20 years under Putin: a timeline

The Institute of Modern Russia continues its series of articles by Alexander Yanov on the history of Russian nationalism. This installment is dedicated to the teaching of Lev Gumilev, a prominent Russian historian who has been proclaimed the founder of the “integration” of the Eurasian space by the current Russian authorities.



Why Gumilev?

Lev Gumilev is a respected name in Russia. He is respected by “westernizers,” whom he did not like, to put it mildly, as well as by “patriots.” Here’s what “westernizer” Helium Prokhorov wrote with admiration about him in the Literary Newspaper: “God gave him an opportunity to explain his theory by himself. And it besotted, prompting the whole country to think.” Andrei Pisarev, from the “patriotic” publication Our Contemporary, was no less reverent in his conversation with the master: “Today you represent the single greatest historical school in Russia.”

Is it possible that the role Gumilev is to play in Russia’s public consciousness after his death is more significant than the one he played during his lifetime? Sergei Glazyev certainly thinks so. The advisor to the president of the Russian Federation and unofficial head of the Izborsky club’s “uniters” of the Russian Empire proclaimed in 2013 that Gumilev was one of the “biggest Russian thinkers” and the founder of what he calls the “integration” of the Eurasian space.

Whatever his legacy, the hero of our story—the son of the great Anna Akhmatova and the famous Silver Age poet Nikolai Gumilev (who was shot by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War), the man who spent many years in Stalin’s camps and who, after his release, went on to get a Ph.D. in history and geography and publish nine books that challenged Max Weber and Arnold Toynbee, offering his own explanation of the mysteries of world history—was in his lifetime no doubt one of the most talented and erudite representatives of the silent majority of the Soviet intelligentsia.

What can we say about the layer of the society from which Gumilev came? These people were not at war with the regime, but they were loyal to it only in appearance. “No peace, no war”—this became their life motto after the Trotsky Brest negotiations in 1918. At the very least, it allowed them to retain human dignity in a post-totalitarian regime. Or so they thought.

However, there was hell to pay for it. Buried under the boulders of omnipresent censorship, they were cut off from the world culture and forced to create their own isolated and silent world, where ideas were born, grew old, and died, never having been realized, and where hypotheses were proclaimed, but always remained untested. All their lives they guarded in themselves a wavering flame of “secret freedom,” but they got so used to Aesopian language that it gradually became their own. As a result, they went out into the world of post-Soviet society with terrible, non-healing scars. Lev Gumilev shared with them all the paradoxes of their catacomb existence and thinking.


Patriotic Science

All his life, Gumilev tried to stay as far away from politics as he could. He was not looking to pick a fight against censorship, and at every opportunity he swore by “dialectical materialism.” Moreover, we do not have the slightest reason to doubt that his monumental hypothesis explaining the history of mankind was Marxist. It happened that he even blamed his opponents for retreating from “historical materialism.” Marx, Gumilev was saying, in his early works, had foreseen the emergence of a fundamentally new science of the world, synthesizing all of the old teachings about nature and man. In the 1980s, Gumilev was convinced that mankind, in his person, was on the threshold of this new Marxist science. In 1992, he died believing that he created that science.

This amazing split, the ability to serve (under the banners of two conflicting schools of thought, sharply separated Gumilev from the silent majority from which he came and which was deeply alien to both Marxism and the Eurasianist concept.

Paradoxically, at the same time, he emphasized his closeness to Eurasianists, the most ferocious opponents of Marxism in the Russian political thought of the twentieth century: “I have been referred to as a Eurasianist, and I don’t reject that. I agree on the main conclusions of the Eurasianists.” And he was not afraid of the anti-western orientation of the Eurasianists, though it turned them away from their national liberal roots of the 1920s and led them to degenerating into a reactionary émigré sect.

The evolution of the Eurasianist concept was nothing special, of course: all Russian anti-Western movements of thought, even if they started as liberal, always took the same route of degradation. In my trilogy, I describe the tragic fate of the Slavophiles. The only difference is that their “Russian idea” needed three generations to complete this fatal metamorphosis, while the Eurasianists coped with it for just over two decades. We are left wondering how Gumilev reconciled in his mind his proximity to the Eurasianists with his firm fidelity to Marxism-Leninism.

It should not go unsaid, however, that this amazing split, the ability to serve (Gumilev regarded his work as a public service) under the banners of two conflicting schools of thought, sharply separated him from the silent majority from which he came and which was deeply alien to both Marxism and the Eurasianist concept. This was not the only thing that separated him from them, though.

Gumilev insisted that his theory was rigorously scientific and tried to justify it with everything available to him. It was as if every page of his books was saying, I’m a scientist, and politics—official or opposition, Westernizing or “patriotic”—has nothing to do with the spirit and purpose of my work. At the same time, dealing with the attacks from the right, he was compelled more than once to prove the impeccable patriotism of his science. Again, this is a strange dichotomy.

For example, with regard to the common concept in Russian historiography of the “Mongol Yoke” of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, the existence of which Gumilev denied, he hurriedly brushed aside the arguments of liberal historians: “As to Westernizers, I do not want to argue with ignorant intellectuals who did not learn any history or geography” (despite the fact that among these “ignorant intellectuals” were almost all leading Russian historians). He was disturbed that “patriotic” historians recognized the concept of a Mongol Yoke. He thought of this as “truly bizarre” and wondered, “I cannot understand why patriotic people love the myth of the ‘yoke,’ which was invented by Germans and French. It is unclear how they dare say that their interpretation is patriotic.”

It appears that the phrase “patriotic interpretation” of scientific problems was not grating to a scientist’s ear. If there is such a thing as “enlightened nationalism,” then there it is.


Gumilev’s Questions

The new generation, which in light of glasnost was introduced to battles in the press, began from issuing a challenge to the silent majority. In a merciless invective, Nicholai Klimontovich wrote, “We are studded in the fateful question: was there a ‘secret freedom,’ was there something to show, would not this gold mine turn into the dust and ashes in the light of the day?” Like the others, I do not know, but Lev Gumilev would take up with dignity the gauntlet that had been thrown down to the younger generation. He had something to prove to the world. His daring assault on the mysteries of world history was, if anything, his temple, built in the reactionary darkness, and as we see, continuing to attract the faithful by the light of day. The puzzles he was trying to figure out were truly immense.

How to explain, for instance, why a small number of wild, nomadic Mongols suddenly burst onto the stage of history in the thirteenth century and rushed to conquer the world, destroying the path of rich, civilized culture in China, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe? And the fact that after two centuries they left the stage quietly, as if they’d never existed? And the other nomads who emerged just as suddenly from the Arabian desert and became the masters of half the world and the arbiters of the fate of one of the most prosperous cultures in the history? Didn’t their fantastic rise likewise end? And the Huns who came from nowhere and scattered to nowhere?

Why did all these historical meteors flash and burn out? Countless historians and philosophers have tried for centuries to answer these questions. But there are still no universally accepted answers. And Gumilev, relying on their fearsome erudition, offers completely original answers. Doesn’t his very audacity, the scope of this enterprise, embracing twenty-two centuries (beginning with the eighth century BC) deserve respect?



Audacity is not enough to carry out a task of such scale, though. As any scientist knows, in order to believe a hypothesis, there must be a way to check it. It must be verifiable in academic language. It must be logically consistent and universal, i.e., explaining all the facts in the area that it affects, not only those which the author prefers. And it must always work, not just when the author believes he needs it. With this in mind, let’s take a good look at Gumilev’s hypothesis.


Max Weber (left), Arnold Toynbee.


He begins with a common understanding of the geographical envelope of the Earth, part of which, along with the lithosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere, is the biosphere. So far, nothing new. The term “biosphere” refers to a set of living organisms and was introduced in the nineteenth century by the Austrian geologist Eduard Suess. The hypothesis that the biosphere can affect processes occurring on the planet (for example, as we now know, global warming) was proposed by academician Vladimir Vernadsky in 1926.

The new reasoning started when Gumilev connected two in a series of unconnected phenomena—the geochemical with the civilizational, the natural with the historical. It was, in fact, what he meant in talking about the universal Marxist science. True, but for this he needed one small assumption (an unfriendly critic would call it a distortion): under Gumilev’s pen, Vernadsky’s hypothesis suddenly turns into biochemical energy. From this metamorphosis, Suess’s innocent biosphere suddenly comes to life, transforming into a giant generator of “redundant biochemical energy,” into a kind of sky volcano, from time to time erupting flows of lava with the unseen energy on the earth (an energy that Gumilev called the “passionarity”).

These arbitrary and unpredictable eruptions of the biosphere create, according to Gumilev, new nations (“ethnic groups”) and civilizations (“super ethnos”). And when the passionarity leaves them, they cool down—and die. Here is a solution to the rise and fall of historic meteors. What happens to the ethnic groups between birth and death? Approximately the same thing that happens to human beings. They are on their feet (“the consolidation of the system”), fall into teenage riot (“the energy overheating phase”), grow up, and, of course, age (“the collapse phase”), then they retire (“the inertia phase”), and finally, they are at the point of death (“the obscuration phase”). All this Gumilev terms “ethnogenesis.”

That’s the way it goes: people live in peace and quiet, not bothering anyone, and then suddenly they get hit by an “explosion of ethnogenesis,” and they drop out of society and become a “phenomenon of nature.” And from that moment on, “moral values do not apply to them, as to all phenomena of nature.” And nothing more depends on the “ethnic group.” In the coming 1200–1500 years (because ethnogenesis lasts that long, at three hundred years for each phase), the group is a prisoner to its “passionarity.” From then on, any changes it undergoes can only be age-related.

In order to explain the occurrence of the Great Russian “super ethnos,” which was his sole interest, Gumilev had to turn everything upside down, changing the history known to us from our school years.

Take for instance, Europe in the sixteenth century: the Reformation occurs, the bourgeoisie is born, the Modern Age starts. Why? Many have tried to explain it. Max Weber’s view prevailed, linking the bourgeoisie origins with Protestantism. Nothing of the sort, says Gumilev. This is age related. It’s simply that in Europe, there was a change from the “collapse phase” to the “inertia phase.” And what is the “inertia phase”? A decline, a loss of vitality, a gradual dying: “The picture of this decline is deceptive. It wears a mask of well-being, which seems eternal to contemporaries. But this is only a consoling deception, as becomes apparent as soon as there is the subsequent and, at this time, final fall.”

He is, as the reader understands, speaking of the European “super ethnos.” Three hundred years after entering the “inertia phase,” it collapsed in agony and after that became the living dead. Russia is another matter. It is much younger (by five centuries, according to Gumilev’s estimates) than Europe; it still has a long life. But it is, of course, also a prisoner to its age. This explains what is happening to it. Others are puzzled over the origin of, for instance, perestroika. For Gumilev there is no secret here; it is age-related: “We are at the end of the ‘collapse phase’ (if you prefer, in the climax).”

Arnold Toynbee’s attempt to offer some general historical reasons for the disappearance of the ancient civilizations (he provides them in his twelve volumes of Science of History) seemed frivolous to Gumilev: “Toynbee only compromises the fruitful scientific concept with weak arguments and the failure of its application.” Well, considering that Gumilev mocked Max Weber, his mocking Toynbee should not surprise the reader.

Yet each of these giants left behind a powerful scientific school, in contrast to Gumilev. And Gumilev would feel humiliated if he could look into the hearts of their students to discover that they never even knew he existed, and are still unaware of his existence. The world simply does not know that Gumilev created a universal Marxist science that not only explains the past but also predicts the future, and that the phenomenon he discovered “can solve the problems of ethnogenesis and ethnic history.” After all, that was the drama of his generation.


“Patriotic” History

The significance of Gumilev’s hypothesis, as we see, lies in his explanation of historical events by way of natural phenomena: by eruptions of the biosphere. But how do we learn about these natural disturbances? It appears, from studying the history: “In all phases, ethnogenesis is the product of natural science, but the study of it is possible only through knowledge of the history.” In other words, we know nothing about the biosphere activity that produces ethnoses, except that it, in Gumilev’s opinion, produces them. If a new ethnic group appears on the earth, it means the biosphere erupted.

How, though, can we learn that the earth has a new ethnic group? It appears, from the “passionar explosion.” In other words, from the eruption of the biosphere? It turns out that in explaining natural phenomena through historical events, we must at the same time explain historical events through natural phenomena. This exotic circular explanation, mixing the subject of exact sciences with the subject of human sciences, requires double thoroughness on the part of the author. At the very least, he should explain to the reader what a new ethnicity means: what makes it new and under what objective criteria can we determine its novelty? The paradox of Gumilev’s hypothesis is that it has no other criterion than “patriotism.”

It is clear that proving a hypothesis based on such a specific criterion is not easy. And in order to explain the occurrence of the Great Russian “super ethnos,” which was his sole interest, Gumilev had to turn everything upside down, changing the history known to us from our school years. He started far back, with the crusades of European chivalry. The conventional view of them is that at the end of the eleventh century, the knights moved to liberate the Holy Land from the “infidels” who had seized it. The venture, however, was delayed for two centuries. First, the knights managed to take Jerusalem from the Seljuks, and even established a Christian state, but then the Arabs kicked them out. Then, for some reason, the peak of the fight switched to the Byzantine Empire. The knights took over Constantinople and formed the short-lived Latin Empire. Then they were driven from there also. In short, it was a confusing and rather ridiculous story. But what does it have to do with the Great Russian “super ethnos”?



It is all connected, Gumilev explains, because, contrary to the known facts, the Holy Land, Jerusalem, and Constantinople were just a side branch of “European imperialism.” The expansion’s main focus was the colonization of Russia. Why Russia? This is the secret of “patriotic” history. Moreover, crusaders did not appear on Russian land. We have to assume that by referring to “Russia” he in fact meant the Baltics with their castles and world-class Riga and Revel (now Tallinn) as their shopping centers, to where, under the pretext of converting heathens to Christianity, a branch of crusaders trickled. There, around these castles, a small Order of the Brothers of the Sword settled.

The warlike, heathen Lithuanians, however, did not like their neighbors, and in 1236, at the Battle of Siauliai, they utterly defeated the Sword and the Orthodox Pskovians that joined them. The Hanseatic League of German cities, not wanting to give up their resources to infidels, invited several hundred “Teutons” from Germany to man the forts. It is clear that for the reader in Russia, who never heard of the Siauliai Battle (even the Soviet encyclopedias didn’t mention it), and brought up on the film Alexander Nevsky (where the ordinary skirmish of Novgorodians with these “Teutons” in which both sides got off hardly shedding any blood, was displayed as “slaughter”), it is difficult to imagine that at that time in the Baltic States, the Russians didn’t fight with the Germans, but the “Teutons” with the Lithuanians. Of course, in their spare time of war, the “Teutons” and the Lithuanians were not averse to plundering the rich Novgorod lands. Their relationship with Russia was limited to this.

Anyway, Gumilev’s “patriotic” phantasmagoria starts here. This is its essence: “When Europe started to view Russia as an object of colonization... the Mongols stopped knights and negotiants.” This is an incredible turnaround. Under Gumilev’s pen, the Horde, conquering Russia with fire and sword, turning the country into a desert, and selling the flower of the nation’s youth into foreign slavery, became suddenly the guardian angel of Russia’s independence from villainous Europe. So he writes: “The protection of the governmental, ideological, common, and even creative independence meant war with the aggression of the West.”

Under Gumilev’s pen, the Horde, conquering Russia with fire and sword, turning the country into a desert, and selling the flower of the nation’s youth into foreign slavery, became suddenly the guardian angel of Russia’s independence from villainous Europe.

It is strange to hear about governmental and other forms of “independence” in a situation in which Russia was a colony of the Horde. But Gumilev is sure of the Mongols’ salutary role. In fact, if it were not for them, “Russia could for real have become the colony of Western Europe... Our ancestors could have been in the position of an oppressed ethnic mass... It could. One step remained.” It’s a gloomy picture to say the least. But it is a fantasy. Could several hundred knights fighting back hard against the Lithuanians threaten to turn Russia into a huge colony? Gumilev assures us, though, that they would have done just this if “the passionate-to-sacrifice genius of Alexander Nevsky didn’t appear here. For helping Batu Khan, he demanded and received the Mongolians’ help against the Germans and Germanophiles. The catholic aggression choked.” (Nobody told us, however, when or how this act of aggression began. Nobody told us for what services Batu agreed to help Prince Alexander repel this act of aggression.)

Either way, Gumilev’s reader should understand his main message: there was never a Mongol Yoke. There was a mutual exchange of services, in which Russia “voluntarily merged with the Horde due to the efforts of Alexander Nevsky, who became Batu’s adopted son.” An “ethnic symbiosis” emerged from this voluntary association. And it became the new super ethnos: a “mixture of the Slavs, Finno-Ugrics, Alanas, and Turks merged in the Great Russian nationality.”

Gumilev’s “Controversy”

Well, we altered history with a “patriotic” twist: redirecting the Crusades from Palestine and Byzantium to Russia; rebranding the Mongol Yoke as “voluntary association;” merging the Slavs and the Turks to form a new “nationality,” I mean, super-ethnos. But how does all of this, I ask, relate to the eruptions of the biosphere and the “passionarity explosion” in which the essence of Gumilev’s teaching lies? It turns out that it is related to the fact that the old decaying Slavic ethnic group, although it had already entered into a “phase of obscuration,” nevertheless resisted the new Great Russians; the “narrow-minded self-interest was the objective enemy of Alexander Nevsky and his comrades.” But at the same time, “the mere presence of such a controversy shows that along with the process of decay, a new heroic, sacrificial, patriotic generation appeared.” And it was the “seed of a new ethnic group... Moscow took the initiative of the Russian land unification because that’s where accumulated the passionate, energetic, indomitable people.”



What does this mean? It means that the biosphere erupted in Moscow in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and the “passionarity explosion” happened there. There is no other evidence, and cannot be. With that, Gumilev confirmed his hypothesis. Let’s summarize. First, there are passionate, indomitable people who are able to sacrifice themselves in the name of the greatness of their super-ethnos. Then, some “genius of passion” rallies around himself these “passionate, indomitable people and leads them to victory.” There is a “controversy,” the new group struggles with the square selfishness of the old ethnic group. But in the end, passionarity wins, and the old world surrenders to the mercy of the victor. The new ethnic group arises from its wreckage.

Is this all Gumilev offers us as evidence of the novelty of the Great Russian ethnic group? As well as the eruption of the biosphere in Russia? Is this the only result of all his fantastic manipulations that twisted the well-known history of the world in a “patriotic” way? But this is just a trivial set of features common to any major political change, and can be applied to all revolutions and reformations in the world. And in all other cases, these features did not require any historical manipulation. To demonstrate this, let’s carry out an experiment, applying Gumilev’s set of features of the biosphere’s eruption to, say, Europe of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.



Didn’t the Age of Enlightenment’s thinkers pour all their energy into the revival and greatness of Europe; also a super-ethnos, in Gumilev’s terminology? Why don’t we call Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, and Lessing the “passionists?” Didn’t they have a “controversy” with the old feudal “ethnic group”? And didn’t they witness Europe “along with the process of the collapse, raise a new heroic, sacrificial, patriotic generation?” In 1789, didn’t all things lead to the great revolution, in the course of which Napoleon—whom Gumilev admiringly described as “a genius of passion,” in any case, equal to Alexander Nevsky—emerged onto the stage of history? Especially because it was not necessary for Napoleon, in contrast to the blessed prince, to provide services to the barbaric Khan, suppressing the rebellion of his desperate people under a foreign yoke—sorry, under a “voluntary association”—of the people? Didn’t the “narrow-minded self-interest” of the old monarchies resist the new generation? And didn’t it finally surrender to the mercy of the winner?

As we can see, this all matches up with Gumilev’s description of the eruption of the biosphere and the “passionar explosion” (except that the European “passion genius” managed without the Mongols’ help.) So what’s stopping us from assuming that the biosphere erupted in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe? Can we consider the day of July 4, 1789, the birthday of a new European super-ethnos? (Gumilev declared the birthday of the Great Russian super-ethnos as September 8, 1381.) Or can we assume that this passionate outburst was invalid for “patriotic” reasons? We cannot really allow ourselves to believe that the “decaying” Europe, which entered, as we found out on the dozens of pages, a “phase of obscuration,” was five centuries younger than Russia.

Gumilev’s reader should understand his main message: there was never a Mongol Yoke. There was a mutual exchange of services, in which Russia “voluntarily merged with the Horde due to the efforts of Alexander Nevsky, who became Batu’s adopted son.”

Okay, let’s forget Europe for a moment; this theme is too painful for Gumilev and his “patriotic” fans (a foe would say that he actually came up with his hypothesis out of hostility to Europe). But what’s to prevent some Japanese “patriot” from declaring, based on Gumilev’s teachings, 1868 the year of a new Japanese “ethnic” birth? After all, this year’s “passion genius” Emperor Meiji pulled Japan out of centuries of isolation and backwardness; half a century later, Japan defeated the great European power Russia and, after another half-century, challenged the great trans-Atlantic power America. On what basis, I ask, can we stop the “patriotically” attuned Japanese from having a wonderful eruption of the biosphere on his country in the nineteenth century?

But this would mean disaster for Gumilev’s hypothesis! He moved heaven and earth for his hypothesis; he did not shy from the most incredible historical manipulations to show that Russia is the world’s youngest “ethnicity.” And it turns out that it is older, by centuries, not only than Europe, but also Japan. And that’s not all.


The Whims of the Biosphere

The reader is certainly struck by the strange behavior of the biosphere after the fourteenth century. Why, I ask, did its “passionarity” activity cease immediately after it gave birth to Russia? Of course, the biosphere is unpredictable. But still, even from looking at the table Gumilev prepared for readers, it is clear that there has been no other period in history of such inexcusable inactivity—not a single eruption for six centuries! Either something is seriously haywire in the biosphere, or Gumilev pulled the plug on it for “patriotic” reasons. Because heaven forbid it suddenly erupt in the wrong place. In America, for instance. Or in Africa, which it, for some strange reason, has ignored for all twenty-two centuries.

But seriously speaking, it is difficult to find an example in which Gumilev’s theory of ethnogenesis really works. Let’s start with the fact that the Arab Caliphate lasted only two centuries (from the seventh to the ninth century), coming not even close to the mandatory five “phases” of ethnogenisis, at three hundred years each. The same is true of the Golden Horde, which lasted from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century. And the Huns jumped straight from the “energy overheating phase” to “obscuration phase” in less than a century. And what happened in China is not explained by Gumilev’s hypothesis: in fact it died in the nineteenth century, entered into the “obscuration phase,” and suddenly resurrected. But what a resurrection it was! None other than the biosphere—according to Gumilev—could give it a second life, although his hypothesis does not provide for anything like this.

So what can we take away from all this? What is there in Gumilev’s teachings to “inebriate the whole country” following his death in 1992? What should “the only serious historical school” have left behind (though it didn’t)? A mixture of megalomania, scientific-sounding terminology, and “patriotic” voluntarism? Alas, Gumilev paid a high price for his fateful Soviet split. In this sense, he’s just another victim of Soviet isolation from the world. A sad fate, indeed.