Tales of Russia’s Politics of Darkness The dysfunctional myth of Eurasia as romantic nationalism.

Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism

By Charles Clover (2016, Yale University Press) 360 pp. with illustrations, end-notes, select bibliography and index

High school teachers and university faculty, who had scored the Advanced Placement in European History in 1998 at the University of Nebraska, could return home with a commemorative scarlet T-shirt. Emblazoned on its backside was the legend, “This evil must be destroyed,’ Klemens von Metternich 1819.”

Metternich was, of course, the long-serving Austrian Foreign Minister (1809) and Chancellor (1821-48), who devoted much of his efforts to combating the “evil” of nationalism (and liberalism) in Europe (and Latin America) by sponsoring a series of international conferences between 1815 and 1825. After his death in 1859, nationalism, shrewdly manipulated by statesmen the likes of Cavour and Bismarck, led to the creation of the modern nation-states of Italy and Germany.

Meanwhile, Russia was not immune. The famous first generation of the Russian intelligentsia, the Slavophiles and Westernizers, disagreed about Russia’s past, present and future, but were nationalists to a man. So too was the government of Nicholas I which persecuted them. Its Minister of Education, Uvarov, formulated the holy triad of Russia’s Official Nationality: autocracy, Orthodoxy, and nationality. So, too, on the other hand, were the Polish patriots, young nationalists who rebelled against Russian hegemony in 1830 with disastrous results. So too were contemporary Ukrainian historians and poets like Shevchenko who argued for linguistic and cultural autonomy within the Russian Empire. Nationalism was both the glue that held the empire together, and the magnet which attracted its borderlands to separate.

Early 20th-century Russian history was no less characterized by rampant nationalism. After the assassination of the tsar in 1881, his successors Alexander III and Nicholas II advocated the Russification of education and the spread of Orthodox Christianity among the Empire’s majority non-Russian peoples. One result was the Revolution of 1905, the “springtime” of nations, when ethnic communities in Russia’s Baltic lands, Poland, Byelorussia and Ukraine, and throughout the Caucasian lands, began to campaign for, even by the summer of 1917 to demand, cultural and linguistic autonomy, or even political self-determination.

Even the early Soviet Union owed its shape and very name to accommodating nationalism. Lenin, attempting to cobble together a new country out of the recoverable remnants of the old tsarist empire, knew one sure thing. Anyone proclaiming the glories of a communist future in the Russian language from the blessed Kremlin in Moscow was doomed to fail.

Even the early Soviet Union owed its shape and very name to accommodating nationalism. Lenin, attempting to cobble together a new country out of the recoverable remnants of the old tsarist empire, knew one sure thing. Anyone proclaiming the glories of a communist future in the Russian language from the blessed Kremlin in Moscow was doomed to fail. That is why from the beginning it was a Soviet Union of Socialist (Ethnic) Republics.  That is why the classics of Marx, Engels and Lenin, the glue of socialist nationalism, would be translated into tens of minority languages. That is why the vast Russian Republic was only, on paper, a constituent part of the larger USSR, an “affirmative action empire.”

Such was the old nationalism.

Ernest Renan, who witnessed the creation of the nations of Italy and Germany, was a French intellectual in whom two ethnic traits, Gascon and Breton, were always in conflict. He recognized that even after unification was proclaimed, all Germans did not speak Hoch Deutsch, pray like Luther, and practice Prussian discipline and Ordnung. Not all Italians spoke Tuscan, practiced Catholicism, or lived on pasta. The new nations and national unity were fiction and nationalism, he concluded, was an idea, not a statement of actual common ethnic heritage, shared historical experience, shared religious traditions, or a shared dialect. He cynically suggested that a modern nation was simply a group of people who had the will to live together, who shared a series of lies about the past, and who recognized a common enemy. Old nationalism did not express a social or historical reality; it was an idea, usually fictitious.

The new nationalism, addressed by Financial Times’s journalist Charles Clover, is also just an idea, equally fictitious. It is called Eurasianism, “best understood not as real ethnographic or political theories, but as ciphers for a lost Russia, which most likely never existed.” (8) This was always a politically conservative ideology, “originally an apocalyptic vision” born among survivors of a horrific World War, Russian Revolutions and Civil War. It virtually disappeared, was revived among other nationalisms under Gorbachev in the 1980s, and gained new followers, leadership and importance after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The new nationalism, addressed by Financial Times’s journalist Charles Clover, is also just an idea, equally fictitious. It is called Eurasianism, “best understood not as real ethnographic or political theories, but as ciphers for a lost Russia, which most likely never existed.”

That leadership is centered on Alexander Dugin, whose views occasionally have been cited explicitly by Vladimir Putin. “Russia’s salvation, Dugin believed, lay in turning back the tide of democratic liberalism by reestablishing repressive central control, and bringing to power a regime of patriots, beholden to an imperial concept of Russia, a multi-national, multi-ethnic, multi-confessional but distinctly Russian and distinctly non-Western geopolitical space—‘Eurasia.’” (xii) Clover regards Eurasianism as Metternich held nationalism, as a major threat to the international community.

By the early 1920s Russian conservatives naturally looked east. Defeat in war, revolution, and President Wilson’s Self-Determination had cost Russia her 18th-century western conquests of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Poland. Russia was ruled by a hated, imported Western doctrine, Marxism, accompanied by slaughter, starvation, and refugees. Devastated post-war Europe was a beacon to no one. At home and in exile abroad, a handful of linguists and historians rejected Russia’s long attachment to the West, and began to invent Eurasia, a fanciful, largely imaginary Russian civilization which looked eastward to central Asia and the Mongols and to a millennium of interaction between agricultural Eastern Slavs and waves of nomadic peoples of Asia.

Mythical ethnic nationalism elsewhere was an easy sell compared to any attempt to write a unifying set of shared beliefs for the scores of ethnicities, languages, and religions represented by the 55 percent of the empire’s non-Russian population in 1897.  Eurasianism, a plaything of outcast intellectuals in the 1920s, overcame this difficulty by postulating not a mere nation-state but a continental civilization, unique and destined for greatness by its very essence in diversity, and by a unique Russian openness to otherness.

Clover treats three moments in this vast topic[1]: its intellectual roots and early organization among Russian émigrés in Europe in the 1920s; second, the life and thought of the historian and Gulag survivor Lev Gumilev. Both are depicted as implausible, even comic. The third and most substantial details the controversial activities of Alexander Dugin with whom Clover has conducted a “series of interviews” since 2005, covering his life from “early Nazi antics” to his influence on the Russian military in the 1990s and Vladimir Putin today.

Eurasianism as a concept arose in the 1920s thought of two Russian linguists, Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy and Roman Jakobson. I unknowingly received an academic introduction to Eurasianism in the 1960s when I audited a course on Slavic Paganism with an aging Professor Jakobson. The subject is poorly documented in written sources, either because it was underdeveloped, or because it had been efficiently and ruthlessly eradicated by early Christians. The instructor searched a broad spectrum of Indo-Iranian and Indo-Aryan languages for root syllables linked to names and attributes of gods in the Slavic pantheon. He looked for similarities in the topography of sacred sites in Slavic archeology and places hundreds of miles away. Although I do not recall ever hearing the word Eurasianism, Jakobson was in retrospect discovering (or creating) the case for Russia’s central position in a vast ancient multi-lingual civilization centered in the heartland of central Asia, and stretching from the Mediterranean to Mongolia.

Mythical ethnic nationalism elsewhere was an easy sell compared to any attempt to write a unifying set of shared beliefs for the scores of ethnicities, languages, and religions represented by the 55 percent of the empire’s non-Russian population in 1897.  Eurasianism, a plaything of outcast intellectuals in the 1920s, overcame this difficulty by postulating not a mere nation-state but a continental civilization, unique and destined for greatness by its very essence in diversity, and by a unique Russian openness to otherness.

Lev Gumilev was the conflicted son of Anna Akhmatova, “one of Russia’s most influential public intellectuals,” and Nikolay Gumilev, a leading Silver-Age poet who “was shot by the Bolsheviks when Lev was just nine years old, (78-79) is the most colorful character in Clover’s book. Fourteen years in Stalin’s Gulag, especially his second sentence in Kazakhstan, oddly enabled him to continue his university studies into the nomadic tribes that periodically migrated westward out of Asia before the 10th century. Freed from the camps and partially rehabilitated after Stalin’s death, Gumilev met Peter Savitsky, one of the few survivors of the original Eurasianist movement. At that point his writings became less academic, more political and more anti-Western: Russians, he would now argue, were not Europeans but descended from ancient steppe tribes. Clover interjects, it was “getting a bit weird.” (135)

The second half of the book, written before the 2016 American electoral campaign, is devoted to a detailed study of Alexander Dugin, whose “long-held vision of Russia’s Eurasian identity, which once seemed so mad and eccentric, finally came to pass via the May 2015 treaty creating Putin’s new ‘Eurasian Union.’” (330) Hillary Clinton promptly denounced it as “a move to re-Sovietize the region.” (317) Almost simultaneously, “by March 2015, Dugin had taken such a high profile in the Ukraine conflict that the US government imposed financial sanctions on him.” (330) In 2015 Dugin also met with prominent European right-wing politicians to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Congress of Vienna, a meeting which “raised the spectre of an entente between the Kremlin and Europe’s far-right political parties.” (328)  This cacophony of events raised suspicions that “Dugin— inventor, architect and impresario of Eurasia,” however circumspect he was about his connection to these events, however much he denied direct influence on Putin and the powers that be (330), merits the attention not only of Russian historians but of American voters as well.

Soviet leaders openly professed their loyalty to Marxism-Leninism. Their predecessors, the Russian tsars, were seldom given to programmatic pronouncements: few judged themselves successful for fidelity to fleeting ideological principles or for fulfilling the promises made in their Accession Manifestoes. Our contemporary tsar Vladimir is less Soviet. He does not profess allegiance to Alexander Dugin but sometimes mentions his concepts or quotes his language. Indeed he comes closer to embodying a discipleship to the anti-democratic thought of Ivan Ilyin, the 1920s Russian fascist, whose remains Putin had returned from Switzerland for reburial in his native Russian soil.[2]

Charles Clover ignores Ilyin. He carefully catalogs each of Putin’s references to Eurasianism. By defining Eurasia and Eurasianism as broadly as possible, by detailing Dugin’s life, thought, publishing and political activities as completely as possible, he creates a villain whose evil influence on Putin’s policies poses an existential threat to Russian democracy, to Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, to Crimea, to the unity of Europe, to NATO and the Atlantic world, and to liberal and democratic institutions everywhere. His warning would be still more alarming if it focused on all the dark influences on Putin.

[1] See for example, the variety of essays in Marlene Laruelle, ed., Eurasianism and the European Far Right: Reshaping the Europe-Russian Relationship, Lanham, Lexington Books, 2015.

[2] Timothy Snyder, “How a Russian Fascist Is Meddling in America’s Election,” New York Times, September 21, 2016.

Subscribe to our email news for the latest content!

Subscribe to our email news and stay up to date on the latest content published by The Common Reader. 

This Just In! Subscribe to our email news.

Subscribe to our email news for the latest content on
The Common Reader. 

Subscribe