Crossroads Asia

Black Wind, White Snow: Imagining Eurasia

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Crossroads Asia

Black Wind, White Snow: Imagining Eurasia

“Eurasia was a ‘dog whistle,’ a cipher, a deniable but clear goal: to remake the Russian Empire in all but name.”

Black Wind, White Snow: Imagining Eurasia
Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

According to Charles Clover, the Financial Times’ former Moscow bureau chief, “Eurasia was therapy for three generations of men who were buffeted by wars and repressions[.]” A geopolitical concoction, a fantastical fabrication in need of governmental reification, Eurasia, per Clover, served as an underpinning, as a yearning, for generations of Russian exiles, dissidents, inhabitants of the Gulag. Now, nearly a century after Eurasia first came to life in Paris salons and among intra-exile communications, the notion of a great inland continent — of a separate space, carved and hemmed between Europe and Asia — has glommed onto the rhetoric of a revanchist Kremlin, which remains bent of translating Eurasia from decades-old books to modern reality.

But how did this idea of Eurasia become one of the main theoretical girders of the current Kremlin? As Clover outlines in Black Wind, White Snow, Eurasia’s path from imagined community to attempted reality under Russian President Vladimir Putin comes coated in just that: imagination. Layered with remarkable fraudulence and outright fabrication, the notion of Eurasia now serves as a fallback for a Kremlin with little else to offer — and which now threatens the post-Cold War order.

Clover’s masterful tracing of the history of Eurasia begins in the 1920s, with a handful of post-Bolshevik exiles attempting to come to terms with the new Russia — the new Soviet Union — replacing tsarist-era rule. Nikolai Trubetskoy, Roman Jakobson, Petr Savitsky — all, in their nostalgia, detailing the “hermetically sealed totalities” of Eurasia, the “gigantic basin” gathering millions in a unified identity across the then-Soviet space. Outlining the space from the steppes of western China to Murmansk and eastern Romania, Eurasia, noted Trubetskoy, was “historically destined to be a single state entity.”

Soon, the dream of Eurasia would be passed to, and would be further cataloged by, Lev Gumilev, the cantankerous son of a pair of Russia’s most well-known 20th-century poets. Gumilev piled further theory atop the Eurasian idea, layering psychological traits upon the geographical breadth his predecessors had detailed. Claiming that the myriad nationalities of the Russian (and Soviet) empire were but voluntary subjects of the tsar’s wishes, Gumilev evolved Eurasia into an apologia for Moscow’s empire.

Gumilev, feted though he eventually was, never caught the ear of the country’s political scions. Indeed, Eurasia may have faded, may have remained little more than ink and paper, had it not been for a scraggle-beard philosopher named Alexander Dugin. A neo-fascist by day and movement organizer by night, Dugin wrested Eurasia from its Soviet-era birth and updated it for a Russia reeling from an imploded economy, a flailing Kremlin, and colonies — those remaining segments of Eurasia — suddenly independent.

Since meeting Putin in 2000, Dugin has seen his musings on the necessity and inevitability of Eurasia — gathered in his Foundations of Geopolitics, written in 1997– taught widely at Russia’s General Staff Academy and other military universities. Dugin eventually becoming a professor himself at Moscow State University. Among the other “imperative[s]” detailed in Dugin’s writings are the “total and unfettered control of Moscow over the entire length of the Black Sea coast stretching from Ukrainian … territory” to central Georgia. As one researcher on the Russian right said about Foundations, “There has probably not been another book published in Russia during the post-communist period which has exerted a comparable influence on Russian military, police, and statist foreign policy elites.”

Despite the disparate histories, Clover manages to deftly thread the narrative of a Eurasia rising from scattered notebooks to actual policy. Moreover, he pairs the theoretical claims behind Eurasia with the massive scholarly deceptions bolstering Gumilev’s and Dugin’s works. “As serious scholarship, Eurasianists’ scholarly arguments are barely credible and are best understood as a sort of metaphor,” Clover writes. Gumilev, for instance, concocts neologisms to describe Eurasia’s psychosomatic identity, built around something called passionarnost, or “passionarity.” Later cited by Putin, “passionarity” can be best understood as a mutative patriotism — a sense of selflessness in pursuit of the success of a people, of a state. (“Like all the brilliant ideas … it came to my mind in a loo, of course,” Gumilev would later claim.)

While the notion, in the abstract, remains anodyne, Gumilev claimed an ability to tabulate such “passionarity” via mathematical formulas measured by the variable “Pik.” He further augmented his theories with further, fantastical notions of “ethnoi” and “bioenergy.” Slipping into parody, Gumilev — who would refer to himself as a “master of science” — would later stake that “passionarity” arose from cosmic rays. “The biogenic migration of atoms of chemical elements in the biosphere always tends to its maximum manifestation,” Gumilev wrote, apparently with a straight face.

Dugin, meanwhile, would not only occasionally slip into an alter ego named after the director of the Nazis’ department on the study of the paranormal, but would introduce myriad conspiracies — on the Bilderberg Group and the Council on Foreign Relations — to post-Soviet Russia. Dugin’s conspiracy-mongering remains beyond compare; while Russia remains a font of conspiracy, few have gone so far as to claim the KGB was a Western front, as Dugin believed.

The sheer magnitude of fraudulence carrying Gumilev and Dugin doesn’t lessen the developments, centered on the pursuit of Eurasia, seen since Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012. While Clover’s book could have lingered more on the Eurasian Economic Union — or on the nationalistic pushback seen in member states like Kazakhstan — Black Wind, White Snow doesn’t shirk the implications of Eurasianism trickling upward into the Kremlin. When the Russian president cited Gumilev, “Putin was extolling chest-thumping nationalism, the martial virtues of sacrifice, discipline, loyalty, and valor.” To Moscow, Eurasianism came to be seen as “something that promised to provide the mobilizational benefits of nationalism without provoking ethnic hostility and leading to separatism.” Given Russia’s sputtering economy, political ossification, and myriad rights rollbacks, Eurasia presented a fallback for a Kremlin in search of legitimacy: a subtler appeal to imperialism, to the restoration of the “single state entity” Trubetskoy had pledged nearly a century prior. “Eurasia,” writes Clover, “was a ‘dog whistle,’ a cipher, a deniable but clear goal: to remake the Russian Empire in all but name.”

In Foundations, Dugin claimed, “Outside of empire, Russians lose their identity and disappear as a nation.” As Clover makes clear, Eurasianism — the (re)construction of a geopolitical inevitability — has become the route toward such empire. Eurasia may have provided an outlet for generations of men wracked by war and repression, but as seen in the Kremlin’s post-Soviet policies since 2012, the notion of a Eurasia inexorable has also helped provide that much more war, and that much more repression, alongside.

“Eurasianism broke me, it did not allow me to be who I should have and could have been,” Trubetskoy once wrote. Given the spiraling frustrations, stumbling economy, and exhausted policies seen since 2014, Putin may be sharing the same sentiment soon enough.