EURASIA: NOSTALGIC GEOPOLITICAL IDEA OR TREND FOR THE FUTURE

The recent call of Vladimir Putin – who practically faces no obstacle in becoming Russia’s future president – for an “Eurasian Union” sparked not only concerns about Russia’s possible attempt to restore Kremlin’s domination over other former Soviet states, in what analysts have called an “authoritarian consolidation”, but also fears of the influence it may have in Europe, in the context of the current economic crisis that made the European Union a less attractive project to potential new members. Last but not least, the recent developments brought into the limelight the possibility of a materialization of the supposedly “ancient” ideas promoted by the pan-Slavic and pan-Orthodox (“Third Rome”) ideologies.

By all indications, Vladimir Putin plans to stay in the Kremlin for two more presidential terms — another 12 years — as he is enabled to do by the recently amended Constitution.

Soon after his article in “Izvestia”, Vladimir Putin hosted in St. Petersburg a meeting of Commonwealth of Independent States prime ministers, eight of whom signed an agreement establishing a free trade area among their countries. On 1 January 2012, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, which now form a customs union, will join a single economic space. And Putin wants even more: a “Eurasian Schengen” free movement of people among the three countries, built on the example of the European Union by 2015, followed by a currency union and, ultimately, full economic integration. Indeed, Putin wants to restructure Russia’s relations with the former Soviet states to create not merely a bigger market, but eventually a security alliance.

All of this has geopolitical implications. In Eastern Europe, Russia is clearly drawing Belarus closer and is competing with the EU over Ukraine’s future economic orientation. Meanwhile, in Central Asia, Russia, having built strong economic ties with Kazakhstan, is now reaching out to Kyrgyzstan, thus competing more actively with neighboring China. Rather than choosing between Brussels and Beijing, Moscow now seeks to turn Russia’s post-imperial neighborhood into a community. And as a long-term goal, Putin envisions a close economic relationship between his Eurasian Union and the EU in what he calls a “Greater Europe”.

Eurasianism: resurrection or continuity?

In assessing the recent developments in Russia, most analysts noted the growing influence of the “Eurasianism”, a geopolitical doctrine and ideology which argues that the territory of the former Russian empire is a single, indivisible political and cultural unit, and most of all, of its main promoter, Alexander Dugin, head of the Eurasian Movement, who considers that this would offer for Vladimir Putin “a reason why he needs to come back”.

There has probably not been another book published in Russia during the post-communist period which has exerted an influence on Russian military, police and statist foreign policy elites comparable to that of Aleksandr Dugin’s 1997 neo-fascist treatise, Foundations of Geopolitics. The 600-pages book is a program for the eventual rule of ethnic Russians over the lands extending “from Dublin to Vladisvostok”. By the summer of 2001, Aleksandr Dugin had managed to approach the center of power in Moscow, having formed close ties with elements in the Presidential Administration, the secret services, the Russian military, and the leadership of the State Duma. One fact that certainly helped, besides his ideas, is that Dugin, born in 1962, is son, grandson, and great-grandson of Russian military officers and, according to various press reports, Dugin’s father was a general in the GRU (Russian military intelligence). During mid and late 2002, evidence concerning Dugin’s increased political clout began to mount up. It was reported, for example, that Dugin was preparing various draft programs for the Presidential Administration. At the same time, Dugin continued to serve as an advisor “on geopolitics and national security” to Duma speaker Gennadii Seleznev. In addition, Dugin was named a member of the prestigious Experts’ Council of ORT state television. Alexandr Dugin’s ideas are also embraced by the “Nashi” (the Youth Democratic Anti-Fascist Movement “Ours!”), Vladimir Putin’s political youth movement in Russia.

In fact, one perceptive observer of the Russian political scene, Françoise Thom[1], noted as far back as 1994 that fascism, and especially its “Eurasianist” variant, was displacing Russian nationalism among statist Russian elites as a post-communist “Russian Idea,” especially in the foreign policy sphere. “The weakness of Russian nationalists,” she emphasized, “stems from their inability to clearly situate Russian frontiers. Eurasianism brings an ideological foundation for post-Soviet imperialism.”

When, in November of 2000, shortly before undertaking a trip to Brunei, President Putin declared publicly: “Russia has always perceived itself as a Eurasian country.” Dugin later termed this statement “an epochal, grandiose revolutionary admission, which, in general, changes everything”. Later on, in an interview with the Krasnoyarsk division of Ekho Moskvy Radio on July 25, 2001, Dugin, commenting on Putin’s role at a G-8 meetings in Genoa, affirmed, “It is my impression that in the international sphere Putin is splendidly realizing the Eurasian political model.”

The origins of the Eurasian ideology are to be found in the Russian émigré community in the 1920s. The Eurasian movement “Evraziitsi” posited that Russian civilization does not belong in the “European” category (an idea also present in the pan-Slavic theories) and the October Revolution was a necessary reaction to the rapid modernization of Russian society. The main leader of the “Evraziitsi” was Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy, and a significant influence of the doctrine of the “Evraziitsi” can be found in Nikolai Berdyaev’s essay “The Sources and Meaning of Russian Communism”.

The Eurasianism promoted by Dugin’s followers takes the inspiration from the Eurasianists of the 1920s, notably prince Trubetzkoy and P.N. Savitsky. Lev Gumilev[2] is often cited as the founder of the Neo-Eurasianist movement, and he was quoted as saying that “I am the last of the Eurasianists.”  Gumilev’s contribution to Neo-Eurasianism lies in the conclusions he reaches from applying his theory of ethnogenesis: that the Mongol occupation of 1240 – 1480 AD (known as the “Mongol yoke”) had shielded the emergent Russian ethnos from the aggressive neighbor to the West, allowing it to gain time to achieve maturity.

The movement is sometimes called “the Greater Russia” and is described as a political aspiration of pan-Russian nationalists and irredentists to retake some or all of the territories of the other republics of the former Soviet Union and territory of the former Russian Empire and amalgamate them into a single Russian state. Some have seen the Soviet Union as effectively being a Greater Russia due to the dominance of Russian political interests in the state.

Inspired by philosophers closely associated with fascism and Nazism, Dugin is an outspoken critic of capitalism, liberal democracy, and the bourgeois social order, which he identifies with his archenemy, the United States. Despite his radicalism – or perhaps because of it – Dugin is a favorite of the Russian establishment, a sought-after figure in the media, and a popular and oft-quoted political analyst.

Dugin and his philosophy cannot, therefore, be dismissed as an insignificant episode in Russian intellectual history. On the contrary, they reflect the dominant trend in current Russian politics and culture, and their influence over the general public and decision makers in the Kremlin is only going to become stronger. Some analysts rush to claim his link to Russia’s elite, because his phrases have been used by Putin and Medvedev as well, but this more likely to be a conspiracy theory. But nevertheless he could be useful for the Kremlin, as someone who can propagate ideas with which Kremlin does not want to be directly associated.

Historically speaking, fascist “thought” has more than once resulted in explosive expansionism. Within the territorial sprawl of Eurasia, Dugin’s program focuses upon the formation of three key “axes”: Moscow-Berlin, Moscow-Tokyo, and Moscow-Teheran. With regard to the future of Europe, Dugin writes: “The task of Moscow is to tear Europe away from the control of the U.S. (NATO), to assist European unification, and to strengthen ties with Central Europe under the aegis of the fundamental external axis Moscow-Berlin. Eurasia needs a united, friendly Europe”.

It should be noted, moreover, that Dugin does not focus primarily upon military means as a way of achieving Russian dominance over Eurasia; rather he advocates a fairly sophisticated program of subversion, destabilization and disinformation spearheaded by the Russian special services, supported by a tough, hard-headed use of Russia’s gas, oil, and natural resource riches to pressure and bully other countries into bending to Russia’s will. While Dugin, apparently, does not in the least fear war, he would prefer to achieve his geopolitical goals without resorting to it.

“Pan-Slavism” and “Third Rome”: ancient ideologies with new potential

One interesting feature that shows the complexity of the ideologies behind the so-called new Russian imperialism is the manner in which old doctrines, apparently forgotten are brought in to sustain, in fact, the necessity of Russia’s territorial expansion/control.

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In one of his political comments, US analyst Eric S. Margolis[3] mentioned the possibility of Vladimir Putin achieving a “new Pan-Slavism” that would replace the former Soviet control of the former Warsaw pact countries. The reference to Pan-Slavism is also evident in Aleksandr Dugin’s political works. With regard to the Balkans, Dugin assigns “the north of the Balkan peninsula from Serbia to Bulgaria” to what he terms the “Russian South”. “Serbia is Russia,” a subheading in his main book declares unambiguously.

Pan-Slavism grew in the early 19th century, from the sense of unity and nationalism experienced within ethnic groups under the domination of France during the Napoleonic Wars. Like other Romantic nationalist movements, Slavic intellectuals and scholars in the developing fields of history, philology, and folklore actively encouraged the passion of their shared identity and ancestry. The historical and philosophical doctrine of Pan-Slavism not only sought the unity and federation of Slavic peoples, but envisioned the establishment of an ideal balance of power in Europe and a rejuvenation of European civilization as a result of their efforts. For the founder of Panslavism, Danilevsky[4] (1822–1885), the essence of world history is a struggle between Roman (Catholic) and Byzantine (Orthodox) Post-Imperial “Third Romes” civilizations, represented by Germanic and Slavic cultural entities. In his geopolitical utopia, Danilevsky predicted “the third stage of the Eastern Question”: creation of an Eastern (e.g., Orthodox-Slavic) empire, an all-Slavic union of Russia, the Czech Republic, Moravia, Slovakia, Serbia (including Bosnia and Herzegovina), Croatia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Greece, Hungary, part of Turkey. Danilevsky stressed the empire’s universality, non-Russianness, insisting that the capital of that empire should be not Saint-Petersburg or Moscow, but Constantinople (Tsar-City, Tsargrad). In the second half of the 19th century the concept was adopted by Russian circles, that quickly came to dominate the movement and developed it as a means of extending Russian influence over other Slavic peoples. The main focus was in the Balkans, where the South Slavs had been ruled for centuries by other empires (Byzantine Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Venice). It was also used as a political tool by both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, which gained political-military influence and control over all Slavic-majority nations between 1945 and 1948.

The authentic idea of unity of the Slavic people was all but gone after World War I when the maxim “Versailles and Trianon have put an end to all Slavisms” and was finally put to rest with the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe in late 1980s. With the breakup of Pan-Slavic states such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia and the problem of Russian and Serbian dominance in any proposed all-Slavic organization, the idea of Pan-Slavic unity is nowadays mostly considered dead. However, in modern times the appeals to Pan-Slavism are often made in Russia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Slovakia. Sociologists agree that there are signs that Pan-Slavism is experiencing a growing trend among younger people in some Slavic countries. Multiple factors, such as the entry of Slavic countries such as Poland, Slovakia and Bulgaria into the European Union has contributed to the fact that many young Slavs may feel alienated and are finding a sense of belonging and identity in “being a Slav”. Right-wing youth are much more prone to the ideas of Pan-Slavism.

Although historically a major geopolitical current in Orthodoxy, modern neo-Panslavism is now less popular and somewhat different. It accepts Danilevsky’s basic reasoning in terms of the Slavic-Orthodox world under Russia’s leadership and of coexistence with other worlds or civilizations; its attitude to Eurasianism and Islam is inconsistent; some even accept a special value of not only Islam, but also of Hinduism. They actively borrow concepts from the ideology of so-called ‘Russian cosmism’ that have been rejected by the Church as heresy.

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The pan-Orthodox (or “Third Rome”) ideology is also drawn into Dugin’s program since, in his opinion, all of the states of the “Orthodox collectivist East” will with time seek to establish binding ties to “Moscow the Third Rome,” thus rejecting the snares of the “rational-individualistic West”. The states of Romania, Macedonia, “Serbian Bosnia,” and even NATO-member Greece will all, in time, Dugin predicts, become constituent parts of the Eurasian-Russian Empire.

“Orthodoxy-related geopolitics” is considered by many analysts to be Russia’s oldest and still vibrant geopolitical discourse, an inclusive, umbrella term: it is not about the Russian Orthodox Church’s teaching per se, rather more about various Orthodox, quasi-Orthodox or even secular intellectual currents in post-Soviet Russia that use the Church’s historiosophy in their geopolitical constructs. “Orthodoxy-related geopolitics” is a convenient substitute label for a more accurate term ‘Third Romist geopolitics’; it is the use of the major Orthodox metaphor, the concept of Russia as the Third Rome.

The idea that Moscow (the “Third Rome”) had a unique religious and political mission as the successor of Rome and Byzantium originates in the second half of the fifteenth century and the early sixteenth century. The earliest surviving formulations of this idea are in several works attributed to the monk Filofei (Philotheus), the elder (starets) of the Eleazarov monastery in Pskov. Filofei’s writings appeared several times: first, in the Medieval Muscovy of the sixteenth century, second, in the imperial Russia of the nineteenth century, and, third, in the West, through interpretations by Berdyaev in the twentieth century. Berdyaev’s interpretation of international communism as reincarnated “Russian messianism” has been widely publicized in the West. The Soviet occupation of East Europe gave rise to the concept later called “Soviet expansionism”. Many of the post-war analysts turned to Berdyaev’s interpretation of Bolshevism as modified “Russian Messianism”. Many thought that Communist imperialism could be understood as a modern reincarnation of the alleged original Russian desire to become the “Third Rome”). All three had different audiences, produced different geopolitical ideals, and have different degrees of appeal nowadays.

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The “Third Rome” concept is approached from a statist perspective in Alexei Mitrofanov’s book titled Russia: Between Collapse or Joining the European Union. A long-time deputy of Russian parliament and the head of its committee on geopolitical issues, Mitrofanov discusses the concept of the Third Rome as an emblem of a strong centralized Russian state. His conclusion is that Russia has only one choice: either to disintegrate or to establish a strong centralized unitary state and join the European Union to create a global super-civilization.

On the other hand, Mikhail Nazarov[5] – who is considered to be one of the most outspoken voice of Russian nationalists – is noteworthy not because of his innovative theoretical interpretation of the Third Rome, but rather precisely because of the practical recipes he suggests. Chapter VII of the book has a telling title: “What the Leader of the Third Rome Should Do?” The Nationalist Nazarov is critical of Russia’s contemporary rulers and, predictably, argues for Russia’s autarchy, purification of contemporary political elites, and a new solution of the national question of Russians. Nazarov is against Dugin’s Eurasianist project as an attempt to “unite the Orthodox, the Muslim and Judaists under the banner Eurasia Is above All”. He is sympathetic to the Pan-slavist project: “First of all, it is essential for restoring the post-Byzantine space of those Orthodox countries that understand the world order and meaning of history: Russia, Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, and also ancient Christian Armenia. Certainly, Belarus and eastern Ukraine also belong here regardless of their status related to Russia.”

Chapter IX “Boundaries of the Third Rome” delivers Nazarov’s geopolitical project of restoring the Third Rome in full detail. Having summarized Russia’s territorial losses, he concludes that “we must as actively as possible participate in the restoration process to reduce further territorial losses and to help many of our brothers. And to actually achieve success, it is better to put forward a goal of not minimalist but rather maximalist proportions in hopes that God again would give us as much land as we would be able to spiritually feed”.

The field is diverse and characterized by frequent overlaps of ideologies: the same figure often adheres to several ideologies (e.g., Gennadi Zyuganov could be viewed simultaneously as a neo-Orthodox Communist and neo-Eurasianist). There are significant overlaps between these ideologies and therefore this classification is highly conditional. Still, it is necessary to differentiate the field and highlight contrasts. These ideologies are further loosely grouped as Russia-focused isolationists, Europe-minded neo-Panslavists and statists, and Eurasia-centered expansionists.

Eurasian continent: “heartland” vs. “rimland”

The recent economic and political developments in the Russian Federation, presented above, as well as the continuing crisis in the European Union countries and in the Union as a whole gave a new boost to studies of the regional structuralization principles for the geopolitical and geo-economic space of the entire Eurasian continent.

This revived the conceptions formulated by Sir Halford Mackinder in the early 20th century and his opponent, Nicholas Spykman, somewhat later. They offered very original approaches to the regional geopolitical structuralization of the Eurasian continent and the identification of the functional value of its spatial segments.

According to Halford Mackinder, the famous geographer who in 1904 came up with the Heartland Theory, those who rule Eurasia – East Europe and West Russia – command the heartland, thus control the world. He believed that Europe’s advance and expansion was stimulated by the need to respond to the pressure coming from the center of Asia. Accordingly, it was the Heartland (where the continental masses of Eurasia were concentrated) that served as the pivot of all the geopolitical transformations of historical dimensions within the World Island.

When structuring the geopolitical expanse in the form of a system of concentric circles, Mackinder conventionally placed the Pivot in the planet’s center, which included the river basins of the Volga, Yenisey, Amu Darya, Syr Darya, and two seas (the Caspian and the Aral).

However, during World War II another scholar, Nicholas Spykman, challenged Mackinder’s Heartland Theory. He stated that Eurasia’s Rimland, the coastal areas or buffer zone, is the key to controlling the World, not the heartland. This was later known as the “Rimland” Theory.

“Rimland” describe the maritime fringe of a country or continent; in particular, the densely populated western, southern, and eastern edges of the Eurasian continent. Spykman thought “Rimland”, the strip of coastal land that encircles Eurasia, is more important than the central Asian zone (the so-called Heartland of sir Halford Mackinder) for the control of the Eurasian continent. Spykman’s vision was at the base of the “containment politics” put into effect by the United States in its relation/position to the Soviet Union during the post-war period.

The Rimland (Mackinder’s “Inner or Marginal Crescent”) was divided into three sections: (a) the European coast land; (b) the Arabian-Middle Eastern desert land; and, (c) the Asiatic “monsoon land”.

While Spykman accepts the first two as defined, he rejects the simple grouping of the Asian countries into one “monsoon land.” India, the Indian Ocean littoral, and Indian culture were geographically and civilizationally separate from the Chinese lands.

The Rimland’s defining characteristic is that it is an intermediate region, lying between the heartland and the marginal sea powers. As the amphibious buffer zone between the land powers and sea powers, it must defend itself from both sides, and therein lies its fundamental security problems. The Rimland has great importance coming from its demographic weight, natural resources, and industrial development. Spykman sees this importance as the reason that the Rimland will be crucial to containing the Heartland (whereas Mackinder had believed that the Outer or Insular Crescent would be the most important factor in the Heartland’s containment).

In both geopolitical conceptions, the world’s spatial-functional structure consists of three main levels: the Heartland, Eurasia, and the Planet in Mackinder, and the Rimland-Eurasia-the Planet in Spykman. The former model insisted on the primordial and decisive role of the Heartland in the geopolitical expanse of the World-Island, while the latter claimed that same role for the Rimland.

Both theories have one, and a serious, shortcoming: they do not intend to explain objective global geopolitical processes. This accounts for the inevitable one-sidedness of their approaches to the question: what is primordial/more important – the Heartland or the Rimland?

Early in the 20th century, the Russian Empire was transformed into the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union inherited the same territory and geopolitical potential. In 1949, it set up COMECON and expanded the Pivot Area by including the Central European countries of the socialist camp (Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, the GDR, and Yugoslavia), as well as Mongolia and Afghanistan in Central Asia, in the new structure. This means that only during the Soviet Empire’s lifetime did the Pivot Area acquire its most complete territory and function accordingly.

The concluding stage of the Pivot’s last evolution cycle, that is, the disintegration of the last Eurasian power – the Soviet Union – marked the first stage of the Heartland’s new cycle of revival.

The analysis of these two moments clearly reveals that, very much as before, Central European, Central Caucasian, and Central Asian segments appeared along with the area of the dominant nation that detached itself from the Pivot and became an independent subject of geopolitics – the Russian Federation.

At this point one might consider another popular ideology, not very far from those analyzed above, namely the “Second Russia” theory.

The political reality in the CIS and the growing power of Islamic revivalism has forced Russian nationalists and Orthodox fundamentalists to re-formulate the “Russian idea”, introducing a programme for the creation of a “second Russia” in Siberia. According to promoters of this theory, notably  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the First Russia is “corrupted and defiled” by the heresy of the “pro-western liberal satanocracy, the greatest creation of the Judeo-puritan genius of the United States of America”. According to this philosophy, Russia would lead the peoples of the East against the Judeo-protestant West but, before the final clash of civilizations takes place in Russia, the Russians must establish their own political order in their homeland.

Critics of the theory, notably in the Muslim dominated republics, point out that the strategy of creating a commonwealth with a dominant core state of the Orthodox diarchy (the “Two Russias”) surrounded by a security zone of secular authoritarian states in Central Asia will rather lead to the emergence of the “cleft” country (cf. Samuel Huntington) in the European Russian Federation “where large groups belong to different civilizations” and the torn countries in the Muslim Turkestan. As the critics point out, post communist Russia, like post-kemalist Turkey, is described regularly as the “bridge of two civilizations” but Samuel Huntington is geopolitically correct: “the bridge is an artificial creation connecting two solid entities but is part of neither”.

Alternatives for the West: Energy-focused, but not only

As Russia is trying to consolidate its influence in Central Asia after the losses of the 1990s and, on the other hand, the People’s Republic of China emerges as a key Eurasian power, the major Western powers need to develop/formulate their own geostrategic objectives in Eurasia.

Most of the analysts suggest that the West should seek to maintain the independence of smaller countries, to prevent larger powers from creating closed spheres of influence, thereby making themselves stronger at the expense of the European Union, the United States and their allies. Step two involves funding and facilitating communications infrastructure like the Modern Silk Road and the Northern Distribution Network, as well as smaller but no less important projects like the Nabucco gas pipeline, to bring the countries in Eurasia together. The final step involves updating and expanding institutions to make them fit for a new era, especially the Atlantic Alliance and the European Union.

The key geographic zone for the European Union in the twenty-first century would be the maritime region from the Suez Canal to the city of Shanghai (and perhaps as far as Seoul), a region described as the European Union’s “grand area”. It is there, around the Indian Ocean, where the major powers have the greatest stakes and interests, due to overlapping maritime communication lines from numerous energy and raw material suppliers, which pass through. Even if the biggest stakes are in the maritime littorals of Eurasia, the terrestrial dimension cannot be ignored. After all, China and India are pushing to integrate their landward interiors to large ports on the Indian Ocean’s coast with roads, railways and energy transmission pipelines, while Russia continues to eye the steppes keenly from the north almost all the world’s most volatile shock zones and choke points.


[1] Dr. Françoise Thom is a famous Sovietologist, writer and lecturer, author of “Communism: Newspeak” in French “La langue de bois” in 1987 (Julliard); “Le moment Gorbatchev” (Hachette) in 1991 and “Les fins du Communisme” in 1994 (Criterion) among other books.

[2] Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev, (1 October 1912, St. Petersburg–15 June 1992, St. Petersburg), was a Soviet historian, ethnologist and anthropologist known for his ideas on the birth and death of ethnoi.

[3] Eric S. Margolis is an award-winning, internationally syndicated columnist. He was among the first journalists to ever interview Muammar Khadafi and was among the first to be allowed access to KGB headquarters in Moscow.

[4] Nikolay Yakovlevich Danilevsky (28 November 1822 – 7 November 1885), Russian ideologue of the pan-Slavism movement who expounded a view of world history as circular. He was the first writer to present an account of history as a series of distinct civilizations.

[5] Mikhail Nazarov is a publicist with the experience of a protracted stay in the West. In 2005 he was one of the initiators of several letters to the State Duma requesting that all Jewish organizations in Russia be made illegal on the grounds that one of the publications ignites religious intolerance. The publicity helped him to promote his nationalist manifesto entitled To the Ruler of the Third Rome.

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