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Prominent Russians: Lev Gumilev

October 1, 1912 – June 15, 1992


The son of outstanding Silver Age poets – Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilev – Lev was born in Tsarskoe Selo, near St Petersburg. He spent most of his childhood with his paternal grandmother Anna Gumileva at Bezhetsk, in the Tver Region halfway between Moscow and St.Petersburg. His father, a staunch monarchist, was arrested and executed in 1921 for his involvement in the counter-revolutionary conspiracy.

His mother, having little interest in him and poor skills as a mother, visited him only in summer. Yet in the Stalinist years to come, when Lev was arrested on various charges and deported to the GULAG, she repeatedly risked her life for him.

Lev became her obsession, the object of her devotion. Even so, in the 1950s, when Lev returned to normal life in Leningrad, Akhmatova rarely saw him, because, as she told a friend, she considered his cynical attitude to life irritating.


In 1929 Gumilev joined his mother and her third husband, Nikolai Punin, in Leningrad to continue his education, first as an assistant on geological expeditions, then as a student at the Faculty of History at Leningrad State University.

As a student, he participated in archaeological expeditions, most notably to the Khazar site at Sarkel on the Don river. He found a chilly reception in the Punin household, but that turned out to be only the beginning of his troubles.


The NKVD – the Soviet secret service – arrested him for nine days in 1933 during the terror campaign that followed the assassination of Stalin's crony, Kirov. He was arrested again in 1935, along with his stepfather Punin, that time for making approving noises about Mandelstam’s anti-Stalin verses.

Akhmatova and the poet and novelist, Boris Pasternak, appealed directly to Stalin to free both men, and succeeded. However, Lev was expelled from Leningrad University and that winter of 1935, he nearly starved to death.

In 1938, before completing his degree, Gumilev was arrested a third time together with two other students. He was implicated in a plot to commit a terrorist attack on Leningrad Communist Party leader Andrey Zhdanov.

At this point he was beyond help. He was initially sentenced to be shot, but later sent off to work on the White Sea – Baltic Canal, where conditions were brutal and he nearly died.

He was apparently saved by a bureaucratic procedure: early in 1939 he was sent back to a prison in Leningrad while his case was re-examined. The result was a five-year sentence to another GULAG camp, this time in the far north of Siberia, at Norilsk.

Temporary release

His term at Norilsk came to an end at the end of the Second World War. He was released from the GULAG and volunteered for the Red Army in 1944, and thus participated in the capture of Berlin, serving in anti-aircraft artillery.

On returning to Leningrad in 1945, he was able to finish his undergraduate exams and move on to specialise in Oriental Studies, but the period of relative calm ended quickly, as his mother fell out of favour in 1946 during the Leningrad Affair.

Life lessons of labour camps

He had just enough time to participate in more archaeological expeditions, and defend his graduate thesis in 1949. Soon after he was arrested again, sentenced to 10 years for contra-Marx and Lenin ideological activities, and sent back to the camps. He remained there until 1956, when the period of de-Stalinisation began.

This time he spent his term in Kazakhstan. It is generally known that he continued research in seeking definitions for ethnic groups, and it was at this time he wrote a large part of his most famous book Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere.

Gumilev used to joke that he came up with his theories on ethnos, or ethnic groups, while lying on his bunk in the camps with other inmates above him playing cards; thus, he pointed out, prison was a positive lesson for him.

Free writing

Shortly after his release in 1956, he found a temporary job as a librarian in the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad. Later he worked as a research associate at Leningrad State University.

Soon Gumilev began to publish prolifically, first with a few articles at the end of the 1950s, then in 1960 with the first book of his Steppe Trilogy, Khunnu. It told the story of the Hunnu Empire, who ruled over a vast area of Central and East Asia from the third century B.C. to the first Century A.D.

He continued to publish his history of the Steppe with Otkrytie Khazarii (The Discovery of Khazaria) in 1966; Drevnye Tiurki (The Ancient Turkic Peoples) in 1967; Poiski Vymyshlennogo Tsarstva (Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom), a book dealing with the Mongol Empire, in 1970; and followed this work with Khunny v Kitae (The Huns in China, 1974).

Gumilev´s historical concepts:

Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere

During the 60s and 70s his ideas about the ethnos, ethnogenesis, and passionarity (a Gumilev neologism) took their final shape, and were synthesised in a book explaining his theory, while drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of world history: Etnogenez I Biosfera Zemli (translated into English as Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere, 1990).

His view on the origins of the Russian state, outlined in Ethnogenesis, was presented in Drevniaia Rus’ I Velikaia Step’ (Ancient Rus’ and the Great Steppe, 1989) and in a more popular form, in Ot Rusi do Rossii (From Rus’ to Russia, 1992), published after his death.

Gumilev’s historical concept was born as a response to a question: why do people living a calm life, visible to nobody, suddenly happen to rise as one, forming invincible armies and conquering huge spaces, creating states? And after the lapse of several centuries they disperse in space and time, leaving memory only in chronicles and legends. Vandals and Goths, Genghis Khan and Tamerlan, unconquerable Osman knights – they left just memories.

Explaining passionarity

Why did some states dominate for a time and then pass into non-existence again? Lev Gumilev developed a concept which explained these processes. His idea was based on the fact that, in some moments, certain outer, mostly natural, impulses (e.g., oscillations in solar radiation levels) give extraordinary activity and powerful inspiration to peoples living on certain territories. This impulse gives birth to people’s inner energy, passionarity as coined by Gumilev.

This historic moment, which he terms a passionary push, corresponds to a time of governmental, military and economic activities of an ethnic group. During this period, the nation conquers territory for itself, sets up the national statehood and makes breakthroughs in science, technology and arts.

Passionarity is a hereditary biological ability of the man, and ‘passion-filled’ (‘passionarian’) individuals are in fact creators of history – for example, Prophet Mohammed, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and Vladimir Lenin. Passionate people can’t be calm. They can’t live a monotonous ordinary life; they need journeys, activity, performances. The respect of their peers is much more important to them than personal wealth or individual achievement. They do not care about their own life, prosperity and well-being. A spiritual idea – this was the moving force of these people.

The ethnos is supposed to be a 'biological' entity determined by its place in the natural environment, but at the same time, inspired by a few innovative leaders, each 'ethnos' has its special time of intense flowering. Lev Gumilev created a very detailed theory of “birth, development and death” of “ethnic unities” which, according to him, exist for approximately up to 1500 years.

Stages of ethnos development

Gumilev argued that it was possible for two or more nations to unite to form a super-ethnos, and that 500 years ago the Eastern Slavs (Russians, Ukrainians and Byelorussians), Mongols and Tatars had fused to form a super-ethnos. A thousand years before that a Teutonic/Latin super-ethnos had formed in Western Europe, and that since then it had presented a constant threat to the Slav-Tatar-Mongol super-ethnos.

In contrast to the official idea that Russia had saved Europe and Christianity from the Mongol hordes, Gumilev argued that it was the military prowess of the Mongols that had saved the Eastern Slavs from conquest by the West. In Gumilev’s view, the Mongol Conquest was not actually a massive invasion, but rather a foray quickly leading to ‘fertile symbiosis.’

Finally, and this was especially important for Gumilev, the Mongols had been a people of religious tolerance, and, because of this, Russians came to prefer Orthodoxy as their national identity. In fact, if it had not been the Mongols, Russia would have been completely Latinised and converted to Roman Catholicism; thus it would have disappeared entirely.

Naturally, in this reading, there was actually no Mongol/Tatar yoke. In the course of time, according to the theory, the Mongol Empire experienced a sort of decay, and the Mongols finally handed the imperial torch to the Russians. In the context of this view, the Russian empire was nothing but an Orthodox-Mongol empire of a sort. Finally, the torch was passed on to the USSR.

According to Gumilev, the laws of history are similar to the laws which propel swarms of locust to advance and recede. The border that separates Russia from the West coincides with the negative isotherm for the month of January. In other words, nature itself sets apart the two cultural entities.

Parasite ethnos

Gumilev’s concept of ethnos is not defined in racial terms but rather in terms of the link between the ethnos and its ancestral lands. This gives rise to the concept of a parasite ethnos, one that has lost its ancestral land and survives leeching on another ethnos.

According to Gumilev there are also parasite states, which lack their own dynamism and survive by living off the resources and culture of another ethnos. In his view, every time a parasite ethnos dominated an indigenous one, revolution, civil war, and the creation of what he calls ‘chimera’ statehood, followed.

So it happened with French rationalists, who unleashed the Great French Revolution, and with British Puritans, who created a ‘chimera’ state – the United States. He labelled the U.S. a ‘parasite’ state, established by dissidents and ‘drop outs’ from the dying Anglo-Saxonian ethnos. In his view, this state can exist only by the exploitation of foreign resources of intellect, biology and energy.

Gumilev linked the French and American republican statehood to Jews, with the explicit statement that both of their intellectual and spiritual foundations come from the Old Testament. In the same way, the state of Israel was established by people of Jewish origin who were moved not by their own energy, but by the energy reflecting the passionary potential of the Slavic Belarusians and Poles.

Modern Russia in Gumilev´s scheme of ethnogenesis

According to the theoretical scheme of the ethnogenesis, the situation which Russia is in now gives obvious enough hints to the direction of its political orientation. The passionate boom that starts the genesis of Russian super-ethnos, is based, according to Gumilev, in the middle of the 13th century. Every simple calculation shows that the age of Russia is about 800 years, which means that it is passing through one of the hardest moments in the ethnos life (in Gumilev's terms – the transition from fission to inertia).

In that sense, the socio-economic and political crisis experienced by post-soviet Russia is totally predictable. The fission phase, says Gumilev, started after the Fatherland War in 1812, and its hardest time was that of Soviet rule, when the ethnos' entity had been lost and the bloodshed of the Civil War took place. The next stage – Gorbachev's Perestroika, is understood as a kind of attempt for transition to the new, inertial phase.

With reservations, Gumilev had followed the historical Eurasianists, who emerged in the 1920s among Russian émigrés. They believed that Russian civilization was a unique blend of Slavic and Turkic/Mongolian people.

Gumilev’s writings form the vital link between original Eurasianism (George Vernadsky, Nikolai Trubetskoy, Peter Savitsky), which emerged as a coherent intellectual-political current in the Russian post-revolution émigré community.

In the article The Last Eurasianist, Gumilev openly named himself an heir to the Eurasianist legacy:

"All Eurasian ethnoses managed to live and prosper as long as they stayed on their native territory. However, they perished . . . when intermingled with alien worlds. All contacts on the superethnic level yielded negative results. . . . Wherever emulation prevails, it runs contrary to originality and violates the principle ‘know thyself’ and ‘be your own self."

Lev Gumilev, The Last Eurasianist, Nashe nasledie, no. 3, (1991, p. 25).

The impact of Gumilev's theories

Soviet schools of ethnographers and orientalists did not accept Gumilev’s theories, which contradicted their well-established ‘lay-outs’ and implicit ‘political correctness’ code. These days those accusations sound funny, but then, when social science was monitored by the Communist Party, it meant a sort of ostracism for a scholar.

Gumilev was accused of being an ‘anti-Marxist’, ‘geographical determinist’, ‘mystic biologist’, ‘bourgeois solipsist’, ‘behaviorist’, ‘anarchist’, of ignoring class struggle as the basis and motivating force of history, among many others things. Later, being widely published since the start of Perestroika, Gumilev became virtually a cult figure in the Russian-speaking world.

Although many scholars find a number of serious contradictions and methodological flaws in Gumilev's theories, his concepts have been legitimised in certain sections. His ideas about the pitfalls of aligning with Europe and the need to secure alliances in Asia have gained some currency in Russian political and intellectual circles.

They have even, some observers believe, become a kind of semi-secret cult in the upper echelons of the Russian establishment. For instance, in June 2004, the then Russian President Vladimir Putin asserted that Gumilev’s ideas – which Putin presented as united Eurasia in opposition to transatlantic West – were “beginning to move the masses.”

In other parts of the former Soviet Union, Gumilev has also had a considerable academic impact and enjoyed support from key intellectual and political sectors. Kazakhstan’s brand new capital, Astana, has a Lev Gumilev University (a branch of Moscow State University). It is held up as an example of Kazakhstan’s integrationist goodwill, but also of the institutionalisation of Eurasianism as the official ideology of independent Kazakhstan.

Lev Gumilev was buried at Nikolskoye Cemetery at the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra monastery in St.Petersburg.

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