Tracing the cultural entanglements of East, West and the in-between.
The definition of “Eurasia'' we refer to, drifts towards language domains of geopolitics and related cultural mythology. When Joseph Beuys in 1966 staged a performance Eurasienstab (Eurasian Staff), he operated with a very particular interpretation of the terms. Departing from his personal understanding of shamanic ‘action’, developing a cryptic dramaturgy, Beuys moved a 3,60 m long copper bar (‘Stab’ in German) through a performance room, using also some other ‘Beuysian’ objects like felt, fat amongst others. A music score, written by a Fluxus-composer Henning Christiansen, accompanied the whole action.
Some keen and well-informed art historians have interpreted the performance as Beuys’ critical reflection on the Cold War and a divide of the West and the East. The copper bar was meant to “conduct spiritual energy” leading to a “brotherly union of cultures”. On May 12th, 1967 Beuys founded the fictitious "free democratic socialist state EURASIA", in which he wanted to unite the East and the West, “democracy and socialism”. One can perfectly imagine a kind of re-enactment of this performance today, although not as a performance, but rather as a pseudo-shamanic action, out of ultimate despair in the current state of the New Cold War and disappearance of democracy and socialism, both in the East and in the West.
Some other, also well-informed art historians have interpreted Beuys’ Eurasienstab as his criticism on rationality, individualism and the Eurocentric world-view. Quoting an e-flux announcement of the exhibition Joseph Beuys: Greetings from the Eurasian, which took place in the Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp (M HKA) in 2017: „Using his Eurasienstab performance as a starting point, the exhibition will consider how Beuys’ use of the notion of "Eurasia" was part of his anti-modern sentiment, looking away from the grand-narrative and hegemony of the "West," and towards a vision of affinity with the "East," to the point of even removing such distinctions. It was a vision that was more attuned to cultural depth, mysticism and to nature. This anti-modern approach also echoed in his political engagement, with an approach to politics though a belief in discursiveness, latent energy and direct action.“
Ironically enough, precisely this critical attitude to the “hegemony of the "West", “a vision of affinity with the "East" and even “removing such distinctions” as well as questioning the Eurocentric world-view can be found in early writings by Nikolai Trubetzkoy, a prominent Russian philologist, historian and one of the founders of structural linguistics. It remains uncertain, if Beuys was familiar with the works by Trubetzkoy, but as we know from the history of ideas, ideas often take some fully unexpected paths similar to those of viruses.
After the Great October Revolution Trubetzkoy, like millions of other compatriots, emigrated from Russia and, before taking the chair of Professor of Slavic Philology at University of Vienna in 1922, spent a couple of years in Sofia. In 1920, he published his work “Europe and Mankind”, in which he sharply criticised the ideology of Eurocentrism and the claim of the West to speak in the name of the whole mankind. In “Europe and Mankind”, published in 1920, Trubetzkoy offered an elaborated historical analysis on how the system of particular Western values and principles was – in the process of both material and intellectual colonisation – imposed on the rest of the world as something universal. Trubetzkoy insisted on the right of each nation, each ethnic group and each culture to follow its own principles and values. He believed Russia to be an example of a distinguished alternative to the West and described it as a unique civilisation, which he defined as “Eurasian” by its nature, i.e. as a culture that combines both European and Asian cultural elements, principles, different ethnicities and religions in an integrative and inclusive way, resisting the Western exceptionalism and domination.
"The adventures and misadventures of the term “Neo-Eurasianism” after the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially in the last two decades have much more to do with a global ideological vacuum and an attempt of numerous governments to replace politics through geopolitics."
In his opinion, Russia’s mission to not only stop an intellectual colonisation by the West, but also to regain cultural independence and sovereignty for other countries and cultures. In some later texts Trubetzkoy accentuated an important role of Asian nomadic cultures for the Russian history. These ideas were widely spread among Russian intelligentsia since the XIX century. They became even more popular during the First World War due to a necessity to look for a new national identity in the senseless war. This mood was perfectly expressed in a famous poem by a prominent Russian poet Alexander Blok “The Scythians” from 1918:
Millions are you – and hosts, yea hosts, are we,
And we shall fight if war you want, take heed.
Yes, we are Scythians – leafs of the Asian tree,
Our slanted eyes are bright aglow with greed.
Ages for you, for us the briefest space,
We raised the shield up as your humble lieges
To shelter you, the European race
From the Mongolians’ savage raid and sieges.
Besides this “pan-mongolism”-tune, Trubetzkoy has also emphasized that Russian mentality remains largely rooted in a traditional society with its principles of a collective solidarity and mutual support, which oppose the individual selfishness and mercantilism of the West. The ideas of Trubetzkoy became popular among a group of Russian emigrants, who built in the 1920s a political movement called “Eurasianism“, striving to formulate Russian identity beyond narrow boundaries of the Western concept of the ‘national’. Eurasianists reflected the unique character of Russia's geopolitical position and its historical development as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious state. In contrast to the most political movements of Russian emigrants in the 1920s, which usually were deeply anti-revolutionary and anti-Bolshevik, Eurasianists had a certain sympathy for the October Revolution, considering the Soviet Union as a state, in which the ideas of integrative, inclusive and egalitarian multi-ethnic Russian culture would be supported by the state policy, and which were even mirrored by the official Soviet ideology of the communist internationalism and principal equality of all nations, ethnicities and national cultures.
In spite of a continuous since 1991 vilification of the Soviet Union, for the sake of historical truth one should admit that this agenda was in fact largely realised in the USSR not only on the level of the official anti-racist rhetoric, but also on the level of the state cultural policy with its programs of multifaceted support of cultural legacy of different ethnical groups and minorities. To be mentioned here is first of all the policy of the so-called korenization (nativization) aimed at the integration of non-Russian nationalities into the governments of the Soviet Republics, creation of ethnic territorial autonomies, introduction of ethnic minority languages into public administration, education and mass media and so on. This policy played an essential role in the 1920s and early 1930s as well as after the Stalin period.
The mass cultural production in the USSR, on the other hand, has since then emphasized anti-racist and internationalist character, educating the soviet population about the principal equality of all the nations and ethnicities of the world and propagating a solidarity of working people of all races and origin, who are exploited by bourgeoisie, colonial capitalism and imperialism. Especially the racism in the USA and other Western countries was a subject of rigorous criticism in the Soviet cinema and literature. One could think of films like Circus (1936), Maksimka (1953), or satiric poems like „Mister Twister“ (1932) by Samuil Marshak, to name a few examples.
The adventures and misadventures of the term “Neo-Eurasianism” after the collapse of the Soviet Union and especially in the last two decades have much more to do with a global ideological vacuum and an attempt of numerous governments to replace politics through geopolitics. But this would be a long and completely different story…
Image: Still from Mister Twister, 16min (1963)
"Eurasian Stuff" was published in print issue 13, "Eurothanasia"