A Turn to the East, or the Geography of ‘Russia-Eurasia’

_ Natalia Morozova, PhD in Philosophy, Central European University, Department of International Relations and European Studies. The Politics of Post-Soviet Russian Identity: Geopolitics, Eurasianism and Beyond. Budapest, August 15th, 2011.

If we trace the historical trajectory of Russia‟s debate on Europe, we will notice a singular recurrent feature: every conscious attempt to posit a radical historical break between Russia and Europe and to present their relations in terms of an irreconcilable antagonism rather than a „family‟ metaphor „produced‟ a conceptualization of Russia‟s irreducible distinctiveness grounded in geography. Despite not infrequent broadsides about Russia‟s moral superiority, the 19 th-century Slavophile thinkers wrote about Europe from within, as something close and familiar and affirmed Russia‟s belonging to Europe through recourse to common Christian values which were still considered universal European values.

By contrast, the Pan-Slav Nikolai Danilevskii was the first to have asserted Russia‟s non-European civilizational distinctiveness by dismissing the allegedly objective geographical trappings of Russia‟s Europeanness, i.e. the conventional vision of Russia as a European empire in full possession of its own Asiatic colonial periphery.

Throughout the second half of the XVIIIth and well into the XIXth century Russia‟s Europeanness had been codified on the level of formal geographical knowledge in the distinction between its European and Asian parts with the Ural Mountains being a natural borderline between the two. To the extent that the Urals were also proposed as a boundary separating the European and Asian continents, it provided a solution to the quandary in which European cartography found itself once it became obvious that the classical Europe-Asia boundary along the Don river no longer held true.158 More importantly, although the problem of the physical-geographical demarcation line between Europe and Asia had been a purely formal and scholastic issue in pre-Petrine Russia and had been faithfully resolved by subscribing to the classical dogma, it assumed an unprecedented political importance within Peter’s overall project to reform the Russian state and society along European lines. In particular, the attempt to entrench a new political identity of Russia as an imperiia or a European-style colonial empire in place of the archaic designation of Muscovy as a tsardom made it necessary to recast Russia‟s geopolitical image as well. Thus, in order “to create something more recognizably European out of the expansive and rather formless agglomeration of lands and peoples sprawling out across the East European plain and northern Asia to the Pacific” Russia was divided into two entirely separate and contrasting components: a homeland or metropolis that belonged within the European civilization, and a vast, but foreign, extra-European colonial periphery.

However, one important caveat remained. Russia‟s European imperial credentials could hardly be sustained in the face of harsh geographical reality – the fact that in Russia metropolis and colony were joined as a single contiguous landmass instead of being separated by major waterways as was the case with other European colonial empires.

The problem of the boundary between Europe and Asia had to be resolved with all certainty before the master plan to Europeanize Russia could bear fruit. Therefore, in the early XVIIIth century the Europe-Asia boundary issue was moved from the margins of a purely scholastic debate within the discipline of geography into the foreground once it acquired genuine political significance. Nowhere was the attempt to construct geography in order to advance Russia‟s popular imperial consciousness more obvious than in the solution provided by Vasiliy Tatishchev, a prominent geographer, historian and a tireless partisan of Peter‟s reforms. In order to attach more geopolitical „flesh‟ to Russia‟s new-found Europeanness, Tatishchev singled out the Ural mountain range as the principal segment of the boundary between Europe and Asia which continued then along the Ural river across the Caspian, Azov and the Black seas. The seemingly natural and symmetric division of Russia into European and Asiatic parts later found its linguistic expression in the distinction between russkii and rossiiskii and entered the very foundation of Russia‟s imperial ideology and European identity – only to become a major target for those intent on dismantling the superiority of the European civilization and Russia‟s pretence to belong to it.

While „the European metropolis/Asiatic colonial periphery‟ dichotomy can be rightfully considered Russia‟s first engagement with „politics as geography‟, Nikolai Danilevskii was undoubtedly the first Russian political thinker to have fully recognized Russia‟s imperial geographical dogma for what it was – not an innocent body of knowledge, but a power-knowledge relationship called forth to sustain the European hegemonic cultural discourse. In his seminal Rossiia i Evropa Danilevskii exposed the conventional division into continents as artificial and profoundly unscientific because it did not reflect the actual relations between geographical entities, i.e. the actual differences and affinities between them.

Designations such as „Europe‟ and „Asia‟ impose fixed homogenous identities on particular places and introduce clear-cut distinctions that do not reflect differences and affinities cutting across such distinctions. In fact, Europe and Asia cannot be juxtaposed because there does not exist a single meaningful criterion that would geographically distinguish Europe from Asia. 160

Danileskii thus insists that in order to satisfy the criteria of modern science, a system of geography should emulate a „natural„ system found in botany or zoology whereby classificatory divisions are predicated on the totality of actual physical-geographical – topographic, climatic, botanic, zoological and ethnographic – attributes and reflect „natural‟ relations between them.161

Equipped with the latest findings of plate tectonic theory supporting the notion of a single unified European-Asiatic continent, Danilevskii goes against the grain of the geographical dogma of the time to reverse the Europe/Asia dichotomy. Europe does not exist as a separate continent; it is only a part and a territorial appendage of Asia. In a strictly geographical sense there is no Europe, there is only a western peninsula of Asia. Thus, in place of the Europe-Asia divide separating Russia into Asiatic and European halves Danilevskii proposes an alternative geopolitical vision, the one which positions Russia as a separate and self-contained geographical world distinct from both Europe and Asia. 162

The main criterion for setting Russia aside geographically pertains to the field of geomorphology insofar as both the East European plain to the west of the Urals and the West Siberian plain to the east represent two adjacent sections of a single dominating landform. Uninterrupted by any significant topographic features, including the Urals themselves, Russia‟s vast territorial expanse forms a self-contained, integral and cohesive natural-geographical region shielded off from both Europe and Asia by seas and mountain ranges.

However, despite the new-found geographical trappings of Russia‟s distinctiveness, the views propagated by Danilevskii and the Pan-Slavs were still profoundly Eurocentric insofar as Europe – even though no longer a role model – inevitably provided the sole point of reference for their reconceptualization of Russia‟s geographic and cultural identity. It is little wonder, therefore, that when Danilevskii attempts to “demolish Europe‟s resplendent aura” by means of relegating it to the status of a mere peninsula of the vast Asian continent, he is still „thinking in twos‟, those „two‟ being Russia and Europe, Rossiia i Evropa.163 Stirred to action by the ruptures and upheavals of the Russian Revolution, the Eurasians were already „thinking in threes‟. They posited the existence of Europe, Asia and Russia-Eurasia as three distinct and self-sufficient geographical worlds in order to relativize the European bias of Russian collective identification and advocate an interpretation of Russian history “not from the West, but from the East”.

As the major exponent of Eurasian geopolitics, the economic geographer Petr Savitskii adopted many of Danilevskii‟s views wholesale in order to identify more precisely the geographical dimension of Russia‟s unique non-European identity. Again, the point of departure was provided by the outdated and thoroughly arbitrary division of a single terrestrial massif of the Old World into two continents – Europe and Asia. In the absence of any natural geographical barrier separating the two, Russia could no longer be divided into two discrete and contrasting – European and Asiatic – parts. Rather, the transcendental nature of Russia‟s vast territorial expanse was better captured by the designation “Russia-Eurasia”. It conveyed the idea that Russia formed a unified geographical world unto itself and belonged neither to Europe, nor to Asia. In Savitskii‟s own words, Russia is indivisible; the Urals merely divide the country into cis-Urals Russia and trans-Urals Russia so that the lands usually presented as Russia‟s “European” and “Asiatic” parts are in fact “identically Eurasian lands.” 164

Having geographically dissociated Russia from Europe, Savitskii proposes a new division of the continental landmass – the division which positions Europe, Asia and Russia-Eurasia as separate and easily identifiable geographical worlds, as spaces which can be classified on the basis of several geographical features and attributes. On the level of common-knowledge physiographic features „Russia-Eurasia‟ is distinguished by the uniformity of its relief given that it comprises three plains: the White Sea-Caucasian, West Siberian and Turkestani plains.165 By contrast, the European and Asian „extremes‟ of the old continent are characterized by jagged, indented coastline as well as diverse relief forms. These differences, according to Savitskii, have wide-ranging practical economic implications to the extent that they represent two opposing and mutually exclusive – maritime vs. continental – types of international goods and commodities exchange.

Furthermore, the biogeographical composition of the continental periphery is described by Savitskii as “mosaic-like” insofar as predominantly forest zones are intermingled here with „islands‟ of steppe, desert and tundra. This is not characteristic of the Russia-Eurasian „core‟ of the continent. Here forests of the south are found only in the mountainous regions of the Crimea, the Caucasus and Turkestan. They are separated from the forests in the north by a continuous stretch of steppes and deserts, which runs uninterrupted across the continent forming a uniquely Eurasian „middle world‟ and contributing to the new Europe/Russia-Eurasia/Asia typology.

However, Savitskii‟s classification does much more than simply carve out a separate niche for Russia-Eurasia and put it on an equal footing with the rest of the Old World. In fact, the „natural‟ tri-partite division of the single territorial massif is introduced by Savitskii with a more ambitious purpose in mind – not only dissociate Russia from Europe geographically, but also – and much more importantly – to do so politically. In fact, the Eurasians were thinking „in threes‟ because Russia departed from Europe most significantly not due to some immutable feature or inherent virtue, but on the basis of a qualitatively different historical relation with Asia. While Europe related to Asia through coercion and subordination having historically developed only one way of dealing with difference, „Russia-Eurasia‟ represented an alternative political order based on peaceful coexistence, cultural interchange and mutual respect for difference.

To be sure, Danilevskii‟s was a similar attempt to conceptualize Russia‟s relations with its internal colonial „others‟ in non-exploitative and non-violent terms. He insisted that in contrast to the European territorial expansion which involved violence and coercion, Russian colonization was an organic, natural and largely peaceful centuries-long process of peasant settlement, an unobstructed flow of Russian-Slavic colonists into empty lands accompanied by gradual assimilation of indigenous tribes. The resulting historical-ethnographic unity is then translated into geographical cohesiveness in order to substitute Orthodox spiriturality as a basis for Slavic unity. However, from the post-revolutionary Eurasian perspective a clear and radical „departure‟ from Europe can only be complete if politics is conceptualized in qualitatively different terms and „cleansed‟ of all vestiges and associations with territorial expansionism. Thus, compared to Danilevksii the Russian Eurasians were prepared to go an extra conceptual mile and reverse the imperial geographical dogma by playing the „geography‟ card for all its objectivist, authoritative worth.

Thus, if the Petrine policy of Westernization, colonization and Russification rested on Russia‟s spatialization into the European „core‟ and Asian „periphery‟ which, in turn, reproduced a newly instituted continental division into Europe and Asia along the Ural mountains, then a conceptualization of a different – morally superior and properly Eurasian – kind of conducting politics and relating to difference had to proceed in the opposite direction.

First, as the discussion above shows, the Eurasians position „Russia-Eurasia‟ as a self-sufficient and self-enclosed geographical world in-between Europe and Asia in contradistinction to the imperial geographical dogma situating Russia both in Europe and in Asia. Second, in order to distance and detach Russia from European colonial practices, the Eurasians predicate a different, non-expansionist kind of politics and the reality of mutually beneficial and non-violent relations between the Russians and other Eurasian peoples on Russia-Eurasia‟s internal geographical cohesiveness that effectively neutralizes the political distinction between imperial rulers and colonial subjects.

Thus, Savitskii emphasizes the biogeographical composition of „Russia-Eurasia‟ that possesses an inner symmetry of its own. Unlike the highly complex „mosaic‟ of climatic and biological zones found at the European and Asian „ends‟ of the continent, its Eurasian „core‟ boasts a certain organizational transparency. It comprises four distinct and tightly integrated ecosystems of tundra in the north, followed by the forest, steppe and desert zones, each of which is distinguished by a particular combination of climatic and soil patterns, flora and fauna. The four adjacent biogeographical regions run ribbonlike in broad, roughly parallel stripes from the western borderlands across the Eurasian plains, absolutely unaffected by the Urals. 166

More importantly, particular dependencies between climate, on the one hand, and soils and vegetation, on the other hand, reveal periodicity and inner symmetry which bring „Russia-Eurasia‟ together into a single compact and cohesive entity. In particular, Savitskii argues that tundra-forest and forest-steppe frontiers parallel average annual humidity lines which illustrate a decrease in humidity at regular 8% intervals from the tundra in the north to forests in the central regions to steppes in the south. In addition, north-south symmetry of vegetation and soil patterns ties Russia-Eurasia together into an even tighter geographical unity, as exemplified by an abundance of forests and fertile soils in the centre which is matched by a virtual lack of both in the north and in the south. 167

To recap, the geopolitical designation of „Russia-Eurasia‟ as a self-sufficient and self-sustaining “middle world” and as an internally cohesive and homogenous „world unto itself‟ leaves almost no place for politics of continental-size territorial control. In order to bring violence inherent in any territorial order to a minimum, the Eurasians „find‟ Russia-Eurasia on the map through a discovery of patterns of climate zones distribution and symmetries of biogeographical composition. However, this solution to the problem of politics-as-territorial expansionism contained the seeds of its own unravelling and was at the heart of Eurasianism‟s failure as a political movement and ideology. If „Russia-Eurasia‟ held a promise of moral politics based on a qualitatively different relationship between identity andvdifference, it could hardly reside in geography which has no room for such a relational concept as identity. Denouncing the politics of geopolitics with the help of the geography of geopolitics effectively meant envisioning no possibility of politics whatsoever. This inherent contradiction comes to the fore most forcefully in the Eurasians‟ discussion of the historical-cultural underpinnings of Russia-Eurasia‟.


158 Mark Bassin, “Russia between Europe and Asia: The Ideological Construction of Geographical Space,” Slavic Review 50, no.1 (Spring 1991), 4-8.

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

160 Nikolai I. Danilevskii, Rossiia i Evropa (Russia and Europe) (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1966), 72.

161 Ibid., 54.

162 Bassin, Russia between Europe and Asia, 11.

163 Ibid., 10.

164 Petr Savitskii, “Geograficheskii Obzor Rossii-Evrazii” [The Geographical Survey of Russia-Eurasia] in Kontinent Evraziia (Moscow: AGRAF, 1997), 279.

165 It is important to note that unlike Danilevskii, who carefully excluded Turkestan from his vision of Russia as a distinct geographical world and was highly critical about Russia‟s civilizing mission in the region, Savitskii explicitly cites the Turkestani plain among the three plains composing Russia-Eurasia. See Bassin, “Russia between Europe and Asia”, 15.

166 Bassin, “Russia between Europe and Asia”, 15.

167 Petr Savitskii, “Geograficheskie i Geopoliticheskie Osnovy Evraziistva” [Geographical and Geopolitical Foundations of Eurasianism] in Kontinent Evraziia (Moscow: AGRAF, 1997), 300.

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