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20 November 2018

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Black Wind, White Snow

Charles Clover (Yale, $35)

To many it is the twisting of reality, employing patriotism as a crass political tool, harnessing the whirlwind of nationalism, that is most worrying about what is going on in Russia today. Charles Clover (Black Wind, White Snow, Yale, $35) traces this phenomenon from its unlikely roots a century ago in the science of linguistics, through a myriad of non-scientific perversions that have coagulated into the Russian nationalist idea known as Eurasianism.

Clover’s story is mainly about the peculiar rise and influence of Alexander Dugin, a mystic, right-winged radical turned political theorist. But there are also KGB-funded nationalists, the exhibitionist-sensationalist author Eduard Limonov, the Gulag-informed theories of Lev Gumilev, and a whole range of wild and strange characters that seem ripped from the pages of Gogol or Dostoyevsky.

They have relevance only because Eurasianism has bubbled up to the Kremlin, appearing in dog-whistle statements like one by President Putin that “The Great Russian mission is to unite, bind civilization. In this type of state-civilization there are no national minorities, and the principle of recognition of ‘friend or foe’ is defined as a common culture and shared values...”

The Eurasianist idea is that the twenty-first century will be one in which major continents of political, economic and military power will compete for the future of civilization. And therefore Russia should preside over a “historically Eurasian” landmass united by a traditionalist worldview – one defined less by what it stands for, than what it stands against, which as Clover succinctly puts it, is “the cyborg-like rationalism of a West that has lost touch with its inner human nature, its spirituality, its fraternal family bonds.”

It seems an almost metaphysical conception, where the un-embraceable Russian soul (Putin in 2012: “Of course, we are less pragmatic, less calculating than representatives of other peoples, and we have bigger hearts. Maybe this is a reflection of the grandeur of our country and its boundless expanses. Our people have a more generous spirit.”) is counter-posed against outside forces that want to change it, contain it. Yet it is not mystical; it is very real. Like the communist ideology that mad the USSR responsible for leading the worldwide revolution, this perspective asserts a Russian responsibility for stewarding a Eurasian landmass of like-minded nations. And you cannot steward something over which you have not control.

Thus, the Eurasianist worldview, Clover asserts, “directly provoked” the war in Ukraine, helped instigate the war in Georgia, and is turning “Western liberalism” into Russia’s chief foe – and that foe is not merely foreign: witness Kremlin assertions about “fifth columns” and “national traitors” seeking to subvert the country from within.

“It is hard to escape the idea,” Clover writes, “that Putin’s ‘Eurasia’ has become, in some sense, a geographical border around a separate truth.”

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: July/Aug 2016