How a famous poet’s son became an architect of the post-Soviet world
Amid a dust bowl lit by a deep orange sunset, silhouetted Mongolian horsemen corral their galloping Mongol horses. Lev Gumilyov was primarily a historian of nomadic Eurasian peoples / Getty Images
In Kazan, the capital of the Russian Republic of Tatarstan, a large bust was installed on one of the city’s main streets in 2005. The quote, “I, a Russian man, have been protecting Tatars from slander all my life,” was etched into the pedestal, under the melancholic gaze of the deceased historian to whom the words belong. Nine years earlier, 1,200 miles to the east in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan, another statue of that same man was erected in front of a newly founded university bearing his name: Lev Gumilyov.
In the early 1990s, students, academics and average citizens would pack into overflowing lecture theaters to listen to the soft-spoken historian’s impassioned lectures on ethnogenesis, the rise and fall of nations, and a cosmic energy driving history called passionarnost. After decades of stifling Soviet conformity, Gumilyov’s unique and borderline outlandish theories struck a powerful chord.
For those who could not make it, television crews broadcast his words across the Soviet and post-Soviet world. His books filled entire bookcases in bookstores as millions flew off the shelves. Official scholarly delegations were even sent from the capitals of the USSR’s Turkic republics to establish formal contact with the much sought-after scholar.
Gumilyov was an intellectual celebrity rarely known to the modern world, and yet his life, work and incredible influence in the Russian-speaking world remain largely unknown to the West.
His works are not easy to categorize, with only one of his books — on the ancient nomadic Xiongnu — published during his academic career in the USSR. Despite that, he was able to publish many papers during his tenure and was a driving figure in major Soviet intellectual debates. Ultimately, though, it was with the easing of censorship under Gorbachev that his major works came into print and his meteoric rise began. His corpus can be roughly divided in two: on the one hand his historical works and on the other his more ideological ones that laid out his personal theory of history.
The most important of the latter was “Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere,” in which Gumilyov explained his theory of how ethnic groups, or ethnies, come about. He saw ethnicity as an intrinsic natural phenomenon that emerged in humans as a response to their natural surroundings, with only dynamic ethnies showing the ability to rapidly expand and adapt to new environments, before following a predictable cycle of stagnation and, eventually, disappearance.
The key to that dynamism, he argued, was neither natural nor human-made, but cosmic: a force called passionarnost. This he defined as “the ability for single-minded super-efforts, overriding even our most basic instinct for self-preservation.” That energy emerged from the “biosphere,” which from time to time erupted with energy to give birth to new great ethnies. His historical works were imbued with these theories but had their own separate implications.
Gumilyov’s most prominent historical thesis was that the Eurasian people who inhabited the Soviet Union, and now largely inhabit Russia, are in fact a single nation.
As someone who was primarily a historian of nomadic Eurasian peoples, Gumilyov always fixated on the application of his theory of history to this vast part of the world. Gumilyov’s most prominent historical thesis was that the Eurasian people who inhabited the Soviet Union, and now largely inhabit Russia, are in fact a single nation. What Russia’s historical development represents is the emergence of a single Eurasian civilization built on joint Russian, Turkic and Finno-Ugric heritage.
These controversial ideas have been both praised as genius and decried as pseudoscience, in Russia and abroad. They have inspired extreme Russian and Turkic nationalists alike, as well as liberal “‘Eurasianists” looking to re-create an EU on post-Soviet soil and conservative “Eurasianists” seeking a quasi-fascistic revival of the Russian Empire. Gumilyov himself was avowedly apolitical, his works have been anything but.
His statue in Kazan did not go up by chance, nor did the Kazakh government name its national university after him on a whim. Gumilyov’s ideas have defined the political landscape of the post-Soviet world. Nowhere more so than in the predominantly Turkic republics of the former Soviet Union and present-day Russia, principally Kazakhstan and Tatarstan, where long-serving post-Soviet leaders made Gumilyov and his works pillars of their national ideologies.
Though countries like Georgia and Ukraine have sought to distance themselves from the “Russian world” since the collapse of the USSR, the political elites in Kazakhstan and Tatarstan, a republic that is part of the Russian Federation, have pursued an entirely different path. They have sought integration. Not only political integration with the still-powerful federation but also integration of populations composed of multiple nationalities into a single post-Soviet nation where a shared history with Russians constitutes a crucial part of the national story.
It is not so much a new nation-building process as simply the latest stage in a centuries-long attempt to reconcile the conflicts and contradictions of identity in the Russian-speaking lands of Eurasia. Not usually thought of as such, Russia is one of the most multicultural, multireligious and multinational countries in Europe. All the more so when its empire was intact. Nonetheless, it has always been an uneasy multiculturalism, with entire nations falling in and out of official favor and state-sponsored national narratives.
Even after the Russian Empire collapsed, successive Soviet administrations took vastly different approaches to what they called the “nationalities question,” all of which have left a powerful imprint on how people in its successor states think about ethnicity and nationality.
Lenin instituted what he called “nativization,” which involved de-Russification and the setting-up of separate republics for various nations, a policy that largely created today’s map of Eurasia. Stalin took a different approach, promoting a primordialist view of nationality that emphasized the peculiarity of nationhood and seeing the “friendship of peoples” as the foundation of Soviet civilization, perhaps the most common view of nationality in the post-Soviet space to this day. And, after him, Khrushchev and Brezhnev took yet another approach, speaking of a merging of Soviet nationalities into one Soviet nation.
Gumilyov would synthesize many of them into his own peculiar theory of history, one particularly congenial to the notion that the Russian-speaking people of Eurasia share a common origin, a common history and a common destiny. An idea called Eurasianism.
In the year 1237, the Mongol general Batu Khan sent a letter to the Russian prince Yury II demanding his submission to the Mongol Emperor Ögodei Khan. He refused. A month later Batu was at the gates of the Russian city of Ryazan. Six days later the city and its inhabitants were completely annihilated. By the end of the following year the same was true of nearly every other city of the great Kievan Rus’. The Mongol yoke had begun.
That is the epithet Russian — and indeed Western — historians have given the extended rule of Russia by the Mongol Empire and its successor states following Batu’s conquest in the 13th century. It is alternatively formulated as the “Tatar yoke,” as in addition to the Volga Tatars who are the titular ethnicity in the Republic of Tatarstan and other present-day groups bearing that name, Tatar has historically been used as a broader term for Turks.
In traditional Russian historiography, the Tatar yoke has many associations, none of them positive. The liberal or Western-oriented thinkers accuse the Tatars of bringing “oriental despotism” to Russia from which it has never been able to escape, retarding the country’s development and cutting it off from the West entirely. For the more patriotically inclined, they are accused of reducing the Russian Slavs to a state of mere servitude, forcing the Russian nation to languish under their yoke for centuries. Mongols, Tatars and Turks are a purely negative force in mainstream interpretations of Russian history, preventing the truly Russian Slavs from flourishing.
Soviet historians added to this historical shame through their own view of human history. Nomadic peoples — as most Eurasian Turks were before coming under Russian rule — lived in an underdeveloped feudal state, they said. Their culture was primitive and nothing but an unhappy stage on the long historic road to communism, one they should be happy to have been freed from by their more civilized Russian neighbors.
This was the “slander” Gumilyov spent his life fighting against.
Gumilyov flipped this narrative on its head and in the process turned Russian history into a shared Russo-Turkic history. There was no Tatar yoke, he argued, but instead an incredibly fruitful “voluntary association” between Russians and Tatars. Not just them but also Finno-Ugric and Iranic peoples. All that came after was the progeny of that symbiosis. Muscovy, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union: All were great Russo-Turkic states that united the two peoples into a single Eurasian space and in the process created a unique civilization.
One thing is certain, a shared Russo-Turkic history did not end with the “Tatar yoke.” In the centuries following the end of the “Tatar yoke” in the 15th century, Russia conquered numerous states to its east and south, bringing millions of Turkic and other peoples under Russian rule. As the Russian Empire expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the oldest of these conquered peoples — the Volga Tatars — would play a key intermediary role in Russia’s expansion into Central Asia and the Caucasus, where Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Azeris and many more fell under Russian rule. For better or for worse, over the past several centuries, Russians and Eurasian Turks have indeed shared a common state and a common historical destiny. What is left, however, is how to interpret that history.
Nikolai Trubetskoy had similar ideas to Gumilyov already in the 1920s. According to Trubetskoy, “the only national substratum of the state formerly known as the Russian Empire — and now known as the USSR — can be the totality of peoples inhabiting that state, taken as a peculiar multiethnic nation and as such possessed of its own nationalism. We call that nation Eurasian, its territory Eurasia, and its nationalism Eurasian.”
Trubetskoy was one of the original “Eurasianists,” a term that referred to an intellectual current in Russian thought that posited Russia was neither European nor Asian but a mix of both. Those original Eurasianists were largely anti-Communists who emigrated after the Bolshevik Revolution and left little imprint on Russia’s intellectual development over the 20th century. Nonetheless, many of the novel historical approaches taken by Gumilyov had already been explored decades before.
Unlike the original Eurasianists, however, Gumilyov was a Soviet man through and through. His Eurasianism was born and bred in the Soviet Union, deeply influenced by Soviet — and especially Stalinist — views on nationality. Indeed, Gumilyov always insisted his unorthodox ideas were thoroughly Marxist in character, with his attempts to make his theories compliant with Marxist-Leninist theories of development, which one scholar described as “schizophrenic.”
That is because Gumilyov took a radically different view of human life and history to what was officially laid out by Soviet historians.
He viewed history as cyclical rather than linear, which was essentially a rebuke of the whole Marxist theory of historical development. Furthermore, while the Soviet authorities sought to assert humanity’s domination over nature, Gumilyov instead saw society and nature as a symbiosis.
One of the peculiarities of Gumilyov’s life and career is that he was one of the USSR’s first environmentalists. He said he “was the first [in Russia] to take a stand as a ‘green,’ and I nearly lost my job because of it. … I said that changing the course of Siberian rivers into Kazakhstan would be ruinous … how I was attacked for that!”
His Marxism was less obvious than his Sovietism. He took more direction from Stalin than Lenin, viewing nationality as a natural phenomenon, and something that imbued each person with their own peculiar national characteristics. Gumilyov himself has said he first came up with his theories during Stalin’s rule in the 1930s, making it unsurprising that the ideas of the day left their mark on him. But like Lenin, he believed strongly in each nation’s self-rule and cultural sovereignty, which won him early supporters among the Siberian Yakut. And, ultimately, like Khrushchev and Brezhnev, he genuinely believed in the merging of Russian-speaking peoples of Eurasia into one Soviet nation.
Gumilyov called that nation Eurasian, of course, but functionally there was little difference between the two concepts in their political implications. Something not lost on the political leaders of the late Soviet period.
While for many the collapse of the USSR was a cause for celebration, for millions of others it was nothing less than a tragedy. Russian President Vladimir Putin famously assessed it as such, but it is a view shared by many post-Soviet ruling elites and their contemporaries. Besides the demographic and economic challenges of Soviet collapse, it suddenly forced dozens of former Soviet republics and states on the periphery of the former Soviet Union to reckon with the national conflicts and contradictions present in their regions thanks to centuries of Russian and Soviet rule.
Kazakhstan and Tatarstan epitomize this challenge. Kazakhstan especially, whose President Nursultan Nazarbayev has done more than any single figure to promote Eurasianism in the post-Soviet space and to canonize the ideas of Lev Gumilyov. He ruled the country for nearly 30 years, while the post-Soviet leader of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev ruled for almost 20, giving both authoritarian leaders time to impose their Eurasianist visions on their respective societies.
Despite its name, Kazakhstan was only 40% Kazakh in 1989. It contained about an equal proportion of Russians as its titular nationality, along with millions of people of other nationalities from across the USSR. Kazakhstan was — and is — like a mini-Eurasia, something that features prominently in Kazakh government propaganda. In nearby Tatarstan, meanwhile, the elite faced a similar problem, with the added one of being a constituent of the Russian Federation.
To add to the complication, the elites of both Kazakhstan and Tatarstan, along with the vast majority of their populations, were predominantly Russian-speaking. For most of their populations, their entire life had been spent in a Russian-speaking world that was synonymous with the Soviet Union they called their home. Both were ethnically and linguistically neither Slavic nor Turkic, culturally neither Orthodox nor Islamic, geographically neither European nor Asian, and at the same time all of the above. Simultaneously, both Kazakhstan and Tatarstan were experiencing a groundswell of nationalist sentiment like every other part of the collapsing USSR.
Who better to look to for guidance than the man who managed to reconcile all of these issues, the oracle of Eurasianism himself?
In 1994, Nazarbayev proposed the idea of creating a “Eurasian Union,” a sort of European Union on post-Soviet soil. Not only did he advocate a Eurasian Union, but he made Eurasianism Kazakh state ideology, exemplified by the creation in 1996 of a new state university named L.N. Gumilyov Eurasian National University. The year after that, the Tatar government erected a memorial at Gumilyov’s grave in St. Petersburg and installed a plaque at the apartment he last lived in, which read, “To the outstanding historian and Turkologist Gumilyov, from the Republic of Tatarstan.”
Kazakhstan and Tatarstan are the most prominent examples, but Gumilyov has taken on the status of world-historical figure more broadly in Russia as well. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has quoted Gumilyov approvingly. So, too, has Putin, who has also taken a special interest in Gumilyov’s idea of passionarnost, a cosmic energy that drives nations and individuals to do great things. One of Gumilyov’s books has even been adopted as a textbook in Russian high schools.
In Russia’s Siberian Sakha (Yakutia) Republic, home to another Turkic people, Gumilyov has similarly had a prominent role in the construction of national identity. In 2002, the then president of Sakha, Viacheslav Shtyrov, even referenced Gumilyov approvingly in a speech commemorating Sakha becoming part of Russia in the 17th century. It was a reciprocal embrace, with Gumilyov writing in the 1980s: “Through difficult years, I was very grateful for the fact that the Yakuts were the only ones who were interested in me, my books, and my ideas.”
A common thread in all of these events and commemorations is, of course, Russia. Gumilyov’s view of history does not require Russophone Turks or other peoples to choose between any one of their identities. They can be proud of their nomadic ancestors, proud of their Russian language and proud of the Soviet synthesis that brought the two together all at once. Moreover, they can even be proud of their own nation, because, fundamentally, they are all one and the same.
Just as extreme Russian nationalist Aleksander Dugin can praise him, the Tatar writer Musagit Khabibulin called Gumilyov the “patron of his people.” The Kazakh journalist and folklorist Akselei Seidimbek credited Gumilyov for his coming “to understand myself as a member of an ethnos.” And, of course, in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution, the still very Soviet leaders of many republics looked to Gumilyov’s Eurasianism as a post-Marxist ideology to keep the Russian world and their own polities together. More than 30 years on, it appears they have succeeded, but that still leaves them with a very uncertain future.
Gumilyov’s history was not the kind of history that Westerners would be accustomed to. It has been described as fantasy, poetry and outright pseudo-history. Mark Bassin, in his biography of Gumilyov, “The Gumilev Mystique,” points out that “his reconstructions involved a good deal of barely concealed speculation and even guesswork, which he did not deny but rather affirmed, declaring at one point that the difference between a mythic or a real event ‘is not important for us.’ ”
Gumilyov’s shortcomings have unfortunately not been without their consequences. His disregard for unwanted facts and willing distortions of historical narratives laid the groundwork for Russia’s burgeoning “alternative history” movement, which often builds on Gumilyov’s own ideas. Likewise, his ideas have provided a great deal of inspiration for extreme Russian nationalists and Eurasianists such as Dugin. Gumilyov’s own work is shrouded by accusations of antisemitism, supported by considerable evidence of his own personal antisemitism.
Gumilyov liked to think of himself as an outcast, though he was anything but. Both his father and mother were celebrated Russian poets, in particular his mother, Anna Akhmatova, who was nominated for the Nobel Prize on two occasions. His parentage was both a blessing and curse throughout his life, on the one hand condemning him to decades in forced labor camps and a life without a father, and on the other providing him with valuable intellectual connections and an aura of curiosity from a young age.
The British philosopher Isaiah Berlin met a young Gumilyov in 1945 while visiting his mother, remarking that Gumilyov was “at least as well-read, independent, and indeed fastidious, to the point almost of intellectual eccentricity, as the most admired undergraduate intellectuals of Oxford or Cambridge.” Soviet intellectuals even liked to hang pictures in their living rooms of the troubled Gumilyov family alongside those of other intellectuals who fell afoul of the Soviet regime.
While his works were met with criticism from the Soviet academic establishment, he was a prominent academic even when his unorthodox theories of cosmic history were officially rejected through the 1960s and ’70s. Though he was not exactly popular, he retired a well-known intellectual in the mid-1980s. It was Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization of the Soviet system that changed everything, and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union catapulted him to near mythic status.
Nonetheless, Gumilyov was an embodiment of the Soviet project, not its antithesis.
It was partly this that made him such an object of late-Soviet fascination. He introduced Soviets to fringe or unknown historical perspectives borrowed from an anti-Soviet Eurasianist movement that was long dead, repurposed and retold for the “New Homo Sovieticus,” the new Soviet man. Gumilyov had always been like a bridge between two worlds. His father was an aristocrat, and both his parents were poets of the pre-revolutionary “silver age.” Though Gumilyov suffered for years in the Gulag system, he never turned against the Soviet project. His fate in many ways reflected that of the Soviet Union as a whole.
For all the faults in the relationship between Russia and its Turkic neighbors, Gumilyov provided a basis of common understanding that did not necessitate adherence to the strict dogmas of Marxist-Leninism, nor did it require the wholesale rejection of Russia’s entire legacy in order to be proud of one’s nation. It is difficult to imagine post-Soviet history taking the same course had it not been for Gumilyov. The original Eurasianism was an obscure intellectual trend that exerted no influence over Soviet affairs. Gumilyov meanwhile, was an intellectual superstar, and now Russia’s most influential historian.
In 2015, more than two decades after Gumilyov’s death, a long-prophesied Eurasian Economic Union finally came into being, uniting Russia, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan into a single transnational Eurasian union. It was the culmination of decades of state-sponsored Eurasianism in the post-Soviet space and, on the face of it, Gumilyov’s greatest achievement.
And yet, the union was stillborn. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war with Ukraine overshadowed it from the beginning, as without Ukraine the union is destined to be dominated by Russia.
While Gumilyov may have succeeded in resolving many contradictions of post-Soviet identity, he created many more on his own. Despite the many Eurasinist pronouncements by Tatar or Yakut leaders, their republics are still fundamentally subservient to a centralized Russian state. That despite the Tatar government’s view that they are in fact equal to the Russian Federation in status. Indeed, those leaders themselves are in power specifically for their subservience to the Russian state.
Despite Moscow’s own Eurasianist overtures, a narrower Russian nationalism has predominated in recent years, typified by the war in Ukraine but finding its manifestation elsewhere too.
As Russia’s parliament reconvened in October, one of the first bills submitted was one that would see Tatarstan’s president stripped of his title and instead referred to as a simple “head” of the republic. The legislature of Tatarstan unanimously voted to reject the bill, but given they have no power over federal bills, it was nothing more than a symbolic gesture.
Remembering the words of Gumilyov, Lavrov said in Kazakhstan in 2013: “Eurasianism doesn’t just have a promising future — it has no alternative in the long run, because it is a path to cooperation rather than confrontation, mutual understanding rather than conflicts, and equal rights of nations large and small rather than nationalism and chauvinism.”
But, in the end, actions will always speak louder than words. Eurasianism may be a comforting idea for many, and perhaps even a necessary one, but it can just as easily be branded as a new Russian imperial ideology that will ultimately always be centered on Moscow and the Russian state.
This is how it has always been for Russia’s subjects: a delicate dance of identities and delegated sovereignty – but a dance that ultimately is always led by Moscow.