Nationalism and (False) Eurasianism in Today’s Russia

Thursday, October 20, 2022

The meaning of the term “Eurasianism” has evolved since the Russian Revolution and the early days of the Soviet Union from a doctrine that evoked a multiplicity of cultures and ethnicities joining to shape a Eurasian nation to an assertion of what Moscow considers its geographic sphere of influence. To explain the context of Russian nationalism today, Dmitry Shlapentokh of Indiana University South Bend documents how Eurasianism has shifted from ideology and national ideal to geopolitical claim.

Nationalism and (False) Eurasianism in Today’s Russia

President Putin surveys the globe on a visit to St Petersburg, July 2017: Russian nationalism prevails, and Eurasianism is now but an assertion of what Moscow regards as its “natural” sphere of influence (Credit: President of Russia)

Ideology is tricky and can easily deceive observers. Those who study the Soviet Union and China under the Communist Party often take Marxist slogans at face value and ignore the facts on the ground which indicate that such propaganda has little if anything to do with reality. The “Eurasianism” movement in Russia today is a good example of a concept the meaning of which has been distorted for ideological ends. Understanding this “false” Eurasianism and how it evolved into something more akin to a Russian nationalism is important in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s assertion of Russian values and his worldview.

Origins and implications in post-Soviet Russia

Eurasianism became a household word in post-Soviet Russia, especially in the beginning of post-Soviet history. Almost any non-Western creed was dubbed “Eurasian” or at least influenced by Eurasianism. In its classical pre-WWII form, Eurasianism had clear links to the socio-political environments of revolutionary Russia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the early 1920s. Bolshevik leaders asserted that they ran a truly democratic government which represented the interests of the workers. In reality, post-revolution Russia – later the USSR (founded in 1922) – was the first totalitarian state in Europe, with the government taking an increasing control over all aspects of life.

The early Soviet regime relied heavily on minorities so secure its power. This was neither a peculiar form of affirmative action nor an approach motivated by a progressive concern for the downtrodden. Rather, it was the opposite. The administration was almost totally alienated from the majority – ethnic Russians and other Slavs. It was no surprise that anti-Bolshevik uprisings started soon after the 1917 Russian Revolution. The reality was that many, though not all, minorities backed the Bolsheviks. After all, two thirds of the Bolshevik elite belonged to ethnic minority groups. In addition, the Bolsheviks promised to improve their conditions and give them broad autonomy and even independence. The totalitarian state and its predisposition towards minorities created a framework for Eurasianism and the idiosyncratic features of the doctrine or movement.

Classical Eurasianism

The doctrine of Eurasianism is underpinned by a particular interpretation of Russian history. For most Russian historians, the Mongol invasion of Russia in the 13th century and their 250-year rule was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, calamities in the country’s history. Besides destruction and depopulation, Mongol rule, referred to as the “Tatar Mongol yoke”, has been blamed for Russia’s cultural and technological backwardness vis à vis the West.

Kazakhstan postage stamp celebrates Eurasianist Lev Gumilev; Putin became an honorary professor of the LN Gumilev Eurasian National University in 2000 (Credit: wnsstamps.ch, President of Russia)

Kazakhstan postage stamp celebrates Eurasianist Lev Gumilev; Putin became an honorary professor of the LN Gumilev Eurasian National University in 2000 (Credit: wnsstamps.ch, President of Russia)

For Eurasianists, the story is different. The Mongols, they reckon, emerged as a benign force that taught Russians how to live in “symbiosis” with other ethnic groups, mainly Muslim Turkic people. All of them created a “Eurasian” identity, which transcended the various cultures of each constituent ethnic group in Russia/the USSR. This Eurasianist perspective was antecedent to the notion of the “Soviet people” and was antithetical to all forms of Russian nationalism and Slavophilism. It was the cornerstone of Eurasianism, though the concept was yet unknown in the Soviet Union.

By the end of the Soviet regime and the start of the post-Soviet era, Eurasianism became extremely popular, propagated by various influential Soviet intellectuals such as historian Lev Gumilev and political philosopher Aleksandr Dugin. An anti-communist dissident in the 1980s, Dugin gained popularity after the collapse of the Soviet Union and promoted a neo-Eurasianism ideology, founding the Eurasia Party in 2002. He is said to have influence on Putin, though he holds no official position in the Kremlin.

What was the reason for the popularity of Eurasianism? First, the concept reflected increasing nostalgia for the USSR, which was simultaneous to the growing belief that separation from ungrateful “brothers”, i.e., the constituent republics of the USSR, made Russians richer. Second, people also were convinced that the disintegration of the USSR was but a fleeting phenomenon and that a few of the old republics such as Kazakhstan would be unable to survive on their own and would inevitably return to the Russian fold. Third, Eurasianism was related to the fact that the Russian Federation itself was a multiethnic state with some minorities such as the Tatars and Chechens openly clamoring for independence.

Eurasianism provided a transethnic ideology, which served as a rationale for why these people should live together with Russians. Finally, Eurasianism afforded a reason for Moscow to seek out allies in Asia and even Europe. The point is that, while pre-World War II Eurasianism was hostile to Europe, its modified, post-Soviet form, as outlined at least in the works of proponents such as Dugin, considered “old Europe” (as Donald Rumsfeld, the US secretary of defense under president George W Bush referred to the democracies of Western Europe as opposed to the “newer” countries of Eastern Europe) as offering fertile ground for recruiting allies in the confrontation against the United States – Eurasia’s nemesis.

Nazarbayev (left), Putin (right) and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko at a Eurasian Economic Community meeting in Moscow, May 2002: Kazakhstan had been at the vanguard of the Eurasianism movement (Credit: President of Russia)

Nazarbayev (left), Putin (right) and Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko at a Eurasian Economic Community meeting in Moscow, May 2002: Kazakhstan had been at the vanguard of the Eurasianism movement (Credit: President of Russia)

Eurasianism’s rise and fall

The resurgent Eurasianism, or neo-Eurasianism, was an appealing framework for the Russian elite’s worldview. In Kazakhstan. Eurasianism emerged as almost a national ideology. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the country’s first leader, who ruled from 1991 to 2019, even proposed the creation of a Eurasian Union in the early 1990s. This excited Dugin, who penned a book about Nazarbayev’s historical role. There were also some “Eurasian” aspects in Putin’s early foreign policy. Soon after taking office, he scrapped a US-Russia agreement on cooperation (named after US vice president Al Gore and Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who co-chaired a joint commission on economic and technological collaboration) and promised that Moscow would build a nuclear power plant in Bushehr, Iran, and deliver S-300 missiles to Tehran.

Despite that momentum in the early Putin years, Eurasianism as a form of neo-Sovietism and Asiacentrism, even though it also included a nod towards Western Europe, started to fade by the early 2000s. The doctrine was meant to underpin a cross-ethnic identity for the Soviet/Russian state. But it became less and less relevant as ethnic tensions between Russians and people from the northern Caucasus, mostly Chechens, mounted, leading to violent clashes. In August 2006, two Russians were killed and several others injured by Chechens in a restaurant in Kondopoga in the northwest region of Karelia. A similar incident occurred the following year in the southwestern city of Stavropol. In both instances, street riots erupted in response. In addition, Russia’s relationship with Iran soured. The delivery of the S-300s was impeded for some years due to sanctions requirements and the Bushehr nuclear plant was delayed because of technical, financial and political reasons. upsetting the Iranians.

The most striking departure from Eurasianism in the post-Soviet period was in Central Asia, notably in Kazakhstan, on which “Eurasianist” Russia had pinned most of its hopes. While professing Kazakhstan’s love for Russia, President Nazarbayev engaged in a “multivector” foreign policy, tilting toward the West. Astana’s linguistic and educational policy was a good example. In 1996, Nazarbayev had flirted with Eurasianism by naming a new university, the result of a merger of two institutes, after Lev Gumilyov – the LN Gumilyov Eurasian National University (ENU). Instruction was in Russian. This gesture was meant to demonstrate Kazakhstan’s attachment to Russia in the Eurasian context.

Dugin in Moscow, June 2014: Said to be an influence on Putin, the political philosopher gained popularity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, promoting a neo-Eurasianism ideology (Credit: Zurab Dzhavakhadze/ITAR-TASS)

Dugin in Moscow, June 2014: Said to be an influence on Putin, the political philosopher gained popularity after the collapse of the Soviet Union, promoting a neo-Eurasianism ideology (Credit: Zurab Dzhavakhadze/ITAR-TASS)

But soon enough, Nazarbayev’s policy shifted. Kazakhstan sent more and more of its citizens to Western universities, including elite institutions such as the University of Cambridge in the UK. The president strengthened his country’s economic relationship with the West. At the same time, the role of the Russian language declined.

All of this led to a “de-Eurasianization” of the mentality of the Russian elite and the Russian populace and the formation of a new Russian identity, which emerged from the integration of different ideological building blocks of the old framework. The terms “Eurasia” and “Eurasianism” continued to be employed. But their connotation to the original doctrine was no longer, and the political application of the terms were absolutely different.

The new Russian identity and pseudo-Eurasianism

To be sure, some of elements of the creed have survived, given the ideological needs of the Russian elite. Officially, all citizens of the Russian Federation are considered “Rossiyane”. The term does not mean “citizens of the Russian Federation,” in the narrow, legalistic sense. It implies that all people of the Russian Federation constitute a particular transethnic unity, regardless of whatever culture or ethnicity they have. This element is clearly borrowed from “Eurasianism”, or to be precise, from the Soviet-era proclamation that all ethnicities of the country constitute one quasi-nation, the “Soviet People”. The prevailing ideology of the Russian Federation today does preach cultural “symbiosis”. But the Russian language and implicitly the culture are regarded as the backbone of the state. This is the ideology of Russian nationalism.

It is different from classical Slavophilism, which implied the intrinsic unity of all Slavs, especially Orthodox Slavs. Poles, in this new construction, were seen as “traitors” of Slavdom, the black sheep of the Slavic family. The new ideological framework practically denied the notion of Slavic solidarity. Second, it differs from the racially and ethnically bounded form of Russian nationalism popular among some segments of Russian disenfranchised youth. Russianness is defined by language and culture. In this context, there is little room for Eurasianism, with its stress on cultural and ethnic polyphony. Rossiyane has come to mean simply Russian-speaking people with different ethnic origins.

Eurasianism, in its traditional interpretation, implied the close “symbiosis” between Russians and the mostly Turkic people of Central Asia. As noted, Kazakhstan played a major role in constructing that Eurasian identity or ethos and possible geopolitical construction. But in recent years, Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia became more tense. In response, Russian politicians such as political scientist Vyacheslav Nikonov, a member of the State Duma (the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia) proclaimed that Kazakhstan was an artificial country and its northern part, which has a considerable Russian-speaking and ethnic Russian population, should be brought back to Russia. Putin of course has made similar declarations about Ukraine.

Thus, as a framework for Russian internal policy or as a guiding principle of foreign policy, Eurasianism does not work. It has lost its original meaning. Yet, it is still used, but its current meaning is completely different from the original. Now, it no longer refers to a transethnic mosaic of ethnicities that make up a Eurasian/Soviet nation, but simply indicates a geography that Moscow regards as its “natural” sphere of influence. Russian nationalism prevails, and Eurasianism is now but a supporting concept.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Dmitry Shlapentokh

Dmitry Shlapentokh

Indiana University South Bend

Dmitry Shlapentokh is an associate professor of history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Indiana University South Bend. Born in Ukraine, then part of the USSR, he received his PhD from the University of Chicago. He teaches world and Russian/Soviet and Post-Soviet history. He has been at IU South Bend since 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed.

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