How Eurasianism Became the Neo-Eurasianism of Today

June 3, 2014
"Constructing a Road" (1932) by Nikolai Karakhan

Staunton, 2 June – Two new studies, one a biography of the late ethnic theorist Lev Gumilyev and another an investigation of the Eurasianists of the 1920s, throw new light on how classical Eurasianism was transmitted to its recent advocates and how they transformed it into something quite different than the original.

The first of these, a just-released volume by Ivan Smirnov titled Ascents and Descents in the History of Ethnoses: About the Life and Creativity of L.N. Gumilyev – a View from the 21st Century (in Russian; Moscow: URSS, 2014), was reviewed by Mikhail Roshchin last week.

Smirnov (1966-2013) was a botanist who became interested in Gumilyev’s work because of his own focus on plant selection. In recent years, Roshchin points out, he increasingly devoted himself to political topics and attracted widespread attention for his article, “How is Russia Not Like Nigeria?” (in Russian; Moscow: Liberal Mission, 2006).

What has made Gumilyev so difficult for many to understand, Smirnov writes in his book, is that the ethnographer worked at the intersection of several academic disciplines and arrived as it were “too early,” by which his biographer means that Gumilyev had to sketch out ideas for which there is not yet an established body of evidence.

That evidence, Smirnov says, is now beginning to be gathered. But this “synthesis is only beginning and has not yet given sufficient material for those brave and enormous generalizations which are found in Gumilyev’s works.” That is true “in particular” of his theory of the passion-based rise and decay of ethnic communities, a set of ideas that remains a hypothesis.

“If one agrees with that approach,” Roshchin says, “then it will be easier to accept and understand” Gumilyev, something that an “exclusive” effort to find confirmation or disconfirmation will not allow. Smirnov in short insists that the Eurasianism of Gumilyev is more a methodology than a description of reality.

In the course of his review, Roshchin draws attention to “a definite personal motive” behind Smirnov’s decision to write about Gumilyev: his grandfather was in the same cell of Moscow’s Kresti Prison in 1938.

Another encounter in Stalin’s camps is the centerpiece of the second new article, one entitled “The Birth of Eurasianism as an Idea System” by Igor Kefeli, a St. Petersburg historian and the editor of the Russian journal, “Geopolitics and Security” reposted last week.

Kefeli argues that “Eurasianism must not be considered as some historiosophic relic limited to the time frames of the Eurasian movement of the 1920s and 1930s. [It] had a pre-history” in nineteenth century thought and it “is acquiring new life in the present time” with the formation of the Eurasian Union.

After surveying the pro-Eurasian ideas of Vladimir Lamansky, Pyor Chaadayev, Nikolay Danilevsky, and Fyodor Tyuchev, Kefeli argues that their most important contribution was not only an insistence on Russia as a civilization separate from Europe or Asia but also a focus on “the ‘historical age’” of these civilizations and others as an indication of their vitality.

Following the Bolshevik revolution, a group of Russian émigré intellectuals elaborated classical Eurasianism as a way of seeking to integrate communism with Russian nationalism and thus justify cooperation with the Soviets. None of these were more prolific in their writings than Pyotr Savitsky (1895-1968).

After studying at Petersburg’s Polytechnic University, he worked in the Russian embassy in Oslo in 1916-1917, was an aide to Baron Wrangel who commanded White Russian forces in the south during the civil war, and then went into emigration in Bulgaria, Germany and ultimately Czechoslovakia.

Savitsky accepted the arguments of those like Lamansky that there are three distinct continents in between the Atlantic and the Pacific: Europe, Eurasia, and Asia and that Russia was the same as Eurasia. But he gave additional stress to the idea that Eurasian culture was very different and fundamentally opposed to the Greco-Roman culture of Europe.

The Eurasianist also insisted that the relations between the Russian nation and the other nations of Eurasia were fundamentally different than those among other nations and in particular “do not have any analogies in the international relations of the colonial empires” of the European states.

During World War II, Savitsky was the director of the Russian Gymnasium in Prague, but in 1945, with the arrival of the Soviet army, he was arrested, condemned for “anti-Soviet activities,” and sent to the GULAG. He remained there until 1956, but while incarcerated, he attracted perhaps his most prominent student, Lev Gumilyev.

The conversations of the two while they were political prisoners are lost, but the letters that Savitsky and Gumilyev exchanged between their release in 1956 and Savitsky’s death in 1968 have been preserved in the archives, and Kefeli has examined them to show how much influence the first had on the second.

The St. Petersburg author makes three points: First, he says, Savitsky clearly recognized in Gumilyev a like-minded believer in Eurasianism as the ideological basis for the future. Second, the two agreed that Eurasianism was in the first instance about imagery and opposition to the West. And third, they shared a reverence for Chingiz Khan and the Mongols as the formative figures of Eurasia and thus of Russia.

In summing up his research on this correspondence, Kefeli argues that what makes Eurasianism so important now is that it insists on “the necessity of the restoration of the status of Russia as a super power within a reviving Eurasian Union as one of the centers of a polycentric world.”

And although the St. Petersburg scholar does not say so, it is clear that Eurasianist ideas have suffered a certain primitivization as they passed from the 19th century writers to Savitsky to Gumilyev and even more as they have become the neo-Eurasianism of those like Aleksandr Dugin and Vladimir Putin who are seeking to implement them.