ukrainian crisis. Their visit to Moscow and further contacts in the trilateral format may have good prospects, circumstances permitting. How good the prospects will be largely depends on Russia—on our sense of proportion and diplomatic flexibility.

Russia’s skillful and competent assistance to the process of reaching an accommodation over Ukraine would create the chance to eventually turn into efforts toward a pan-European center of power on three legs: Paris, Berlin and Moscow. If the movement in this direction proceeds (though it will be a long, painful and twisted path), the problem of Ukraine’s admission to united Europe might be strongly adjusted, in terms of content and pace, to the formation of a future European “center of power” and, consequently, the creation of a united Europe from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Before long, we shall have to get back to the idea of a “Helsinki II” discussion over charting a new road map, showing the path towards a united Europe. Of course, this is still just a possibility, not an inevitability. But it is far more realistic than nostalgic, neoimperial dreams of Russian grandeur.

Vladimir Lukin is a research professor at the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. He was Russia’s ambassador to the United States in 1992–1994, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Supreme Soviet (1990–1992) and the State Duma (1994–2000), Deputy Chairman of the State Duma (2000–2004) and Commissioner for Human Rights in the Russian Federation (2004–2014).

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