Crafting a common history for post-Soviet Eurasia?

Friday, 30. April 2010     0 comment(s)
Igor Torbakov
Senior Researcher

A bold idea was aired the other day at the first congress of teachers from the post-Soviet lands that was held in Astana, Kazakhstan’s capital. Belorussian Minister of Education Kazimir Farino suggested that historians from the ex-Soviet countries should embark on a collective endeavor of writing a single history textbook of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Belorussian proposal was met with certain skepticism on the part of some CIS colleagues – no big surprise, naturally, given the fact that since the collapse of the Soviet Union all of its 15 successors became “nationalizing states,” to borrow Rogers Brubaker’s apt term, which were heavily engaged in crafting historical narratives that would underpin these new countries’ distinct and “unique” identities.

Yet this perennial urge to use historical scholarship, among other things, as a kind of glue for what has now come to be known as post-Soviet Eurasia leads to a larger question: Is “Eurasia” merely a handy way of describing the “post-Soviet space”? Or does it have a larger and deeper meaning somehow being intimately connected with the notion of “Russia” and with what some tend to call the “Russian civilization” or the “Russian world”?

Mr. Farino’s suggestion seems to betray the lingering tendency that dates back to the intellectual legacy of the classical Eurasianists – the political thinkers that were popular within the Russian émigré milieu of the 1920s-30s and whose ideas experienced a revival in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. The Eurasianists and their contemporary epigones tend to imagine Eurasia as a special world unto itself – an organic entity underpinned by the “geographical-ecological unity” of Eurasia and by the common historical destiny of all Eurasian peoples.

For Eurasianists, crafting a common history of Eurasia has been a must; it has also been, they believe, a perfectly feasible enterprise facilitated by what they called a “pan-Eurasian” nationalism – basically, a supranational identity that all diverse Eurasian peoples have somehow possessed.

To be sure, there are many political theorists who would immediately challenge such an understanding of “Eurasia.” According to what is now probably a dominant viewpoint, “Eurasia” is just a convenient term referring to the former Soviet Union. In fact, what we are now witnessing, the proponents of this school of thought argue, is a progressive erosion of Eurasia. One can easily see, they say, the growing heterogeneity and divergent historical paths of post-Soviet states --- the latter are being pulled towards the new centers of power: Europe, the greater Middle East and China. According to Abbott Gleason of Brown University, “The unity of post-Soviet ‘Eurasia’ is fragmentary and fleeting. It competes in the West with much more powerful paradigm of ‘Europe’. It competes in the East and South East with the formidable economic power of China and India.”

Given these trends, Gleason and the like-minded thinkers contend, crafting a common history of Eurasia is fantasy. The histories of the different parts of this vast territory would be included in the greater historical narratives. For example, the students of Estonia and Latvia (and, possibly, in the long-run, of Ukraine) “will not be trained in any essential way differently than students of France or Germany.”

But there are also scholars who, while agreeing that “Eurasia” is indeed a useful name that offers a place for the histories of new post-Soviet states, argue that it can also be employed as a useful research prism. Or, as Mark von Hagen recently suggested, “Eurasia” can be advanced as an “anti-paradigm for the post-Soviet era.”

The scholars belonging to this school of thought point to three major considerations. First, they note the limits of (West-European) nation-state ideal type for writing the histories of the region – and consequently point to the crucial role of Eurasian empires and their interaction. Second, they acknowledge the relative porousness of the boundaries between Eurasian empires – and thus highlight the importance of studying the imperial borderlands. Finally, the new focus on diversity and mobility (plus the skepticism toward traditional national narratives) leads to realization of importance of diasporas in the history of Eurasia.

The ideas of this latter group of historians demonstrate that scholars can use the “Eurasia” paradigm and build on the intellectual legacy of the classical Eurasianists in a much more creative way than Mr. Farino does. After all, the original thinkers of the 1920s clearly saw the diversity of the Russian empire and tried to analyze the complex interplay between the “history of the Russian people” and the “history of the peoples of Eurasia.”

Texts reflect the opinions of the individual authors

Discuss the topic

Personal information