A Return to the Past: Teaching

Russian and Soviet History from a Eurasian Perspective


Christopher J. Ward

Clayton State University


                Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, those who teach Russian history have faced a conundrum now that the convenient bipolarity of the Cold War is over ten years departed.  I feel that I can use such a term as “convenient” comfortably at this time since for many scholars, including myself, the Cold War can now be thought of as a time of relative stability in comparison to today’s uncertain times.  In this era of the eastward expansion of NATO and the European Union, nations and territories which were under Russian or Soviet influence for most of the twentieth century are now orienting themselves away from Eurasia.  Soon, regions that were once part of the Warsaw Pact and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance or COMECON, will become a part of the decidedly Western institutions of NATO and the EU.  We as educators in Slavic studies must approach the history of Russia in a manner that underscores its importance while at the same time emphasizing Russia’s relevance in a world which appears more interested in lands outside of the former Soviet Union.  It is my view that a pedagogical approach that utilizes the rubric of Eurasianism, among other perspectives, can drive home for students, especially undergraduates, the notion of Russia’s continued viability and importance in a multipolar and insecure world.

                In proposing a return to a Eurasian perspective in the teaching of Russian history, we must be cautious in our use of terminology.  Among some of those in contemporary Russia who identify themselves as Eurasianists, the notion of Eurasianism entails a decidedly jingoistic, exclusionist philosophy in which Russia has a special mission to protect the Eurasian (read Slavic) people from the perils of encroaching Western ideas and religious traditions.[1]  I prefer to identify this group of individuals as “neo-Eurasianists” in order to differentiate them from the Eurasianists, or what I call the “classic Eurasianists,” of the early twentieth century.  This latter set of people possessed core beliefs which varied greatly from those of modern day proponents of neo-Eurasianism.  Specifically, at a time when many Russians disagree about what form their nation should take and what it actually means to be Russian in the post-Soviet world, neo-Eurasianists see the Atlantic world as a primary root cause of the loss of Russian and, more generally, Slavic prestige around the globe.  With NATO and the European Union growing in an ominous direction eastward toward the Russian heartland, some neo-Eurasianists seek to turn back the clock of recent history and return to a world where Russia, not the soulless West, will retake its rightful position as the dominant economic and geopolitical power in Eurasia.   

Among others in contemporary Russia who choose the same moniker, Eurasianism includes a need to cooperate with other ethnic and religious groups that inhabit the Eurasian landmass.  While this variant of neo-Eurasianism advocates inclusion of Muslims, Chinese, and other non-Slavic and non-Orthodox groups rather than their exclusion, recent events in Russia have weakened this permutation of neo-Eurasianism in favor of the first incarnation of neo-Eurasianism that I described.  Specifically, the current conflict in Chechnya has thrown a number of obstacles in the way of those who support an integrationist approach to neo-Eurasianism.  While the appeal of either form of neo-Eurasianism among the wider Russian public is difficult to gauge, it is quite plausible that those who follow the second type of neo-Eurasianism, continue to identify themselves as belonging within mainstream Russian Orthodoxy, and support any kind of meaningful and equitable cooperation with the Islamic peoples of Eurasia generally and the numerous Muslim populations of the Caucasus specifically will find it difficult to attract followers to their cause.[2]  

In the West, the mention of Eurasianism among many who study Russia or the Commonwealth of Independent States evokes a pejorative connotation.  I believe that it is appropriate to discuss first the more recent incarnations of Eurasianism, which I have already mentioned might be more appropriately termed neo-Eurasianism.  Then, I will explore how the older, non-ultranationalistic and culturally inclusive concept of classic Eurasianism can be used effectively in the classroom.  It is my aim in this paper to demonstrate that when properly employed, the traditional concept of Eurasianism can augment Western students’ understanding of Russian history and, perhaps more relevantly, Russia’s position in the contemporary world.  Allow me to propose the integration of such a Eurasian perspective into our pedagogical strategy.

                To begin with, a teacher of Russian history must promote his or her students’ awareness of the existence of the dual manifestations of neo-Eurasianism which, for better or worse, have become synonymous with classic Eurasianism.  This replacement of a historical concept of Russia as a Eurasian entity that has a special and superlative global role with a relatively new or oppositional anti-Western variant of Eurasianism is, in my conception, a confusion of two mutually antithetical notions.  I intend to reveal here that neo-Eurasianism understood collectively has many dissimilarities from classic Eurasianism.  The currently more popular form of neo-Eurasian philosophy, which employs a decidedly anti-Western view and rhetoric, has found a voice in a number of media outlets and spokespeople.  Among the most vehement expressions of neo-Eurasianism are the writings of publicist and philosopher Alexandr Panarin, numerous articles in what some observers have described as the reactionary and often pro-Stalinist newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow) published by Alexandr Prokhanov[3].  In addition, the writings of Alexandr Dugin, particularly his 1997 book Osnovy geopolitiki: geopoliticheskoe budushchee Rossii (The Principles of Geopolitics: The Geopolitical Future of Russia), fall squarely within the camp of the more popular brand of neo-Eurasianism.[4] 

Interestingly, the origins of neo-Eurasianism emerge not from the post-Soviet era, but from the work of the then Soviet historian Lev Gumilev.[5]  His 1970 book Poiski vymyshlennogo tsarstva (In Search of the Imaginary Kingdom) represented Gumilev’s initial foray into neo-Eurasianism.[6]  Despite the Brezhnev era policy of not-so-subtle Russification, Gumilev’s scholarship did not attract a large audience during the years before Mikhail Gorbachev’s accession as Soviet General Secretary in 1985.  The potential of a positive reception of Gumilev’s philosophy had changed, however, by the late 1980s. 

Gumilev’s work from the Gorbachev years, in particular his 1989 effort entitled Drevniaia Rus’ i Velikaia Step’ (Ancient Rus and the Great Steppe), clearly reveals his nostalgia for the past great days of the already weakening Soviet empire.  Also, the relative popularity of this second work illustrated to what degree the public’s tolerance and even support of such unabashed Great Russocentrism had improved since the Brezhnev years.[7]  Gumilev’s unequivocal neo-Eurasianism would resonate with an even wider audience after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.[8]

Those neo-Eurasianists who followed Gumilev also advocate a strident anti-American ethos and an extreme disdain for globalization.  In the minds of this theory’s adherents, those Western nations that promote the strengthening of global contacts eschew spirituality for a tactless and overt grab for the world’s resources, including Russia’s, and the souls of the world’s population.[9]  Although many neo-Eurasianists have been labeled as ultranationalists in the West, the two philosophies are incompatible in the minds of at least one neo-Eurasianist, the aforementioned Alexandr Prokhanov.  The founder in 2002 of a new political party named Evraziia (Eurasia), Prokhanov has emphatically argued on numerous occasions in his newspaper Zavtra that his brand of Eurasianism rejects Great Russian nationalism in favor of an inclusive conception in which Russia serves as a unifier of Eurasia in the face of a growing Western menace.  Prokhanov identifies this threat in terms of conniving American-led capitalism and heretical Christianity in the guise of proselytizing waves of uninvited and unwanted Protestants of all persuasions.  Even though some neo-Eurasianists see Russia’s indigenous Muslim population as a potential ally in the struggle against Western (read American) hegemony, in reality many neo-Eurasianists gush the same anti-Islamic verbiage that some of Russia’s other political groups do in this era of the Russian occupation or defense, depending on one’s perspective, of Chechnya. 

                It is easy to assume that neo-Eurasianists in today’s Russia, whether they advocate Eurasian unity of not, represent only a small group of voices in an increasingly pluralistic society.  While it is true that hard-core Eurasianists constitute only a fraction of Russia’s political milieu, in my opinion it would be a mistake to dismiss the neo-Eurasianists as simply a group of misguided xenophobes.  The fact that such prominent political figures as Yevgenii Primakov, former Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, and Gennadii Zhuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (known by its Russian acronym KPRF), have both expressed neo-Eurasianist sympathies since the early 1990s.[10] 

Primakov and particularly Zhuganov represent sizeable constituencies in Russia who may not support the ideals of neo-Eurasianism wholeheartedly, but whose potential support of neo-Eurasianism and undeniable political significance must be considered nonetheless.  If for no other reason, we must be aware that neo-fascism is on the rise throughout much of provincial Russia, especially among young people.  While the old Stalinist nostalgia employed by Zhuganov in courting Russia’s dwindling senior population certainly fails to resonate with most Russian youth, I would argue that neo-Eurasianism’s emphasis on Russia’s leading role in the world, especially her special position as an alternative to American military and economic might, has already found an audience among some disenfranchised young people. 

As the Western media has shown in its usual hyperbolic fashion, the modest prosperity enjoyed by some Russians has, by and large, remained strictly within the so-called “capitals” of Moscow and St. Petersburg.  It is not here where Eurasianism may find its greatest following, but rather in vast non-metropolitan areas of the country where tangible benefits of Russia’s current economic success are more difficult to find.  For the Western student of Russia, an understanding of this urban-rural disconnect is crucial when engaging in a classroom discussion of neo-Eurasianism and its potential popular appeal.

Now we turn our attention to the original, or what I term classic Eurasianism and its potential utility in the classroom.  The first concept of Eurasianism has a longer history and more distinguished pedigree than its more recent successor.  Perhaps the first suggestion of a philosophy or worldview that we can identify as Eurasianist comes in the 1920s from the ethnographer and philologist Nikolai S. Trubetskoi.[11]  According to Trubetskoi, the disparate traditions of Eurasia included those of the Russia as well as the Ugro-Finnish and Turkic lands.  In Trubetskoi’s determinist mind, Russian civilization not only contained Slavic elements, but also the best attributes of a number of myriad Eurasian traditions ranging from Eastern Europe to East Asia.  Ultimately, he believed, Russia’s homogeneous expression of a varied Eurasian heritage would allow it to take its appointed place among the world’s preeminent cultures. 

When discussing classic Eurasianism with my students, I endeavor to stress its articulation of the preeminence of the Eurasian landmass and, by extension, the notion that Russia served as a unique nexus of numerous European and so-called “Asiatic” cultures.  In class, I prefer to use the term “Asian” rather than “Asiatic” in order to avoid any potential misunderstanding that might arise if I were to employ this notion in its modern context.  Historically, the descriptor “Asiatic” entails a identification with the ethnic typography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that Edward Said and others have termed “Orientalism.”[12]  This Eurocentric philosophy, which found expression in North America as the so-called “Yellow Peril” of Asian immigration to the United States and Canada, stressed the inherent inferiority of Asia vis-à-vis the West.  In an attempt to broach this linguistic and cultural phenomenon with my Russian history students, I ask a fundamental question.  Did Trubetskoi support Orientalism as his contemporaries conceived of it?  I find the range of answers often reveal that students are able to see that Trubetskoi’s version of Eurasianism may have not completely dovetailed with the Eurocentrism of some of his Western colleagues.

One can also trace the beginnings of Eurasianism to the Russian émigré historian George Vernadsky, who in 1927 predicted the collapse of the then five year-old Soviet Union.[13]  Arguing that Eurasia had experienced concomitant cycles of unity and dissolution, Vernadsky stated that the Soviet Union would fall victim to the same decentralizing forces that had rent apart the old Russian Empire.  He also postulated that from the ashes of the USSR might arise a phoenix of what we may term a “Eurasian Union.”  Within such a new environment, Russia, now free of the shackles of the inherently foreign philosophy of Marxism, would be free to extend its economic and geopolitical influence across a large area.  Vernadsky clearly envisioned an increased Russian role in what the early twentieth century British author Sir Halford J. Mackinder, whom many consider to be the father of Western geopolitical thought, termed the “heartland” of Eurasia.[14]

How, then, to introduce both classic Eurasianism and the neo-Eurasianisms to the typical group of undergraduates who have had little or no exposure to Russia and its history?  As one who has grappled with this exact question as he struggles to develop lesson plans during this and previous semesters, I have a few thoughts as how to segue a discussion of Russian history generally into an evaluation of Russia’s significance as a legitimate Eurasian state.

In most semesters, I begin my discussion of Russia’s Eurasian identity with a look at the Mongol contact with Russia which began in the thirteenth century.  Here, I argue that the Mongol-Tatar impact on Russia was profound enough to create a series of cultural, social, and political links, albeit mostly forced ones, between Russia and the other Mongol-Tatar controlled lands to her east.  One can argue, I say, that through violence and later with the collusion of the indigenous elites within its dominion, the Mongol-Tatar suzerains engendered a primitive Eurasian state that included all of the Mongol dominions from China to India to Mesopotamia.

After the Slavs’ expulsion of the so-called “Mongol yoke” beginning in the fourteenth century, one might reasonably state that the loose Eurasian union that had included Russia was now a thing of the past.  However, in discussing the rise of Muscovy with my students, I find it useful to stress that the Muscovite state evidenced many Mongol-Tatar characteristics, from its administration of the taxation system to conduct of diplomacy.  I have discovered that the use of primary sources[15], both from the Mongol and Muscovite periods, can be a useful expedient in allowing students to discern Eurasian tendencies in Russian history without my having to engage in the often over-utilized and rightly much-maligned professorial behavior of the “sage on the stage.”  I am convinced that such an approach benefits neither myself nor my students, especially in regard to such potentially complex and controversial philosophies as classic Eurasianism and neo-Eurasianism.

The expansion of Muscovy and later the Russian Empire eastward from the sixteenth century onward represents another area where a pedagogical approach that includes classic Eurasianism can prove beneficial.  In regard to the emergence of classic Eurasianists and those who opposed them, I find that our discussions of Russia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are augmented by a brief exposure to the writings of the aforementioned Nikolai Trubetskoi and George Vernadsky, both of which are available in English.  In addition, I feel that a discussion of the Westernizer-Slavophile debate that raged among Russia’s intellectuals during the 1800s can be framed effectively by a consideration of classic Eurasianism.  For example, I employ such primary sources as Nicholas Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia[16], Peter Chaadaev’s “The Philosophical Letters Addressed to a Lady” and “Apology of a Madman”[17], Vissarion Belinsky’s “Letter to Gogol”[18], Alexander Herzen’s “Young Moscow”[19], and Ivan Aksakov’s “A Slavophile Statement.”[20]  When engaging these texts with students, I try to suggest that the existence of a classic Eurasian perspective may have sparked the respective Westernism or Slavophilism of the aforementioned writers. 

A salient question within the process of teaching Russian history from an Eurasian perspective revolves around the transformation, or to phrase it more accurately, replacement of classic Eurasianism with neo-Eurasianism in Russia over the last few decades.  Here, I find that the Internet can play a vital role by allowing students to access contemporary documents from a variety of viewpoints including, but not limited to, the neo-Eurasianist perspectives.  While Russian history websites abound, I have found the Russian history site of Bucknell University’s History Department and the University of Pittsburgh’s Russian and East European Studies Internet Resources Page to be the most comprehensive, frequently updated, and user-friendly online resources dealing with the longue durée of Russian history.[21]

One of the most difficult questions I find myself being asked by more than one thoughtful student during a typical Russian history seminar is, to paraphrase, “What is Russia?  It is European, Asian, Eurasian, or something completely unique to itself?”  Here, I attempt not to foist any personal preconceptions regarding the thorny dilemma of Russia’s identity, but rather use the classic Eurasian perspective as well as modern neo-Eurasianism to illustrate the validity of each of these four proposed criteria for Russia’s taxonomy.

In sum, educators often find that many a pedagogical theory that appears effective in the abstract often fails to achieve one’s intended goal when put into practice.  While I am by no means advocating that a focus on classic Eurasianism and the two variants of neo-Eurasianism should dominate an entire one- or two-semester sequence in Russian history, I do feel that such a paradigm has its merits if utilized judiciously.  I am convinced that we as educators in Russian and Slavic studies can use a Eurasian perspective to help our students comprehend that Russia and other nations of the former Soviet Union are part of a region that is still viable politically, economically, and culturally.  In addition, the former USSR is worthy of our attention due to its geopolitical significance, if for no other reason.  The introduction of the various incarnations of Eurasianism can, in my mind, help to stimulate a revival of interest in the history of Russia and its neighbors.   




[1] I. G. Yakovenko, Rossiiskoe gosudarstvo: natsional’nye interesy, granitsy, perspektivy (Novosibirsk: Sibirskii khronograf, 1999): 51-52.

[2] See Anatoly M. Khazanov, “Ethnic Nationalism in the Russian Federation,” Daedalus 126, no. 3 (1997): 121-142.

[3] Gordon M. Hahn, “The Rebirth of Eurasianism,” The Russia Journal 14 (July 12-18, 2002).  Accessed at http://www.cdi.org/russia/215-14-pr.cfm and Olga Koulieri, “Russian ‘Eurasianism’ and the Geopolitics of the Black Sea,” The Defence Academy of the United Kingdom Conflict Studies Research Centre, Special Studies document S43.  Accessed at http://da.mod.uk/CSRC/Home/pdfs/S43-chap4.pdf.

[4] Alexandr Dugin, Osnovy geopolitiki. Geopoliticheskoe budushchee Rossii (Moscow: Arktogeia, 1997).

[5] Anatoly M. Khazanov, “Contemporary Russian Nationalism between East and West,” Transit-Europäische Revue 21, 2002.  Accessed at http://www.iwm.at/t-21txt.htm.

[6] Lev Gumilev, Poiski vymyshlennogo tsarstva (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo vostochnoi literatury, 1970).

[7] Ibid., Drevniaia Rus’ i Velikaia Step’ (Moscow: Mysl’, 1989).

[8] Regarding the impact of Gumilev’s scholarship, see Y. M. Budny, Reinventing Russia: Nationalism and the Soviet State, 1953-1991 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998) and V. Shnirelman and S. Pananrin, “Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev: osnavatel’ etnologii?” Acta Eurasica 3, no. 10 (2000): 5-37.

[9] Charles Clover, “Dreams of the Eurasian Heartland,” Foreign Affairs 78, no. 2 (March-April 1999): 9.  See also Programma i ustav politicheskoi partii “Evraziia” (Moscow: Arktogeia-Tsentr, 2002).

[10] See G. A. Zhuganov, Rossiia—rodina moia. Ideologiia gosudarstvennogo patriotizma (Moscow: Informpechat’, 1996) and Geografiia pobedy. Osnovy rossiskoi politki (Moscow: Informpechat’, 1997).

[11] See N. S. Trubetskoi, The Legacy of Ghengis Khan and Other Essays on Russia’s Identity (Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publication, 1991) and Evropa i chelevechestvo (Sofia: Rossiisko-Bolgarskoe knigoizdatel’stvo, 1920).  See also Mark Bassin, “Classical Eurasianism and the Geopolitics of Russian Identity,” Collaborative Research Network Working Paper Archive.  Accessed at http://www.dartmouth.edu/~crn/crn_papers/Bassin.pdf.

[12] See Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1995) and A. L. Macfie, Orientalism (London: Longman, 2002). 

[13] Elena Chinyaeva, “Russia in the CIS: The High Costs of Expansion,” Prism 7, no. 3 (March 30, 2001).  Accessed at http://russia.jamestown.org/pubs/view/pri_007_003_005.htm.

[14] See Sir H. J. Mackinder, Britain and the British Seas (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1902) and Milan Hauner, What Is Asia to Us?: Russia’s Asian Heartland Yesterday and Today (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990).

[15] While there are a number of primary source collections on early Russian history to choose from, I have found Thomas Riha’s two volume Readings in Russian Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2nd revised ed., 1969) to be helpful.  While dated, Riha’s editing is concise and mostly jargon-free, which in my opinion allows students to delve into primary sources with greater ease.

[16] See Richard Pipes, ed., Karamzin’s Memoir on Ancient and Modern Russia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959).

[17] See Raymond McNally and Richard Tempest, eds., Philosophical Works of Peter Chaadaev (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991).

[18] See Vissarion Belinsky, Selected Philosophical Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956).

[19] See Alexander Herzen, Selected Philosophical Works (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1956).

[20] See Olga Novikova, Skobelev and the Slavonic Cause (London: Longmans, Green & Company, 1883).

[21] See http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/russian/history.html and http://www.ucis.pitt.edu/reesweb/ respectively.


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