Eurasia and Steve Kotkin's "Ab Imperio," Part I

March 28, 2009
As some of you may have noticed, I've recently been playing around with the name of this blog, switching from something that was totally generic to something using the name 'Eurasia' to something else. And ruminating about what to call my blog [I ultimately decided to switch away from "Eurasia" but not because I think it's a bad name for an academic subfield] got me thinking again about Steve Kotkin's 2007 piece "Mongol Commonwealth? Exchange and Governance across the Post-Mongol Space," which I first read closely when I was in Ufa last summer. 

In this piece, which was published in the journal Kritika (which is itself devoted to "Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History"), Kotkin takes on the concept of "Eurasia" and its use by North American academics to describe what once was called "Russian and East European Studies" (or variations thereof). "Suddenly," writes Kotkin, "Eurasia is everywhere."
In academia, the old Soviet Studies centers are now called “Eurasia”: Columbia (Harriman Institute: Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies), Harvard (Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies), Berkeley (Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies), Stanford (Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies), Illinois Champaign-Urbana (Russian, East European, and Eurasian Center), Toronto (Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies), and on and on. [487-488].
The problem, argues Kotkin, is that, while term "Eurasia" can often be used as a rubric for generating discussion among, say, Russianists, Ottomanists, and Sinologists, outside of the confines of North America and academia "Eurasia carries nasty political overtones--autarky, messianism, demotic rule, apologia for empire--as well as very basic obstacles of a refusal by many covered by the term to be any part of it." [527]. 
Kotkin, I think, is making a good point here. For historians of Russia, after all, the term "Eurasia" conjures up the Eurasianism of Prince Nikolai Trubetskoi, Petr Savitskii, and other Russian emigres who, in the 1920s, embraced the concept in positioning Russia as an antidote to Europe. The Eurasianists, who tended to criticize the anti-Bolshevik undertakings of their fellow emigres, viewed the Soviet state as something which could be built upon in order to create a new order which, like the Soviet Union, would be an alternative to the West, but which would not be internationalist or atheist (as the Bolsheviks were). As Kotkin points out, the political views of the Eurasianists varied, but all of them tended to be very illiberal in nature.

Finally, Kotkin argues that, anti-liberals aside, "Eurasia" is not a concept that is preferred by people who live within Eurasia. Whereas the journal Kritika, which is based in the United States, bills itself as a journal of "Russian and Eurasian" studies, the Kazan-based journal Ab Imperio is subtitled "Studies of the Imperial History and Nationalism in the Post-Soviet Space" [490].
Instead of using the term "Eurasia," Kotkin argues that, "if we need an overarching term about what we study and what shaped the world," the term should be "ab imperio" [508]. Whereas the term "Eurasia" is saddled with too much "mystical" and "demotic" baggage, writes Kotkin, the term ab imperio brings to the table a healthy focus upon questions of exchange and governance rather than identities [509].

At this point, Kotkin gets to what seems to me to be his most important point. The field of "Eurasian Studies" is dominated by research that is consumed with the question of "identity." Rather than focusing upon this question, Kotkin argues that studies need to begin looking at how things worked and how people are governed.

Whatever the regional and cross-regional geography, of course, thematics are crucial. To that end, in emphasizing “ab imperio,” I have done so via networks and exchange—violent or peaceful—of products, people, ideas, genes. Who could argue with that? Well, at its 11th “world convention” (March 2006), the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN)—which has cannibalized some of the activity of the AAASS—claimed to be featuring more than 100 panels, grouped according to Russia/Ukraine/Caucasus, Central Asia/Eurasia, Central Europe, Balkans, and Nationalism Studies. More than 50 presentation titles explicitly mentioned “identity.” Only one presentation title at that year’s ASN mentioned “parliament,” none mentioned “judiciary,” almost none mentioned “economy.” Somewhat better has been the thematic coverage of the gatherings of the Central Eurasian StudiesSociety and of the rump AAASS itself. Still, for the most part, “nationalities” often appear not to have economies and political institutions, only “identities.” [527-528]

Moreover, Kotkin seems to be raising the possibility that, by "fixating" upon the question of identities, academics are somehow enabling anti-liberalism in the space they call "Eurasia."

In looking at our scholarship on the past, I mostly see preoccupation not with institutions but with identities and, on the present, preoccupation not with authoritarianism but with democratic transition. Could these two tendencies be related? [529]

Well, there's certainly a lot to digest here. In my next posting, I'll discuss my take on Kotkin's argument.