The Unlikely Origins of Russia’s Manifest Destiny

How an obscure academic and a marginalized philosopher captured the minds of the Kremlin and helped forge the new Russian nationalism.


It would be extremely unpleasant for Sir Halford Mackinder, a bespectacled and slightly aloof Edwardian academic, to witness the use to which his life’s work has been put in post-communist Russia.

It would be extremely unpleasant for Sir Halford Mackinder, a bespectacled and slightly aloof Edwardian academic, to witness the use to which his life’s work has been put in post-communist Russia.

Best-known for a lecture entitled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” which he delivered to the Royal Geographical Society in 1904, Mackinder argued that Russia, not Germany, was Britain’s main strategic opponent. This he illustrated with a colorful theory that came to be known as “geopolitics.” The timing of his prediction, prior to two world wars against Germany, subsequently did not do his theory any favors. However, Mackinder was finally vindicated in the last year of his life by the start of the Cold War, the epitome of his teachings. He saw the world arrayed in pretty much the shape he had foreseen in 1904: Britain and America, whose navies ruled the world’s oceans, against the Soviet Union, the world’s predominant land power, whose vast steppe and harsh winters had defeated Napoleon and Hitler — all but impregnable behind a land fortress, the “Heartland” of Eurasia.

Despite the centuries of technological progress and human enlightenment, Mackinder believed that geography remained the fundamental constituent of world order, just as it had been during the Peloponnesian War, in which sea power Athens faced off against Greece’s greatest land army Sparta. Since then, geopoliticians have argued, most armed conflicts have always featured a stronger navy against a stronger army. Sea power and land power, in other words, are fated to clash. The global seat of land power — inner Eurasia, the territory of the Russian Empire — would forever be in global competition with the sea power, the mantle of which was soon to be transferred from Britain to the United States.

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In 1919, Mackinder still clung to the notion that Russia was Britain’s main adversary: he advocated “a complete territorial buffer between Russia and Germany.” Mackinder justified the move with the most famous sentences he ever penned: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World.”

It took about 50 years for those words to get noticed in the heartland itself; but when they were, Mackinder was suddenly plucked from obscurity to fame and given the status of prophet — for all the wrong reasons. His dire warnings, issued about the latent potential of Russia for conquest and domination, were intended to coax a consensus among the interwar-era European elite to prevent this from happening; instead they became the lightning rod for a new Russian version of “Manifest Destiny.”

Russia’s push into Georgia in 2008, into Ukraine in 2014, and its recent campaign in Syria, as well as its efforts to consolidate a sphere of influence in the inner Eurasian heartland of the former USSR called the Eurasian Union, all are eerily foretold in geopolitical theory. Mackinder held that geography, not economics, is the fundamental determinant of world power and Russia, simply by virtue of its physical location, inherits a primary global role. Under President Vladimir Putin, the slightly kooky tenets of Mackinder’s theory have made inroads into the establishment, mostly because of one man, Alexander Dugin, a right wing intellectual and bohemian who emerged from the Perestroika era in the the 1980s as one of Russia’s chief nationalists.

Largely thanks to Dugin’s murky connections within the elite, Geopolitics today is mainstream. Mackinder’s arguments were useful to Dugin and other hardliners who contended that conflict with the West was a permanent condition for Russia, though they had trouble explaining why. The reasons for the Cold War had seemingly evaporated with the end of ideological confrontation, in a new era of universal tolerance, democracy, and the “end of history.”

The Englishman’s elevation to the status of grand mufti of Atlantic power was assisted by Dugin, who in 1997 published The Foundations of Geopolitics, one of the most curious, impressive, and terrifying books to come out of Russia during the entire post-Soviet era, and one that became a pole star for a broad section of Russian hardliners. The book grew out of Dugin’s hobnobbing with New Right thinkers and his fortnightly lectures at the General Staff Academy under the auspices of General Igor Rodionov, the hardliner’s hardliner who would serve as defense minister from 1996 to 1997. By 1993, according to Dugin, the notes from his lectures had been compiled as a set of materials, which all entrants to the Academy were supposed to use, and which were frequently amended and annotated by new insights from the generals, or following the odd lecture by a right-wing ideologue flown in from Paris or Milan.

Dugin thus set out self-consciously to write a how-to manual for conquest and political rule in the manner of Niccolò Machiavelli. Like The Prince (which was essentially a fawning job application written to Florentine ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici after Machiavelli had been out of power and exiled for ten years), Dugin wrote his book as an ode to Russia’s national security nomenklatura from the depths of his post-1993 wilderness. Until 1991 he had been one of the hardliners’ chief propagandists, writing a combination of conspiracy theories and nationalist demagoguery for The Day, a newspaper funded by the defense ministry. But following the failed coup by the KGB and the Red Army in August of that year, Dugin had been in internal exile with little way to support himself.

Together with fellow nationalist intellectual Eduard Limonov he had founded a cantankerous political movement called the National Bolshevik Party (NBP), which he called a “political art project” and in addition he rather improbably landed a visiting lectureship at the Academy of the General Staff as a result of connections to the hardliners and to Rodionov. Drawing on his connections with military academics and sitting in the dirty basement of the NBP’s Frunzenskaya Street headquarters, Dugin wrote a book that would become a major influence on Russia’s hardliners.

In Dugin’s capable hands, Mackinder was transformed from an obscure Edwardian curiosity who never got tenure at Oxford, into a sort of Cardinal Richelieu of Whitehall, whose whispered counsels to the great men of state provided a sure hand on the tiller of British strategic thinking for half a century, and whose ideas continue to be the strategic imperatives for a new generation of secret mandarins.

In addition to Mackinder, there were the opposing geopoliticians profiled by Dugin, mostly German, who argued from the same logic as Mackinder but in defense of continental land power rather than global sea power. These included Friedrich Ratzel, a late nineteenth-century German geographer who coined the term Lebensraum, or “living space,” which later was co-opted as an imperative by the Third Reich. The second generation of geopolitical writings earned the theory a lingering association with Nazism. Mackinder’s contemporary, Karl Haushofer, was a German army general and strategic theorist who was a strong proponent of a three-way alliance between Berlin, Moscow, and Tokyo.

Mainstream political scientists look slightly askance at the subset of geopolitics. They regard geopoliticians much as mainstream economists regard the so-called “gold bugs,” who persist in believing in the eternal value of gold as a medium of exchange and who place their faith in the old constants which they are sure will inevitably reappear. Similarly, the geopoliticans, an exotic subculture within the expert community, believe that despite lofty principles and progress, the mean — strategic conflict over land — will always prevail. Sometimes, they are right.

The Foundations of Geopolitics sold out in four editions, and continues to be assigned as a textbook at the General Staff Academy and other military universities in Russia. “There has probably not been another book published in Russia during the post-communist period which has exerted a comparable influence on Russian military, police, and statist foreign policy elites,” writes historian John Dunlop, a Hoover Institution specialist on the Russian right.

In 1996, Andrey Kozyrev, the Russian foreign minister who was a symbol of the westernizing strain in Yeltsin’s policies, was sacked, and the same year, General Rodionov, Dugin’s patron at the General Staff Academy, was appointed defense minister, replacing Pavel Grachev, who, as head of the airborne forces, had sided with Yeltsin in the August 1991 attempted coup. Also in 1996, the Duma voted to abrogate the decision of the Belovezh Agreement of 1991, which declared the Soviet Union officially dissolved, and simultaneously to recognize as legally binding the results of the 1991 referendum, in which 70 per cent of Russian voters supported the preservation of the USSR. It was obviously only symbolic, but a mere five years after the end of the USSR, a majority of the Russian elite — if one accepts the overwhelming Duma vote as an adequate bellwether — supported the restoration of empire.

Foundations arrived at just the moment when Russia’s elite was undergoing a seismic shift, though it would not be until the collapse of the ruble in August 1998 that liberalism in Russia was finally dealt a deathblow. Foundations was helped by curiously ubiquitous product placement in Moscow’s best bookstores — almost invariably next to the cash register.

Dugin’s main argument in Foundations came straight from Haushofer’s pages: the need to thwart the conspiracy of “Atlanticism” led by the United States and NATO and aimed at containing Russia within successive geographic rings of newly independent states. The plan was simple: first put the Soviet Union back together, counseled Dugin, and then use clever alliance diplomacy focused on partnerships with Japan, Iran, and Germany to eject the United States and its Atlanticist minions from the continent.

The key to creating “Eurasia” is to reject a narrow nationalistic agenda, which could alienate potential allies. He quoted New Right theorist Jean-François Thiriart, who said “the main mistake of Hitler was that he tried to make Europe German. Instead, he should have tried to make it European.” Russia, it followed, would not be making a Russian Empire, but a Eurasian one. “The Eurasian Empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, the strategic control of the USA, and the refusal to allow liberal values to dominate us,” wrote Dugin.

It did not seem to matter that around 1997 this idea seemed completely insane. Russia’s GDP was smaller than that of the Netherlands, and the once formidable Red Army had just been defeated on the battlefield and forced into a humiliating peace by a rag-tag group of Chechen insurgents. It was a period of Russian history when analogies to Weimar Germany were plentiful, and Dugin’s book was evidence that the same dark forces that had been radicalized by Germany’s interwar collapse seemed to be in the ascendant in Russia. It preached that the country’s humiliation was the result of foreign conspiracies. The dust jacket was emblazoned with a swastika-like runic symbol known in occult circles as the “star of chaos,” and the book itself favorably profiled several Nazis and extreme rightists. If the parallels with the Third Reich were not already plentiful enough, it called for the formation of a geopolitical “axis” which would include Germany and Japan.

Foundations was premised on the notion that real politics took place behind a veil of intrigue, according to rules that the elites and regimes of the world had internalized for centuries behind their bastions of privilege, but were loath to demonstrate publicly. The idea was an easy sell to a conspiracy-mad reading public and the book came outfitted with all the esoteric trappings of an initiation to secret wisdom: runic inscriptions, arcane maps with all manner of arrows and cross-hatching, introductions to unheard-of grey cardinals of world diplomacy. But there were just enough actual facts in support of the fantastic conclusions for the reader to be instantly intrigued — just as players at a Ouija board are often most impressed when the planchette lands on some fact of which they are already aware.

The reason that geopolitics is so obscure, it turns out, is not because its practitioners are crazy, hopelessly abstruse, or were prosecuted at the Nuremburg trials; but rather, because of a clever cover-up by the powers-that-be. Or, as Dugin puts it, “because geopolitics too openly demonstrates the fundamental mechanism of international politics, which various regimes more often than not would prefer to hide behind foggy rhetoric and abstract ideological schemes.”

Foundations was more sober than Dugin’s previous books, better argued, and shorn of occult references, numerology, traditionalism and other eccentric metaphysics. In fact, it is quite possible that he had significant help from high- level people at the General Staff Academy, where he still lectured. Dugin did not try to hide his connection to the army: on the first page he credited General Nikolai Klokotov, his main collaborator at the Academy of the General Staff, with being his co-author and major inspiration (though Klokotov insists he was not). But the clever association with the military gave Dugin’s work some authority and a veneer of official respectability, as well as the pervasive notion that he was the front man for some putative Russian “deep state” conspiracy of hardliners, straight off the pages of one of his pamphlets. And it is not impossible that this was actually the case.

Dugin clearly longed to walk the corridors of power, and did his best to make his case to those who abided there. Only those who understood the imperatives of geography and power, he wrote, could be considered qualified to hold the tiller of state: “The dependence of the human being on geography is only apparent the closer one gets to the summit of power. Geopolitics is a worldview of power, a science of power, for power.”

Of course, it went without saying in Dugin’s view that the USSR must be put back together; Georgia must be dismembered and Ukraine annexed: “Ukraine, as an independent state with certain territorial ambitions, represents an enormous danger for all of Eurasia.” Azerbaijan, though, could be given away to Iran in exchange for a “Moscow–Tehran axis.” Finland could be added to the Russian province of Murmansk, while Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece would join Russia as an Orthodox “Third Rome” or Russian South.

The other thing the book gives short shrift to, despite Dugin’s erudite style and exhaustive presentation, was exactly why Russia needed an empire. Russian thinkers, from Alexander Herzen to Andrey Sakharov, have been adamant that the empire is the primary culprit for Russia’s eternal backwardness. Few would say that modern-day Russia’s dysfunction and lack of status and influence commensurate with its ambitions on the global stage are due to any deficiency in size — it is, after all, still geographically the largest country in the world, despite losing 14 post-Soviet territories. Additionally, Russia’s land-based civilization was not just a strategic opponent of sea-based powers, but culturally and civilizationally anomalous, inherently more hierarchical and authoritarian than the more mercantile and democratic Atlantic world. Dugin argued that empire was the only way to stop the march of liberalism, which was antithetical to Russia’s value system.

The influence of Foundations was profound if measured by book sales; but even more profound if measured by the true yardstick of the scribbler: plagiarism. Dugin’s ideas became a “virus,” as he put it. They were reprinted in dozens of similar manuals and textbooks, all of which devoted themselves to the theories of Mackinder, Haushofer, and others. Bookstores in Russia began to have a “Geopolitics” section; the Duma formed a “Geopolitics” committee stacked with deputies from arch-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s so-called Liberal Democratic Party. Boris Berezovsky, influential oligarch and behind-the-scenes power broker, ended an appearance on the Hero of the Day television chat show in 1998 with the statement “I just want to say one more thing: geopolitics is the destiny of Russia.”

Geopolitics was like “open source computer software,” as Dugin put it. He wrote the program, and everyone copied it.

This article is adapted from Charles Clover’s new book, Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism

Photo credit: DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images

Charles Clover is China correspondent for the Financial Times and the former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times. He is the author of the new book Black Wind, White Snow: The Rise of Russia's New Nationalism. Follow him on Twitter: @charles_clover

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