Russia's war on Ukraine is undergirded by pseudo-intellectual academics espousing pro-Kremlin ideas and a radical rejection of today's liberal world.
A particularly dark aspect of Russia's war of annihilation against Ukraine and its political warfare against the West is its broad support among not only ordinary Russians but also the country's elites. The normative drift of parts of the Russian educated class away from Europe has a variety of reasons. While for many professional academics, utilitarian considerations or simple fear of the government may be salient—as was probably the case for some of the more than 700 Russian university rectors who collectively approved Moscow’s “special operation” in Ukraine in a March 2022 statement—many also support their country’s aggression from the bottom of their hearts. Nor are these individuals afraid to make their position known repeatedly and unequivocally, as illustrated in the New York Times interview with the once respected Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Relations at the Moscow School of Economics (HSE), Sergei Karaganov. It’s tellingly titled "Why Russia Believes It Cannot Lose the War in Ukraine."
In search of meaning
The sources of the increasingly shrill Russian escapism are manifold. They have been studied by some representatives of international East European studies and Russian regular social science, yet rarely became a source of worry outside the academic ivory tower. Various pathologies of post-Soviet political culture and collective psychology, as well as the imperialist ideas propagated within modern Russian literature and science, have not been taken seriously to a sufficient-enough degree. The protagonists of Russian quasi-academic lateral thinking have sometimes been dismissed, by Western scholars, as merely odd colleagues or competing authors, rather than seen as subjects for serious research. In some cases, both Russian and Western social scientists have ridiculed the speculative texts and lectures of their esoterically oriented peers.
Despite any methodological weakness, empirical thinness, and international irrelevance of post-Soviet social science and historical pseudo-research, their internal resonance within the Russian public has not diminished. On the contrary, the counterfactual, belletristic, and often conspiracy-laden aspects of alternative Russian world historiography have increased, rather than decreased, its popularity. The ideas and theories of these authors are perceived as apt contributions to the national soul-searching that has been taking place in Russia since the break-up of the Soviet Union. And because their texts seem better suited to compensate for an ontological emptiness after the fall of the communist state ideology, the crude, simplistic, and speculative explanations of social developments by certain self-proclaimed prophets have found a grateful readership.
As a result, new para-scientific disciplines have emerged, some with their own sub-schools. This applies to so-called civilization studies and culturology, or to approaches that could be called bio-ethnology or physio-geopolitics (more on this below). The uniform task of such alternative doctrines is a metaphysically—rather than empirically—based disclosure of the "deep" past, structure, and laws of societies. More often than not, these theories present a comprehensive reinterpretation or even a fundamental rewriting of human history.
The latter can lead to the re-dating of historical events and the drafting of alternative chronologies of the history of Europe and Asia. The Moscow mathematician and amateur historian Anatoly Fomenko (1945-) has become particularly notorious in international academia even while he is read and revered in Russia. For over a quarter of a century, Fomenko has been propagating the idea that antiquity as such did not exist, and that most historical events happened differently than taught in schools and universities. (According to him, for instance, Jesus was crucified in Constantinople in the 12th century.)
Meanwhile, the research results of the serious and internationally recognized political scientists, sociologists, and historians—who, of course, also still exist in Russia—are crowded out. They drown in the apparently pluralistic cacophony of a media and intellectual discourse littered with speculative commentaries. The government-sponsored oversupply of Manichean explanations of the world—especially regarding the conflict between Russia and the West—creates new demand for culturally pessimistic, even proto-fascist ideologies.
The rapid radicalization and social proliferation of Russian anti-Westernism in recent years is only partly a product of targeted manipulation of public discussion and decision-making by Kremlin spin doctors. Some sources of today's aberrations of the Russian intelligentsia go back to the Yeltsin years, the Soviet period, and even to Tsarist times. They are manifold. Two of many prominent examples can illustrate the phenomenon: the teachings of the pseudo-ethnologist Lev Gumilyov (1912-1992) and the metaphysician Aleksandr Dugin (1962-).
The Role of Gumilyov and Dugin
Lev Gumilyov and Aleksandr Dugin are two well-published Russian personalities, both habilitated by Russian universities as "doctors of science." Gumilyov and Dugin have each affirmatively used the term "Eurasianism," have designed anti-Western theoretical edifices, and have achieved considerable notoriety beyond the academic ivory tower. Here, however, the similarities in the political content, social roles, and structural peculiarities of their texts as well as appearances end.
Gumilyov is the son of two famous Russian poets, Nikolay Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova. He died shortly after the collapse of the USSR. His writings could appear only sporadically during the Soviet period but were subsequently published in large editions, and posthumously, have exerted a deep impact on post-Soviet society. Dugin's journalistic activity in Russia, on the other hand, began the year of Gumilyov's death. Since then, the bearded metaphysician's multimedia activity has grown steadily.
Gumilyov was an anti-Soviet dissident who was partly integrated into the late Soviet scientific establishment. He is held in high esteem today, especially by older members of the pedagogical and academic milieu who grew up in the Soviet Union. Some of his works are used as textbooks in schools and universities, and he is revered by many Russians as a genius Russian thinker of the 20th century. In the summer of 2004, Vladimir Putin remarked during a speech in Astana, "Gumilyov's ideas are conquering the masses."
Dugin, in contrast, comes from the nonconformist youth scene of the late Soviet Union, and from the anti-systemic opposition to the pro-Western Russian policies in the 1990s. He is deeply integrated into international far right networks and appeals to a younger as well as less academic audience with his numerous texts and video performances. Dugin is also said to have an avid readership in Russian military academies and security services. Unlike Gumilyov, who is little known internationally, Dugin is notorious outside Russia as a Russian extremist. Although he is often said to be an ideologist for Putin, there never seems to have been a meeting between the metaphysician and the president. Putin's proclaimed Eurasianism has different sources than Dugin's so-called neo-Eurasianism.
Although the biographies of Gumilyov and Dugin could hardly be more different, the two are similar in the social impact of their writings. In each their own way, they have helped to shape Russia's intellectual landscape, and have infiltrated Russia's social sciences as well as humanities with alternative historical narratives. With their writings, they have contributed to Russia's new systemic confrontation with the West—however unwittingly, for Gumilyov’s part, or very consciously, for Dugin’s.
Gumilyov's Theory of Ethnogenesis
Gumilyov's writings are central to the radical dualism of Russian post-Soviet civilizational studies. In his magnus opus Ethnogenesis and the Earth's Biosphere, Gumilyov develops a comprehensive theory of world history that is partly based on biology. To be sure, Gumilyov is not a primitive racist who hierarchizes groups of people according to phenotype. However, he connects the socio-political life of cultural communities with extra-societal determinants from the biosphere, or even stratosphere, allegedly acting on them.
According to his view, ethnic groups (nationalities and nations) and super-ethnic conglomerates (pan-national groups and civilizations) are primarily natural and only secondarily sociocultural communities. They are in a cyclical process of ascent and descent, in which "passionate" heroic figures on the one hand and parasitic foreign groups on the other play central roles. While selfless and self-sacrificing "passionaries" lead an ethnic group to its blossoming, the mixing of a host ethnic group with representatives of foreign ethnic groups (such as Jews) results in so-called "chimeras" doomed to extinction. Mysterious micro-mutations caused by certain cosmic and/or solar radiations, which Gumilyov does not specify further, are responsible for more or less great dynamism in the development of ethnic groups and super-ethnicities.
Such ideas are one reason why Gumilyov has received little recognition outside Russia. While these theories sound abstruse to Western readers, they have helped Gumilyov achieve fame in Russia. His largely positive reception has shaped the formation of partly bio-ethnological post-Soviet Russian civilizational studies. Some of his closed historical models continue to be taught at universities.
Dugin's Eclectic Anti-Liberalism
While Gumilyov's ideas work primarily by means of penetrating the academic and pedagogical space, Dugin is a prominent figure within the print as well as especially electronic and social media realms. For several years, Dugin was head of the Department of Sociology of International Relations at Moscow's prestigious State University, or MGU. However, Dugin's temporary appointment at MGU's scandal-ridden Sociology Faculty was rather an exception to the rule of Dugin's—in contrast to Gumilyov's—relative exclusion from the Russian academic establishment.
A complete presentation of Dugin's world of ideas is more difficult than with Gumilyov. The purpose of the bulk of Gumilyov's thousands of pages of work is the historical illustration of his semi-biological theory of ethnogenesis. In contrast, Dugin's oeuvre has postmodernist features and is characterized by theoretical arbitrariness and programmatic openness.
It is true that a common basic motif appears across Dugin's texts—the radical rejection of today's liberal world. However, Dugin's analysis of the decline as well as his formulation of the fundamental conflict, and his proposal of overcoming the Western-influenced postwar modernity, do not follow a clear line. In contrast to Gumilyov's monocausal worldview, Dugin's discourse is plural, eclectic, and often self-contradictory.
Despite, or perhaps because of, Dugin's elliptic rhetoric, the publicist has found a following in the worldwide anti-liberal and, in particular, neo-fascist circles. During visits to the United States, Dugin was received both by the late Zbigniew Brzezinski and by Francis Fukuyama for brief talks, which Dugin made public afterward, and has mentioned repeatedly ever since. In 2014, the prestigious U.S. journal Foreign Policy even classified Dugin as one of the world's 100 "leading global thinkers" in the "agitators" category. Such overvaluations of his influence illustrate the astonishing attention that Dugin's speculative narratives have received.
An early phase in Dugin's development during the 1990s was marked by the nonconformist's interest in classical West European and North American geopolitical theories of the pre- and interwar periods, such as the writings of Halford Mackinder and Karl Haushofer. Simultaneously, Dugin was discovering the German Conservative Revolution, not least the Third Reich’s “crown jurist” Carl Schmitt. This preoccupation led to Dugin's temporary enthusiasm for a kind of physio-geopolitics. According to this approach, the physical location of nations on continents and their distance from the oceans, as well as the resulting telluro- or thalassocratic (land- or sea-based) character of their cultures, explains world history. The collectivist and authoritarian land powers, today led by Russia, are—according to Dugin's writings at the time—in a centuries-old struggle for existence with the individualist and liberal sea powers, today led by the United States.
When communicating his ideas within Russia, Dugin uses the term "neo-Eurasianism" as a disguising tool rather than as a proper designation for his basic sources. Under the umbrella of "neo-Eurasianism," Dugin smuggles anti-liberal non-Russian ideas, such as Integral Traditionalism, National Bolshevism, political occultism, and ethnopluralism into Russian intellectual discourse. He uses the name of a renowned interwar Russian intellectual émigré movement, the "Eurasianists," to conceal the often proto-fascist European and American sources of his radically anti-Western theories. Unlike Gumilyov, Dugin's writings have failed to gain wider resonance in Russia's academic establishment: Dugin is generally not perceived as a serious scholar, even among Eurosceptic Russian social scientists.
Conspirology versus Democracy
Dugin, along with other conspiracy theorists, has nonetheless contributed to poisoning the Russian public space with Manichean ideas. The widespread presence of Dugin and similar actors in Russian media, debates, and bookstores has contributed to the relativization of historical and social science explanations for Russian and broader international relations. Such infiltration of speculative thinking into the public discussion can, of course, also be observed in other societies around the world, in quite a few Western countries, too. However, the detachment from empirical research of academic and media debates goes much further. In recent months, in particular, it has led to an exodus or isolation of Russian social scientists and historians whose research is based on rationalist and empiricist premises.
The renewed distortion of the relationship between social science and Russian society after the end of the USSR had already begun long before the interventions in public discourse by Putin's “political technologists” that started in the summer of 1999. The popularity of Fomenko, Gumilyov, Dugin and a host of similar pseudo-historians was therefore not only a symptom of the rise of a new post-Soviet anti-liberalism. The thousands of writings and other media products of Russian anti-Western para-intellectuals were—similar to the role of the Conservative Revolution in the decline of the Weimar Republic—also a determinant of Russia's turning away from Europe in the new millennium.
To recover Russian society will not only have to experience a change of political regime. It will also require the rebirth of the country’s social and historical sciences as well as its humanist intellectual discourse.
Andreas Umland, Ph.D., studied politics and history in Berlin, Oxford, Stanford, and Cambridge. He has been an associate professor at the Department of Political Science of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (NaUKMA) since 2010 and an analyst at the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) of the Swedish Institute of International Relations (UI) since 2021.
Image: Danger, Construction Ahead, Kay Sage, 1940. (Wikiart)
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