The History of the Eurasian Idea

_ Matthew Schmidt. Is Putin Pursuing a Policy of Eurasianism? January 2005.

Only the deepest of skeptics debate the real power of ideas to affect political action. The rest understand that however cynical the process of politics the world over is, not all rhetoric is empty. This is especially true in Russia, where the streets are lined with statues of the poets and writers whose words inspired legions of revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries. The debate over Russian identity has been at the core of Russian foreign policy for centuries. The question of Russia’s identity drove Peter the Great’s (1672–1725) westernizing policies as surely as it drives President Putin today. It is the incredible continuity of this debate that is perhaps the most defining element in Russian foreign policy.

Dmitry Trenin encapsulates the contours of this debate as twofold: spatial and political- philosophical. What exactly is Eurasia? Is it a place or an idea? The idea of a distinct Eurasian geography is more or less taken for granted today. Numerous political groups, academic institutions, and journals adorn themselves with some form of “Eurasia” in their title. But like all such definitions, deciding what constitutes Eurasia and where it is located was the product of an extended and unconcluded argument. It was a constructed idea that required a complex structure of arguments to support its assertions, and only after centuries of refinement and promulgation did it come to be considered fact.

The foundations for the idea of a specifically Eurasian cultural space have deep roots in Russian intellectual history. Born out of the necessity to incorporate the ter- ritory won during his war with Charles XII of Sweden, Peter the Great decided to have a new geographic outline written that would include the newly won territory, moving Russia’s place on European maps of the day from the Asian continent into Europe.6 By redrawing the eastern boundary of Europe to include Russia, Peter could strengthen the position of his empire in the minds of the established European monarchs while adding historical justification for his internal policy of Europeanization; but any attempt to redefine Russia’s political identity required that its basic geographic identity be changed first.

Peter’s court geographer, Vasiliy Tatishchev (1686–1750), proposed that the Ural mountains, what he called the veliky poias — or great belt— be considered the defining “natural configuration” along which to delineate the two continents of Europe and Asia.

But to write the geography that Peter wanted, Tatishchev had to first discard the method established since antiquity of using rivers and bodies of water as the standard for defining continental boundaries. The reigning geographical defini- tion of Europe as being bounded in the south by the Mediterranean Sea, in the west by the Atlantic Ocean, in the north by the Baltic Sea, and extending east- ward to the bank of the Don (Tanais) River was an artifact of ancient Greek geog- raphy. This map of Europe was rooted in a picture of the world as divided into three separate massifs — Europe, Asia, and Africa — which were defined by the major water ways, rivers, oceans, or seas surrounding them.

Russian geographical writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries basi- cally repeated earlier western works that divided the world according to classical divisions. These works identified the Don as the boundary between the two con- tinents without further elaboration, and any inconsistency with the known reality of the river’s size and course was simply ignored. It was thought that the Don was a much larger river than it was in reality, and the Sea of Azov as drawn on maps was stretched so far north as to make the area of land between it and the Arctic Ocean coast, which was itself not a known fact to the ancient cartographers, little more than an isthmus. Thus, the area separating the European massif from Asia on maps of the day wildly distorted the true nature of the area.

Long after Western scholars had begun questioning the veracity of classical geography, Russian texts were still repeating this error. Mark Bassin suggests that the reason this state of knowledge persisted as long as it did despite its obvious errors was because it was treated as an issue of scholastics rather than geography or topography. Classical knowledge was revered without regard to its correctness, and the question of the Europe-Asia boundary was  simply too obscure to merit much attention before the Petrine reforms pushed it to the fore.7

This redrawing of the map meant that the key parts of Peter’s empire were now officially a part of Europe’s geography, and, he hoped, would soon be considered as part of Europe politically and culturally. Yet, despite the tenacious promotion of Tatishchev’s new geography by the Russian court, Russia’s place as an avowed- ly European power was accepted doubtfully, if at all, by the European monarchs. Catherine the Great (1762–96), still trying to accomplish the cultural integration of Russia into Europe half a century later, felt the need to actually proclaim in 1766 that “Russia is a European power.”8

Another half century would see the pendulum of the debate swing back the other way when Nikolai Danilevsky (1822–1885), a contemporary of Chaadaev’s (1793–1856), would seek to yet again redefine the boundaries of Europe and Asia. Danilevsky was the first to define Eurasia as a distinct geographic entity separated from both Europe and Asia. Danilevsky defined Eurasia as the vast unbroken land- mass bounded on its edges by the high mountain ranges of the Himalayas, Cauca- sus, and Alps and the large bodies of water that made up the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic oceans, and the Black, Mediterranean, and Caspian seas.9 The gigantic, rolling, low steppe in the center of this outline is the Eurasian plain that Mark Bassin has characterized as “an independent geographical world, self-contained and dis- tinct from Europe as well as from Asia.”10 Danilevsky’s argument would prove last- ing. It is essentially this definition of a “central plain of Europe and Asia” that is meant by the term “Eurasia” as it is used today by Trenin and others.

Danilevsky proposed more than just a new geographical concept, however; what he offered was an elaborate schematic of a unique cultural identity formed out of the shared historical experiences of the peoples inhabiting the geographic space of the Eurasian plain. Forged largely by the common experience of subjugation under the Mongols, Danilevsky called for the peoples of Eurasia to unite under Russian leadership and oppose the history of domination, violence, and greed that he attributed to inherent flaws in European society—flaws that he believed the Slavic culture did not share. The Slavs, and among them chiefly the Russians, were characterized by their supposed unity, peacefulness, and justice. As evidence, he pointed to their peaceful acceptance of Christianity, their unity under a holy dynasty, their supposedly non-dominating, non-colonial, settling of the Eurasian continent, and their recent emancipation of the serfs and subsequent land reforms.11 Danilevsky wrote:

Russia, being foreign to the European world by virtue of its inner workings, and furthermore, being too strong and powerful to take its place as just one of many members in the European family—as just one of many great states—Russia cannot take a place in history worthy of itself and of Slavdom unless it becomes the head of a unique, independent political system of countries and unless it serves as a bal- ance to Europe in all its community and wholeness [obshnosti i tselosti].12


6. Bassin, “Russia between Europe and Asia,” 5.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid, 12.

9. Danilevsky, Rossiia i Evropa.

10. Bassin, “Russian between Europe and Asia,” 11.

11. Kohn, The Mind of Modern Russia, 191–93. Danilevsky, Rossiia i Evropa, 469–509.

12. Danilevsky, Rossiya i Evropa, 402.

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