The intellectual roots of Russia's Eurasianist neoimperialism

Written by me
During the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Russian neoimperialist rhetoric has entered a new phase of aggressiveness, with e.g. Dmitri Medvedev stating in one of his 'letters' on 5 April 2022 that the goal of the war in Ukraine is 'the opportunity to finally build an open Eurasia - from Lisbon to Vladivostok'.

Below is a short exploration of the intellectual roots of Medvedev's idea, which will hopefully be useful for those interested in Russian neoimperialism.

Eurasianism (Евразийство) is a political movement with a long intellectual history. It developed originally in the Russian émigré community in the 1920s, but has its roots in the earlier Russian imperialist projects of the All-Russian Nation and the 19th century-early 20th century Pan-Slavic movement.

Eurasianism was a varied ideology that has changed and diversified over time. Its main assumptions are as follows: 1. The main actors in world politics are not nation states, but civilisations or cultural areas. 2. Russia is a unique cultural and quasi-ethic entity, consisting of both Slavonic and non-Slavonic peoples (a conception different from that of traditional Russian Slavophiles). 3. The Asian element in the Russian culture and ethnicity is as significant as the European one (a different stance from that of traditional Russian Westernisers). 4. These facts should find expression in the political direction taken by the Russian state, including in terms of its expansion.

Eurasianism was born in Russian émigré centres in Central and Western Europe (especially Prague and Paris) in the early 1920s as an attempt to reconcile the shock of the Bolshevik revolution with Russian political and cultural traditions. The Eurasianists were keen to ascribe Russia a ‘middle way’ between Western individualism and Eastern collectivism, arguing that the Bolshevik revolution was not an aberration, but actually firmly rooted in Russian history, and a natural reaction to the excessively rapid modernisation of traditionalist Russian society in the modern era.

Over time, a group of left Eurasianists ended up adopting an essentially pro-Soviet stance, arguing that a totalitarian/authoritarian regime is actually what’s best suited for Russia. Since the superiority of despotic government and totalitarian regime were now accepted, the Bolsheviks would no longer be criticised for this reason. Instead, left Eurasianist ideologues developed contacts with Soviet authorities, who were generally positive towards the movement, recognising the similarities between the Eurasianist ideas and their own. Some leaders of the Eurasianist movement were also probably agents of the Soviet secret police.

But in the 1930s, the group fragmented due to the rise of Hitler. Some believed that Fascism would be a viable alternative to both Communism and the pre-revolutionary order, and that Russia should be transformed from a Communist into a Fascist state, while others strove for complete identification with the Soviet regime and Stalin, as Russia was now under threat from Fascists (and Stalinism would in any case be preferable to German occupation). By the beginning of World War II, the movement had completely split up into squabbling factions.

The main Eurasianist ideologue to remain influential in the post-World War II decades was the Soviet historian and dissident Lev Gumilyov. He introduced the concept of ‘passionarity’ to describe the genesis and evolution of ethnic groups (the level of activity to expand that is typical for an ethnic group at the given moment of time) and argued that every ethnic group passes through the same stages of birth, development, climax, inertia, convolution, and memorial. Gumilyov regarded Russians as a ‘supra-ethnos’, kindred to Turkic-Mongol peoples of the Eurasian steppe: a separate civilisation that should never be mixed with the West and the destructive influences from Catholic Europe.

From Gumilyov's ideas, the Eurasianist movement was resurrected in Russia in the Gorbachev era, when the Soviets started looking for fresh ideas to reform their failing state. For those who saw Gorbachev’s attempts to Westernise the USSR as ill-fated, Eurasianism provided a possible alternative. These new Eurasianists included some of the leaders of the August 1991 coup attempt. But again, the movement was very varied, brought together only by its opposition to Gorbachev’s New Thinking and later to Boris Yeltsin’s liberal regime. Eurasianist intellectuals imagined that instead of a weakened, Westernised Russia, there would emerge a new Russian empire distinct from the Soviet Union.

In the 1990s, the Eurasianists were thus distinct from both Communists (advocating the restoration of the Soviet Union) and and nationalists (advocating a Greater Russia). They argued for an empire that would include both Slavonic and non-Slavonic peoples both in Europe and Asia, and create a strong geopolitical counterweight to both Asia and Europe. They had a basically realist view of international politics: strength is to be understood as a capacity for military and economic power projection. But unlike Western realists who were inclined to think in terms of states, Eurasianists thought in terms of supra-nations or empires. Gumilyov’s ideas about passionarity were increasingly adopted as the basis for creating a new Eurasian community, composed of Russians, Turkic peoples and other ethnic groups close to them.

Two main directions emerged in the movement in the 2000s: Modernisers and Expansionists. Both argued that only Russia can become an alternative to the New World Order (i.e., the US hegemony). The Modernisers thought that the Soviet Union represented a natural continuation of the Russian Empire, and saw the end of the Cold War as the imposition of Western rules of game on Russia. Their project was that of reviving the USSR – as an Eurasian Empire – inside its previous borders through accelerated economic development and militarisation. Their world view was thus characterized by nostalgia for the bipolar world of the Cold War, still focused on geopolitical rationalism, modernisation and catching up with the West.

The Modernisers argued that due to the cyclical nature of empires, the era of American dominance is about to come to an end and the weakening of the previous balance of power will lead to the establishment of an ‘Eurasian arch’: a geopolitical space between the Russian Far East and the Balkans with regional conflicts in the Balkans, Kurdistan and Afghanistan as premonitions of a coming reshaping of the world order as a result of World War III, which has already begun. The features of this war include the acceleration of the struggle over control of different regions in the Middle East, Central Asia etc., the active re-formation of the German sphere of influence (Mitteleuropa), the rise of terrorism as a political force that cannot be controlled, and new regional conflicts which cannot be resolved by traditional military means.

The second group of Eurasianist thinkers, the Expansionists, go even further, arguing that the USSR had turned too fearful and conservative, which in the end brought about its downfall. Instead, they advocate a kind of conservative revolution, aspiring ‘to restore the entirety of right-wing values in their full scope’, including ‘tradition, hierarchy, statism, nationalism, the intimate bond with native soil, spirituality and so forth’ (Dugin). This revolution would include further imperial expansion (using both military and political means) far beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union – the Eurasian Empire should reach ‘from Dublin to Vladivostok’ in order to resist the United States.

The most famous Expansionist ideologue is Alexander Dugin, the author of ‘Foundations of Geopolitics’ (1997), written in consultation with Russian General Staff officers, and used as a textbook in many Russian higher military education institutions. He and the other Expansionists see the future world order as essentially bipolar, divided by the conflict between Eurasianists and ‘Atlanticists’, and characterized by depreciation of economic criteria for the benefit of cultural and religious ones. Cultural and religious Eurasianism will be the final and highest form of Russian nationalism, and the only way to save Russia as an independent state. Once the Eurasian Empire is established, the cycles of world politics will be broken and a radically new world – ‘kingdom’ (according to Dugin) – established, with ‘Pax Evrasiatica’ bringing the empire’s constituent parts together in a neo-totalitarian strategic unity.