Russian intellectuals have pondered and fretted over the differences and distance of their country from what they imagine as “the West.” Those on the other side of the divide who have tried professionally or casually to comprehend Russia have likewise circled endlessly around the matter of likeness and difference. The Russian intelligentsia who might be considered “Westernizers” have always been more accessible and legible to European and American observers than the opposing powerful strain of Russian thought that circled around Slavophilism, religious Orthodoxy, Eurasianism, and the grandly synthetic speculations of Russian religious philosophers and conservative historians. The writings of the more spiritual thinkers have usually mystified those who have lightly approached them. The “Russian idea,” the “Russian soul,” the sense of self and others articulated by Feodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Danilevskii, Konstantin Leontiev, or Nikolai Berdiaev defy easy explanation or reduction to a sound bite. It is in this distinctly Russian philosophical tradition that the influential and difficult figure of Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev belongs.
Gumilev had a most distinguished pedigree. He was the son of two of twentieth-century Russia’s greatest poets, Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. His father was arrested and executed by the Bolsheviks as a counterrevolutionary. His mother was repeatedly castigated by the Soviet authorities and suffered the imprisonment and alienation of her only child. Lev Gumilev had both a successful career as an author and ethnographer and repeatedly fell from grace into the prisons and camps of the Soviet regime. His greatest fame came at the end of his life and posthumously when Russian nationalists and members of the post-Soviet ruling elite embraced his work.
In his intellectual biography of Gumilev, the geographer and historian Mark Bassin lays bare the intricacies, insights, and even absurdities of this unique, unpredictable, courageous thinker. Gumilev elaborated his own theory of the generation of ethnicities, their combination into civilizational superethnies, and the impossibility of a common human history. He wrote his own interpretations of Russia’s history, revising the conventional narrative of Slav versus Tatar to one of Russian, Mongol, and nomad collaboration on the steppe. He proposed that certain civilizational elements, in his reading the Jews primarily, have disrupted certain civilizations, boring from within with their devious and deceptive practices and ideas.
(p.x) Gumilev learned from and remained close to émigré Eurasianists like Georgii Vernadskii and Petr Savitskii, who wrote of a unified Russian-Asian civilization that distinguished Russia from the West. As an empire, he argued, tsarist Russia was relatively benign in its relations with its subject peoples. His two ideological enemies were the Soviet regime and the Jews, the two intimately tied together. The Soviet leaders destroyed old Russia and Jewish revolutionaries suppressed the Russian people. He also despised liberals and dissenting intellectuals, whereas he applauded the USSR’s Cold War confrontation with the West and Stalin’s “anticosmopolitan” campaign against Soviet Jews.
Bassin shows how many of Gumilev’s ideas related to the intense reformulation of historical and scientific understanding that followed the revolution. His naturalization of ethnicity was consonant with the primordialization of nationality under Stalinism. Nationality flowed from parents to children, but a constructivist remnant remained. Rather than purely determined by “race,” a concept that the Soviets rejected, choice was permitted in cases of parents of different ethnicities. Gumilev was among the most prominent Soviet ethnographers who promoted the essentialist idea that nationalities were distinct organic formations with a long ethnogenesis. But he went further than most of his Soviet colleagues in denouncing attempts to “bring together” (sblizhenie) or to “merge” (sliianie) one ethnicity into another or into a cosmopolitan “Soviet people” (sovetskii narod). He stayed closer to the Stalinist notion of “friendship of the peoples” (druzhba narodov), in which distinct nations lived in multicultural harmony with one another, and opposed the notion of Nikita Khrushchev that rapprochement and eventual merger of peoples into a supraethnic Soviet people was taking place. At the same time he further biologized ethnicity, not in terms of race—that would have gone too far in the Soviet Union—but in terms of energy circulation and the influence of landscape.
Gumilev’s idea found a hungry audience among the growing circles of Russian nationalists in the late-Soviet years. Upset with what they perceived to be privileges given to non-Russian peoples and disadvantages placed on ethnic Russians by the Soviet state, the nationalists appreciated Gumilev’s opposition to “hybridization” and the merging of peoples, his irreverence directed at Soviet power, and his anti-Semitism. But they were displeased by his unwillingness to see the foundational moment in Russian ethnogenesis in the struggle with the Mongols. For Gumilev, Russians were forged in a cooperative relationship with the peoples of the steppe, and he refused to grant a special superordinate role for Russians over other nationalities.
Ironically, Gumilev became most influential during the Gorbachev years of radical reform. He sided with the “empire savers,” who resisted the reforms of perestroika and the opening to the West. Like other conservative opponents (p.xi) of the First Secretary, he feared the breakup of the USSR. His Eurasianist ideas caught fire within the Soviet establishment, even in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His popularity as a critic of democratization and Westernization carried his ideas through the chaotic Yeltsin years into the era of twenty-first-century Putinism. The reactionary Communist leader Gennadii Ziuganov took up his banner, and Vladimir Putin deployed language—like “unity in diversity”—that was identified with the Eurasianists. In 2011 Putin became an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal by Kazakhstan’s president Nursultan Nazarbaev for the formation of a Eurasian Union of former Soviet republics.
Mark Bassin’s brilliant study of Gumilev’s ideas and influence reveals the complexities and subtleties of conservative and Eurasianist thought in Russia. Fair to a fault, Bassin takes Gumilev seriously and carefully parses the seeming contradictions of his sometimes bizarre, even absurd, musings. If we want to understand what often appears unfathomable in current Russian pronouncements, attitudes, and actions, it is imperative to look as deeply and carefully as Bassin has at those whom at first we might dismiss or avoid altogether.