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The Eurasianist Answer to Russia's Discontents

17/09/2015 15:36 BST | Updated 17/09/2016 10:12 BST

'Scratch a Russian and you find a Tatar', so the Napoleonic proverb goes. The comment was no doubt meant as a slight, and for many Russians that is still the way it is taken today. Yet for others it is a comforting thought. The idea encapsulates the feeling that Russia is neither quite Western nor Eastern. And if that ambivalence has often caused consternation to historians and anthropologists, it has always rather suited Russia's leaders.

J.M. Roberts, in his one volume History of the World, argued that mankind was at its most culturally diverse around the year 1500. In other words, antecedent to that the trend was one of divergence and thereafter one of convergence. During this latter 500 years of a great coming together of cultures, the Russian story has been one of constant conversion towards Western practice and subsequent reversion to something altogether more Asiatic. Approximately, this process has been driven by a desire for technological advancement and concomitant knowledge of political otherness.

Periods of conversion have invariably been implemented in a rushed manner from the top down, usually as a reaction to some national embarrassment and perceived need to catch up. All reforming zeal, however, has ineluctably met with the friction of two factors: one is a sceptical and disenfranchised society; the second is acute indignation at the Western states' apparent refusal to accept Russia as an equal partner no matter what it does. It is the recurrence of such conditions that seduces Russian politicians into reposing in the comfort of Russia's other character: its Eurasian one.

Russia's history since the Soviet dissolution evidences a full conversion-reversion cycle. A desire and obvious need for Western technological and organisational expertise in the immediate years following the USSR's collapse informed a state approach which prioritised Western cooperation and emphasised Russia's Greco-Christian roots. Towards the end of the '90s, as mutual disappointment between Russia and many Western states grew, that approach steadily gave way to something less committed to any identity, usually termed 'great power pragmatism'.

In October 2011, Russian president Vladimir Putin announced plans for a Eurasian Union (EuU) that would include many of the former Soviet states. Analyses of the scheme have typically rested on little more than the superficial assertion that, being a former KGB officer, Mr Putin must obviously want to re-establish the Soviet Union. Yet, while the glory of Soviet power imbibed by him and his siloviki men stands as a factor, it is the Eurasian lens that can better shed light on the conceptual underpinnings of the union.

As an ideological construct, Eurasianism was first articulated in the 1920s by émigrés like Prince N.S. Trubetskoy who saw promise as well as gloom in revolutionary Russia. However, the lineage of thought that emphasises Russia's non-Western heritage of passionate community, as distinct from Western reason and individuality, can be traced to at least the veterans of 1812, if not the amateur Orientalism of Catherine and Peter the Great, with many of Russia's great intellects having had something to say about it.

Not surprisingly, the idea found a captive audience amongst many Bolsheviks, eager for any plausible paradigm that would help justify the revolution having taken place in Russia and not, as prophesied by Marx, in Germany. Thus then, as now, Eurasianism's evocation was partially a reaction to a Western rebuff - the failure of the follow-up revolutions anticipated across Europe - and also a clarion call to marshal a complex set of emotions as to identity that suited a time-specific political purpose.

Attendant on Eurasianism's many incarnations have been attempts to distil what is usually expressed as a feeling into the components of a coherent political ideology. Economically, there is the idea that the economy is a derivative of culture and should be subordinated to the state, with state control of generously defined strategic industries, diverse forms of collective management and permission of the free market in only small and medium scale production. However, few of these ideas differ significantly from those of social democracy in its various forms, meaning that Eurasianism struggles as a distinct approach to economy, while others represent wholly false distinctions, such as a 'society with a market' instead of a 'market society', or the apparently more socially-responsible 'principle of ownership', as opposed to the 'principle of property'.

Geopolitically, Eurasianism aims at integrating the lands of the former Russian Empire plus outlying Slavic countries, as well as Greece and Turkey. If the latter two come as perhaps a surprise, it is worth remembering that Russia has long coveted Constantinople and its Byzantine heritage with which it shares the two-headed eagle as a state symbol. Together the bloc is intended to counterbalance the other principle power zones of America, Europe and the Pacific.

If Russia is currently on an anti-Western heading how should Western states react? Analysing what has gone wrong, it is easy to be beguiled by the explanation that increased Russian pugnacity is an entirely understandable reaction to Western perfidy and arrogance - by extending NATO and criticising Russia's nascent democracy, for example. Down this path, however, lies only the trap of appeasement.

Experience shows that, far from being the reaction of a reluctant warrior, Russian pugnacity results from a feeling of strength directly related to the restraint of other states. The Obama administration has been less belligerent towards Russia than president Bush's, yet the Kremlin will push ahead with the $800 billion military spend that forced the resignation of Russia's internationally-respected finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, precisely because it will coincide with deep US defence cuts.

As George Kennan was reminded by his Russian friend: 'it is only when we are having hard sledding that we are meek and mild and conciliatory. When we are successful, keep out of our way'.

By many measures, the Russian Federation is essentially an extant empire - the last of the European empires. The ethnic Russian nation (Russkiy), although strong and talented, is not big enough to fill the state, and this is even before its dire demographic projections are taken into account. Moreover, the bulk of the Federation's resources are contained in the areas where most of the faster-reproducing ethnically non-Russian citizens (Rossiyskiy) live. For these reasons alone, the Eurasianist discourse makes practical sense for the Kremlin.

Perhaps it can also make sense for some of the smaller Eurasian countries, especially the struggling ones like Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Indeed, the idea of EuU should properly be attributed to Kazakhstan's long-ruling president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, rather than Putin. At the very least, however, pursing the Eurasianist idea with essentially revanchist projects like the Eurasia Union is going to entail widespread suppression of the independence these states have only just begun to enjoy.

In light of the 2011 and 2012 demonstrations, the Kremlin's PR team is acutely aware of the need to complement Mr Putin's hagiographic personality cult with some meaningful ideas. Erstwhile presidential candidate, Mikhail Prokhorov, emphasised closer integration with the European Union, yet this is unrealistic with Russia's current population, politics and geographical extent. Thus, Western politicians will have to be creative in gauging policies of principled engagement against the coming manifestations of the Kremlin's Eurasianism.