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Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire

"Neo-Eurasianism is the most elaborate of the various conservative ideologies that emerged in Russia in the 1990s," according to Marlene Laruelle, Research Fellow, Central Asia and Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and former Fellow, Wilson Center. Eurasianism can be defined as an ideology which affirms that Russia and its "margins" occupy a median position between Europe and Asia, that their specific features have to do with their culture being a "mix" born of the fusion of Slavic and Turko-Muslim peoples, and that Russia should specifically highlight its Asian features. Eurasianism rejects the view that Russia is on the periphery of Europe, and on the contrary interprets the country's geographic location as grounds for a kind of messianic "third way."

"This Eurasianist doctrine has been attractive to many intellectuals and politicians because it offers an understanding of the collapse of the Soviet Union and restores Russia's troubled historical and political continuity," stated Laruelle. At a May 4, 2009 Kennan Institute discussion of her book, Russian Eurasianism: An Ideology of Empire (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press: 2008), Laruelle explored Eurasianism's expansion beyond purely academic circles, into a catch-all vision for Russia.

According to Laruelle, Eurasianism's flexibility as an ideology explains its success, its diversity, and the breadth of its coverage. "It is a political doctrine in the strict sense of the word, a theory of nation and ethnos, an alter-globalist philosophy of history, a new pragmatic formulation of 'Sovietism,' a substitute for the global explanatory schemes of Marxism-Leninism, a set of expansionist geopolitical principles for Russia, and much else," she said. Eurasianism often claims to be a science, whose message about Russia does not depend on personal considerations, but is a methodical and objective analysis of Russian interests. It draws much of its success from its commitment to the creation of new academic disciplines such as geopolitics, culturology, conflictology, ethno-psychology, and more.

While Laruelle does not consider Eurasianism to be a marginal phenomenon in any sense, she was careful in her study not to simplify the scope of its influence merely to be an element of Russian foreign policy, a theoretical base of Russia's main nationalist parties, or a new official patriotism promoted by the regime. "The impact of Eurasianism," she offered, "has more to do with the theoretical presuppositions of its doctrine." She identified these as (1) a rejection of Europe, the West, and capitalism through criticism of "Atlanticist" domination, considered disastrous for the rest of mankind; (2) an assertion of the cultural unity and common historical destiny of Russians and non-Russian peoples of Russia, the former Soviet Union, and parts of Asia; (3) the idea that the central geographical position of this Eurasian space naturally and inevitably entails an imperial form of political organization, and that any secession is destined to fail, leaving newly independent states no choice but to revert to a unified political entity; and (4) a belief in the existence of cultural constants that explain the deeper meaning of contemporary political events.

According to the last presupposition named by Laruelle, today's conflicts result not from economic and social struggles, but from a clash between the cultural essences of peoples. With this understanding, "religion is the foundation of civilizations and provides them with an unchangeable nature," she explained, "and civilizations, rather than individuals or social groups, are the true driving force of history." Laruelle held that this essentialist interpretation of the world serves an undisguised political objective: to show that the Western model is not applicable to the post-Soviet countries because civilizations cannot adopt anything from the outside. "Eurasianism has acquired influence in post-Soviet countries in general and Russia in particular by disseminating the idea that culture constrains the liberty of the individual," she stated.

As such, Laruelle argued that Eurasianism plays an important role in Russia for three main reasons. First, it combats the prevalent feeling of failure associated with the turbulence of the 1990s by justifying the experience in strictly ethnic and culturalist terms. Second, it offers a simplistic understanding of the conflicts of the post-Cold War world and of Russia's role in international politics. Finally, it has aided in the elaboration of a pseudo-scientific speak which avoids politics and justifies authoritarianism through culture.

Laruelle closed with the assertion that Eurasianism's call for a civilizational definition of Russia should be considered not as something specific to Russia but as part of a more global phenomenon. "The success of Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations and the comeback of geopolitics are only the tip of the iceberg," she said. With the intellectual retreat of Marxism, socio-economic explanations seem to have been supplanted by the idea that only national identities, cultures, and religions can explain the world as it is today. The widespread acceptance of Eurasianism confirms that the former Soviet Union is fully in tune with the major ideological developments taking place across the planet in the early 21st century. "The phenomenon, therefore, is not specific to Russia by principle, but because of its context," Laruelle concluded. "In the United States, in Europe, and even in the Muslim world, numerous other competitive narratives about the nation, politics, social groups, and tensions between the rich and the poor exist. This is not the case in Russia."


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Sarah Dixon Klump

Editorial Assistant
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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more