Fall/Winter 2014
Number 27

In Moscow, A New Eurasianism

By
Charles Clover

Being a Kremlin mandarin has its perks. In addition to a walnut finished office in Moscow’s Old Square which might have belonged to Brezhnev, or a bay windowed view of the Spassky Gate; in addition to being able to plow through rush hour traffic with a blue flashing migalka on top of your black chauffered Audi; in addition to the palatial dacha, the bank of retro-looking vertushki phones within easy reach of your Chanel-clad secretary, there is also the fact that, whenever you get a bee in your bonnet about something, you can reserve an entire page in a Moscow newspaper for an absolutely scintillating 3,000-word Q&A about whatever you want to talk about, and they will print every last word.

Nikolai Patrushev, chairman of Russia’s security council, had a lot on his mind sometime in the first week of May 2009 when he arranged for Elena Ovcharenko, the chief editor of Izvestia, a state-owned newspaper, to come over and record for posterity his thoughts on the subject of threats to Russian statehood. Ms. Ovcharenko was a veteran of such engagements; this was the fifth interview with Patrushev she had done for the paper. But by the middle of the tête-a-tête, things got a little weird.

“The history of the formation, development, unification and the collapse of European and Asian countries,” Patrushev said, in response to a question about conflicts over natural resources, “suggests that the political climate here is mainly determined by the interests of the world’s leading nations and peoples living in these territories.” Nothing too controversial so far. But then he took a detour.

“This idea was briefly stated and substantiated by one of the leading political scientists of the twentieth century, Halford Mackinder, who wrote: ‘Who controls eastern Europe, rules the Heartland. Who controls the Heartland, he commands the ‘World Island.’ Who rules the ‘World Island,’ he rules the world,’” said Patrushev, according to a transcript of the conversation printed in Izvestia.(1)

It was an odd thing for a director of national security to say. Patrushev was quoting some obscure academic named Mackinder saying something about world domination.

Ms. Ovcharenko, perhaps sensing that going further down the rabbit hole was discouraged, or perhaps having grown so inured to the wild conspiratorial musings of the new generation of Russian statesmen that she didn’t even register the answer as newsworthy, quickly changed the subject to economic security, and the quote was buried in the article the next day.

But the piece caused a stir in certain circles, not because of the mention of world domination by one of the most powerful men in Russia, but because of the way that the obscure British geographer Halford Mackinder had found his way onto his desk. Patrushev’s message was classic “dog whistle” politics, communicating a message to supporters which only they could hear. “Mackinder” and “heartland” were two code words which meant very little to the uninitiated. But to those who were familiar with conservative theories of nationalism which have made dramatic inroads into Russian politics since the end of the Cold war, it meant a great deal. For them, Mackinder is like a barium meal, a visible sign of the progress of these ideas through Russia’s post-communist society, which Patrushev clearly wanted certain audiences to see.

Patrushev’s words signaled to close observers of Russian politics that a new ideology had taken hold in the Kremlin among top decision makers: ideas which ten years before had been dismissed as completely barking mad were now mainstream. Talk of controlling Eastern Europe would echo once again during the 2014 invasion of Crimea, when the former Soviet Union became a new battleground between the West and a revived, increasingly assertive and imperial-minded Russia. Patrushev’s comments prefigured these events by five years, but showed to anyone who was paying attention that the ground was already being laid for conquest—for a new definition of Russia’s national interest, based on geography, and on having as much of it as possible.  

Back to empire

The Putin era has seen the emergence of this fringe strain of imperial nationalism as a shadow ideology in Russian politics. A shadow ideology is one that is not aimed at mass mobilization behind public slogans, as was the case in the Soviet period, but at consolidating an elite behind a set of understood if unspoken truths, deniably vague statements and opaque policies. It is not the subject of booming speeches, but one of whispered codes.

Prior to the collapse of communism, these ideas were only to be found in underground and exile movements which preserved Russian nationalism in situ during the years of Soviet Union, when “bourgeois nationalism” was anathema to the official ideology of scientific Marxism. But its rapid growth in intellectual and political circles after 1991 indicated that interest in the formerly obscure movement was driven by more than casual interest of readers. Indeed, it appears that it had some high-level help from the Russian army and its special services, who saw it as the least objectionable of a number of ideologies—among them liberal democracy and ethnic nationalism—competing for primacy in the aftermath of communism.

In this way, conservative theories of nationalism and empire seem to have emerged with some form of official sanction. Writers who play to this audience have larger print runs, and their books are prominently displayed. Today, anyone can walk into Moscow bookstores such as Dom Knigi or Biblio Globus and find the section on “Geopolitics.” In the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, there is a geopolitics subcommittee. At Moscow State University, there is a chair of the geopolitics department. And while Russian government is constitutionally prohibited from espousing an official ideology, these ideas have been singled out for praise with dog whistle pronouncements similar to those of Patrushev.

And the man who had without a doubt put Mackinder on Patrushev’s tongue was an obscure right-wing pamphleteer and ideologist named Alexander Dugin, himself a former dissident, whose works have come into vogue following the arrival of Vladimir Putin in power in 2000. Among Dugin’s prolific output was a book dedicated to “Geopolitics” in which Mackinder was given a starring role—largely on the basis of a lecture the Englishman gave in 1904 to the Royal Geographical society on the coming struggle against Russia for mastery of the Eurasian landmass, which he dubbed the “heartland.”

The basic gist of geopolitics is oddly compelling. Stretching back to the Peloponnesian wars, geopoliticians argued, a majority of armed conflicts have always featured a country with a stronger navy against one with a stronger army. Sea power and land power, in other words, are fated to clash. The Cold War became the epitome of Mackinder’s teachings. The U.S., guarded on two sides by vast oceans, has inherited the UK’s mantle of global sea power, while Russia, whose vast steppes and harsh winters defeated Napoleon and Hitler, is all but impregnable behind a land fortress. Geography dictated that Russia would forever seek to break out of continental isolation, seize warm water ports and build a world-beating navy, while the UK (and its successor, the U.S.) would seek to encroach landwards into Eastern Europe and inner Asia in an effort to contain Russia.

But Mackinder’s writings had fallen into obscurity. Arguably, he was ahead of his time; his 1904 lecture was devoted to the idea that Russia, and not Germany, was Britain’s greatest strategic opponent, and the timing of this prediction, on the eve of two world wars against Germany, could not have seemed more wrong. It wasn’t until a year before his death in 1947 that he was ultimately rehabilitated by the arrival of the Cold War. And now, thanks to Dugin, the theory seems to have pervaded Kremlin thinking.

Geopolitics is not strictly speaking an ideology itself. It is, instead, a great leveler of ideologies, a rebuff to any claim to historical privilege or exceptionalism. Geopolitics teaches that states must be judged based on their behavior, not their principles, because principles are not part of the ontology of statecraft. Any claim to ideals is at best a self-delusion, at worst a calculated effort to camouflage real goals.

Ideology, according to geopoliticians, was simply window dressing on a more fundamental, and more permanent, conflict of geography. The Cold War pitted the world’s greatest maritime power against the world’s most inaccessible region by sea, whose vast landscape has defeated conqueror after conqueror. This geographic opposition had predetermined the strategic and ideological confrontation of the Cold War, and most importantly, the geography wasn’t about to change. While many predicted that the end of ideological confrontation would usher in an era of peace, Dugin and other hardliners saw the conflict with the West as a permanent condition.

Eurasia dreaming

Mr. Patrushev’s assessment of Halford Mackinder as “one of the leading political scientists of the 20th century” was, as we can see, extremely generous to the man. However, in Russia, he has assumed the proportions described by Patrushev, thanks to Dugin. The Englishman was among a gallery of other thinkers profiled in his 1997 blockbuster book The Foundations of Geopolitics, including thinkers associated with the far right wing, most of whom you have never heard of, some quite mad ones and not a few Nazis.

In Dugin’s capable hands, Mackinder was transformed from an obscure Edwardian curiosity who never got tenure at Oxford into a sort of Cardinal Richelieu of Whitehall, whose whispered counsels to the great men of state were the sure hand on the tiller of British strategic thinking for half a century, and whose ideas continue to be the strategic imperatives for a new generation of secret mandarins. Other “Atlantic” geopoliticians such as Nicholas Spykman and Alfred Thayer Mahan got similar treatment.

Then there were the opposing geopoliticians profiled by Dugin, mostly German, who argued from the same logic but in defense of continental land power. These included Friedrich Ratzel, a late nineteenth-century German geographer who coined the term lebensraum, or “living space,” which later was coopted as an imperative by the Third Reich. The second generation of geopolitical writings earned the theory a lingering association with Nazism. Mackinder’s contemporary Karl Haushoffer was a German army general and strategic theorist who was a strong proponent of a three-way alliance between Berlin, Moscow, and Tokyo.

Dugin’s main argument in Foundations was drawn straight from Haushoffer’s pages: the need to thwart the conspiracy of “Atlanticism” led by the U.S. and NATO, which is aimed at containing Russia within successive geographic rings of newly independent states. The plan was simple: first put the Soviet Union back together, counseled Dugin, and then use clever alliance diplomacy focused on partnerships with Japan, Iran and Germany to eject the United States and its Atlanticist minions from the continent.

It didn’t seem to matter that circa 1997 this idea seemed completely insane; Russia’s GDP was smaller than that of the Netherlands, while the once formidable Red Army had just been defeated on the battlefield and forced into a humiliating peace by a ragtag group of Chechen insurgents. It was a period of Russian history when analogies to Weimar Germany were plentiful, and Dugin’s book was evidence that the same dark forces radicalized by Germany’s interwar collapse were on the ascent in Russia. It preached that the country’s humiliation was the result of foreign conspiracies, its cover was emblazoned with a swastika-like runic symbol known in occult circles as the “star of chaos” and it favorably profiled several Nazis. If the parallels with the Third Reich weren’t already plentiful enough, it called for the formation of a geopolitical “axis” which would include Germany and Japan.

Dugin’s message found a wide audience. Foundations sold out in four editions, and continues to be assigned as a textbook to the general staff academy and other military universities in Russia. “There has probably not been another book published in Russia during the post-communist period which has exerted a comparable influence on Russian military, police, and statist foreign policy elites,” writes historian John Dunlop, a specialist on the Russian right at the Hoover Institution.(2)

One passage from Foundations in particular deserves attention, in light of recent events since the 2008 war in Georgia and the campaign in Crimea and eastern Ukraine:

“One absolute imperative of Russian geopolitics is the total and unfettered control of Moscow over the entire length of the Black Sea coast stretching from Ukrainian to Abkhazian territory. One can arbitrarily split up the whole zone on the basis of ethno-cultural, ethnic and confessional basis providing autonomy to Crimea, Ruthenia, Tatars, Cossacks, Abkhazians, Georgians, etc., but this only under the absolute control of Moscow over the military and political situation … The north shore of the Black Sea should be exclusively Eurasian and centrally obey Moscow.”(3)

Dugin’s book also introduced a generation of Russians to the writings of a school of Russian imperial thought dreamt up by White Russian exiles in the 1920s, which was eventually to give its name to the new ideology of imperial power that would seep into the corridors of the Kremlin throughout the coming decade.

“Eurasianism” was at the time more of an intellectual curiosity, created in the interwar period by forgotten White Russian aristocrats and promoted during the perestroika era by popular Soviet historian Lev Gumilev. But in Dugin’s capable hands, it was transformed from kooky ethnography and apologia for Stalin—which was renounced almost immediately by its main creator, Prince Nikolai Trubetskoi—into the expression of a timeless identity and statehood for Russia that lay below the surface of the Russian empire, the elusive Eurasian identity which was the counterweight to the Atlanticist effort at world domination.

“Eurasia” became the germ of a new ideology of power for the Kremlin under Putin, who has coopted the term, along with “geopolitics” and other buzzwords which captured the imaginations of the elite who came to power with him, and whose secret service backgrounds made them uniquely receptive to Dugin’s formulas. Naturally paranoid, they see western plots in all corners. But they also see confrontation with the west, the presence of an external enemy, as an extremely efficient way to organize the state—politics becomes less challenging when one’s opponents can be labeled foreign-backed saboteurs as they were in Stalin’s day.

Eurasianism promises the mobilizing power of nationalism, without the headache of separatism. It is an imperial ideology whose major strength is that it, unlike its main competitors (communism, ethnic nationalism, and liberalism), has not yet been tried and failed. The coming decade, therefore, is likely to see Eurasianism tried—with more expansion into the post-Soviet sphere, with a more confrontational line against the west, with the consolidation and expansion of Putin’s “Eurasian Union” scheduled to be launched formally in 2015. 

Alarming appeal

Patrushev is not the only fan of Dugin among the top cadre of Putin’s friends. Vladimir Yakunin, Chairman of Russian Railways, the state railway monopoly, who is also a former KGB officer and owns a dacha in the same complex as Putin on the shores of lake Komsomolskoe, footnotes Dugin no fewer than eight times in his 2006 book The Russian School of Geopolitics, and is named as editor for two anthologies of Dugin’s writing published by his think tank, the Centre for Analysis of Problems and Public Governance.

Meanwhile, Igor Sechin, chairman of Rosneft, the state oil company, recently hired journalist and TV commentator Mikhail Leontiev as a vice president at Rosneft. Leontiev has long been a supporter of Dugin, and occupies a seat on the board of directors of Dugin’s International Eurasianist Movement.

Thus Putin’s coterie of friends, high up in state corporations, in the national security bureaucracy, in political parties, have made “Eurasianism” a new faith, even if they don’t announce it to the world. Collectively, they form a kind of deep state whose consensus on weighty matters reigns supreme.

The point of a shadow ideology is that it is deniable. Today, no government can afford to publicly espouse any system other than democracy, ethnic tolerance, self-determination, free trade, and universal human rights—even if its rulers do not practice these things. Speaking openly of conquest and subjugation of a neighbouring country is simply not acceptable in public anymore, as it was in the 19th century. But regimes have found ways to discuss these projects in public using a variety of dog whistles, double meanings, and fudges. “Sovereign democracy” is one way the Kremlin has found to talk about Russia’s political system, in which only one party is allowed to win. “Traditional values” include national pride and respect for authority—values any authoritarian ruler would find easy to manipulate in cementing his authority. Conquest is out, while “integration” with former colonial subjects, which supposedly share common values and culture (even if they are a different religion or ethnicity), is in.

“Eurasia” is perhaps the most extravagant double entendre the Kremlin has invented. On Oct 4, 2011, a week after Putin had announced his return to the Presidency for a third term, following four years as prime minister, readers of Izvestia found a full-page article by their once and future president, describing his vision for a “Eurasian Union” of former Soviet states.(4)

Putin insisted that the union was “not like other previous unions” and was simply a trade organization analogous to the EU. But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised shouts of indignation in Moscow when, in December 2012, she accused the Kremlin of “a move to re-Sovietize the region.”(5)

The accusation had considerable merit. On January 23, 2012, in an article on nationality policy in the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Putin referred to Russia with a new word: “civilization state,” adding that the nation of nation state, burdened as it was with connotations of liberalism, should be eliminated as inadequate for the Russian people. “I am deeply convinced,” the Russian president wrote, “that the attempts to preach the idea of constructing a Russian ‘national’ monoethnic state directly contradict our thousand-year history.”(6)

The phrasing barely raised an eyebrow, but that was precisely the point. With such dog whistle politics, people hear what they want to hear. The leader keeps a deniable distance while the esoteric meanings of his speeches are interpreted by successive layers of initiates, who act as a buffer from the profane masses.

In September 2013, Putin again referred to Russia again by the term “civilization state” in an address to the Valdai forum of journalists and Russia experts, and made his most specific comments yet about the scope for Eurasian integration. “The twenty-first century promises to be the century of great change, the era of the formation of major continents of geopolitical, financial, economic, cultural, civilizational, political and military power,” he said. “And because of this, our absolute priority is the tight integration with our neighbors.”(7)

He described his proposed Eurasian Union not in strictly trade and economic terms, as he had in the past, but as “a project of the preservation of identity of peoples, of historical Eurasia in the new century and a new world. Eurasian integration is a chance for the former Soviet Union to become an independent center of global development, rather than the periphery of Europe or Asia.”

Putin’s words appear to indicate a Kremlin consensus that in the future world, in order to matter, you have to be big, that the future will belong to continent-sized super states. “Eurasia” appears to be the shortcut to one of these.

Charles Clover is currently Beijing correspondent for the Financial Times of London. From 2008-2013 he was the FT’s Moscow bureau chief. In 2011, he was named foreign reporter of the year at the British Press Awards, and won a Martha Gellhorn prize for his work on Russian nationalism.


1.   The author wishes to thank Mr. Robert Otto for pointing out this article.

2.    John B. Dunlop, “Aleksandr Dugin’s ‘Neo-Eurasian’ Textbook and Dmitrii Trenin’s Ambivalent Response,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies XXV, nos. 1/2 (2001).

3.    Aleksandr Dugin, Osnovy geopolitiki: Geopoliticheskoe Budushchee Rossii [The Foundations of Geopolitics: Russia’s Geopolitical Future] (Moscow: Arktogeya, 1997).

4.    Vladimir Putin, “Novii Integratsionni Proekt Dlya Evrazii—Budushiye, Kotoroe Rozhdaetsa Segodniya” [A New Integration Project for Eurasia—A Future that is Being Born Today], Izvestia (Moscow), October 3, 2011, http://izvestia.ru/news/502761.

5.    As cited in Charles Clover, “Clinton Vows to Thwart New Soviet Union,” Financial Times, December 6, 2012, http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a5b15b14-3fcf-11e2-9f71-00144feabdc0.html?site....

6.    Vladimir Putin, “Rossiya: Natsionalniy Vopros” [Russia: a national question], Nezavisimaya Gazeta (Moscow), January 23, 2012, http://www.ng.ru/politics/2012-01-23/1_national.html.

7.  “Zasedanie Mezhdunarodnogo Diskusionogo Kluba ‘Valdai’” [Meeting of the International Discussion Club ‘Valdai’], Kremlin.ru, September 19, 2013, http://www.kremlin.ru/news/19243.