Professor Mark Bassin’s book deals with Lev Gumilev, the seminal Russian historian, ethnographer and philosopher, who is quite popular in Russia. Gumilev’s popularity was especially strong in the last years of the Soviet regime and the early post-Soviet era, as Bassin makes clear. Still, no books on Gumilev had been published in English until Bassin’s work, and very few of Gumilev’s works have been translated into English. Indeed, Gumilev has been practically ignored in the West. Why? Most Western historians and ethnographers would provide an easy answer, based on the materials presented in Bassin’s work: Gumilev’s views are beyond Western science. In fact, they are not scientific at all and could be seen at best as peculiar science fiction. Readers of Bassin’s work can well substantiate this conclusion.
Gumilev regarded ethnicities and their larger conglomerate, the ‘superethnos,’ as, in a way, a biological entity. ‘Ethnos’ as a cohesive entity emerges when the people living in a particular territory receive the cosmic energy. At that point, they become charged with passionarnost, a concept which Gumilev regarded “as his most important theoretical discovery” (p. 44). The word can be roughly translated as passion, or energy. After its infusion of passionarnost, the new ethnos experiences growth and its leaders are driven to expansion. Later, the ethnos, similar to other biological creatures, matures and loses its youthful energy, although new stages may emerge through the creativity of the elite. Later, the ethnos dies, although Gumilev apparently made several exceptions to these rules. The other important aspect of Gumilev’s theory – also well-represented in Bassin’s work – is the idea of the “complimentariness” of ethnicities (p. 61). According to Gumilev, some ethnoses lived well in proximity to each other and, in a way, benefited each other economically and culturally. In some cases, they could be engaged in intermarriage, although Gumilev himself usually advocated endogamy, the notion that each ethnicity should marry only its own. At the same time, he clearly made exceptions for Slavs’ relationships with Turkic peoples.
Elaborating on his theory of “complimentariness,” Gumilev follows the path of the “Eurasianists,” the group of Russian émigrés who escaped the Bolshevik Revolution. In their view, Russia was not a Western country, contrary to the view of Westernizers, the representatives of an important trend in Russian thought since the 19th century. They were equally skeptical about Slavophiles, the other important trend in Russian thought, whose representatives believed that Russia belonged to a Slavic commonwealth. In Eurasian views, Russians, or other Eastern Slavs inside Russia’s borders, should find their great and natural friends among the Turkic people of the Russian empire, later the USSR. The unity of Slavs and Turks, they believed, derived from their common historical destiny. All of them were brought together by the great empire of the Mongols. As Bassin rightfully notes, Gumilev followed the pre-WWII Eurasianists in their idiosyncratic views of the Mongols.
According to Bassin, Gumilev “had encountered Eurasianist ideas in the 1930s” (p. 105). The vast majority of Russian and European historians regarded the Mongol invasion in the 13th century as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, calamities in Russian history. For pre-WWII Eurasianists and Gumilev, the story was different; they assumed that the Mongols’ destructiveness was exaggerated and that their conquest was actually quite beneficial to the people of Russia and in fact most of Eurasia. Actually, Gumilev asserts, it was not a conquest as it is usually understood. “Ancient Rus’ was not ‘conquered’ at all,” he concluded, but rather subjugated itself “voluntarily (dobroval’no) to Mongol authority” (p. 106).
The Mongols indeed brought totalitarian/authoritarian power to Eurasia. It was this power which imbued the people of Eurasia with the spirit of “ideocracy,” the sense that a person should live not just to satisfy one’s personal drives, but for a higher goal. The same could be said about the state itself. It should have a sort of metaphysical goal. Finally, the Mongol state taught the people of northern Eurasia, which in the future would be the empire of the Russian tsars and later the USSR, to live in peace with each other, irrespective of creed, ethnicity or race. Finally, the “Tatars defended Rus’ from attacks from the West… in the way that a shepherd defends his flock from the wolves” (p. 98).
All of the major outlines of Gumilev’s ideas should provide the answer as to why Gumilev’s works were almost ignored in the West and no monograph about him had been published in English until Bassin’s work. The average Western intellectual/historian/ethnographer would state that Gumilev’s ideas have hardly any scholarly value. The theory about cosmic energy and the rise of passionarnost is more like science fiction rather than serious, scholarly discourse. The notion of “complimentary” or “non-complementary” among peoples is poorly formulated, and better theorized by works of other scholars. There are little or no references to the literature in Gumilev’s work, as if he were the first to deal with subjects such as humanity’s evolution, the influence of the environment on society, the Mongols, etc. In addition, Gumilev did not know the original language of many of his sources and relied on Russian translators who, of course, could make mistakes. One could conclude that Gumilev actually had no interest in the study of these sources, or indeed to the study of history at all. Rather, he had his preconceived theory and accepted sources only if they corresponded to his preconceived assumptions. Even Russian historians, such as the academician Rybakov –and his view is acknowledged by Bassin– noted that Gumilev’s views were really fantastic (p. 196). Western historians could note that not only were Gumilev’s views fantastic and would hardly pass peer review, but were clearly reactionary. Indeed –and Bassin makes this clear in his narrative– Gumilev, while accepting the notion of a happy “symbiosis” for almost all of the peoples of northern Eurasia, makes a clear exception for Jews, whom he regarded as an alien and destructive body. Indeed, according to Gumilev, “the Jews were a parasite chimera par excellence. Their ethnic character exemplified the sort of degradation and depravity that was the necessary result of a rupture with the natural world” (p. 76). Since Gumilev’s views were indeed nothing but reactionary fantasies, it is not surprising that they were mostly ignored by the scholarly community. Still, one could look at Gumilev’s absence of scholarly framework from another perspective.
Gumilev was ignored in the West mostly because of his political views. It was not his clear anti-Semitism but his broad political views that led to his marginalization. He did not regard the USSR as “the last empire” and see its collapse as a tragedy. He also viewed the West, including the modern democratic West, as a predator in dealing with Russia. Finally, Gumilev regarded Western-type democracy as destructive to Russia. Thus Gumilev’s marginalization, despite his great popularity in Russia –and this was especially the case in the 1990s– was due to the fact that he conveyed ideas that were not acceptable for most Westerners. What was axiomatic for Gumilev was absolutely non-axiomatic for people in the West. One could of course add that a Western axiom has much broader room in non-Western countries than non-Western axioms have among Westerners. Moreover, a lot of non-Westerners wish to imitate the West. This is mostly due to the West’s economic, political, and military domination.
Still, given the increasing power of non-Western societies, societies with a different socio-political and economic makeup –China could serve here as an example– the intellectual discourse is likely to change. Consequently, thinkers similar to Gumilev would be, in such a case, approached with curiosity and respect as great minds who, despite all of their problems and mistakes, have great insights worth incorporating into the public discourse. Consequently, the reviewed book will not be the only book on Gumilev, and many similar works on Gumilev and similar authors will emerge in the future.