Russian Anti-Western Intellectualism

By Andreas Umland - 22 September 2022
Russian Anti-Western Intellectualism

A number of pseudo-academic tendencies in Russian social science helped prepare the Ukraine War. In addition to propaganda and disinformation campaigns by the Kremlin, an intellectual deformation of the Russian elite by Manichean ideas of such theorists as Lev Gumilyov and Aleksandr Dugin is responsible for Russia's increasing secession from Europe. 

A particularly dark aspect of Russia's war of annihilation against Ukraine and political warfare against the West is its broad support not only among ordinary Russians but also among the country's elites. The normative drift of parts of the Russian educated class away from Europe has a variety of reasons. For many academics in professional positions, utilitarian considerations or simple fear of the government may be at the forefront. Such motives were probably salient for, at least, some of the more than 700 Russian university rectors who, in a collective statement in March 2022, publicly approved Moscow's so-called "special operation" in Ukraine.

Many highly educated Russians seem to support their country's aggression in Ukraine, however, not only for careerist reasons but also from the bottom of their hearts. Some are not afraid to make their position known repeatedly and unequivocally. This is illustrated, for example, in a recent New York Times interview by the once respected Dean of the Faculty of World Economy and International Relations at the Moscow School of Economics (HSE), Sergei Karaganov, under the telling title "Why Russia Believes It Cannot Lose the War in Ukraine."

In search of meaning

The background of the increasingly shrill Russian escapism is manifold. They lie in a series of hitherto little-noticed pathologies of post-Soviet political culture and collective psychology as well as in the history of modern Russian literature and science. The latter source of contemporary intellectual dislocation has been insufficiently explored by international East European studies and Russian regular social science. The protagonists of Russian quasi-academic lateral thinking are sometimes perceived not as objects of research, but as curious colleagues at ordinary institutes and conferences, as well as competing authors in intellectual journals or publishing houses.

Over the past three decades, Both Russian and Western social scientists have often ignored or ridiculed the speculative texts and lectures of their esoterically oriented peers. However, the methodological weakness, empirical thinness, and international irrelevance of post-Soviet social science and historical pseudo-research have often not diminished their internal public resonance. On the contrary, the counterfactual, belletristic, and often conspiracy-laden aspects of alternative Russian world historiography have in- rather than decreased its popularity.

The statements of these authors are often more pre- than descriptive and perceived as apt contributions to the national soul-searching, in post-Soviet Russia. The crude, simplistic, and speculative explanations of social developments by these publicists, who often see themselves as prophets, find a grateful readership. Their texts are often better suited than data-driven empirical research to compensate for ontological emptiness after the fall of the communist state ideology.

As a result, new para-scientific disciplines have emerged, some with their own sub-schools. This applies, for example, 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 these and similar 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 are presenting a comprehensive reinterpretation or even a fundamental rewriting of human history.

The latter can even lead to the re-dating of historical events and 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, but is widely read and revered in Russia. Over a quarter of a century, Fomenko has, in pseudo-scientific books, been propagating the idea that antiquity as such did not exist, and that most historical events took place much later or very differently than taught in schools and universities. According to him, for instance, Jesus was crucified in Constantinople in the 12th century.

Both students and doctoral candidates as well as the general public in Russia are confronted with a wealth of different theories of history, life, and politics in mass media, bookstores as well as social networks, and partly even in serious educational institutions. In stark contrast to the USSR, there is today an enormous diversity of historical and philosophical voices in Russia. Among the many explanatory models circulating, however, those based on methodologically sensitive social research and peer-reviewed comparative investigation are in the minority.

The research results and media appearances of the serious and internationally recognized political scientists, sociologists, and historians – who, of course, also exist in Russia – are drowned out. They sink 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 to 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 Tsarist times. They are manifold and can be illustrated with two of many prominent examples - the teachings of the pseudo-ethnologist Lev Gumilyov (1912-1992) and the metaphysician Aleksandr Dugin (1962-).

The role of Gumilyov and Dugin

These two well-published Russian publicists are both habilitated, by Russian universities, as "doctors of science," and sometimes mentioned in the same breath. Gumilyov and Dugin have each affirmatively used the term "Eurasianism," designed anti-Western theoretical edifices, and 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. Lev Gumilyov 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 have posthumously exerted deep impact on post-Soviet society for over 30 years. Dugin's journalistic activity in Russia, on the other hand, began only in the year of Gumilyov's death. Since then, the bearded metaphysician's multimedia activity has grown steadily.

Gumilyov was an anti-Soviet dissident but 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 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 nineties. 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 of the metaphysician and president. Putin's proclaimed Eurasianism has different sources and contents than Dugin's so-called neo-Eurasianism.

Although the biographies of Gumilyov and Dugin could hardly be more different, the two publicists are similar in the social impact of their writings. In their own way, they each helped shape Russia's intellectual landscape and infiltrated Russia's social sciences as well as humanities with alternative historical narratives. With their writings, they have contributed to the preparation of Russia's war against Ukraine and new systemic confrontation with the West – unwittingly so, in the case of Gumilyov, and very consciously, in the case of Dugin.

Gumilyov's Theory of Ethnogenesis

Gumilyov's writings have made a central contribution to the specifically Russian post-Soviet civilizational studies and its radical dualism. 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 bio- 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 a 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-ethnias.

Such ideas are one reason why Gumilyov has received little recognition outside Russia. While such theories sound abstruse to Western readers, they have helped Gumilyov achieve fame in Russia - or at least not diminished his public status as a genius. Gumilyov's largely positive reception, even in parts of the Russian academy, has shaped the formation of partly bio-ethnological post-Soviet Russian civilizational studies. Some of his closed historical models are 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 actor within the classical as well as especially electronic and social media realms. For several years, Dugin was the head of the Department of Sociology of International Relations at Moscow's prestigious State University, or MGU. However, Dugin's temporary appointment at the 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 Aleksandr Dugin's world of ideas is more difficult than in the case of Lev 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 in most of 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 proposal of overcoming the Western-influenced postwar modernity does 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, inconsistent, and moody rhetoric, the publicist has found a following in the worldwide anti-liberal and, in particular, neo-fascist milieu. During visits to the United States, Dugin was received 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 category "agitators." 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. At the same time, Dugin was then discovering for himself 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 (i.e., 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 USA.

For the communication of his ideas within Russia, Dugin uses the term "neo-Eurasianism" as a disguising tool rather than proper designation for his basic sources. With "neo-Eurasianism," Dugin covers up his smuggling of anti-liberal non-Russian ideas, such as Integral Traditionalism, National Bolshevism, political occultism, ethnopluralism, etc., into Russian intellectual discourse. He uses the name of a renowned interwar Russian intellectual émigré movement, the "Eurasianists," to conceal the often proto-fascist Western sources of his radically anti-Western theories. Unlike Gumilyov, Dugin's writings failed to gain wider resonance in Russia's social science establishment. Although he held a professorial chair at the MGU for several years, Dugin is generally not perceived as a serious academic – even among Eurosceptic Russian social scientists.

Conspirology versus democracy

Nevertheless, Dugin, among other conspiracy theorists, has contributed to poisoning not only the Russian public space with Manichean ideas. The high presence of Dugin and similar actors in Russia’s social media and bookstores has contributed to the relativization of historical and social science findings for explaining Russian and broader international relations. Such infiltration of speculative thinking into the public intellectual discussion can, of course, be also observed in other societies around the world, most recently in quite a few Western countries too. However, the detachment of intellectual and media debates of Russian classical and social media from the results of empirical research goes much further. In recent years and months, in particular, it has led to an increasing emigration 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 before the interventions of Putin's political technologists in public discourse 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. A recovery of Russian society will require not only a change of political regime but also a rebirth of the country’s social and historical sciences as well as humanist intellectual discourse.



Dr. Andreas Umland 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. 

Photo by Denis Tolmachev

Disqus comments