The Eurasian Idea

The political concept of “Eurasia,” introduced in an earlier post, is interesting precisely because it is not merely a thin veil masking Russian expansionism or Soviet irredentism – no matter how hard Russia’s presumptive President Vladimir Putin tries to make it appear to be just that. To begin with, as I pointed out in my earlier post, it is likely that Kazakhstan’s President Nazarbayev is the most recent progenitor and promoter of Eurasia as a political idea – as evidenced by his Kazakhstan-blue book, titled Eurasian Union: Ideas, Practice and Prospects, 1994-1997 and featuring the author himself on the cover.

Moreover, “Eurasia” and “Eurasianism” have long intellectual histories among Russian, Kazakh, Soviet and post-Soviet thinkers, and these histories (in very brief) are the subject of tonight’s post. I consider “Eurasianism” to be sufficiently fascinating – and sufficiently important for contemporary and future politics – that for a while I seriously considered making it (broadly understood) the subject of a PhD. (Then I decided not to pursue a PhD for the time being, at least, and shelved “Eurasianism” as another facet of [intellectual] history to be examined as an amateur at a later date.) In any case, what follows is a brief and far from comprehensive introduction to what I understand to be “Eurasianism” past and present.

As far as I can tell, one of the earliest proponents of Eurasianism, and one of the men who lent prominence to the idea, was the Russian linguist Prince N. S. Trubetskoy (1890-1938). During the 1920s, he led a group of Russian émigré intellectuals in arguing that that Bolshevism was a perversion of Russian development brought about by the country’s mistaken association with Europe. In their conception, Russia’s is a unique culture and as such must be developed independent of outside influences. These early Eurasianists were also optimistic: they believed that the Soviet Union, though misguided, would in fact morph into an Orthodox Christian national state. Such an argument was an odd mix of cultural determinism and Hegelian (and thus also, in a sense Marxist) dialectics regarding the development and transformation of states. It was also, of course, wrong.

Though initially anti-Bolshevik in conception, the Soviets also developed their own self-serving counter-conception of Eurasianism. As articulated by the Soviets, Russia’s “peculiar” civilization “had “centralist authoritarianism at its heart – and the communists were seen as having continued that tradition,” thus justifying Soviet totalitarianism (Service, Comrades).

Interestingly, as time passed and various intellectuals contributed to Eurasianism, the idea seems always to have remained close to its foundation, laid by Trubetskoy, in linguistics. The most famous recent Eurasianist is Lev Gumilëv (1912-1992), a historian, ethnologist and anthropologist. The son of anti-Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova, Gumilëv spent nearly 20 years as a young man in the Gulag prison camps. This experience was perhaps the germ of his later academic interests in the history of the ancient steppe peoples and the interaction between “ethnoi” (ethnic groups). Drawing heavily on linguistic evidence, he famously argued that the period of Mongol rule in European Russian (1240-1480, often referred to as the “Mongol yoke”) was a time when Russian culture was in fact protected from European influences and developed some unique and some Asian characteristics.

Gumilëv is often consider the father of “Neo-Eurasianism,” which is to say the revival of the Eurasian idea in the late Soviet, post-Soviet periods – and not only in Russia. An important non-Russian intellectual proponent of Eurasianism is Olzhas Suleimenov (b. 1936), a very famous Kazakh poet-politician. His 1975 Az-I-Ya (Аз-и-Я, which translates as “As[ia] and I”) again draws heavily on ancient (and speculative?) linguistics to root Russian identity in Asia and as developing peacefully alongside those of the Turkic world rather than the European. Despite the fact that this book could have been used to justify the Russian presence in Central Asia, the book was banned (and therefore became incredibly famous) in the Soviet period.

As this last observation makes clear, the facts of Russian history mean that Eurasianism as an intellectual idea, rooted in linguistics, has never been far from politics, and this remains true. As the Wikipedia page on Eurasianism points out, Eurasianism has also been adopted by nationalist Russian politicians – most prominently by Aleksandr Dugin, who is rabidly anti-American and more-or-less openly advocates that Russia should reclaim its imperial holdings.

At the same time, Suleimenov’s book and the ideas of Eurasianism generally could also be leveraged to advocate for neighborly relations between “ethnic Russia” and its mostly Muslim southern neighbors – not only Kazakhstan, but also Chechnya, Georgia, Ingushetia, etc. At heart, Olzhas’s Eurasianism is about the historical closeness of these cultures and the possibility of their synthesis.

It is no accident that Suleimenov is Kazakh. Contemporary Kazakhstan is a very important test of how possible it is to merge Russian and “Turkic” culture – or at least whether these two cultures can live in productive symbiosis. After all, by unofficial estimates, up to 7 million of Kazakhstan’s 16 million citizens are ethnically Russian – and the meshing of two cultures is everywhere evident: bilingual signage; Kazakhs who can’t speak Kazakh, only Russian; and my favorite: cappuccino in a bowl, pictured as served at the best  local coffee place, 4A. (Incidentally, 4A is run by a white Bostonian married to a Kazakh woman, but I don’t think the American chose to serve the coffee this way.)

In sum, Eurasianism has a long and complicated history, but also deep contemporary resonances. The present problem, to my mind, is that Eurasianism is not coherent. Depending on who employs the idea, it can be either a justification for Russian exceptionalism or a vision of Russia (and Kazakhstan) as bridges between East and West, separate from both, but hostile to neither; it is both a dream of coexistence and a battle-cry for nationalists. The lack of clear definition allows those who use it’s rhetoric (namely Putin) to have it both ways, simultaneously appeasing and appealing to the Russian hard right and luring Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine (for now) into a illusory “partnership” between related nations. For my money, Eurasianism is an idea to watch.

(I’ve not yet read it, but one of the very few books on the subject of Russian Eurasianism is by Marlène Laruelle.)

  1. Mom said:

    very interesting and thoughtful. Dad read two of your earlier blogs (I would rather
    call them essays) on his new iPad, which so far has not frustrated him too much.
    lovem mommie

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