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Dreams of the Eurasian Heartland: The Reemergence of Geopolitics

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Few modern ideologies are as whimsically all-encompassing, as romantically obscure, as intellectually sloppy, and as likely to start a third world war as the theory of "geopolitics."

Popularized at the beginning of the twentieth century by an eccentric British geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, geopolitics posits that the earth will forever be divided into two naturally antagonistic spheres: land and sea. In this model, the natural repository for global land power is the Eurasian "heartland" -- the territory of the former Russian empire. Whoever controls the heartland, wrote Mackinder, will forever seek to dominate the Eurasian landmass and ultimately the world.

Unsurprisingly, this theory of geopolitics has not gone unnoticed in the heartland itself. Today, in the shadow of the Kremlin's spires, geopolitical theory has a fast-growing set of devotees. Many Russian intellectuals, who once thought their homeland's victory over the world would be the inevitable result of history, now pin their hope for Russia's return to greatness on a theory that is, in a way, the opposite of dialectical materialism. Victory is now to be found in geography, rather than history; in space, rather than time.

A geopolitical theory called Eurasianism has become the common focus of Russia's "red-brown" coalition -- the alliance of ultra-left and ultra-right politicians who together control close to half of the Duma (Russia's lower house of parliament) and who grow stronger each day, as Russia's economic crisis radicalizes the country's long-suffering population.

In its milder form, Eurasianism simply stresses Russia's uniqueness and argues that Russia need not Westernize in order to modernize. But in its hard-line version, the movement envisions the Eurasian heartland as the geographic launch pad for a global anti-Western movement whose goal is the ultimate expulsion of "Atlantic" (read: "American") influence from Eurasia.

Followers of this hard-line strain include the leaders of the Communist Party, which is by far the largest political organization in Russia today. Gennadi Zyuganov, its chairman, has just published a geopolitical manifesto, The Geography of Victory, in which he abandons anything resembling traditional communist doctrine. "We live in an era where geopolitics is literally knocking at the door, and ignoring it would be not just a mistake, but a crime," writes Zyuganov. The only time Marx surfaces in the book is in quotations meant to reveal that he too was a geopolitician.

Other radical political parties, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party (the LDPR, which is neither liberal nor democratic), have also climbed aboard the geopolitics bandwagon. Their rantings cannot be ignored; the LDPR dominates the geopolitics committee in the Duma and competes with the more liberal international affairs committee to be the house's voice on Russian foreign policy.

Outside the legislature, Russia's Defense Ministry and military elite have also caught Eurasian fever. Some commentators even find geopolitical sympathies in the policies of Russia's enigmatic new prime minister, Yevgeni Primakov. His policies fit the Eurasianist doctrine so neatly that it is hard not to view Primakov as one of the movement's backers -- although he has never publicly stated his position on the theory.

SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY

The widespread success of Eurasianism is thanks in part to its all-encompassing, hybrid character. In the skilled hands of its careful ideologues, Eurasianism has succeeded in reconciling the often contradictory philosophies of communism, religious orthodoxy, and nationalist fundamentalism. Eurasianism therefore manages to be imperial without being nationalistic, messianic without being overtly chauvinistic. It has become an umbrella philosophy, absorbing all that is radical in the bubbling cauldron of post-Soviet political thought. Eurasianism, then, may be Russia's fabled "third way," a compromise between left- and right-wing extremes -- and yet far from the center in its own right.

If Eurasianism seems familiar, it is no coincidence. The theory is a direct descendant of the Slavophile movement of the nineteenth century, now retooled for the 21st. Cribbed from Mackinder and born in 1921 with the publication of historian Peter Savitsky's Exodus to the East, Eurasianism seeks to establish Russia's unique identity as distinct from the West. Rather than emphasizing the cultural union of all Slavs (as the Slavophiles did until the idea fell apart amid the Polish uprisings of the 1860s), Eurasianism looks south and east and dreams of fusing Eurasia's Orthodox and Muslim populations into one.

Eurasianism entered the post-Soviet world through the pages of the opposition newspaper Den' (Day), which was created in 1990 and changed its name to Zavtra (Tomorrow) after being closed by the authorities in 1993. In the eight years since, the editor, Aleksandr Prokhanov, and his former deputy, Aleksandr Dugin, have turned Eurasianism into a rallying point for Russia's right- and left-wing malcontents.

"The Eurasianists transformed the contradictions between white [ultraconservative] and red on the basis of a broad civilizational project," said Dugin in his office across from Moscow's Novodevechy monastery. "Nobody else except the Eurasianists presented such a project, which dates from the 1920s but is just as operative in the 1990s. The other tendencies -- the Slavophiles, the Westerners, the left and right, red and white -- these are all exhausted, they are for nostalgists, like collecting stamps or old cars."

Since leaving Zavtra, Dugin has become the editor of a journal called Elements: Eurasian Survey and works as an adviser to the Communist speaker of the Russian Duma, Gennadi Seleznev. He took center stage in the Eurasianist movement with his 1997 book, The Basics of Geopolitics: Russia's Geopolitical Future, which he wrote with the help of Russia's Military Academy of the General Staff. The Basics of Geopolitics takes Mackinder's idea of the geopolitical opposition between land powers and sea powers one step further, positing that the two worlds are not just governed by competing strategic imperatives but are fundamentally opposed to each other culturally. The antagonism between land and sea, for Dugin, parallels the East-West divide. Land-based societies, he theorizes, are attracted to absolute value systems and tradition, while maritime societies are inherently liberal.

On the strategic front, Dugin suggests that an anti-Western alliance of Russia, Japan, Germany, and Iran, based on their shared rejection of the West (ignoring the fact that they are not all land-based), would be capable of expelling American influence from the continent. Notwithstanding the fact that such an alliance will seem utterly implausible to Western readers -- as will the counterfactual claim that Germany and Japan are not "Western" countries -- some of Dugin's suggestions appear to have anticipated actual Russian policy vectors. For instance, he recommends turning over the disputed Kuril Islands to Japan as a step toward building an alliance. It turns out that during the autumn of 1998 just such an idea was mooted to the Japanese. Dugin's ideas have also foreshadowed Yeltsin's calls for a Moscow-Berlin-Paris axis and Primakov's initiatives toward Iran and Iraq (which began while he was foreign minister). The correlation between Dugin's ideas and those of the Russian establishment is too stark to be ignored.

BIG RED

While Dugin and Prokhanov have emerged as Eurasianism's main ideologues, the movement's greatest practitioner is Gennadi Zyuganov. Zyuganov has used Eurasianism to reinvent the Communist Party, and he has been fantastically successful in doing so. By combining nationalism, religious orthodoxy, and Marxism, Zyuganov has outflanked nationalists to win the radical vote on both sides of the political spectrum. And his Communists' strength in the Duma is likely to grow in the next elections as popular disgust with mainstream politics drives voters toward the extremes, both of which, thanks to Zyuganov's strategy, now lead back to the Communists.

Zyuganov has bridged the gap between white and red in Russian society, first by linking Russia's "national idea" to popular traditions and Russian Orthodox Christianity and then by folding these back into communism. In his 1995 book, Za Gorizontom (Beyond the Horizon), Zyuganov argues that the traditional Russian idea of obshina (community) and the Orthodox doctrine of sobornost (communitarianism) -- both of which endorse collective property ownership and communal decision-making -- reveal that communism has actually been a theme in Russian society throughout history.

Zyuganov the Eurasianist is not just a Russian nationalist. He also models himself a Bashkir nationalist, a Tatar nationalist, and a fierce defender of Kalmykian Buddhism. Zyuganov's big idea is that all traditional societies are profoundly socialist ones. He has skillfully connected ethnic nationalism with communist notions of friendship between nationalities to sew all Eurasian ethnic groups together into an antiliberal, anti-Western patchwork of traditionalism and collectivism.

This strategy paid off in Zyuganov's 1996 presidential campaign. He won handily in non-Russian districts, thanks to his perceived support for self-determination and his opposition to the more exclusionary Russian nationalism of candidates such as Aleksandr Lebed.

If Za Gorizontom was Zyuganov's attempt to link communism with Russian-Eurasian traditions, his latest book, The Geography of Victory, is an even more ambitious attempt to correlate class struggle with East-West conflict. In this book, Zyuganov spells out the incompatibility of Western civilization and Russia. "Russia will never be bourgeois," argues Zyuganov. He goes on to claim that Russia has been subordinated by the West and has become a mere source of raw material -- an unhappy predicament he considers analogous to the fate of the postcolonial East.

The root of the conflict, for Zyuganov, lies in the very character of Western civilization. He accepts that the political philosophy of the West is founded on the Athenian notion of democracy but argues that buried in this historical legacy is the Athenian division of society into citizens and slaves -- a notion to which few Western democrats will admit. This split, according to Zyuganov, is a fundamental tenet of the Western world-view: the "Golden Billion" of the world's inhabitants living in the West "are free from obligation toward the rest of humanity, and [the] remainder usefully and justly play their role of resource-supplying appendages, reservoirs of toxic waste, and spaces for placing ecologically harmful production."

ALL EYES EAST

To fight the global class struggle, Zyuganov warns, Russia must first consolidate the Orthodox world into a single bloc and forge close ties with radical Islam. "At the end of the twentieth century it is becoming more and more obvious that the Islamic way is becoming the real alternative to the hegemony of Western civilization," he writes. "Fundamentalism is understood as a return to the centuries-old national spiritual traditions, and can lead to very positive results. It is the return to moral norms of relationships between people . . . keeping intact society's morals."

This fixation on Russia's relationship with the East is typical of the Eurasianists. While they are imperialists, they are not traditional nationalists; in fact, most Eurasianists try to distinguish themselves from Russian nationalists by advocating alliances with Russia's Asian neighbors, especially its Islamic ones. As Prokhanov puts it, "The Eurasian idea is an idea of integration. Russian nationalism is the opposite of Eurasianism; the two ideologies are entirely incompatible. A purely ethnic [Russian] conception doesn't take into account Tatarstan or the Caucasus."

Talk of the East inevitably brings one back to Primakov, Russia's ranking Arabist and Asia hand turned prime minister. Orientalism -- Primakov's speciality -- is, of course, a Western science, the study, classification, and objectification of the East, and its very existence in Russia has, since the nineteenth century, helped to convince many Russians of their essential Westernness. But Orientalism, as practiced in Russia, has always betrayed an ambivalent relationship toward its subject and an inherent tension with the West. Many of Primakov's policies epitomize this ambiguity and neatly fit the Eurasianist program. Since the early 1990s, Primakov has been the driving force behind Russia's deepening relations with the pariah states of the Middle East, notably Iran and Iraq. Indeed, much of Zyuganov's The Geography of Victory could have been taken verbatim from Primakov's 1983 book, The East After the Collapse of the Colonial System. In it, Primakov describes how the imperialist West tries to control the postcolonial East through "asymmetrical independence," and he affirms the Soviet Union's historical role as the guardian of the East. Sixteen years after its publication, meanwhile, many in Russia now clearly view the country as an honorary member of the oppressed East.

"Today, Eurasianism is coming softly," Dugin relates. "Primakov's policy is Eurasianist policy. This is left-wing economic policies at home, helping Arab states abroad, orientation toward the East, helping traditional friends like Serbia, strengthening the integration of the former Soviet Union. This is Eurasianism, the policy of the heartland." This is the third way, and may well represent the future of Russian foreign policy.

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