EURASIANISMconstructing the orient
"russian socialism" and asian barbarism
a precursor of eurasianism
proto-eurasian ideas in the early twentieth century
the eurasian movement
Eurasianism is a complex doctrine according to which Russia belongs to neither Europe nor Asia, but forms a unique entity defined by the historical, anthropological, linguistic, ethnographic, economic, and political interactions of the various genetically unrelated peoples who once constituted the Russian Empire. The doctrine's formulators believed that Russia-Eurasia's rare and unique geography creates an indivisible ethnocultural and geopolitical unity with a singular destiny: to emancipate humankind from the hegemony of European civilization.
Eurasianism emerged in the 1920s as young Russian émigré intellectuals reacted to the Russian Revolution of 1917, the collapse of the Russian Empire, and the postwar crisis in Europe. In seeking new sources of legitimacy for Russian imperial space and a new role for non-European peoples in the modern world, they developed a doctrine that departed sharply from the conventional vision of Russia. Nevertheless, Eurasianism had nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century precursors.
Pre-Eurasian ideas stemmed from discussions of Russia's encounter with Asia. Many nineteenth-century intellectuals saw Russia's location between Europe and Asia as a metaphor for its distinctive spirit and destiny. A key question inevitably arose: was Russia an agent of European civilization vis-à-vis the Orient, or, on the contrary, had Russia's mentality itself been shaped by its often traumatic relations with Asia, especially by the so-called Tatar yoke (that is, the Mongol invasion and rule over Russia in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries)? Moreover, if contact with the Orient did play a formative role in Russian identity, how was that role to be evaluated?
Peter Chaadayev (1794–1856), one of the first philosophers of Russian history, contended that Orthodoxy, inherited from Byzantium, had isolated Russia from Western Christendom, doomed it to destructive Eastern influences, and led to its disappearance from world history. He opened his first Philosophical Letter (written from 1827 to 1831, published in 1836), with the startling assertion, "We are neither of the West nor of the East." Russian intellectuals responded to this provocative statement throughout the nineteenth century.
The Westernizers, who took Russia's European identity for granted, defined the Orient as Europe's "other"—a realm of despotism, stagnation, religious fanaticism, and stifled individuality. Although the Slavophiles fostered anti-European sentiments and defined Russian national identity through Byzantine Orthodoxy and Slavic culture, they also embraced the conventional assumption of Russia's superiority over the East. The striking consensus of these two rival intellectual groups went unchallenged until 1836, when a Russian Schellingist made one of the first attempts to articulate proto-Eurasian ideas. Vladimir Titov, the Russian envoy to Istanbul and a member of the society Lovers of Wisdom (followers of the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling), added a new perspective to the question of Russia and the Orient. Titov praised Oriental cultures for the power of their religious conviction, their governments' paternal relationship to their subjects, and, finally, their preference for subtle pleasures (keif) over Western "creature comforts." Like the Slavophiles, Titov condemned government-sponsored Westernization as a tragic turn in Russian history, but unlike them, he identified Russia's "abandoned" past with its Asiatic roots. According to Titov, Russia's return to its Asiatic legacy would stimulate the country's development and confirm its unique destiny "to serve as a link between East and West." Using the Romantic philosophy of organic unity as the epistemological basis for their ideas, the Eurasians later developed this approach into a systematic doctrine.
A dramatic reinterpretation of Russia's encounter with Asia and its role in shaping the nation's destiny arose out of revolutionary ideology, another important source of Eurasianism. The brilliant émigré writer Alexander Herzen (1812–1870), who had observed the revolutionary wave of 1848 in Italy and France, concluded that social revolution could not take place in the West, where bourgeois values had corrupted the ideologues of socialism. In the 1850s, Herzen predicted that the Slavic countries—and above all Russia—would become the homeland of social revolution. He credited Russia's isolation from the West with preserving the village commune, a traditional institution of rural Russia, which he idealized as the kernel of communist society. Herzen thus reinterpreted the traumatic experiences that had divorced Russia from Europe—above all, the Tatar yoke—as a cultural advantage.
Although Herzen attributed conventional negative characteristics to Asia, he argued that the Tatar yoke had saved Russia from Europe by preserving its authentic cultural patterns and keeping its "young energies" undefiled by bourgeois corruption. Unlike most intellectuals, he praised the theory of Russia's Turanian origins—that is, the cultural, racial, and anthropological blending of Russians with Finno-Ugric and Asiatic populations, a theory that arose as part of anti-Russian propaganda spread by Polish revolutionary émigrés. Comparing western Europe to Rome in its decline, Herzen saw Russians as the new barbaric tribes, fated to destroy the old civilization and breathe new life into it by realizing the socialist project. Purged of its Westernizing spirit, Herzen's construct would later pave the way for the Eurasians' startling redefinition of Russia as the sole inheritor of Genghis Khan's empire and the leader of the non-European peoples' revolt against the Western world.
The founders of Eurasianism credited Konstantin Leontiev (1831–1891)—conservative philosopher, diplomat, journalist, novelist, and literary critic—with preparing the conceptual groundwork for their doctrine. Following Herzen, Leontiev saw Russians' "Turanian nature" as a counterweight to a "dying" Europe, but, unlike his predecessor, Leontiev rejected European civilization entirely and justified Asiatic despotism and theocracy. As the basic criterion for a nation's viability, Leontiev proposed an "aesthetics of living," that is, a concept embracing cultural diversity. He believed that multiple customs could thrive only where an external force—such as political despotism, religious discipline, or communist compulsion—held interacting traditions in check. Leontiev called this state of society the "flowering of complexity," which he contrasted with the aesthetic monotony and consequent decay resulting from the triumph of bourgeois and egalitarian ideals in the West. Leontiev found such an esthetics of living in the contemporary Orient but only partially in Russia. Consequently, he thought that Turkey or "a renewed China or awakened India" was fated to change the world. Russia could play a role in world history only by developing forms of despotism that would "freeze" its authentic cultural patterns, as well as its unique blending of Asiatic and Slavic traditions.
In his Byzantinism and Slavdom (1875), Leontiev positioned himself as a disciple of Nikolai Danilevsky (1822–1865), the author of Russia and Europe (1869), a tract that served as another source of Eurasianism. Danilevsky's scheme, which identified several successive "cultural types" in world history and prophesied the collapse of the currently dominant "Romano-Germanic cultural type," inspired Leontiev to reevaluate the Orient. Instead of condemning Oriental characteristics—such as stagnation, indolence, contemplation, religious fanaticism, and stifled individuality—as ridiculous (the conventional view), he saw them as proof of the life force and creative energies of Eastern civilization. Yet unlike Danilevsky, Leontiev harshly criticized Pan-Slavism (rejected later by the Eurasians) and even justified the Ottoman Empire's rule over southern Slavs as a way to protect them from Europe's damaging influences. He condemned ethnic (in his terminology, tribal) nationalism both as a revolutionary ideology that mimicked European national movements and as an egalitarian doctrine that concealed Europe's homogenizing impact.
Although marginal in the nineteenth century, Leontiev's ideas began to take hold among the cultural elite in the early twentieth century, when his legacy was mainly passed along through the poetry and religious philosophy of Vladimir Soloviev (1853–1900). In The Philosophical Principles of Integral Knowledge (1877), Soloviev outlined three stages of human evolution. The Eastern world represented the initial stage—a phase of primitive, undifferentiated organic unity in which religion defined all spheres of human activity. Soloviev held the Muslim East superior to the next evolutionary phase, Western civilization, in which egotism, anarchy, and atomization reigned supreme. Although Soloviev, unlike Leontiev, criticized Oriental despotism, he nevertheless found positive traits in the East that were to be embodied anew in a final phase of human development represented by the Slavs (above all, Russians) who would reconcile Eastern and Western values.
Soloviev's ideas evolved over time, but he always considered East and West as complements. According to his later views, it was Christianity (not the Russian nation) that would successfully reunite West and East. In his poem "Light from the East" ("Ex Oriente Lux," 1890), Soloviev identifies Russia with the East, yet poses a fundamental question unresolved in the poem: will Russia be the East of slavery and despotism or the East of Christianity, freedom, and love? In his final years, Soloviev became pessimistic about mankind's future and wrote the Tale of the Antichrist (1900), which anticipates Europe's invasion by a yellow-skinned race, the imposition of a new Mongol yoke, and the Antichrist's subsequent, but temporary triumph (a prelude to the Second Coming).
The first two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a striking upsurge in Oriental motifs in Russian literature. Proceeding from the Romantic conviction that "primitive" cultures were superior to European civilization, the symbolist poets sought in Asia a "forgotten" incarnation of Russia's true self. Greatly influenced by Soloviev's philosophy, "Silver Age" poets found his theme of the Asian menace a source of anxiety and inspiration. Defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) intensified their fear but did not diminish their admiration for the might and creative potential of the Eastern world.
The Eurasians recognized Alexander Blok (1880–1921) as their nearest precursor among the symbolists. In his cycle "On Kulikovo Field" (1908), devoted to the Russians' triumph over the Golden Horde in 1380, Blok develops two interconnected themes: the "eternal struggle" between Russians and Asiatic nomads and their intertwined historical fates. In "Scythians" (1918), these ideas became a metaphorical expression of Russians' double identity—Asiatic and European. The poem's concluding verses raise the threat of Russia's union with the "barbarous" East, a union predicted to prove fatal for the West.
The symbolist Andrei Bely (1880–1934) saw the image of "a new Kulikovo" as the emblem of an apocalyptic struggle between Pan-Mongolism and the European world. Following the 1905 revolution, he planned an "East-West" trilogy, but completed only two novels. In the first, The Silver Dove (1910), a confrontation between the occult East and the rational, atheist West leads to a tragic denouement. In his famous second novel, Petersburg (published serially 1913–1914), Bely contrasts the Russia of St. Petersburg, shorn of its national roots, to the "real," organic Russia, which he defines as partially Asiatic.
The Eurasians also identified their ideas in the works of the futurist Velimir Khlebnikov (1885–1922), a connoisseur of Eastern cultures. In his 1912 poem "Khadzhi-Tarkhan" (the Turkic name of Astrakhan), Khlebnikov portrayed the Volga's lower reaches as a place where the Slavic and Eastern worlds meet. In his 1918 manifestoes "An Indo-Russian Union" and "Azosoyuz," Khlebnikov dreamed of young Asia as a "single mega-island" (which included Russia) engulfed by revolution. Such projects resonated with the Eurasians' dream of emancipating the colonized peoples of Asia under Russian leadership.
Like Khlebnikov, the visual artist Nikolai Roerich (1874–1947) used proto-Eurasian motifs. For Sergei Diaghilev's "Seasons of Russia Opera" in Paris (1908–1913), Roerich portrayed Russian culture as a synthesis of Slavic and Asian traditions in the set designs and costumes he created for Alexander Borodin's opera Prince Igor, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera The Snow Maiden, and Igor Stravinsky's ballet The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky, who developed a "Turanian musical style" must have affected proto-Eurasian motifs in various forms of cultural production.
The ideologues of Eurasianism insisted that the strong focus of Russian philosophy and science on teleological (as opposed to causal) aspects of evolution distinguished the Russian from the Western intellectual traditions and thus paved the way to comprehending Eurasia as an indivisible geopolitical, cultural, and social entity. The Eurasians clearly drew upon Western intellectual achievements—including the Romantic thought of Schelling and the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, Oswald Spengler's prophecy of Europe's decline, Friedrich Ratzel's concept of "ethnological territories," Wilhelm Schmidt's theory of "cultural areas," Franz Boas's and Alfred Louis Kroeber's concepts of cultural relativism in anthropology, and Johannes Schmidt's and August Leskien's studies of linguistic
innovations across genetic boundaries. Yet Eurasianism's founders insisted that "Russian science" served as their immediate source of inspiration. They modified certain patterns and paradigms developed by Russian naturalists, critics of Darwinism, who emphasized goal-oriented evolutionary mechanisms. They fastened onto the syncretic theory of natural zones, formulated by the geoscientist Vasily Dokuchayev, because of its focus on the multifaceted interactions between various elements and agents within a single zone. The ideas of the zoologist Lev Berg, who emphasized boundary unity within certain landscapes, allowed them to argue for the commonality of the genetically unrelated peoples of Eurasia. They also referred frequently to the works of the geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, who studied the convergence of the elements contained within biospheres (closed systems with autonomous properties). All these theories profoundly influenced the Eurasians' definition of culture as a product of natural conditions and their vision of the former Russian Empire as an autarkic territory.
Eurasianism as a movement dates from the 1920s, when Prince Nikolai Trubetskoy, a linguist, published his treatise "Europe and Mankind" (1920). This was followed by a collective volume, Exodus to the East (1921).
According to the Eurasians, World War I and the Russian Revolution marked the beginning of a new period of history, one characterized by the decline of the West and the concomitant rise of the East. The Eurasians transmuted the gospel of humanity's emancipation from "Romano-Germanic" domination, dating back to Danilevsky and Leontiev, into a vision of Russia-Eurasia leading an uprising of Asia's colonized peoples against the Old World.
After flourishing during the 1920s and 1930s, the Eurasian movement, which had provided a conceptual framework capable of absorbing a wide variety of ideas, foundered because of internal dissent and the dispersal of its members. The most visible rupture came when some members proposed cooperation with the Soviet regime, thereby incurring the condemnation of others. Born out of war, revolution, and the specific experience of a group of young intellectuals in exile searching for their lost homeland, Eurasianism gradually disappeared in the emigration, but was revived again in Russia at the end of the twentieth century.
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