This is a rant of mine from a few years ago, that I’ve edited slightly to be more suitable for Medium.
Following Russia’s interference in the 2016 United States’ Presidential election, a flurry of articles emerged, claiming to reveal the truth about Russia’s strategic intentions. Not only is this truth more diabolical than you could ever have imagined, it has been laid out in the open for decades for all to see! The mastermind behind this strategy is the mysterious and esoteric Aleksandr Dugin, and the whole plan is clearly articulated in his magnum opus Foundations of Geopolitics. As one news article boldly states:
EVER wondered what Vladimir Putin is up to infiltrating the US elections? Surprisingly, there is an answer to that.
In 1997, a Russian political scientist named Aleksandr Dugin and a serving Russian General named Nikolai Klokotov sat down and wrote a text that would become the foundation of Russian geopolitical strategy over the next 20 years. It was called “Foundations of Geopolitics” and it was all about how Russia could reassert itself in the world.
Chillingly, the book now reads like a to-do list for Putin’s behaviour on the world stage.
Publications will tell you Dugin is “Putin’s Brain”, the “unlikely origin of Russia’s Manifest Destiny”, “the most dangerous philosopher in the World”, and chillingly has deep connections with the Kremlin and Russian military elite.
There is one problem though. Much of what we — as in the West — believe about Dugin is simply untrue.
The Hyperbole of News
Foundations has not been translated into English. A large portion of what the West knows about this book seems to come from a 2004 book review by John Dunlop. A quick browse of the book’s wikipedia page citations provides evidence of this. Unable to read Russian, it is evident that many news writers turned to Dunlop’s work, and when that was not quite exciting enough, they simply made things up.
As quoted above, news.com states “a Russian political scientist named Aleksandr Dugin and a serving Russian General named Nikolai Klokotov sat down and wrote a text.” Foreign Policy magazine states “ 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.”
This should be something very easy to check, and in fact it is very easy to check.
In English, this reads:
Scientific Consultant - Teacher at Department of Strategy of the Military Academy General Staff of the Russian Federation General-Lieutenant N. P. Klokotov
Artist K. Chuvashev
No thanks is given; no credit for co-authorship; no statement of inspiration — simply acknowledgement that Klokotov acted as a “consultant”. He gets the same degree of acknowledgment as the cover artist. The idea that Klokotov is co-author is simply not supported by any facts that I can find, and is apparently even disputed by Klokotov himself (though this itself is unsourced).
Many articles also go on to warn that Foundations of Geopolitics has inspired a generation of military leaders in Russia, having been taught at the Military Academy of the General Staff. News.com states that it “has served as a text book among a generation of military strategists.” Foreign Policy writes:
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.
This quote from John Dunlop comes from his 2004 book review. It seems safe to assume that Foreign Policy and news.com are using Dunlop as their source, however what Dunlop actually writes is somewhat different:
[A]t the founding congress of the new “Eurasia” movement, Dugin boasted, “I am the author of the book Foundation of Geopolitics, which has been adopted as a textbook in many [Russian] educational institutions.” During the same congress, the aforementioned General Klokotov — now a professor emeritus but one who continued to teach at the academy — noted that the theory of geopolitics had been taught as a subject at the General Staff Academy since the early 1990s and that in the future it would “serve as a mighty ideological foundation for preparing a new [military] command.” At present Dugin’s book presumably is being used as a textbook at the General Staff Academy.
I have been unable to find any evidence that it continues to be assigned as a textbook within the military. Dunlop does not provide any citation. He does not even make a statement of fact, but rather makes a presumption.
Another elite connection Dugin supposedly holds is with General Rodionov, described by Foreign Policy as “Dugin’s patron.” Marlene Laruelle’s Aleksandr Dugin: A Russian Version of the European Radical Right? writes “The Foundations of Geopolitics seems to have been written with the support of General Igor’ Rodionov, who was minister of defense in 1996–7.” This, again, is attributed to John Dunlop. Dunlop writes that:
The commander of the General Staff Academy, General Igor’ Rodionov, was reported to be “particularly well-disposed toward Dugin,” and Dugin’s ideas evidently continued to enjoy his support once he became Russian Defense Minister in 1996–1997.
Dunlop’s source for this claim is Stephen Shenfield’s Russian Fascism. Shenfield writes
There is considerable circumstantial evidence suggesting that General Igor Rodionov was particularly well-disposed toward Dugin during his tenure as head of the AGS and then (briefly) as defense minister in 1996–1997.
One may wonder what this “considerable circumstantial evidence” is. Fortunately Shenfield provides within his footnotes:
The hypothesis of a link between Dugin and Rodinov is supported by the fact that the NBP [National Bolshevik Party] journal Limonka published a highly sympathetic article about Rodinov, written by a military officer, on the occasion of Rodinov’s dismissal as defence minister by Boris Yeltsin.
So in brief, someone writes an article sympathetic to Rodionov, and publishes this in the journal of the National Bolshevik Party, which Dugin is affiliated with. Passing from source to source this becomes ‘Rodionov is “Dugin’s Patron”’. It is also vitally important to contextualise this connection with the National Bolshevik Party, a party that is getting banned under Putin’s tenure, and whose founder is being targeted in honeypot schemes and thrown in jail. An affiliation with the National Bolshevik Party most certainly does not lead credence to being a Kremlin insider.
What does Foundations actually say?
Despite this academic game of telephone (and this seems somewhat common in Russian reporting), some may remain convinced that Foundations is helping lay the plans of the Kremlin. As news.com states:
The book starts out by saying that the shrewd thing for Russia to do is to steer clear of direct military confrontation. Instead, the book counsels Russian leaders to favour political stealth. It emphasises the need for the infiltration of Western institutions, and the use of soft power to shape the world in Russia’s favour. Sound familiar yet?
Does this not sound like the basis of Russian foreign policy?
Two things needs to be established however — what does Foundations actually say, and what is the Kremlin actually doing? Contrary to what the above article purports, Foundations does not actually “start out” by saying what Russia should do.
Foundations actually “starts out” with a basic overview of what “geopolitics” is. In the introduction, Dugin introduces geopolitics as something somewhat taboo, and that the objective of the book is to conduct an impartial and objective analysis of it. As you’d expect from a textbook, it begins with defining terms and jargon such as Thallosocracy and Tellurocracy. Foundations then provides a historic sketch of geopolitical thought, looking at thinkers such as Friedrich Ratzel, Rudolf Kjellén, Friedrich Naumann, Halford Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Paul Vidal de la Blache, Nicholas Spykman, Karl Haushofer, Carl Schmitt, and Peter Niolaevich Savitsky. Some of these are niche, but none would be surprising in a typical Western course on geopolitics. Following an outline of the classics, Dugin outlines the moderns: Kissinger, Colin S. Gray, Fukuyama, Huntington and others.
It is 100 pages in before Dugin stops this overview and starts prescribing actions for Russia, and these actions are not regarding foreign policy but about domestic political change. Dugin calls for a radical alternative to both the Liberals and a Brown-Red alliance, and he calls for a revolution within Russia because he does not recognise the Russian Federation as a “true” state.
This is radical; it is even perhaps quite concerning: but where does the news.com article’s claim about the book’s start come from? I feel safe in guessing: it was made up. The author has not read Foundations.
The article goes on:
The text then goes into a very specific list of to-dos, about Russia’s posture towards almost every nation on earth.
You can also see this “very specific list of to-dos” on the Wikipedia page, all compiled from Dunlop’s book review. This idea of a list conjures up images of a Machiavellian plan, a step-by-step process, that Russia has been told to follow (and supposedly is doing so). Again we have an issue: Foundations does not present a list in this manner.
This is evident in Dunlop’s review, which synthesises Dugin’s dispersed thoughts into something more tightly relevant to a Western audience. On the discussion of “How is a revived Eurasian — Russian empire to bring about “the geopolitical defeat of the U.S.””, Dunlop cites his points from pages 260, 216, 234, 241, 248, 276, 367, 248, 367. This should show that Dugin is not writing a “very specific list of to-dos” on how to overthrow the United States, but rather has a lot of thoughts that touch on this issue.
To look at some specific examples, in the surrounding paragraph of “the geopolitical defeat of the U.S.”, Dugin writes “Of course, this is such a distant prospect that seriously analyzing the problems that arise in this case is now almost pointless” and “the victory over Atlantism is an extremely distant prospect”. Quite bluntly, Foundations is not a serious analysis of how to overthrow the United States.
In one of the favoured out-of-context remarks, Dugin suggests for Russia to:
introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements — extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilising internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.
However, immediately after Dugin writes:
All this is the central task of Russia’s “external geopolitics” with respect to the United States, so a more detailed analysis is beyond the scope of this work
Very quite literally excluding this discussion from the scope of work.
In a reference picked up by anti-BLM mouthpieces around the internet, Dugin mentions supporting “afro-American racists” to ferment instability. What is not mentioned is that this is a throwaway line, literally in brackets, in a section dedicated to the portrayal of a great existential battle. Literally the next sentence is “The ancient Roman formula ‘Carthage must be destroyed’ will become the absolute slogan of the Eurasian Empire.” This is not exactly “shrewd” and favouring “political stealth” and “infiltration” or “soft power”, as the news.com article writes.
What is the Kremlin actually doing?
Russian attempts to stir up political trouble and support radical groups is nothing new. Meddling in elections, funding separatist groups and blackmailing politicians can, and does, exist separately to Foundations. Trying to understand these things through Foundations will only obfuscate matters.
Issues such as Ukraine and Crimea can be much better understood using realpolitik, and studying the history and politics of the peninsula, rather than framing the annexation as the starting point of an Imperial Eurasia intent on conquering the globe. Similarly, the Russo-Georgian War has explanations a little bit more nuanced than an evil Russia intent on driving south to the Arabian/Persian Gulf and recreating an Armenian Empire. Academics have even argued that geopolitics, rather than the ideological driving force of Russian policy, was “the dog that did not bark” during this time.
Dugin’s suggestions have overlap with Russian actions, but it is key to look at the differences. While Dugin urged for a united Ossetia and a deep annexation of Ukraine to create a Novorossiya, the Kremlin had far more limited goals and actions. Rather than being an official spokesperson of Kremlin ideology, Dugin can’t even keep his university job due to his controversial opinions, and is increasingly writing critically of Putin.
Why is there so much emphasis on Dugin? There abounds plenty of far right, Eurasionist, or imperialist Russian thinkers. Alexander Panarin, Yuri Luzhkov, Konstantin Zatulin, Aleksei Mitrofanov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Gennadi Zyuganov, Dmitri Rogozin, Konstantin Malofeev, Natalya Narochnitskaia, or even Alexander Solzhenitsyn, to name but a few. Why do people not turn to incredibly obvious people who undeniably have had huge influence on Russia’s foreign policy like Yevgeny Primakov?
I think the answer is relatively simple. Gary Kasparov’s depiction of Russia as a Mafia-State with Putin as the ultimate mob boss hits a true-crime itch; the realist depiction of Putin’s Russia as a calculating actor concerned with its security hits an itch for the “rationalist” contrarian; and the Dugin depiction of Russia is truly larger than life. It hits all the notes of a good story, with a secret and sinister plot that the reader has uncovered with stakes so high it rises to global domination. People share the Wikipedia page of Foundations as if they have uncovered the secret plan direct from the halls of the Kremlin.
For those interested in a nuanced and academic view of Russian geopolitics, I cannot recommend Near Abroad: Putin, the West, and the Contest Over Ukraine and the Caucasus by Gerard Toal enough.