Photo credit: Roland Elliott Brown

Pushkin House beats a bomb threat

A note of dread on a night about Eurasianism

Artillery Row

There is not much in London’s cultural life to make the heart sing, but the scene on Monday night outside Pushkin House — an independent Russian cultural centre established in 1954 by a group of Russian exile intellectuals — was something to behold. 

In the midst of a discussion between journalists Catherine Belton and Charles Clover about “Eurasianism” — the occult nationalist ideology promoted by the ex-hippie-turned-Russian-imperial-crank Aleksandr Dugin — the house’s assistant curator, Denis Stolyarov, announced that he had received a bomb threat. Annoying though it was, the police had been called and we’d all have to leave.

While he still had the mic in hand and the audience was filing out, I suggested he announce we could continue in Bloomsbury Square outside; so he did. Beneath the trees on an idyllic summer evening, the crowd of twenty or thirty gathered, and the event was saved, even improved.

Belton and Clover are both veterans of Moscow journalism, having been colleagues at the Financial Times’ Moscow bureau in the days of Dmitri Medvedev’s placeholder presidency and the Obama administration’s naïve and deluded “reset” with the Putinists. 

The Russian leaders were thought mere kleptocrats

Belton’s specialty is kleptocracy, the subject of her acclaimed 2020 book Putin’s People, which inspired a group of Russian billionaires to sue her in London simultaneously and, ultimately, unsuccessfully. 

Clover, it might be said, is Mulder to Belton’s Scully, having spent years sleuthing out the X-Files of Russian nationalist arcana for his prescient 2016 book Black Wind, White Snow, which has just been re-issued in a revised edition in the wake of Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

Though Clover confesses he failed to predict the 24 February invasion, which he says left him nauseated and depressed, a strong case can be made that his book provides the ideological backstory. Indeed, Belton called it “the most prescient of its generation”. 

“Eurasianism”, as outlined in Dugin’s 1997 book Foundations of Geopolitics, imagines something like a reassembled Soviet Union ruled by an unforgiving and domineering expansionist Russian Orthodox ideology. 

Dugin had once been an anti-Soviet dissident, a member of what Clover calls Moscow’s “esoteric underground” in the 1980s, the milieu in which Dugin first took an interest in geopolitics. The study of geopolitics was, like sociology, Freudian psychoanalysis and other big ideas, banned in the USSR, but found notoriety in the counterculture for that reason.

Drawing on Sir Halford Mackinder’s “heartland theory”, Dugin set up a conceptual worldview predicting spiritual warfare between Russia as a great land power on the one hand, and Britain and America as rival sea powers on the other (there are echoes here of Oceania fighting Eurasia in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four). Russia had a special place in the world, according to this theory, because it covers the territory most inaccessible from the sea.

When Clover first befriended Dugin in Moscow, he thought him a harmless curiosity. According to the rationalist bias of the time, the Russian leaders were mere kleptocrats — greedy and lawless to be sure, but also rational and self-interested. Even Dugin himself made a show of his cynicism, remarking, for example, that only two things were real in Russia: oil sales and theft.

Dugin himself seemed far removed from the world of policy-making. And yet, as Clover puts it, “this [Eurasianism] stuff started wagging the dog”. The Kremlin had always attempted to manage or destroy any popular movement outside itself, but it couldn’t destroy nationalism, which is a powerful force across Russian politics.

While it had become fashionable in policy circles to dismiss any notion of Dugin as “Putin’s brain”, the man seemed to have a good deal of inside baseball with regard to the symbolic realm for example, knowing ahead of time what the flag of a nominally-independent Donetsk would look like. Russia’s strikes against Odessa and the recurring spectre of Russian domination of the Black Sea coast is right out of Dugin, whose vision requires that “the north shore of the Black Sea should obey Moscow”.

Pushkin House came out against Putin’s invasion immediately

“We all thought it was a kleptocracy,” Clover said. There was a long-running assumption among journalists and policy analysts that powerful Russians would be content with holidaying at their homes in France and sending their children to expensive British schools. But now, he says, it’s clear that “the goal of kleptocracy was to assemble power”. 

That power is now being put to esoteric ends. If Putin and his spokesmen have yet to articulate a coherent set of goals and demands in Ukraine, it may well be because they are tripping in Dugin’s quasi-mystical realm.

When the police arrived, they cordoned Pushkin House off and went through it floor by floor. They even brought their chipper little bomb dog outside to sniff out the park — a good night for him. 

The threat turned out, as expected, to be an annoying false alarm. More disappointing still, it ostensibly had nothing to do with Eurasianist mysticism, having been called in (the staff told me) in the name of Ukraine, targeting Pushkin House as a Russian cultural institution. On the face of it, it appeared to be a cockeyed instance of what Putin’s pundits call “cancelling Russia”.

Who knows? Putinists blamed April’s Bucha massacre on Ukraine (that is, when they weren’t celebrating it) and the same goes for the missile attack on Kramatorsk train station that month. A false-flag bomb threat in London would hardly be beyond them. 

There is much talk afoot these days about the role of Russian literature and culture in shoring up Russian imperial attitudes. Alexander Pushkin, as Russia’s national poet, is often implicated. The historian Timothy Snyder, of Bloodlands fame, has suggested that Pushkin was a perpetuator of the “myth of Russian innocence”, the notion that Russia was a “helper” of its subject peoples.

Pushkin House, for its part, is blameless. It came out against Putin’s invasion immediately, ran “solidarity events” in support of Ukraine, raises money for the Disasters Emergency Committee, and started a Support for Ukrainian Cultural Workers Fund, which helps Ukrainian artists. (Full disclosure: I gave public talks at Pushkin House in 2019 and 2020)

Their Pushkin is the Pushkin of Pushkin Square in Moscow, a traditional meeting place for free thinkers and opposition people where during the Soviet period, writers, scientists and religious dissidents would have their say until KGB goons came along to break their heads and round them up.

Monday night was satisfying. Clover, Belton and the crowd defended their right to speak and listen, the show went on and nobody beat us into paddy wagons. Sometimes on a summer night in London, the heart sings.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover