Re-imagining World Spaces: The New Relevance of Eurasia

Mark Bassin Södertörn University
Abstract: Although we often think about geographical continents as fixed natural entities, they are in fact also the product of imaginative construction.  The most recent example of this process is the emergence of the continental concept of "Eurasia."  This brief essay considers the historical origins of the Eurasia idea in the geological sciences of the 19th century, its development in 20th-century theories of global geo-strategy as well as ideologies of Russian national identity, and its eventual international "breakthrough" into public discourses with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  It discusses some of the different ways Eurasia is represented today in terms of its boundaries and essential characteristics, and finally offers a series of arguments for the usefulness of "Eurasian Studies" as a platform for university research and teaching.


In the late 1990s, two human geographers (both of whom happened to be teaching at Duke University at the time) published a seminal book entitled The Myth of Continents. The book argued that, despite all appearances, there is nothing natural or objective about the divisions of the land surface of the globe into the continental entities with which we are so familiar: Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, Australia, and Antarctica. Rather, these continents are subjective and discursive objects, effectively ideas or visions which have their own contested histories and complex patterns of contending valorizations. Indeed, the authors suggested that these continents do not really belong to the realm of geography at all, but are rather "meta-geographical" in character.

The idea of continents would seem to be hardwired into the ways in which we organize and manage our conceptual interactions with the global space around us. They may be critiqued, but they cannot be discarded or left behind. They can, if you will, only be re-imagined and re-mythologized.

This reasoning obviously drew on the well-known argument that nations themselves were "invented" or "imagined" communities, but there were at least two fundamental differences that set the two perspectives apart. On the one hand, the physical-geographical naturalness of continents seems far more compelling and self-evident than that of nations, and the latter (unlike the former) are also commonly recognized as dynamic social, historical, and cultural entities. Moreover, although it is often maintained—and not only by proponents of the "imagined communities" perspective—that in the future nations might possibly be replaced by alternative forms of social organization, there is no parallel notion of doing away with assumptions about continent entities, no matter how mythical or meta-geographical they may be. Very much to the contrary, rather like those bothersome system files in our computer programs which, no matter how zealously we may delete them, are simply recreated by the application software, the idea of continents would seem to be hardwired into the ways in which we organize and manage our conceptual interactions with the global space around us. They may be critiqued, but they cannot be discarded or left behind. They can, if you will, only be re-imagined and re-mythologized—reorganized within new territorial contours and described in terms of new patterns of historical, political, economic, and social association.

In the present think piece, I will explore these points in terms of the example of the most recent continental idea, namely Eurasia. While this particular continental concept developed, like all others, out of assumptions about its natural-geographical character, the imagined, mythical, and even ideological underpinnings of its identity are manifest nonetheless. As I will illustrate, Eurasia is the subject not only of contending significations and valorizations, but of different projections of its physical-geographical contours. Regardless of its discursive and contingent essence, however, the meta-geographical entity of Eurasia still has a powerful and eminently practical meaning and function in a variety of real-world contexts. On the one hand, these relate to challenges of nation-building and political and economic development, and, on the other, to the current exigencies of university research, teaching, and organization.

Notes Toward a Begriffsgeschichte

The notion that Europe and Asia represent separate continental entities is very old, dating back to the cosmographical teachings of the ancient Greeks. The insight that the two actually occupy a single continental landmass and thus, strictly speaking, together form a single continent is much more recent. It was only in the early 19th century that natural scientists—largely geologists—began to point this out, indicating that physiographically Europe was not separate from the Asiatic landmass but rather represented a territorial protrusion or peninsula at its westernmost extremity. This new perspective was consummated in the 1880s, when the eminent Austrian geologist Eduard Suess baptised the combined Europe-Asia landmass as Eurasien or Eurasia. The status of "Eurasia" as a geological reality was enhanced in the following decades with the development of the theories of tectonic plates and continental drift.

These advances in natural-scientific theory did not, however, have much impact on popular perceptions. "Europe" and "Asia" remained far too heavily invested with political, religious, and cultural significance to be surrendered very easily, and as we will see, it would take roughly a hundred years after Suess’s original "discovery" for the Eurasia concept to be taken up broadly in public discourses. Nonetheless, in the intervening period sporadic attempts were made to mark out the historical, geopolitical, and civilizational significance of the destabilization of the traditional Europe-Asia distinction initiated by the natural scientists. Two such attempts are particularly significant for our subject. They foreshadow key aspects of what Eurasia would eventually come to represent, and at the same time help clarify contemporary confusion around the different meanings of the term.

One of these nongeological deployments of Eurasia was in Anglo-American geopolitical discourses of the fin de siècle, discourses which were preoccupied with the imperial competition between the Great Powers. The most important intervention came from the British geographer and statesman Halford Mackinder. For Mackinder, the prospect of a geographically unified Eurasian continent provided the basis for both a radical revisioning and repartitioning of its internal geographical space, as well as a dramatically new conceptualization of the power dynamics of global space overall. Mackinder developed a specialized terminology to represent the new geographical spaces that he envisioned. Eurasia itself—the "great continent" and "continuous land-mass of Euro-Asia"—he called the "World Island" (1942, 183). This territorial mass was itself naturally bifurcated into two principal sections. One of these was Eurasia’s "Heartland" or "pivot region," a massive zone of lowland plains comprising the basins of the Volga, Ural, Ob’, Irtysh, Yenisei, Lena, Syr Darya, and Amu Darya rivers. This zone was a gigantic landlocked expanse of inner-continental space, drained exclusively by rivers flowing either into closed inland seas (Caspian and Aral) or the ice-bound waters of the Arctic. Most of this lowland was covered by the prairie grasslands of the Great Steppe, which historically had provided a natural arena for the emergence and flourishing of great armies of mounted nomad warriors. Arranged in a rough continuous arc around it, to the west, south, and east, was what Mackinder called the Eurasian continent’s "Inner Crescent," made up of Europe, Arabia, India, and China. This crescent was a zone of mixed continental and maritime exposure. Together the Heartland and Inner Crescent comprised the totality of the Eurasian continent.

The prospect of a geographically unified Eurasian continent provided the basis for both a radical revisioning and repartitioning of its internal geographical space, as well as a dramatically new conceptualization of the power dynamics of global space overall.

Over two millennia, Mackinder suggested, the course of Eurasian history had been conditioned by the interactive dialectic between these two zones. The maritime civilizations of the Inner Crescent were repeatedly subjected to destructive incursions by land-based nomadic armies, originating out of the steppes of the Heartland. This struggle had come to an end only in the early modern period, as the ascendant maritime powers of the West were finally able to invert the balance and establish the supremacy of the sea over "Euro-Asiatic landpower" that enabled them to extend their imperial reach across the globe. In the present day, however—Mackinder first presented these ideas in 1904—he believed that this predominance was in danger. He reckoned that if a land-based power could organize these inner-continental spaces effectively by building a modern transport infrastructure and developing settlement, agriculture, and industry there, the Eurasian Heartland could once again become an invincible bastion. The greater danger, however, was of a possible future alliance of the Heartland and Inner Crescent to create a single unified Eurasian power. Combining massive resources and strategic potential, such a conglomerate power could become truly invulnerable to any external intervention from the powers of the Outer Crescent. "The empire of the world," he observed, "would then be in sight" (1942, 197). The geopolitical imperative, argued in 1904 and again at the end of World War I, was to preclude this possibility by preventing any consolidation—through alliance or conquest—between the Eurasian Heartland (Imperial Russia and the USSR) and Western Europe. Mackinder’s vision of the dynamics of "Euro-Asiatic" space was to influence Western strategic thinking throughout the 20th century and remains highly significant in our own time.

The second important engagement with the Eurasia concept came from within Russian nationalist discourse. Since the Petrine revolution of the early 18th century, Russia had understood itself as an empire geographically divided by the Ural Mountains into two parts: a European metropolis to the west and Asiatic colonial domains to the east. In the latter decades of the 19th century, however, anti-Western nationalists such as Nikolai Danilevskii and Vladimir Lamanskii began to challenge this received wisdom, using the novel scientific idea of a single "Asiatic-European continent" for their arguments about the relationship of Russia to Western Europe. They maintained that because Europe and Asia were not separate natural-geographical continents, there logically was no natural-geographical boundary between them, and without such a boundary, Russia itself was not naturally bifurcated into European and Asiatic sections. Rather, they argued, Russia formed a united and cohesive geographical space unto itself, effectively a third continent, undivided internally but clearly set off from both Europe and Asia. This middle continent image was then taken up in the 1920s and 1930s by a group of nationalist intellectuals who had fled the 1917 revolution and regrouped in West European capitals. Russia represented a distinctive third world between Europe and Asia, they maintained, a world which they called Evraziia, or—to distinguish it from the decidedly larger Eurasia of the geologists—Rossiia-Evraziia. They named the cultural and political movement they founded Eurasianism and called themselves Eurasianists.

The Eurasia of the Russian Eurasianists was a cohesive and self-contained geographical entity, an objective and real-existing natural-geographical region, formed by physical features in the natural environment. One of the chief ideologues of the movement, the geographer Petr Savitskii, argued that Russia’s natural zones—tundra, taiga, forest, steppe, and desert—were welded together by a special unity inherent in the physical-geographical balance or symmetry between them. This geographical cohesion then served as the basis for the historical, ethnographic, social, and cultural cohesion that developed across the centuries among the diverse peoples cohabiting these vast spaces. While each of these peoples was able to preserve their own individuality, at the same time they grew together to form a distinctive and autonomous Eurasian civilization, quite separate from adjacent Europe or Asia. The Eurasianists strongly opposed the territorial fragmentation of the Russian imperial state that had followed in the wake of the revolution and civil war, and they used their geohistorical theories to insist on the necessity of the geopolitical reconstruction of the Russian state as a unified Eurasian great power. Although there was no direct connection between Mackinder’s theories and Eurasianism, there was a rough resonance between his Eurasian "heartland" and their middle continent—indeed, Savitskii referred at one point to Russia-Eurasia as the serdtsevina, or heartland, of the Old World. Nonetheless, the geographical boundaries of Russia-Eurasia were more or less congruent with the political boundaries of the late-imperial Russian and—from the mid-1920s—the Soviet state. Indeed, within these boundaries Russia-Eurasia was not merely an entire continent, but more precisely a "state-continent" (gosudarstvo-materik) and a geographical "world unto itself" (mir-v-sebe).

As significant as these somewhat specialized deployments of the Eurasia concept may have been, the term itself remained obscure across most of the 20th century. The émigré Eurasianist movement had collapsed, in any event, by the end of the 1930s, and within the Soviet Union its ideas were denounced as "bourgeois nationalism" and suppressed. Mackinderian ideas about the geopolitical dynamics of Eurasia, by contrast, lived on in the geostrategic thinking of the American military planners during the Cold War, who were convinced that the Soviet Union was capable in principle of achieving the very Heartland-Inner Crescent consolidation of Eurasia that Mackinder had warned against. The only way to prevent this, George Kennan famously insisted, was for the United States to block and resist the USSR on every front through a policy of "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies." In the policies of Zbignew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, and others, the essential determination to prevent the Soviet extension of its power across the Eurasian continent continued to animate American strategic thinking, down to the late 1980s. In the late 1940s, George Orwell gave this enemy Eurasia a demonic public face in his dystopic novel 1984, the Mackinderian inspiration of which was unmistakable. "Protected by its vast land spaces," Orwell’s Eurasia was home to hordes of unspeakably brutal soldiers, with "monstrous figures" and "expressionless Mongolian faces" (154). But these representations of Eurasia were associated precisely with strategic and diplomatic discourses and limited largely to them. The prospect of Eurasia as a more general alternative to Europe and Asia did not penetrate significantly into the popular imagination.

Three Faces of Eurasia

A number of developments in the 1980s and 1990s came together to thrust the concept of Eurasia firmly into the center of public attention. The end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union brought an abrupt cessation to the bipolar contest of superpowers. With this, the old geopolitical parameters that had dominated much of the 20th century were overturned, and it was now not only possible but necessary to revision the political spaces of the globe. These momentous geopolitical changes were accompanied, moreover, by a far-reaching epistemological shift in the way that the geographical concepts of the continents themselves were understood. As part of the postmodern challenge to the so-called "meta-" or "master narratives" of the 19th and 20th centuries, the traditional meta-geographical valorization of Europe and Asia began to be critically scrutinized, deconstructed, and rethought. Finally, the dramatic economic and social development of many postcolonial societies in Asia, Africa, and Latin America by the end of the 20th century provided a completely novel context for the re-valorization of these regions and their patterns of interactions with other parts of the world. Taken together, these circumstances created what was effectively a perfect storm for the reconceptualization of the notion of Eurasia, and the results have been striking. What had hitherto been an exotic but obscure designation was taken up overnight by multiple constituencies to become a popular toponym of choice. "Suddenly," one observer remarked with some astonishment, "Eurasia is everywhere"; another noted provocatively that now "we are all Eurasian."

As part of the postmodern challenge to the so-called "meta-" or "master narratives" of the 19th and 20th centuries, the traditional meta-geographical valorization of Europe and Asia began to be critically scrutinized, deconstructed, and rethought.

We have already noted how in the past the geographical limits of the regions under question could be defined in different ways. This multiplicity persists in the present day; indeed, the new popularity of the term means that the various conceptualizations of it are more numerous and more complex. For the purposes of this short essay, three representations or "faces" of Eurasia are identified, which today are particularly widespread and influential.

1. Eurasia as a Middle World

Probably the most common contemporary signification of Eurasia is in the form of the middle world discussed above: a cohesive and self-contained continent, situated between Europe and Asia but belonging to neither. This middle-world alternative, however, itself has two rather different versions. One of these comes from post-Soviet Russia and is effectively a modern revival of the interwar Eurasianist vision of Russia-Eurasia. In the dislocation and turbulence of the 1990s, this vision was rediscovered and began to attract serious attention. It appealed to nationalist-conservative tendencies seeking a new understanding of Russia, one which avoided Marxist categories but at the same time conveyed a clear sense of the country’s historic greatness and geopolitical power. Like the classical Eurasianists, the post-Soviet "neo-Eurasianists" refuse to accept the geopolitical breakup of the Soviet state, and they deploy Eurasianist theories as a legitimizing rationale for its reassembly. The original notion of Russia as Eurasia—a cohesive middle continent between Europe and Asia whose constituent nationalities shared the same unique civilizational identity—seems ideally suited for these purposes. The most important prophet of neo-Eurasianism, Aleksandr Dugin, is a prolific writer and public figure who comes ideologically from the radical right. Dugin enthusiastically called for the reestablishment of the Russian imperial and Soviet states in the form of a mighty Eurasian empire. After 2000, neo-Eurasianism has moved into the political mainstream, to the extent indeed that Vladimir Putin declared the creation of a sort of neo-Soviet "Eurasian Economic Union" to be a major foreign-policy priority of his administration. As was originally the case with Russia-Eurasia, so Eurasia today in this incarnation is part of a project to reestablish Russia in its position as a global great power, and it is associated very clearly with anti-Western sentiments.

At the same time that Eurasia was reemerging in Russia, however, there was a sort of parallel discovery of Eurasia in the West, where interest was sparked not by nationalist revanchism but by an entirely practical quandary. After 1991, what term could replace "Soviet" in those myriad governmental and educational institutions which had divisions or programs organized on the basis of the Soviet structure and which—unlike the peoples of the USSR itself—did not necessarily want to break into separate entities? In view of the multinational character of the Soviet Union, "Russia" was obviously inadequate. The term "post-Soviet" gained some currency, but for many the most elegant solution was the untried and exotic toponym Eurasia. The general unfamiliarity of the term was not a problem—indeed, it was precisely the absence of preconceptions on the part of Western audiences about where or what Eurasia actually was that made it so useful for this new purpose. An early convert to this new terminology was the U.S. government, which since the early 1990s has used "Eurasia" or "Eurasian landmass" in specific reference to the former Soviet Union, clearly distinguished from Europe and Asia alike. This usage was formalized bureaucratically in 2001 when the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of European Affairs was expanded to include the former Soviet states and was renamed the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs.

The new appeal for Western audiences of the term "Eurasia" as a synonym for "post-Soviet" related not only to bureaucratic expediency…It has also been taken up by academics specializing in these regions who believe that this unconventional toponym can help transcend long-established and restricting meta-geographical categorizations.

The new appeal for Western audiences of the term "Eurasia" as a synonym for "post-Soviet" related not only to bureaucratic expediency, however. It has also been taken up by academics specializing in these regions who believe that this unconventional toponym can help transcend long-established and restricting meta-geographical categorizations: not only Europe and Asia, but even more general associations of East and West, North and South. Heralded by some as a bright new "paradigm," by others as an equally promising "anti-paradigm" for a reconstituted field of post-Soviet studies, the transnational concept of Eurasia appears to offer a better integrated and more evenly balanced perspective in which to frame the historical or contemporary study of the peoples and regions of the former Soviet Union, or even—it has been proposed—of the entire postcommunist second world. The awkward circumstance that in Russia itself the same term has clear revanchist and anti-liberal undertones is recognized, but it does not disqualify Eurasia for the purposes of an inclusive and forward-looking revisionist historiography and study of contemporary social issues.

2. Eurasia as Central or Inner Eurasia

A second understanding of the term refers to those parts of the former Soviet Union which precisely are not Russia or Eastern Europe. These would include the former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia, and possibly parts of what used to be called "Asiatic Russia," from the Urals (or even the Volga river) east to the Pacific. This sense of Eurasia resonates with yet another contemporary deployment of the term, which uses Eurasia in reference to some sort of central zone of the macro-Eurasian continent. Sometimes called "Central Eurasia" or even "Inner Eurasia," this particular geographical framework has proven appealing to a variety of constituencies. One of these is the rich tradition of "Inner Asia" studies that originated in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In this configuration, the perspective resurrects the geographical contrast of Mackinder’s original Heartland-Inner Crescent juxtaposition. "Central Eurasia" (the Heartland) is the inner-continental space formed by an interconnected system of vast lowlands, home over many centuries to a dynamic nomadic civilization. This space is encircled by what is variously referred to as an outlying "crust of civilization" or "Outer Eurasia" (Mackinder’s Inner Crescent), formed by Europe, the Semitic civilizations, Iran, India, Southeast Asia and China, and much of the Russian state to the north. In stark contrast to Russia-Eurasia, this particular configuration explicitly excludes "European" Russia, that is, the territories to the west of the Ural Mountains.

This notion of Central Eurasia has been taken up by historians as well as those interested in contemporary affairs. The former often embrace the Mackinderian focus described above—which in fact predated Mackinder’s own particular formulation—on the longue durée of historical interaction between the sedentary agrarian societies of Outer Eurasia and the pastoral nomads of its central core. The term also has proven quite relevant for those interested in the most recent developments across these territories. Once again, the entire dynamic is to disassociate these regions, which traditionally belonged to Russian imperial and Soviet space, from this connection, and to stress instead alternative regional configurations and affinities. This particular exercise in geographical reimagining is exceptionally significant in view of the political and economic developments of recent decades. The abundant energy and other resources of Central Eurasia serve to attract global attention to this geostrategic but politically highly unstable region. There is a contest, what is frequently called a "new Great Game," among adjoining powers, including Russia, China, and Turkey, for influence here, and the region promises to remain a central zone of global interest for decades to come.

3. Macro-Eurasia, or Eurasia = Europe + Asia

Finally, the term "Eurasia" is today used analytically in literal reference to the entire macrocontinent. Practitioners of so-called world or global or big history have promoted the need to view Eurasia in this way as a single macrocontinental entity. This geospatial shift of focus has an instrumental function for the epistemology of the world history project by helping to transcend the limitations of national or imperial boundaries and recognize longue durée patterns of social and commercial interaction across global spaces. In some cases, this perspective—which owes a great deal to the world systems work of Immanuel Wallerstein—treats Eurasia essentially as a network or system of linkages rather than a cohesive historical-geographical entity. Elsewhere, however, macro-Eurasia is considered as a very tangible entity—a "Eurasian ecumenical whole," as William McNeill puts it—which, despite its enormous internal diversity, nevertheless possesses certain common unifying features that provided an enduring historical distinctiveness from other world regions and enabled it to play a special role in global history. As in the other views of Eurasia that we have considered, these treatments commonly emphasize the importance of various environmental conditions, but rather than dividing the macrocontinent into "central" and "outer" zones, they are now seen as unifying factors.

This notion of macro-Eurasian unity is not restricted to the contemplation of history, but is also projected onto the present and future in a body of literature dealing with 21st-century economic integration of the "Eurasian supercontinent," stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Arctic to the Indian Ocean. This literature explicitly takes up the emphasis on mobility, commercial networks, and trade flows developed in the historical analyses just cited, and indeed, describes the emerging networks of the present day as the most recent "wave of Eurasian exchange," reenacting an essential pattern that extends back many centuries. While in earlier times the famed "Silk Road" served as a means of bringing Europe and Asia together into a single cycle of macro-Eurasian commodity exchange, transport and communication infrastructure projects such as the Eurasian Land Bridge will play this role in the future.

A Plea for Eurasian Studies

In conclusion, I would like to offer some brief thoughts about the potential significance of Eurasia for academic program development. It seems to me that there are multiple advantages to be gained from engaging with this new and still rather unfamiliar concept; indeed, such an engagement could be an important part of a broader strategy for the development of higher education and university research today. The advantages I have in mind are conceptual and intellectual as well as organizational. I offer the following four considerations as illustrations of what seems to me to be Eurasia’s practical relevance and utility.

1. Reformulation of Slavic/ East European/ Russian/ Soviet Studies

The most specific benefit of Eurasia is the fact that it now forms an essential part of a highly successful reformulation of Slavic/East European/Russian/Soviet studies. That the Eurasia concept should have succeeded in this manner was far from clear when this reformulation first got underway in the mid-1990s; indeed, many specialists in this field (myself very much included) were initially highly skeptical as to whether such an unfamiliar toponym could effectively serve to mark out their area of attention. We pointed to the problems that (a) in Russia itself the term "Eurasia" had clear reactionary and extreme-nationalist associations; (b) identifying Russia with Eurasia would underplay or even deny Russia’s essential historical and contemporary connections with the European West (a point that the Russian Eurasianists themselves insist on); and (c) a term with multiple geographical configurations could never effectively represent a single one of them. At this point, I am happy to concede that we have been proven wrong, and indeed rather spectacularly so. Throughout North America and much of Europe as well, there is virtually no university center of any significance that does not now use the term "Eurasia" in naming its programs dealing with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. To be sure, the term is not used alone but always together with other regions: Harvard has its "Russian and Eurasian Studies," Chicago its "East European and Russian/Eurasian Studies," Stanford its "Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies," and UCLA its "European and Eurasian Studies."

Eurasia is the scene of myriad dynamic processes that are shaping national and international life in the 21st century: problems of nation building and identity formation, political and economic transition, democratization, marketization, international migration, and energy extraction.

The problems that seemed so inevitable in the 1990s have not materialized; indeed, speaking as a Russianist I would say that Eurasia in fact offers a definitely improved conceptual representation of the area that I study. The polyvalence of the term, rather than being problematic, actually proves extremely useful (about which more below). It can imply continuity with the USSR (Russia-Eurasia) or, alternatively, it can flag entirely new geographical associations, resonances, and affinities with adjacent regions and offers a better balance for Russian civilization in two different respects. Externally, it stresses its intermediacy between the European West and Asia proper to the south and east, while internally, Eurasia helps correct the traditional perceptual imbalance which accorded greater significance to the "European" Russian core than to the non-European periphery. My own field of Russian history has been entirely reshaped over the past 15 years through consistent attention toward how these "Eurasian" peripheries contributed no less importantly than the center to the development of Russian civilization. Moreover, insofar as Eurasia is obviously not associated with any specific language, it naturally and quite usefully serves to deemphasize the purely linguistic and literary aspect of area studies and immediately opens up the field to issues and specialists from different areas, helping establish the principle of interdisciplinarity (about which once again more below).

2. Perceptual Flexibility

The second point relates to the perceptual flexibility of Eurasia. We have seen in this essay that Eurasia is not a fixed concept but rather can be envisioned in different geographical configurations. I have described no less than three different conceptualizations of Eurasia today, and there are further permutations of these which I do not have room here to discuss. At first encounter, this lack of precision would seem to disadvantage a term for use in university research and teaching contexts, where precise and clear delimitations are supposed to be particularly important. In fact, this is not the case. To the contrary, I would suggest that the protean quality of Eurasia actually renders the term yet more useful for the purposes of academic organization. The multiple significations and what might be called the semantic instability of the term evokes a sort of "creative ambiguity" which can be particularly stimulating. The point is that, quite unlike the centuries-old concepts of Europe and Asia, Eurasia is not and certainly will not become essentialized or reified in terms of exclusive qualities—or within particular geographical parameters—that are assumed to be inherent. To the contrary, Eurasia is and will necessarily always remain a work-in-progress par excellence. It is not without a firm meaning, but there is always a dynamic malleability to the term which can make it an especially fertile platform for the development of new perspectives and approaches, and for new ways of combining and integrating existing resources. Effectively, Eurasia can be crafted to take best advantage of a given institution’s particular array of strengths and specializations. We can already see that different universities deploy Eurasian studies in a variety of different connections, with differing geographical parameters and disciplinary mixes. The reformulation of Russian/Soviet studies mentioned above is only one option, although it is the most common and perhaps particularly effective.

3. Platform for Interdisciplinary Collaboration and Integration

An important characteristic of Eurasia is its potential to act as a platform to support different sorts of interdisciplinary collaboration and integration. For many years, the need to foster interdisciplinarity has been increasingly recognized as playing a vital role in improving and modernizing academic research and teaching. The entire project of reimagining world spaces discussed in this essay, I would argue, is one extremely important aspect of this modernizing process. With the deemphasis just noted on language and literature studies, these programs necessarily become more thematically heterogeneous, which necessarily leads to disciplinary heterogeneity as well. Implicitly, I would argue that this change involves a highly significant shift in the purpose of the department or corresponding administrative unit, which shifts away from literary and linguistic culture toward a deeper and more complex understanding of the societies, histories, and cultures of the regions in question. Literature studies remain an important part of this program, of course, but other disciplines also need to make vital contributions to developing these perspectives. In fact, this has long been the dominant organizational model for area-studies centers in Europe, including those I have personally been associated with in London, Birmingham, and now in Stockholm. These are all highly interdisciplinary units, where colleagues from the humanities as well as the social sciences work together to developed integrated perspectives on the regions that we study. In the case of Eurasia, the opportunities for developing new interdisciplinary approaches and perspectives are rich and exciting. There is everything to be gained for universities to create structures that would allow qualified specialists from fields such as history, politics, anthropology, sociology, or human geography to pool their efforts and insights into various aspects of Eurasian studies. The product would be a more comprehensive and sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of the region in the past and present, which would, among other things, offer enormous potential for engaging students with new and interesting courses and projects. The fact that the region itself is a work-in-progress, as noted, only serves to make the entire enterprise more challenging and exciting.

4. Relevance for Important Political, Economic, and Cultural Problems

The final advantage of Eurasia is the simplest but perhaps the most compelling of all: its relevance for the most important political, economic, and cultural problems of our day. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an important event in stimulating the reemergence of the idea of Eurasia, as I have suggested in this essay. It was, however, by no means the only development to have this effect. Beyond the former Soviet Union, an entire series of major post-Cold War developments also contribute to the essential revitalization of the Eurasia idea. These include the emergence of China and India as global economic and political powers, the increasing independence of Turkey from its Western connections and its high interest in enhancing its own profile across the region, the much-heightened geopolitical and geostrategic stakes in "Inner Eurasia" and global competition over access to resources and influence, and finally moves to consolidate Eurasia strategically through transcontinental regional security structures such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Eurasia is the scene of myriad dynamic processes that are shaping national and international life in the 21st century: problems of nation building and identity formation, political and economic transition, democratization, marketization, international migration, and energy extraction. Along with these, Eurasia has become one of the most significant global arenas for both international collaboration and development, as well as competition. Clearly, there are different "Eurasias" at play here. But this natural diversity does not translate into a corresponding need for one institution to have different Eurasia centers, and correspondingly there is no need for a single Eurasia studies program to engage with the full diversity of these topics.


Keenan, George. F. 1947. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Foreign Affairs, July 1947.

Lewis, Martin W., and Kären Wigen. 1997. The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Mackinder, Halford. 1922. Our Own Islands: An Elementary Study in Geography. London: G. Philip and Son.

———. 1921. The Nations of the Modern World: An Elementary Study in Geography and History, 5th ed. London: G. Philip and Son.

———. 1942. Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction. London: Constable Publishers.

McNeill, William H. 1963. The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Orwell, George. 1959. 1984. Reprint, New York: Signet Classics, 1961.

Suess, Eduard. 1904. The Face of the Earth [Das antiltz der erde]. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Wallerstein, Immanuel Maurice. 2003. The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-first Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.


Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License