Thursday, January 19, 2017

CHRISTIAN REALISM: Lev Gumilev, Eurasia, and the Russian Soul

by Dr. David Pence

Lev Gumilev (1912-1992) was a Russian writer, anthropologist, and historian who played a pivotal role in defining the Russian national identity and her historical mission.

(We draw from a comprehensive Masters thesis by Alexander Titov and a Financial Times article by Charles Clover called "Lev Gumilev: Passion, Putin, and Power.")


Gumilev is not a religious thinker, but many of his insights are amenable to baptism. He was part of a synthetic Marxist tradition that meant to link the study of physical nature, biological development, and human history in a single paradigm. His father was executed when he was 9. He spent years in Soviet prison camps. His mother was a famous Russian poet: Anna Akhmatova. He had a love-hate relationship with her, and once said if he was killed in the camp, "for her, my death will be a pretext for some graveside poem: how poor she is, she has lost her son. Nothing more." Introducing Gumilev’s categories provides a small window to the Russian soul and a rich vocabulary to discuss communal identity and nationalism in history.

In a 2012 speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin employed a key Gumilev concept.

Putin’s definition of 'passionarity' (from the Latin word passio) was a slightly sanitized one. "Moving forward and embracing change" was one way of putting what Gumilev meant, though more accurate would be something like "capacity for suffering." It was a word with allusions to the New Testament and the crucifixion, that had been dreamt up by Gumilev during his 14 years in Siberian prison camps. In 1939, while digging the White Sea Canal and daily watching inmates die of exhaustion and hypothermia, Gumilev invented his theory of passionarnost. The defining trait of greatness -- he would write in Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere, the book that established his ideas (written in 1979 and circulated in samizdat form during the ensuing decade) -- was sacrifice.
President Putin

Observing inmates forced to behave like beasts in order to survive had taught him that the virtues of society, friendship, and brotherhood were not a mark of human advancement but an instinctual urge, common to all humans at all times, "to distinguish us from them." Gumilev wrote that the principle of komplimentamost was initially devised while serving his first prison sentence in Norilsk. At the labor camp the necessary condition of survival was the ability to form informal links with other inmates, which formed small groups of two to four people who helped and supported each other. He argued that these groups were formed on the basis of mutual sympathy, rather than rational calculation. [The basis of ethnos will be komplimentarnost -- a subconscious attraction of one for another -- these types of union are called konsortsii and konvictsii.]

"Working as a historian from the late 1950s to the end of his life, Gumilev became a renowned expert on the steppe tribes of inner Eurasia: the Scythians, the Xiongnu, the Huns, Turks, Khitai, Tanguts, and Mongols. Their history did not record the progress of enlightenment and reason, but rather an endless cycle of migration, conquest, and genocide. Every few hundred years, nomads would sweep out of the steppes, plunder the flourishing kingdoms of Europe, the Middle East, or Asia, and then vanish into history’s fog just as quickly as they had come. The victors in these struggles were not the societies that led the world in technology, wealth, and reason. Instead, they had something that Machiavelli described as virtù, or martial spirit, while the medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun described the tribal solidarity of nomadic raiders of civilised cities as asabiyya."

"In 1970, Gumilev published an article in the journal Priroda (Nature), in which he laid out the idea of the 'ethnos' — something similar to a nation or ethnic group — which he described as the most basic element of world history: the national or ethnic self-identification that is "a phenomenon so universal as to indicate its deep underlying foundation." Drawing on his labor-camp theories, he argued that ethnoi were not social phenomena, but rather the result of a biological instinct to acquire a "stereotype of behaviour" early in life.
"There is not a single person on earth outside of an ethnos," he was fond of saying. "Everybody will answer the question, ‘What are you?’ with ‘Russian, ‘French’, ‘Persian’, ‘Maasai’ etc, without a moment’s hesitation."

For Gumilev, the existence of ethnoi was the result of "passionarity" — the instinct to self-abnegation. What distinguishes an ethnos from a jumble of languages, religions. and historical experiences is a common purpose, and the willingness of members to sacrifice themselves for it. Ethnoi, he theorised, always start with the actions of a small group of "passionaries."

The concept of the ethnic field helped to explain why ethnoses could live under the influence of other cultures while preserving their unique identity. At an encounter of two different rhythms there could be either a harmony which would lead to ethnic fusion, or disharmony which would lead to annihilation. Ethnoses in the same superethnos had harmonious ethnic frequencies, while an alien superethnos was most likely to have a dissonant ethnic rhythm.

Gumilev offered the following classification of different ethnic groups. The superethnos was the largest ethnic unit, which he defined as ‘a group of ethnoses, which appears simultaneously in the same region, and which manifests itself in history as a mosaic-like integrity.’ They were real units, not abstract conceptions of historians.

A superethnos was a system of a higher order than an ethnos. Development of a superethnos was determined by a combination of passionary impulses, geography and ethnic pre-history. As was remarked earlier, for Gumilev, the behavioural stereotype of an ethnos had a close relation with its environment. It was impossible to have the same behavioural stereotype in different geographical environments. This was one of the main reasons for the impossibility of a single culture for humankind.

"The concept of a ‘national character’ similar in all periods of an ethnos’ dynamic life was a myth. Gumilev gave an example of how attitudes had changed in the nineteenth century Russia. The ancestors of Ranevskaia in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard had planted the orchard which she frittered away. Merchants from Ostrovskii’splays squandered capital accumulated by their grandfathers. What was more typical of the ‘Russian psychological type’ - the determined accumulation or the frivolous waste?"

"There are four central themes in Gumilev’s thought on Russian history. First, he argued that there was a distinction in principle between Kievan Rus and Muscovite Russia. Second, he emphasised the positive effects of the Mongol influence on Russia." (The experiences of being overwhelmed by fighting nomadic tribes helped shaped the Eurasian  "stereotype of behavior" that made the Russian national identity. He did not see the Mongol Yoke as a negative experience that retarded Russia but as a behavioral overlay that made them warriors.)
"Third, Gumilev stressed the emergence of a distinct behavioural stereotype as the key to understanding Russian history. Finally, he interpreted Russian history in terms of the phases of ethnogenesis.

Alexander Nevsky’s famous victory over the Teutonic knights on Lake Peipus in April 1242 forestalled but did not completely remove the danger of a German offensive. Nevsky went on to crush a major rebellion in Novgorod in 1257-58 with Mongolian assistance… He received military aid in exchange for a tribute to the Golden Horde. Gumilev observed that 'if one cannot protect oneself, one has to pay for protection against one’s enemies.'


For Gumilev, an important question was whether Alexander Nevsky [pictured] was the last prince of Ancient Rus or the first prince of the future Great Russia, which for Gumilev was mutually exclusive. Gumilev argued that Alexander Nevsky and his supporters’ selfless behavior was in contrast to the prevalent behavior of Rus in the twelfth and thirteenth century which he called 'a narrow-minded egoism.'

'…there emerged a new generation [which was] heroic, sacrificial, and patriotic. In other words, a people emerged who considered an ideal (or a distant prognosis) to be higher than their personal interests or accidental wishes. Although in the thirteenth century there very few of them, in the fourteenth century their children and grandchildren constituted a considerable part of society and were the embryo of a new ethnos, later called the Great Russians.'

First, he formulated a new behavioral model -- altruistic patriotism -- which for several centuries was the basis of Russia’s development. Second, he started the tradition of union with the Asiatic peoples, founded on ethnic and religious tolerance. This allowed the creation of the multi-ethnic Russian state. Finally, Alexander’s direct descendants built a new Russia from their base in Moscow.
The basis of Alexander Nevsky’s policies, which in Gumilev’s view saved the Russian ethnos at a crucial period of its history, was opposition to the West and alliance with the Mongols."

    (this is a crucial insight applicable to the role of  liturgy in the formation of conmmunal identity)
"Gumilev emphasised that most believers were ignorant of the intricate details of theological dogmas, but that this did not stop them from having firmly held beliefs. 'They simply feel the phenomenon of a world view (mirooshchushchenie) of one or the other religions and choose that version [of a religious creed] which best suits their psychological disposition.' In Gumilev’s theory, a person’s ethnic identity was formed in the early stages of their life through behavioral mimicry of their family and friends. This identity had a non-voluntary nature and, once formed, it was impossible to change."

" was based on a deep psychological pre-disposition of Russians towards this religion. On this view, the preservation of Orthodoxy was the most important factor for Russian identity in the Middle Ages."

"The alliance with the Mongols allowed Russia to preserve this most precious institution of the Orthodox Church, the safe-keeper of the unique Russian identity. In contrast to the Western Europeans, who were engaged at that time in religious crusades, the Mongols professed religious tolerance as a state policy. The Iasa of Genghis (Law Code) offered protection to any religion on condition of submission to the political authority of the Great Khan. The importance of Gumilev’s analysis for understanding Russian history lies in his view of the Russian lands as part of the socio-political system of the Mongol empire. The formation of a Russian ethnos under these circumstances had important consequences for later Russian history. Although Gumilev’s arguments are often extreme and uncompromisingly anti-Western as well as favorable to the Mongols, his work on this subject had an important influence on the debate about Russian identity. Modern Russian historians of Russia’s relations with the Tataro-Mongols have to take Gumilev’s views into account. Krivosheev argues, for example, that Gumilev’s ideas on Russia’s relations with the Mongols can no longer be simply dismissed as ‘not serious’ or ‘unscholarly’. [page 315] In this way, Gumilev helped to undermine the traditionally anti- Mongolian focus of Russian historiography.”

"In this new spiritual climate, the old Byzantine ascetic tradition of hesychasm, which had originated on Mount Athos in Greece, began to spread in Russia. It held that a person was capable of entering into a direct, personal contact with energies emanating from God. Religion should, therefore, be based on the experience of communication with God, rather than on logical premises as was the case with theology and philosophy. Hesychast monks were distinguished by their constant concentration and meditation: the name ‘hesychasm’ comes from the Greek word for ‘being silent’ or ‘being at rest.’

Gumilev argued that Athos was the center of an ideological alternative to Constantinople’s policies of rapprochement with the Latin Church, and because Athos opposed union with the West, hesychasm became popular amongst Russians. The growth of hesychast monastic centers in the fourteenth century, the most famous of which was the Monastery of the Holy Trinity [pictured] founded by Sergii of Radonezh in 1337, had far- reaching consequences."


"The only force which kept together the new emerging ethnic system was the Orthodox Church, for 'religious apostasy was considered as an exit from the system, as treason.' In these circumstances, an alliance of the metropolitan of Kiev and All Rus with Moscow was the key to Moscow’s fourteenth-century rise. Gumilev argued that the political system which emerged in fourteenth century Russia was a theocracy."

Christianity is the superethnos that resonates with every ethnos built on the sacrificial personality of passionarnost. The Church was built on the konsortsii of apostolic affinity. Christianity is not built by destroying the nations, but baptizing them. May the insights of Lev Gumilev help Russians understand their spiritual destiny.

No comments:

Post a Comment