Eurasian ideology, with its appeal to a glorious but bogus past, is assiduously promoted by the Kremlin to shore up the regime
Lev Gumilev: Father of Putin’s conspiracist ideology
Few, even in Russia, can remember what they were doing on the day in 1999 that Vladimir Putin became prime minister and the anointed successor to that sick old man in the Kremlin, Boris Yeltsin. In Britain, this opaque Russian succession was not even a lead news item. Fewer, especially in Moscow, expected this twitchy, mumbling, overpromoted, poorly-rated head of Russian domestic intelligence to last long. None expected him to hold power for himself. It seemed obvious he would only guard it for those who chose him.
Quietly, without them even noticing, the fate of millions was decided that day. In a matter of hours, a hastily-planned reshuffle determined who would be rich and who would be poor, who would found gas dynasties and who would sit in jail for decades to come. Russia’s borders, pipelines and school history textbooks were all to be recast in the shape of Yeltsin’s choice that day. And though not even the lieutenant colonel from St Petersburg himself could fathom it, the enthronement would radiate backwards and forwards, changing not only the future but also Russia’s sense of its past.
To grasp this, you only have to switch on Russian television. Watching is to enter a dangerous, angry wonderland. Putin’s box messages the country relentlessly: Russia is special, Russia is under attack, Russia swarms with traitors, Russia was betrayed in 1991, Russia was glorious under Stalin’s steady hand. This was not what watching Russian TV was like back in 1999. Then there was a cacophony of voices. Documentaries about the Kolyma Gulag were followed by blockbusters glorifying St Petersburg gangsters, talking heads duelled over whether Russia should join Nato or defend Serbia, and politicians yelled at each other over whether the country should bother to fight the rebellion in Chechnya.
Where did these voices go? How did Russia end up in this wonderland? What is the ideology (or aesthetic) behind it?
Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism (Yale, £25) by the Financial Times’s former Moscow bureau chief Charles Clover is required reading. This is a vivid panoramic history of bad ideas, chasing the metastasis of the doctrine known as Eurasianism from chit-chat in gilded Tsarist salons and chipped crockery in Parisian exile, to secretive histories scrawled in the hutches of the Gulag and the backrooms of gloomy Soviet universities, to becoming Putin’s favoured ideology. Black Wind, White Snow works as a succession of intellectual biographies of Russia’s great Eurasianists, from Petr Savitsky in Paris to Alexander Dugin, ubiquitous on Russian newscasts today. They tell the story of Russia’s new nationalism, and how its myths and fairytales went from talking-points at cranks’ tea parties to being officially published by the Russian General Staff, infectiously popular within the Kremlin elite, and namechecked by the president himself as he aims to build his Eurasian Union. Clover tells the story of these men as infected with an idea, a latent 1930s’ ideology, which only now has gone viral in Putin’s country.
Black Wind, White Snow is the inverted narrative of Russia’s late 20th century. Instead of tracing the familiar, comforting stories of those who overcame Soviet tyranny, it traces the lives and minds of the bitter, strange and resentful losers whose imagined Eurasian fantasia was championed by the security establishment which slowly but relentlessly overpowered 1990s’ liberalism.
The richest portrait is that of the true father of this ideology, Lev Gumilev. He was the disappointing son of Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilev, the two greatest poets of the Russian silver age. Akhmatova, the aristocratic, sorceress-like dissident, whose meeting with Isaiah Berlin he described as one of the highlights of his life, wrote perhaps the 20th century’s most beautiful poem in the Russian language, “Requiem”. It was about the terror, and Lev.
Told by his mother that he had no talent for poetry, too young when his father was executed by the Bolsheviks ever to escape from hero-worshipping him, this wounded man would outsell and out-influence them both. He was to imagine the dominate nationalist ideology for 21st-century Russia.
Arrested for being one of Osip Mandelstam’s “listeners” as he read out his “Stalin Epigram”, a poem for which the Kremlin would send Mandelstam to die in Siberia, Lev followed the great poet to the Gulag. Digging the White Sea Canal, for which 25,000 died, watching starved inmates reduced to beasts, he began writing in his head something quite different: history. He did not see tragedy in the hypothermia and demented eyes of the starving slaves digging the canal; Gumilev felt he was seeing something beautiful, the essence of history itself, the Christ-like secret of all nations’ greatness — passionarnost. This tricky-to-translate word denotes the mysterious inner energy for sacrifice that Gumilev believed all great nations possess. This Raskolnikov-like realisation devoured him and propelled him on the path to become the most influential writer on Rusian society and politics to come out of Stalin’s camps. Solzhenitsyn, for all his fame, comes nowhere close. Vladimir Putin refers to passionarnost in his speeches.
Gumilev’s tales, theories and scholarly epics, at first written on Gulag sackcloth, were both gripping and utter bunk, peppered with imaginary documents and fictitious discoveries. These tales of fleeing forefathers of the Huns and Christian Mongols rebuffed by the West at the gates of Palestine, read more like short stories by Jorge Luis Borges than history. “In his books,” writes Clover, “the Xiongnu, the Huns, the Turks, the Mongols — all subjects of Gumilev’s early histories — are isolated, perpetually maligned, backward societies, historically prone to tragic, dramatic, cycles of glory and ruin. In this, it appears, they serve mainly as metaphors for Gumilev’s native Russia.”
Gumilev did not stop at this genre, venturing into science fiction, all the time claiming, indeed believing, that he was an academic scholar. All human beings are part of a nation, he wrote, powered by radiation from outer space. This insight saw him leap to the conclusion that nations have a 1,200-year lifespan, and that Russia was only halfway through the cycle. And from its very birth, Gumilev asserted, a shadowy Western conspiracy had been trying to rip Russia apart. As the Soviet Union imploded, one would have expected Gumilev to have cheered the burial of the tyranny that murdered his father and forced him into hard labour. Instead, he was devastated. “How can you joke about this?” he scolded one friend. “It is our country. Our forebears fought for it, many generations of people fought so that Kazakhstan would be ours, so that Fergana would be ours, that we would live with the Kazakhs and Uzbeks in the same country. And now what will happen to that country?” It was gone. Gumilev saw the wrecking hands of the never-ending Anglo-Saxon conspiracy — a Protocols of the Elders of Zion without the Jews — everywhere.
Decades on, and further developed by Alexander Dugin, this is what the Russian military, security services and policemen are reading. Eurasianism, part poetic-exercise, part proto-fascism, has coalesced into a theory of Russian history that turns the classical Romanov reading on its head. Geography — not race, not religion — dictates Russia’s destinies and affinities. It looks east to Tashkent, not west to Paris.
Eurasianists see the plains, rivers and marshes of what they call “the heartland” of Siberia and Central Asia determining a mystical unity of its people. Russians, Tatars, Kazakhs and Uzbeks are not accidentally thrown together into an unnatural imperium but fated by the land itself to live forever together under one geographically-ordained empire. Russia has bled into and been nourished by the steppe cultures it lives with — its true brothers, say the Eurasianists, are not in the West.
Perhaps Eurasianism is so appealing in Moscow because it operates like a conspiracy theory. Just as Russia is obliged by unbending topographic laws to take up the empire of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan, it is forever fated to struggle with the Atlantic oceanic powers, an empire that was first Venetian and Genoese, then Portuguese and Spanish, then British, and now American, that must contain, shackle and subvert the land empire of the heartland or else be destroyed itself. These are the secrets of geopolitics, argue the Eurasianists, which faceless Doges, Whitehall mandarins or Washington CIA-runners mask behind talk of liberal democracy and human rights. All of this, Clover charts, is drawn from histories Gumilev largely made up. But fiction is not how he is read in Russia today. His books are bestsellers, his theories are studied at the foreign ministry academy and hailed as gospel there. Shuttling around Russia, I have not only been presented with copies of his books by a news editor at a state propaganda channel but listened to him quoted at length by state governors, policemen and even truckers.
But why? No intellectual history of post-Soviet Russia has asked more questions about Russia’s darkest psychology. Why did the greatest victims of empire so crave its restoration? Clover argues that men like Gumilev were creatures of Russia’s giant unspoken Stockholm syndrome. Imprisoned, abused but still utterly awed by Soviet power, Gumilev came to love his tormentor. There are millions such men in Russia.
Black Wind, White Snow tells the story from the death of Gumilev all the way to the battlefields of Donetsk. It shows how the Russian military, intelligence and police — a near-parallel society of three million men — set to work promoting the works of Gumilev and Dugin to justify the restoration of Soviet role in Russia. Clover traces how Eurasianism became a vogue in the security establishment as early as the 1990s, and hints that Putin’s embrace of its slogans after his return to the presidency in 2012 was both a signal and an appeal to Russia’s men in epaulettes.
Why is Russia’s military establishment in thrall to what were fringe, crank theories only yesterday? Clover argues that this intellectual absurdism makes perfect sense: no theory is more seductive if you are trying to justify why Russia needs an enormous army and spy-machine — the rules of geopolitics itself command it. No theory is more pleasing if you are trying to paper over the cracks between the people Russia has conquered and colonised and itself — they are all Eurasian brothers destined by the land to be ruled by one hand. And no theory is more satisfying if you want to explain Russia’s failure to Westernise — it simply can’t, not only genetically, not only through cosmic radiation, but because the Atlantic conspiracy will always be trying to destroy her.
Kremlin TV’s Eurasianism went into overdrive during the Ukraine crisis. Not only was Ukraine punished for not wanting to join the planned “Eurasian Union” with Belarus and Kazakhstan that Putin planned as the centrepiece for what he called his third “geopolitical presidency”, but the dirty war in Eastern Ukraine was fought by exporting Russia’s passionarnost fanatics. Stalin-flag-waving Cossacks, crucifix-adorned troopers — Clover suggests that the whole circus Putin has brought to the Donetsk People’s Republic only makes sense when you know its leaders quote Gumilev.
Nearly 17 Putin years have now passed, and an evening with a can of beer in front of any television set in the Russian Federation makes this clear. In coming to power and holding on to it, Putin claimed not only a personal victory but confirmed the triumph of Gumilev’s reading of Russian history over another, Westernising dream. Patriotic movies succeed one another before giving way to talk shows which are 30 minutes of hate for democrats, Ukrainians, gays, fifth columnists and national traitors. The evening news is a looping résumé of the glorious day of the president, exposés of the underground Nazi Werewolf sleeper cells running the Ukrainian army, specials on the crimes of the Nato junta in Kiev, and expert comment on the imminent implosion of the paedophile-infested European Union. Reading Charles Clover will help you understand the world of lies and delusions that is Eurasia.