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Book review: Black Wind, White Snow examines the ideological excuses for Putin’s territorial ambitions

Charles Clover's thrilling account of Eurasianism and Putin's embrace of its nationalism underestimates the role of US foreign policy.
Russians in Simferopol, Crimea, commemmorate the 98th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution with portraits of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin and leader Joseph Stalin, in November. Max Vetrov / AFP.
Russians in Simferopol, Crimea, commemmorate the 98th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution with portraits of Soviet Union founder Vladimir Lenin and leader Joseph Stalin, in November. Max Vetrov / AFP.

How do you solve a problem like Russia? That is the question on the lips of EU heads of state when they meet later this month to decide whether to renew sanctions imposed in 2014 following Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea.

Two years on, the punitive measures have done nothing to dent Russia’s resolve to hold on to the tiny sliver of land on the Black Sea coast. If anything, president Vladimir Putin’s popularity and geopolitical ambitions seem to have grown in direct proportion to the economic and diplomatic pain inflicted by the West.

Russia’s peculiar sadomasochism forms the subject of Black Wind, White Snow, Financial Times journalist Charles Clover’s gripping attempt to locate Putin’s imperial foreign policy as an expression of a deep-rooted national idea known as Eurasianism. Holding the Russian world in distinct geopolitical and philosophical opposition to the West, it rejects Enlightenment notions of rational individualism in favour of a spiritual, anti-capitalist project based on collective self-sacrifice. Eurasianism positions the desire for territorial expansion as a messianic drive for an alternative civilisation.

Clover’s book is an intellectual history of Russian exceptionalism. He traces the idea of Eurasianism to a group of obscure aristocratic scholars who fled the 1917 revolution but grew equally disillusioned with western liberalism. Nikolai Troubetskoy and Petr Savitsky dreamed of establishing a new regime in Russia that was neither communist nor liberal but based on collectivism, empire and a primordial spirituality.

Troubetskoy criticised Europeans for calling “their culture ‘universal human culture’ and their chauvinism ‘cosmopolitanism’”. Rejecting such universality, Savitsky claimed that “Russians and those who belong to the peoples of ‘the Russian world’ are neither Europeans nor Asians”, but a unique group destined to bring revelation and salvation to the decadent West.

Yet what began as an anti-communist doctrine gradually wormed its way back home. In Stalin's Russophilia, anti-Americanism and rejection of Marxist internationalism, Eurasianism re-emerged in the guise of “socialism in one country”.

The idea resurfaced again in the 1960s by means of an equally unlikely champion. Lev Gumilev, the dissident son of two of Russia’s most famous poets, Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev (executed by the Bolsheviks for his monarchism and anti-communism), was a gulag slave labourer felling trees in sub-zero temperatures when had a Eureka moment. A historian of Central Asia, Gumilev developed the concept of passionarity, a “powerful impulse which pulls the human towards obtaining some sort of unnecessary benefit, in particular, posthumous honour”.

In its quixotic notion of extreme, even fatal, self-sacrifice in the purpose of a transcendent dream, Gumilev’s vision struck a chord with his countrymen. Weary from war, revolution and Stalinism, they searched for meaning in the terrible sacrifices that they had endured.

Unsurprisingly, Gumilev’s idea found its most receptive audience in the traumatic aftermath of the Soviet collapse. Alexander Dugin emerged from the petri dish of religious fanatics, irredentists, cultists and conspiracy theorists that battled to fill Russia’s spiritual and philosophical vacuum. A former dissident with mysterious links to Russia’s military and security services, Dugin remixed elements of Troubetskoy’s Eurasianism and Gumilev’s passionarity with Soviet nostalgia, right-wing nationalism and Russian orthodoxy into a postmodern Molotov cocktail aimed at a complacent, triumphalist West.

Dismissed as a crank and a fascist by Russia’s liberal establishment during the 1990s, Dugin has found his ideas unexpectedly embraced by Putin in the service of his nationalistic and anti-western politics. Perhaps ironically, in this the Eurasianists bear a remarkable resemblance to American neoconservatives, another group of ideological crossovers whose long-simmering project was nurtured for decades in obscurity before it saw triumphant expression in the receptive presidency of George W Bush. Clover writes that the Russian president subtly uses Dugin’s concepts as a dog whistle to mobilise his base while maintaining a safe distance from its darker themes of right-wing chauvinism and full-on imperialism.

In its heady collage of history, philosophy and biography, Black Wind, White Snow echoes the vertiginous thrill of an Adam Curtis documentary. Clover’s personal acquaintance during his time as a Moscow reporter with many of the book’s characters, including Dugin, lends colour and verisimilitude. Nor does the evident eccentricity of the Eurasianists’ ideas tempt him into glibness or Russophobia.

Yet some key weaknesses dog Clover’s otherwise accurate account. For one, it is an exaggeration to describe nationalism as the “centre of gravity in the politics of the USSR”, when the Baltic states were the only ones with a true secessionist policy. Instead, it was the jockeying for political power between Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and the ambitious leaders of the Russian, Belarusian and Ukrainian republics that ultimately dismembered the Soviet Union.

If he lends too much weight to nationalism, Clover consistently underestimates the role of external factors, particularly the actions of the United States, in fomenting Russia’s Eurasian turn. He acknowledges but largely ignores the fact that while “Gorbachev, Yeltsin and now Putin all began their Kremlin terms with overtures to the United States”, these “all elicited a pat on the head and a dismissive yawn from Washington”.

Could such consistent dismissal of Russia’s security interests, rather than the crackpot theories of a gang of obsessive ideologues, be more to blame for the current rift with Moscow? When nearly two decades ago Yeltsin’s prime minister Evgeny Primakov first called for a multi-polar world, he cited not Eurasianism or passionarity but Nato expansion and the Kosovo War. And it was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that set a formerly conciliatory Putin against the West, years before his discovery of Dugin’s philosophy. Clover criticises what he calls the Russian propensity to get carried away by the power of ideas: perhaps he went just a bit native himself.

Vadim Nikitin is a Russian analyst and freelance journalist.

Updated: May 31, 2016 04:00 AM