A Turn to the East, or the Historical-Cultural Origins 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.

As the subsequent discussion will show, the geopolitics of „Russia-Eurasia‟ was born at the intersection of geography and history. However, the Eurasians quite perceptively avoided the trap laid by Mackinder for the future generations of students of geopolitics including the Russians themselves – the trap of equating the geographical dimension of „Russia-Eurasia‟ with the territory of an expanding and belligerent nomad-based empire. To be sure, the Eurasians traced the historical origins of the contemporary Soviet state – its territorial expanse, ethnic composition, political-ideological foundations – to the territorial-political-military organization of the Mongolian empire. However, instead of linking politics to geography a-là Mackinder, i.e. through a particular space-conquering technology employed by the state, the Eurasians envision the politics/geography link along the lines suggested by Haushofer, as a particular geographical attribute endowing a certain space with a political identity. Instead of persisting as a realm of necessity, „Russia-Eurasia‟ emerges as a realm of freedom, as a voluntary association of Eurasian peoples engaged in mutually beneficial relations as well as cultural learning and adaptation.

The realignment of geographical notions necessitated by Russia‟s new-found Eurasianness laid conceptual groundwork for a radical revision of Russian history. Both Petr Savitskii and Prince Nikolai Trubetzkoy – another co-founder and key inspirational figure of the Eurasian movement – notice an important lacuna in all the existing accounts of the distinctly Russian historical path. The Slavophile fascination with Kievan Rus‟ as well as the pan-Slav striving for the yet-to-be-achieved political and spiritual unity of all Slavs beg the question of the origins of the Russian state both in its Russian imperial and Soviet manifestations. Clearly, the modern Russian state can hardly be traced back to a group of independent principalities located along the rivers connecting the Baltic and the Black seas and subsumed under the name Kievan Rus‟. Kievan Rus‟ did not comprise even a twentieth part of modern Russia. 168

Moreover, it was neither the most economically developed nor the most politically consolidated entity. Kievan Rus‟ could not maintain trade along its waterways due to frequent nomadic raids and eventually fell prey to the most visionary of ruler around, Genghis Khan. No powerful state could emerge from Kievan Rus‟, and its historical affiliation with modern Russia is wide of the mark. Still, the question remains: whence cometh the Russian land, and how hath the Russian land arisen?

In the language of contemporary science, the Eurasians put forward a theory more parsimonious and an account of Russian history more methodologically sound than the one suggested by the Slavophiles. The much-idealized Kievan past has survived almost exclusively in Russia‟s staunch adherence to Orthodoxy, whereas other crucial aspects of historical Russia – its military prowess, politico-ideological foundations and ethnic make-up – remain unaccounted for. Even a cursory glance at the map reveals that the territorial dimension of the modern Russian state can be traced back to the times when Russia was part of the great Mongolian empire founded by Ghengis Khan. The Mongol-Tatar yoke was not a temporary suspension of the natural course of Russian history; the latter could hardly resume unaffected after the yoke‟s „overthrow‟. To be more precise, there was no such thing as the „overthrow‟ of the Horde by military force.169 Instead, the spirit and ideas of Ghengis Khan were adopted and assimilated by the Muscovite rulers. As a result, the Turanian element transformed the Russian national physiognomy and entered the very foundations of Russian  national psyche. The East was no longer a way out of European isolation pragmatically envisioned by the Slavophiles in the aftermath of Russia‟s defeat in the Crimean war. Nor was it a passive object of Russian political expansion and colonization, as it appeared to Danilevskii and other pan-Slavs. The East was already here and now; it gave Russia a new lease on life and was as much a thing of the Muscovite past as it was a reality of Russia‟s present.

Having subjugated various nomadic tribes to his power, Genghis Khan transformed the Eurasian steppe into a single nomad state with superb military organization. Subsequently he extended his rule to encompass, through the conquest of the steppe, the rest of Eurasia. The disastrous short-term consequences of the invasion – the looting and destruction of river settlements – were outweighed in the long run by the pacifying impact of political unification which brought about safety of trade routes and ultimately contributed to the material well-being of settled societies. More importantly, the impact of the Mongol invasion went far beyond the pragmatics of survival and economic prosperity. It confronted Russians with an ethical dilemma and compelled them to search for a new centre of gravity to hold the Russian universe together.

On the one hand, the humiliating reality of a foreign yoke triggered an upsurge of religious feeling which was perceived by Russians as redemption for past sins – the sins that  resulted in the calamity of a foreign yoke. The intensity of religious feeling permeated all spheres of everyday life and creative activity, so that during the Tatar rule Orthodoxy enjoyed a following unheard-of in pre-Tatar Rus‟. On the other hand, the foreign idea of a centralized state achieving power and security by means of internal mobilization and territorial expansion possessed in the Russian eyes an irresistible lure of universal effectiveness and applicability

However, the Mongolian conception of the state had to be stripped of its Mongolianism and religiously appropriated through Orthodoxy in order to be heralded as one‟s own, as Russian.

The Muscovite synthesis produced a win-win combination of the state ideal and Orthodox spirituality.

Judging by the above discussion, the Eurasians‟ conceptualization of the cultural foundations of „Russia-Eurasia‟ converges round one main point: cultures do not participate in a free-floating exchange of ideas immune from relations of power. Rather, cross-cultural interchange is a context-bound enterprise resulting from particular historical encounters and political struggles on the ground. Historical encounters between the Russians and the Turanians are cited by the Eurasians as a case in point. They produced a unique Slavo- Turanian cultural synthesis whereby more sophisticated Turanian techniques of mastering political space were assimilated and religiously appropriated by the subjugated Slavs.

In particular, the Russian political imagination was captivated by the idea of a military superior centralized state spurred to action by the absolute authority of the ruler and a single overarching drive to expand. Having seen their lands become one of the provinces of the Mongolian empire, Russians could no longer afford to stick to the „primitive insignificance‟ of their thoroughly pragmatic pre-Mongolian conception of the state as an umbrella entity securing trade and promoting economic prosperity. National revival depended not only on mastering the techniques of the Mongolian state system, but to a greater extent on establishing historical continuity and relating the foreign idea of a state to the already familiar political ideas and ideologies. The source of inspiration was provided by the Greco-Byzantine tradition of political thought which grounded transient political authority in the absolute authority of the Almighty. Genghis Khan related to God in the same manner as the laity and, despite being the supreme earthly ruler, was as much a subject to heavenly will and judgement as his earthly subordinates. By contrast, the Orthodox tsar embodied the will of the nation; he bore responsibility for his people‟s sins and, at the same time, acted as a channel of divine grace and a champion of God‟s commandments in the life of the nation. What ultimately emerged from a combination of new politics and old ideology was a religiously sanctioned concept of a nation-state.

At the same time, Trubetskoy is emphatic that together with the „Russification‟ of the Turanian state ideal which was religiously sanctioned through incorporation into the politico- ideological tradition of Byzantium, there occurred a simultaneous „Turanization‟ of the Byzantine tradition in the process of its revival and subsequent flourishing on the Russian soil. 170

In fact, the Russians embraced Orthodoxy and applied it to the conditions of their life in precisely the same way as the Turanians had adopted Islam a few centuries before: they accepted it wholesale and subsequently turned into an overarching cognitive framework encompassing all aspects of their existence – their religious beliefs, their politics and their daily lives. Certain important elements of Turanian ethno-psychology – search for solid foundations, simple schemes and blueprints for action rather than abstract formulas and dogmas – had already been imprinted on the Russian psyche by the time Orthodoxy became the centrepiece of Russian existence. Therefore, Orthodoxy was internalized by the Slavs the way it was, i.e. not as an object of philosophical reflection, but as a self-sufficient philosophical system in its own right, not as school of thought, but as an internally consistent way of life. 171

As the Turanians‟ only true disciples, Russians substituted the Greco-Byzantine tradition of religious thinking for the Turanian tradition of religious living (“bytovoe ispovednichestvo”) whereby faith and mores became inseparable from one another leaving nothing in everyday life or in the culture outside the domain of morality and religion.172

Ultimately, the Orthodox tradition may have become ossified on the Russian soil in theabsence of scope for critical reflection and thinking; but it brought about the kind of spiritual discipline and religious unity that manifested its strength through expansion and made Muscovite Russia one of the world‟s largest powers.

The Eurasian account of the historical relations between the Slavs and the Turanians amounts to revealing the Mongol-Tatar sources of both Russian statehood and Russian religious revival. These sources were deliberately overlooked by both the Slavophiles and the Westernizers because they viewed the development of Russian culture theoretically rather than historically, i.e. through the prism of their own cultural assumptions and ethical ideals.

The very idea of both Greco-Byzantine and Turanian underpinnings of Russian Orthodoxy was a blasphemy to the Slavophiles, not least because of their highly critical perception of the state as a necessary evil. The Westernizers rejected the past wholesale in an attempt to model Russian culture on an altogether different fusion of culture and politics, in which there was no place for Asiatic obedience and unconditional acceptance of authority. According to the Eurasians, cultural interchange and interpenetration between the Russians and the Tartars was more extensive and the resulting Slavo-Turanian cultural synthesis was more far-reaching and comprehensive than both the Slavophiles and the Westernizers would have been comfortable accepting.

Despite the emphasis on the politico-military aspects of Genghis Khan‟s legacy, Trubetzkoy insists that the Turanian element cannot be reduced to the territorial dimension of the modern Russian state and the accompanying organizational idea of a single Eurasian state.

Fraternization between the Slavs and the Turkic peoples transcends the pragmatics of living within a single state; it has resulted in cultural cross-fertilization whereby the Russians inherited the Turanian preoccupation with authority and order and transformed Orthodoxy into a nation-wide guide to religious living. As long as this is the case, the Turanian element enters the very foundations of Russian culture and Russian communal life. To drive the point home, Trubetzkoy compares the impact of the Romano-Germanic and the Tatar „yokes‟ on the indigenous Russian culture and comes to a definite conclusion: given that Bolshevism is a product of two-centuries‟ old Romano-Germanic „education, the Tatar „school‟ may not have been altogether that bad. 173

At this point we need to take stock of the Eurasian argument discussed so far, because we are being confronted with two mutually exclusive conceptualizations of the link between culture and politics, identity and foreign policy. On the one hand, the Eurasians emphasize the importance of the Mongol-Tartar yoke in transforming the Russian collective self-identification. They cite the post-Tartar and the pre-imperial phase of Russian history as an example of peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence of the Russians and Turanians within a single political-territorial order and their joint endeavour to accommodate differences in the name of this order. This historical generalization positing a radical break from both European colonial and Russian imperial practices is consistent with and is buttressed by the tri-partite geographical division of the continent that envisions a possibility of a non-antagonistic relationship between Europe and Asia.

On the other hand, a cultural „turn to the East‟ could not be complete without establishing cultural „autonomy‟ of the Slavo-Turanian synthesis vis-à-vis its political underpinnings. Implicit in Turbetzkoy‟s revision of Russian history is a contention that a unique Slavo-Turanian culture should be separated from politics that brought it about, be it the projection of the nomad power westwards to subjugate the Russian lands, or the subsequent „gathering‟ of the lands of the northwest ulus of the Molgol empire by the Muscovite princes. However, it transpires that politics purged of all associations with territorial expansionism is unable to relate to difference and loses that specifically political quality that distinguishes politics from metaphysics. Indeed, the Eurasians‟ passionate appeal

to national intelligentsias to uncover the Slavo-Turanian origins in the Russian language, folklore, ethno-psychology and political predispositions and activate them in the national consciousness was nothing short of metaphysical. The transition of culture to metaphysics was complete once the territorial dimension of the Slavo-Turanian synthesis came to be rooted in the constants of Russia-Eurasian geography leaving no place for relations, intersubjectivity and, ultimately, difference. Put differently, Eurasianism ponders on the identity-effects of foreign policy following the transformation of the Russian communal „self‟ when faced with a military superior Mongol-Tartar „other‟ only in order to subsequently sever the link between identity and foreign policy and assert the primacy of autonomous and self-referential national culture. In view of this puzzling propensity of the Russian Eurasians for self-negation there arises a legitimate question: why is this the case?

In order to answer this question we will do well to restore the political context of Eurasian theorizing. We should therefore recall that Eurasianism as an intellectual movement was formed by Russian émigrés who fled the country following the Bolshevik take-over in November 1917. Metaphorically speaking, we need to plunge ourselves into the very thick of the Eurasian reaction and attitude to the Russian revolution.

Indeed, the reforms of Peter the Great that ushered in far-reaching Europeanization of the Russian milieu and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 were two historical watersheds, two ultimate horizons within which the Eurasian thinking evolved, and the latter was a direct outgrowth and a logical continuation of the former. However, while the two hundred years of mindlessly „aping‟ the Romano-Germans were considered by the Eurasians a period of spiritual degradation, the evidence with regards to the political and cultural impact of the Russian revolution was essentially mixed. The revolution may be viewed as an intervening variable which required a separate Eurasian response and highlighted an important controversy within Eurasianism which eventually contributed to the fragmentation and dissolution of the movement in the 1930s.


168 This is an abridgement of Trubetzkoy‟s views developed in Nikolai Trubetzkoy, “The Legacy of Genghis Khan: A Perspective on Russian History Not from the West but from the East”, in Legacy of Genghis Khan and Other Essays on Russia’s Identity, ed. Anatoly Liberman (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications, 1991), 161- 163.

169 Trubetzkoy, 182.

170 Nikolai Trubetzkoy, “O Turanskom Elemente v Russkoi Kul‟ture” [On the Turanian Element in Russian Culture], in Rossiia mezhdu Evropoi i Aziei: Evraziiskii Soblazn , ed. Lidia Novikova and Irina Sizemskaia (Moscow: Nauka, 1993), 73.

171 Trubetzkoy, “The Legacy of Genghis Khan”, 190-191.

172 To press the cultural analogy between the Russians and the Turanians even further, Trubetzkoy insists that the Russian approach and attitude to faith is as different from the approach shared by the Greeks as the Turanian attitude is different from the attitude shared by the Arabs. Neither the Russians nor the Turkic peoples have given the world a single prominent theologian although both the Russians and the Turanians were more religious than the Greeks and the Arabs respectively. See Trubetzkoy, “O Turanskom Elemente v Russkoi Kul‟ture”, 72- 73.

173 Trubetzkoy, “The Legacy of Genghis Khan”, 76.

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