From Soviet Union to "Central Eurasia" by Milan Hauner

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From Soviet Union to "Central Eurasia" by Milan Hauner

With the establishment of Commonwealth II in Alma-Ata on December 21, 1991, consisting of eleven out of fifteen of the original Soviet republics, a new dramatic chapter of Eurasian history had begun.

We have been accustomed to watching the Soviet Eurasian empire crumble for some time - specifically, since Gorbachev took over in the spring of 1985. Since then, numerous speculations of what would happen - which form the gradual collapse would take - filled many a learned journal. Actually, the former Soviet Union has been undergoing a process of disintegration on three dimensions, caused by the simultaneous collapse of its political (and ideological), economic, and imperial structures. It is to the last one, woefully neglected by Western observers until December 1991, that I wish to turn my attention. I say "woefully neglected" because the simple fact that the former Soviet Union had been until recently also the last surviving great colonial empire, which tried to avoid, among other things, the decolonization processes of the postwar era, had seldom been recognized.

Reconstituted in the heartland of Eurasia, Commonwealth II has a chance of survival perhaps slightly longer than its short-lived predecessor, Commonwealth I (the three Slavic republics), which lasted only two weeks. The Central Asian birthplace of the new Commonwealth, as the press did not fail to report, is in "the heart of a snow-decked mountainside city north of the Chinese border."1 It is not, however, the exotic attraction this symbolic center of Eurasia evokes with which I am concerned. Rather, I am concerned with its historical, ideological, and geopolitical significance.

Is Kazakhstan Central Eurasia?

Russian expansionism reached Central Asia only some 130 years ago. But it was hailed, in the words of the noted explorer Colonel M. I. Venyukov, as the "return of the Slavs to the neighborhood of their prehistoric home . . . and the cradle of the Aryan or Indo-European race ... at the sources of the Indus and Oxus whence our ancestors had been displaced by the Turko-Mongol invaders."2 It may not be altogether farfetched to hear in the not so distant future such appeals from somebody like Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the present leader of an extremist Russian nationalist party.

Although both the Tsarist and Soviet regimes tried to fill out the vast space of Central Asia with European settlers, this Russian version of Manifest Destiny was not ultimately successful. Today, Alma-Ata remains the capital of what was the Republic of Kazakhstan an artificial creation of the Soviet system in the center of Eurasia which occupies an area nearly four times larger than Turkey and stretches some 2,500 kilometers from the Caspian Sea to Sinkiang. Some people see it as an important buffer holding the balance between European and Asian Russia to the North and the more densely settled Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union situated to the south along the Iran-Afghan border. In these trying times, when ethnic passions are running high, Kazakhstan's multinational population provides little comfort. Its population of 17 million is divided roughly equally between Europeans and Asians, with native Kazakhs accounting for roughly two-fifths, an almost equal number of Russians, and large minorities of deported Germans, Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Tatars, Uighurs, and Koreans.3 Because of its location, size, presence of nuclear weapons and major testing-sites, and major rail and pipe lines, Kazakhstan holds a pivotal strategic position in the very center of Eurasia, bearing weight to the east, west, and south of the dual Eurasian continent. Ethnic identity in Tatarstan and Bashkiria, the smaller autonomous republics within the former Russian Federation, filling out the space further westward to the Volga (or Idel in the Tatar language), is even more of a potentially explosive issue than in Kazakhstan on account of the greater vulnerability of their Muslim inhabitants encircled by Russians.

What is Eurasia?

Just as the former USSR underwent two major metamorphoses during the month of December, the Daily Report on the Soviet Union - published by the U.S. Foreign Broadcast Information Service since 1941 - decided on its 50th anniversary to change the title of its object of analysis: Instead of "Soviet Union" in the title of its reports, the words "Central Eurasia" took over as the reference title at the beginning of 1992. Unable to learn about the official motives behind this abrupt title change, one must resort to the rich annals of Russian history to find out more about the ambiguity of this term.

In fact, the uncertainty about what Eurasia is begins with the dilemma of where to draw a dividing line between Western and Eastern Europe; and further, between "Europe" as a whole and "Asia" proper.

For many centuries the eastern limits of Europe remained within the purview of the Catholic Church and thus corresponded to those of the Sacrum Imperium Romanum. The domain of Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire and of Russia, let alone the splinter Christian churches in Asia Minor, was simply ignored. Only after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 did Europe readmit the Orthodox Christians in the East as co-believers.

In the ensuing centuries the border of "Europe" moved back and forth following the mobile demarcation line between the Turko-Arabic sphere of control on the one hand, and the Christian on the other; Europe's easternmost border remained for many centuries the River Don. Following the Russian eastward expansion under Ivan the Terrible, the Volga River came to be considered as the natural border line. The Urals mountain range was first described as Europe's easternmost frontier in 1730 by Strahlenberg, a Swedish officer; though, as an extreme alternative, the river frontier of Yenisei or Ob/Irtysh/Tobol in the center of Siberia has also been discussed.4

During the 19th century, when the notion of Eastern Europe became more accurately defined, it continued to carry with it the prejudiced association with a half-Asiatic region, as it had for centuries been exposed to raids by nomadic tribes from further East, and hence a region not genuinely belonging to Europe. It was a region which, of course, included Russia. The same type of prejudice informed the popular opinion of West Europeans in 1917, who viewed the Bolshevik Revolution as another retreat of Russia from Europe to "Asian barbarism."5

However, the need to use the "The term "Eastern Europe" in its fullest political meaning, could not have been realized until 1918, which witnessed the Identity disintegration of the four overlapping empires in this region, and the foundation of independent states as buffers separating Bolshevik Russia from revisionist Germany. During this period, the region was, in essence, the "Europe-in-between" (Zwischeneuropa).6

It was not only the Reformation which split the German Empire and, ultimately, a Europe hitherto united by the Catholic Church, but also the long-term impact of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, whose influence spread across the east European region and, ultimately, into Russia itself. The most important change, however, was brought by the radical "opening of the window into Europe," the process of one-sided westernization of Russia itself, its westward expansion and the transfer of its capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg by Peter the Great. Also, the systematic retreat of the Ottoman realm in Eastern Europe, achieved mainly by Russian arms, created the notion of temporary solidarity among Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant rulers.7

Despite the terrible setbacks caused by World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution and Civil War, the quest for a special relationship with Asia continued with unrelenting intensity among the Russian intelligentsia. During the 1920s, the most brilliant minds among Russian exiles created the "Eurasianist Movement." In their first manifesto. Exodus to the East (1921), R. 0. Jakobson, N. S. Trubetskoy, P. N. Savitsky, G. V. Florovsky, and G. V. Vemadsky, advocated a Eurasian association of languages and cultures. The Eurasianists saw in Marxism and Bolshevism the worst manifestation of Western culture, while the Revolution itself was seen as the great and necessary catalyst which had destroyed the old world and aroused the passive Russian masses together with the the peoples of the Orient. For instance, Trubetskoy's Europe and Mankind (1920) denounced the exclusively Eurocentric approach to Asia. Russia's humiliation in the wake of war and revolution, Trubetskoy argued, could provide a unique opportunity for a radical transformation of attitudes toward non-Russian peoples. A colonial power herself, Russia could lead other colonial countries, in particular her "Asiatic sisters," in a decisive struggle against the "Romano-Germanic colonizers."

The discussion has not ceased to this day. The continent's complete identity continues to be obscured in compromises between the notion of geographical suitability and Russian political control. A breakthrough in the acceptance of the term "Eurasia" gained currency in the geopolitical theories of the British geographer Halford Mackinder, formulated at the beginning of the 20th century upon completion of the grand Trans-Siberian Railroad - the iron link which gave a new practical meaning to the cohesion of Eurasia. Mackinder revealed his fascinating interpretation in a 1904 lecture, telling his listeners that they should "look upon Europe and European history as subordinate to Asia and Asiatic history, for European civilization is, in a very real sense, the outcome of the secular struggle against Asiatic invasion."8 Mackinder announced the ascendancy of the new "geographical pivot of history" in the "Heart-land" of "Euro-Asia," which he described as the natural fortress in the middle of the dual continent, measuring some nine million square miles (out of some 21 million for the whole of Eurasia) whose main feature was that it lacked access to the seas. The geographical location of the heartland coincided with its singular historical and cultural significance. To the east, south, and west, it was surrounded in a vast crescent by marginal regions - dependent subcontinents that were, nevertheless, accessible to maritime traffic. Four in number, these regions corresponded to the great world religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judeo-Christianity. The center of gravity of this new strategic heartland was identical with the Russian Eurasian empire because Mackinder saw it as an almost perfect symbiosis between harsh natural environment and political organization, unlikely to be changed by "any possible social revolution" which itself could never alter the empire's "essential relations to the great geographical limits of her [Russia's] existence."9

During the Soviet era the term "Eurasia" was used freely by geographers to describe climatic and physical features of the dual continent, but frowned upon with regard to geopolitical theories. This radically changed under Gorbachev, who frequently used the term "Eurasia" in his book Perestroika and in his public speeches.10 In addition, Gorbachev included among his advisors the geopolitically minded Igor Malashenko, who has been devoted to the long-term concept of Eurasia."

The next step in the debate, not fully clarified until the present, was the fundamental question of whether Western Europe should accept Russia, or how much of the Russian empire, as part of Europe. This old problem reappeared four years ago when Gorbachev launched his seductive campaign claiming that "Russia" belonged to the "Common European House." He supported his claim with two powerful reasons: a common Christian heritage and the saving of Western Europe from two usurpers in the last 200 years. Subsequently, Gorbachev appropriated de Gaulle's slogan "Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals."12 In retrospect. Western sympathy for Gorbachev's idealism should now be interpreted as a visible demonstration of support for the former Soviet leader as a "westemizer" (zapadnik), in the tradition of Peter the Great and even Lenin. In the face of the recent violent strife inside the former Soviet Union and the Balkans, what might be regarded as a calculated Soviet foreign policy offensive aimed at splitting the West and separating Europe from the U.S. will now be regarded with a certain nostalgia as a manifestation of Russia's desire to return to the West. If this is true, how did Gorbachev reconcile his vision of the "Common European House" with the fact that three-quarters of the Soviet Union's territory and 80 million of its subjects were in "Asia"? Although the bulk of Soviet Union's manufacturing capacity and population lies west of the Urals (i.e. between 70 to 75 percent in both cases), nearly 90 percent of its energy and mineral resources is found in the Trans-Ural territories. Gorbachev solved the geographical dilemma of the Soviet Eurasian empire by declaring in his July 1986 Vladivostok speech that the Soviet Union was also an Asian country, and the Asian-Pacific region its natural sphere of influence. How many "Common Houses" did Gorbachev really want?

What is Asia to Russians?

What is the need of the future seizure of Asia? What's our business there? This is necessary because Russia is not only in Europe, but also in Asia, because the Russian is not only a European, but also an Asiatic. Not only that: in our coming destiny, perhaps it is precisely Asia that represents our main way out...

-- Fyodr Dostoevsky, 1881

It has almost become routine to refer to the great Dostoevsky when one wants a profound appreciation of how Russians feel about their homeland. I believe this is also the case with respect to Asia. Just weeks before his death, Dostoevsky published an essay "What is Asia to Us?" To him and his fellow countrymen, Asia held the same mystique as the undiscovered America held for this country's earliest settlers.13

Because of the unique amalgam of history and geography which blended the European and Asian portions of the Russian Empire, the Russians have long claimed a close and intimate relationship with Asia. Not so long ago, before being pushed out by the Cossacks and Tsarist conquerors, many peoples originating from Asia inhabited the banks of the Volga, Kuban and Ural rivers. These nomads penetrated Russia's steppe much further west than today's settlements of Asiatic groups in the former Soviet Union would indicate.

Most geographers would agree that separating "Europe" from "Asia" really does not make sense. The perfect continuity of the Eurasian plain over a distance of several thousand miles is interrupted in the middle only by the Ural mountain range. The Eurasian area seems to be an almost closed world of relatively smooth expanse and easy passage in the north-south direction, but surrounded by barriers of impassable ranges and plateaus to the south, and with an even more impervious barrier of ice-covered Arctic Ocean to the north. The Eurasian world opens only by narrow passages from the Pacific Ocean, and more broadly onto Europe proper, which appears to be a mere appendage of the colossal Asian continent. In terms of physical geography the Encyclopedia Britannica describes Central Eurasia as "the island part of Asia, farthest removed from the world oceans, in the midst of the greatest landmass on earth."

From the geostrategic standpoint, the standard Russian view of the central portion of Eurasia was that it should be divided into three parts: the Near East, stretching from the Maghreb to the head of the Persian Gulf; the Far East that faces the Pacific Ocean; and the Middle East, namely the middle sector between the two. Hence the Middle East would begin at the great divide between the Caucasus and the Persian Gulf, which not only geographically separated the Black and the Mediterranean Seas from the Caspian Sea and the Indian Ocean, but also served as the great historic divide between the former Ottoman realm and those of Iran and India. Less clear is the answer to the questions of how far east or south this Central Eurasia should stretch. How much of the Indian subcontinent is involved? How much of Mongolia? General Andrei E. Snesarev, the remarkable military geographer and Orientalist, defined Central Asia in 1906 as consisting of Turkestan, Khiva, Bukhara, north of India, Kashgaria, the Pamirs, Tibet, Afghanistan, Baluchistan and eastern Persia.14

Thus, as we have seen above, the definition of where "Europe" ends and "Asia" begins is somewhat a matter of convenience for the observer. For the politician and ideologue, however, the demarcation of the easternmost boundaries of Europe was and still is of considerable importance for more than a hundred years ago Dostoevsky envisaged Asia as a sanctuary for Russian penetration and spiritual regeneration, this legacy is reflected today in Igor Malashenko's updated language. Unlike Mackinder, who ignored the ethnic factor, Malashenko has tried to integrate geopolitical and ethnocultural elements in a new supraregional framework - in spite of the strong secessionist forces in these regions. "Russia is by no means an imperial State only, having mechanically united an incredibly multifarious conglomerate of lands," he claims. "It is an ethnically and culturally unique country, lying in Europe and Asia; that is, a Eurasian country in the true sense of the word, which was not only an instrument of expansionism, but also a powerful center of attraction for numerous ethnoses." If reconstructing the old Eurasian empire is not undertaken, Malashenko envisages a horrible future in the heartland of Eurasia paralyzed by nationalistic upheavals, "beside which even the most macabre variations of the German question will have paled into insignificance." While the Cold War may have ended with the defeat of the old Russian Eurasian empire, Malashenko confidently predicts that this defeat "has been the starting point of the regeneration of Russia and of a new geopolitical round."15


  1. New York Times, December 22, 1991.

  2. M.I.Venyukov, "Postupatel'noe dvizhenie Rossii v Srednei Azii," Sbomik gosudarstvennykh yumiy 3 (1877).

  3. James Critchlow, "Kazakstan and Nazarbaev: Political Prospects," Radio Liberty, Report on the USSR (2 January, 1992).

  4. F.G.Hahn, "Zor Geschichte der Grenze zwischen Europa und Asien," Mifteilungen des Vereins furErdkunde w Leipzig (1881): pp. 91,104.

  5. Egbert Jahn, "Wo befindet sich Osteuropa?" Osteuropa (May 1990): pp. 422, 427.

  6. See ibid., p.429; Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality (London: Constable. 1919); Giselher Wirsing, Zwischeneuropa und die Deulsche Zukunft (Jena: Diederichs Verlag, 1932).

  7. ibid., p. 423.

  8. Halford J.Mackinder, "The Geographical Pivot of History," The Geographical Journal 23 (1904): pp. 421-44.

  9. ibid.

  10. Milan Hauner, What is Asia to Us (New York Routledge, Chapman and Hall. 1990), p. 249.

  11. Igor Malashenko, "Russia: The Earth's Heartland," International Affairs (July 1990): pp. 46-54.

  12. M.S.Gorbachev, Perestrmka: New Thinking for Our Country and the World (New York: Haiper & Row, 1987), pp. 191-8.

  13. F.M.Dostoevsky, The Diary of a Writer (New York: Scribner, 1949), vol. 2: pp. 1043-52.

  14. A.E.Snesarev, Indiya kak gtavnyi faktor v sredneavatskom voprose (St.Petersbiirg, 1906), pp. 7-13.

  15. Malashenko, op. cit., pp. 52-54.

Dr. Milan Hauner is a visiting professor of history at Georgetown University. His most recent book is What is Asia to Us? Russia's Asian Heartland Yesterday and Today (Routledge, 1990).
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