The Eurasianist answer to Russia’s discontents

Western politicians will have to be creative in gauging policies of principled engagement against the coming manifestations of the Kremlin’s Eurasianism

Not quite Western nor Eastern...
Richard Cashman
On 19 January 2012 11:56

The feeling that Russia is neither quite Western nor Eastern has caused consternation to historians and anthropologists, but has always rather suited Russia’s leaders. Over the last 500 years the Russian story has been one of constant conversion towards western practice and subsequent reversion back to something altogether more Asiatic. Approximately, this process has been driven by a desire for technological advancement and knowledge of political otherness.

Periods of conversion have invariably been implemented in a rash manner from the top down, usually as a reaction to some national embarrassment and perceived need to catch up quickly. All reforming zeal, however, has ineluctably met with the friction of two factors.

One is a sceptical and disenfranchised society. The second is acute indignation at the West’s apparent refusal to accept Russia as an equal partner, no matter what it does. It is the recurrence of such conditions that seduces Russian politicians into reposing in the comfort of Russia’s other character: its Eurasian one. 

Russia’s history since the Soviet dissolution evidences a full conversion-reversion cycle. A desire and obvious need for western technological and organisational expertise in the immediate years following the USSR’s collapse informed a state approach that prioritised Western cooperation and emphasised Russia’s Greco-Christian roots. Towards the end of the ‘90s, as mutual disappointment between Russia and the West increased, that approach steadily gave way to something less committed to any identity – usually termed great power pragmatism.

Then, in October this year, Vladimir Putin announced plans for a Eurasian Union (EuU), which would include many of the former Soviet states. Analyses of the scheme, however, typically rest on little more than the superficial assertion that, being a former KGB officer, Putin must obviously want to re-establish the Soviet Union. Yet, while the glory of Soviet power imbibed by him and his siloviki men stands as a factor, it is the Eurasian lens that can better help us understand what is coming.

As an ideological construct, Eurasianism was first articulated in the 1920s by émigrés like Prince N.S. Trubetskoy who saw promise as well as gloom in revolutionary Russia. However, the lineage of thought that emphasises Russia’s Asiatic heritage of passionate community, as distinct from western reason and individuality, can be traced back as a probative genre of literature to at least the veterans of 1812, if not the amateur Orientalism of Catherine and Peter, with practically all Russia’s great intellects having had something to say about it.

Not surprisingly, the idea found a captive audience amongst some Bolsheviks, keen for any plausible paradigm that would help justify the revolution having taken place in Russia and not, as prophesied, in Germany. Thus then, as now, Eurasianism’s evocation was partially a reaction to a western rebuff - the failure of the follow-up revolutions anticipated across Europe – and also a clarion call to marshal a complex set of emotions to the identity that suited a time-specific political purpose.

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