“East” and “West” in the History of the Old World – excerpt from Foundations of Eurasianism Vol. II

Excerpt from FOUNDATIONS OF EURASIANISM – VOLUME II, forthcoming from PRAV Publishing:


“East” and “West” in the History of the Old World

by Petr Bitsilli

From time to time, it is beneficial to reconsider our customary historical concepts so that, in employing them, we do not fall into delusions generated by our mind’s tendency to ascribe absolute significance to our notions. It must be remembered that the correctness or falsity of historical notions, like any other scientific concepts, depends on the chosen point of view, that the degree of their correspondence to reality can be greater or lesser in view of which historical moment we apply them to, and that their content constantly changes, at first imperceptibly, gradually and then suddenly. Among the notions most often employed and subjected to the least degree of criticism are the concepts of East and West. The opposition and contrast between East and West has been a formulaic truism since Herodotus. By the East is meant Asia, and by the West, Europe, that is, two “parts of the world”, two “continents”, as grammar school textbooks assure us, or two “cultural worlds” as “philosophers of history” express it. Their “antagonism” is revealed to be a struggle between the “principles” of freedom and despotism, between striving forward (“progress”) and inertia, and so on. Their eternal conflict drags on in diverse forms, the prototype being the clash of the King of Kings and the democracies of Hellas. I am far from criticizing these formulas. From certain points of view, they are fully correct, for they cover a significant part of the content of historical “actuality”, but they do not exhaust it. Finally, they are true only for those who look at the Old World “from Europe” — and yet, who will argue that the historical perspective obtained from such an angle is “the only correct one”?

Not for the sake of “criticism”, but for a better analysis of these concepts and for establishing them within proper boundaries, I would like to recall the following: (1) The antagonism between East and West in the Old World does not exclusively mean antagonism between Europe and Asia. The West itself has “its East” and “its West” (Romano-Germanic Europe and Byzantium, then Rus’) and the same applies to the East: the opposition between Rome and Tsargrad to some extent corresponds to the opposition between “Iran” and “Turan”, or that between Islam and Buddhism. Finally, the opposition between the Mediterranean region and the steppe world in the Western half of the Old World corresponds in the Far East to the relation between China and the very same steppe world in the center of the Eurasian continent. Only in the latter case East and West change roles: China, being geographically “East” to Mongolia, is culturally “West” for the latter. (2) The history of the Old World, understood as a history of relations between West and East, is not exhausted by the struggle between these two principles: there are too many facts at our disposal that speak to the development of common, rather than antagonistic principles in both West and East. (3) Alongside the image of the history of the Old World which we obtain when we look “from the West”, another, no less “legitimate” and “correct” one can be constructed. The picture of the Old World changes before the observer as he moves from West to East. If one stands in Russia, then all the outlines of the Old Continent emerge more clearly: Europe appears as part of the continent, albeit a very isolated part possessing its own individuality, but no more so than Iran, Hindustan, and China. If Hindustan is naturally separated from the main mass of the continent by the wall of the Himalayas, then the isolation of Europe, Iran, and China stems from their orientation of “facing” the seas. In relation to the center, Europe and China are mostly defensive. The “Chinese Wall” became a symbol of inertia, not any wisdom against the “ignorance of foreigners”, although in fact its point was completely different: China shielded its culture from barbarians; hence this wall fully corresponds to the Roman “frontier” by which the Mediterranean tried to defend itself from the barbarism pressing in from the North and East. The Mongols showed an example of brilliant divination when they saw in Rome and the Roman Empire “greater China”, Ta-Tsin.

Conceiving the history of the Old World as the history of a duel between East and West can be contrasted to conceptualizing the no less constant historical fact of interaction between center and outskirts. This wholly discloses the very same phenomenon that has hitherto been better known in one part of the whole: the problem of Central Asia corresponds to the problem of Central Europe. The concentration of trade routes running from West to East and connecting our “Middle-Earth” with India and China, the involvement of several economic worlds within one system – this trend runs throughout the entire history of the Old World and is found in the policies of the Emperors of Assyria and Babylon, their heirs, the Great Kings of Iran, Alexander the Great, later the Mongol Khans, and finally, the Emperors of All-Russia. This great task loomed in full clarity for the first time at the end of the 6th century, in 568, when Bumin Qaghan of the Turks, who reigned in a state extending from China proper to the Oxus and held all the roads along which Chinese silk was transported, sent his ambassador to Emperor Justin to propose an alliance against the common enemy of the king of Iran, Khosrow I. At the same time, Bumin entered into diplomatic relations with China, and Emperor Wu married a Turk princess. If the Emperor of Western China had accepted Bumin’s proposal, the face of the earth would have been transformed: what in the West people naively took to be a “circle of lands” would have become part of a great whole; the Old World would have been united, and perhaps the Mediterranean centers of antiquity might have been saved, for the main cause of their depletion, constant war with the Persian (and then Persian-Arab) world, would have receded. But Bumin’s idea was not met with support in Byzantium. This example shows just how important familiarity with the political history of the “East” is to understanding the political history of the “West.” ….

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