History of Eurasia and Eurasianism

A popular Russian creed that was exported to Turkey, Japan, and China
Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Dmitry Shlapentokh

Safar 23, 1440 2018-11-01

Book Review

by Dmitry Shlapentokh (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 9, Safar, 1440)

From Empire to Eurasia: Politics, Scholarship, and Ideology in Russian Eurasianism, 1920s-1930s by Sergei Glebov; Pub: Northern Illinois University Press, 2017, 238 pages. Price: $35 Pbk.

Sergei Glebov’s book, From Empire to Eurasia: Politics, Scholarship, and Ideology in Russian Eurasianism, 1920s-1930s, deals with Eurasianism, the intellectual and quasipolitical movement that emerged among Russian émigrés in the 1920s. While Eurasianism underwent numerous modifications with one of the participants in the movement making the wry comment that there are as many Eurasianisms as Eurasianists, the doctrine has a clear core. The proponents of the creed believed that Russia is a peculiar civilization based on “symbiosis” of Eastern Slavs, mostly ethnic Russians, historically Orthodox, and Muslims, mostly of Turkic origin.

Eurasianists do not regard Russia as an Asian country. Still, most of them believed that Russia was closer to Asia than to Europe. Eurasianism continued to be a popular creed in Russia and elements of the creed could also be found in other countries, such as Turkey, Japan, and more recently, China. The book under review deals with the early form of Eurasianism, its classical pre-WWII modification.

The monograph makes important contribution to the study of Eurasianism, albeit these are confined to small segments in the book, such as those at the beginning and end of the volume. In the short introductory chapter, the author provides biographical sketches of major participants in the Eurasian movement. In another small, almost afterward-type chapter, the author deals with the history of the Eurasian movement, from its birth in the 1920s among Russian émigrés, to its demise in the late-1930s, on the eve of WWII.

While these parts comprise less than 10% of the book and are clearly marginalized by the author, these are the most valuable parts of the volume. The point here is that those who engage in the study of Eurasianism, especially its pre-WWII classical variation, deal with comparatively easily accessible sources. Little is published on the actual history of the movement.

The reason for this is obvious. The detailed description of the movement’s dynamics would require arduous research in archives and libraries with rare, not easily accessible, publications. Such research is complicated by the fact that these archives and libraries are located in different countries that are not easily accessible.

The author apparently used archives in Russia, the Czech Republic, and France. Unfortunately, he did not indicate exactly what archives he used. There are short and often enigmatic symbols that are not easy to decipher. The author has also used many hard-to-obtain secondary sources, which helped him to reconstruct details of the life and evolution of the movement.

Still, the most interesting parts of the book — and they would be of interest to not just Western but also Russian readers, despite the abundance of works on Eurasianism published in Russia, especially in the 1990s — constitute not more than 10% of the entire narrative. In addition, the description of the movement, its dynamics, instead of being the framework of most of the narrative, was put aside as a separate chapter.

While the factual framework of the book is quite interesting and engaging, the story is different, at least from this reviewer’s perspective, with the theoretical framework of the work. While ignoring the political evolution of the movement as the framework for discussion and its broad political context, the author implies that Eurasianist theories were basically unrelated to their political discourse and, in a way, to the life around them.

Of course, Professor Glebov may say that this is an oversimplified view. Still, the methodological framework is clear: history here is shaped by ideological/cultural discourse; social and political frameworks are either ignored or marginalized. One could argue the view that ideology should be politically contextualized is as valid as the view that political context could be ignored. Still, for this reviewer, marginalizing the political/social setting of cultural events creates problems for understanding the true meaning of the phenomenon, especially if the comparative aspect is not taken into the equation.

Let us start at the beginning of the narrative where Glebov analyzes the cultural roots of Eurasianism. He is right in his notion that the Orient became quite a popular subject at the beginning of the 20th century; other scholars support this view (pp. 51–55). But why did such an interest emerge? Professor Glebov provides no explanation. Still, the broad comparative view could provide a clue.

“Orientalism” became fashionable in the West where imperial expansion, social tensions, and the underlying Social Darwinism increasingly challenged the optimistic and basically democratic principles of the Enlightenment. “Oriental” hordes, ready to attack civilized Europe was not so much the reflection of the fear of true “yellow peril,” if one remembers Wilhelm of Germany’s expression, as of the “Oriental” barbarians in the Westerners’ own midst. It was the “deplorables” in the midst of Europe that the elite dreaded. They were “lustful gorillas” (Hippolyte Taine) or “Morlocks” (H.G. Wells).

One could see the same views of “Orientals” in Russia. In Andrey Bely’s St. Petersburg, the Oriental savages were inside the most Europeanized of Russian cities, which had just recuperated, together with the rest of the country, from the devastating 1905–1907 Revolution. Still, the end of revolution did not diminish the threat of internal “Asians” and this was clear in Bely’s images. These deep social/political undercurrents prevailed in the last years of the ancien regime, and it also explains the rise of peculiar proto-Eurasianism and equally peculiar “Mongolism” in Russian writers’ and poets’ narratives.

Glebov pays much attention to “Mongolism” of Eurasianism and provides a detailed analysis of Prince Trubetskoy’s work The Legacy of Genghis Khan (pp. 63–71). Here he points out, quite rightfully that the essay, one of the cornerstones of early Eurasianism, was directly connected with the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I. Glebov quotes Trubetskoy’s notion related to WWI (p. 659). Here Trubetskoy mocks Western powers that supposedly conducted their foreign policy because of noble goals.

Trubetskoy, as Glebov’s quotation shows, mocks this assumption. Western powers are brutal beasts that looked for pieces of flesh, and they ensured the possession of this flesh by indiscriminate use of violence. Trubetskoy implies that they behaved in a “Mongolian”/”Genghis Khanian” manner: Genghis Khan also slaughtered anyone who stood in his way. Still, it was not just World War I that induced Trubetskoy’s appeal to Genghis Khan. The Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War was “Mongolian”/ ”Genghis Khanian” in its very nature. Red and White terror decimated the opposite side, often without any consideration for gender or age. Some historians believe that the brutality of the Civil War was on a much broader scale than that of World War I. Soldiers of belligerent countries did not feel any particular animosity toward each other. And the case of “fraternization” between soldiers of opposing armies was common. This was true both on the western and eastern fronts. Nothing like this happened during the Civil War, both Red and White, and Red possibly more than White, exterminated their enemies without pity. The appeal to Genghis Khan/Mongolianism was not just the result of juxtaposing Russia to the West — traditions which went back centuries before the Civil War — or by the brutality of WWI. It was also due to the reality of the emerging Soviet regime, which was “Mongolianly” brutal and totalitarian in its socio-political manifestation.

Ignoring the socio-political context obscures the nature of the birth of Eurasianism. While in some cases the socio-political context is ignored, in other cases Glebov tried to “sanitize” it in a particular way, and placed Eurasianism in this peculiar context. He stated that the “Eurasian”/Soviet empire was a special empire. Eurasianists praised Soviet leaders for catering to minorities and having no imperial propensities, unlike Western powers. It was implied that the USSR was a peculiar “affirmative action” state and anti-imperialist slogans of the Soviet leaders are taken at face value. Glebov makes no attempt to analyze the political reality as it was and implicitly follows Eurasianist thought on these matters. One of the major reasons was that Glebov followed the prevailing views of many on the left/liberals who regarded the support/promotion of minorities as a token of progressiveness of any society. These views are telescoped in the past and, at least the early Soviet regime is seen as “progressive” due to the considerable role that minorities played in early Soviet history.

Still, the interest in minorities often had little to do with a peculiar democratization of the Soviet regime that presumably made it different from the colonial empires of the West. It is true that Jewish commissars, Lettish riflemen, and similar bodies were extremely important to the regime. Still, the interest in these minorities was often quite practical: whereas peasants and even workers — presumably putative supporters of the regime — had periodically risen against Bolsheviks even at the beginning of the regime’s history, when dreams of a new and harmonious society were fresh, certain minorities (for example, Jews) were always on the side of the regime, plainly because the opposite side — whites — were deeply anti-Semitic, and in general had little desire to support minorities, even on the level of political sloganeering.

The early Bolshevik regime’s approach to minorities was not very different from the policy of many similar regimes in the past, including those who were hardly democratic. The Ottoman Sultans’ Janissaries — mostly drawn from Slavic subjects — were structurally the same as Lettish riflemen: both were faithful to their rulers and absolutely alienated from the populace. Later in the 1930s, with the rise of Russian nationalism, Stalin’s government still appeared to be predisposed to minorities. By that time, the states of Central Asia were “constructed” by the regime. Still, it was hardly due to Stalin’s peculiar attachment to “multi-culturalism.”

The created/fostered nationalism prevented Central Asians from internalizing their transethnic Islamic identity, and whereas Russian, actually broad Slavic nationalism solidified the state, the “international” Islamism that replaced “Proletariate of all countries, unite!” with the slogan “All Muslims unite!” was the mortal threat. Stalin’s policy of “divide and rule” was a reason for supposed benevolence toward Central Asian nations.

It is true that the regime appealed to the people of the colonial empire to revolt. Still, it was done only for pragmatic reasons: Western colonial powers were the USSR’s mortal enemies, and Moscow wanted to create as many problems as possible in their Asian backyard. At the same time, Moscow pitilessly crushed any nationalistic movements that endangered the stability of the state. As a matter of fact, it fought Basmachi, with their Islamist tinge, to the early-1930s in Central Asia. Taking the Eurasianist claim — and of course that of some Western scholars — that the USSR was the peculiar empire without actually being an imperial power – has a clear political implication.

The implication here is that the relationship between the various Soviet ethnicities could be placed in the context of Eurasianist paradigm: it was nothing but happy “symbiosis.” Glebov implicitly followed not just Eurasianists but related Soviet propaganda without any critical assertion of both of them.

One may also note that Glebov wrote the book many years after the collapse of the USSR, when the notion of “friendship of the people”/”symbiosis” became clearly a fiction. Indeed, even Ukrainians and Russians, whom Trubetskoy regarded as actually one people, are in bitter conflict.

There is another problem with the text, and it is related to its organization. As we noted in the beginning of the review, the last few pages in the manuscript are the most important part of the book. It provides valuable details that could be obtained only through meticulous research in archives and rare book collections.

As Glebov shows, the movement split in 1928/1929, with practically the complete acceptance of the Soviet regime by the Left, centered round their major vehicle, Evraziia. The gravitation to the Left, Eurasianists with their complete acceptance of the Soviet regime, continued throughout the 1930s, until the movement ceased to exist. The evolution of the movement should implicitly implicate Eurasianist publications. Even those that were not on the side of the Left, should have been informed about those trends and this would affect their writing.

The chronological arrangement of the text would benefit the narrative. Still, regardless of the above noted problems, the book is an important contribution to scholarship for the following reasons: firstly, it provides quite important biographical sketches of major Eurasianists and valuable information about the development of the movement. This part of the book, based on extensive archival research, would be of interest even to specialists in Eurasianism. Secondly, the major part of the book is also important, regardless of methodological cavities, at least from a review perspective. The point here is that while classical pre-WWII Eurasianism is well-studied in Russia, no monographs about it exist in English. Therefore, the book could be practically the only English-language monograph on the subject and serve as an introduction to those English-speaking readers who would be interested in learning about the beginning of the movement.

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