Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev (1912-1992) is a Russian historian, geographer and ethnologist who occupies an important place in the post-Soviet Russian cultural landscape. His positive reappraisal of the alliance between Russian Muscovy and the Tatar Golden Horde makes him the prime academic reference in the widening circle of Neo-Eurasianist intellectuals. Countless monuments, conferences, publications and doctoral theses are dedicated to him. Vladimir Putin mentioned him several times in public speeches, praising his “unique contribution to the development of national and world scientific thought.”
Gumilev’s groundbreaking revisionism of the “Tatar yoke” is interesting in its own right. But what makes him all the more fascinating is that he also carries a solid reputation for anti-Semitism, as illustrated, for example, by chapter VI of the book Russia Between East and West (Brill, 2007), titled “Anti-Semitism In Eurasian Historiography: The Case Of Lev Gumilev,” where the author claims that “the very edifice of Gumilev’s theory promotes an anti-Semitic agenda.” While Gumilev’s depiction of some Jewish communities as “ethno-parasites” comparable to “pernicious bacterias” would earn him utter dishonor in the West—if his name were to become known—they do not seem to tarnish his fame in Russia and in Central Asia. There hardly seems to be any controversy about it.
For those two reasons—the significance of Gumilev’s work in Eurasian geopolitics, and the lack of condemnation of his critic of Jewish parasitism in Russia—it seems interesting to get better acquainted with this remarkable figure. Unfortunately, I do not read Russian, and none of Gumilev’s work is available in French, while only one of his books has been translated into English, Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John (Cambridge University Press, 1989, available here). I am therefore relying mostly on one book by the American Jewish scholar Mark Bassin, The Gumilev Mystique, critical of him but nevertheless well informed, and, I assume, honest in his translations. A few articles by Bassin are also available on Internet.
Lev Gumilev is the son of two of Russia’s greatest poets of the twentieth century, Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, both persecuted by Soviet authorities. His father was arrested and executed by the Bolsheviks as a counterrevolutionary in 1921. Lev spent himself thirteen years in Stalinist prisons and labor camps, and even after his return from banishment in 1956, remained under surveillance by the KGB until his retirement in the early 1980s.
In 1962, he was appointed as a research associate on the faculty of Geography in Leningrad State University, and his ideas developed as part of a broader movement among Soviet ethnographers seeking new perspectives on the nature of ethnicity. His rise to celebrity began during Gorbachev’s perestroika at the end of the 1980s, and since the collapse of the USSR it has continued to the present day. Russian nationalists and many members of today’s ruling elite have embraced his work. With perhaps some exaggeration, Mark Bassin writes:
His stature and reputation today are indeed immense, not only in Russia but across the former Soviet Union as well. Gumilev is freely compared to Herodotus and Karl Marx, Oswald Spengler and Albert Einstein, and his works have sold literally millions of copies. In bookstores they fill not shelves but entire bookcases. Since the 1990s, there have been at least half a dozen competing projects to publish his collected writings, and many books and dozens of graduate dissertations have been written about his life and work. One of his books has been adopted as a textbook for Russian high schools, and his ideas can be found littered throughout the curriculum. Organizations have been established dedicated exclusively to developing his legacy, the largest of which—the Lev Gumilev Center based in Moscow—has branches in St. Petersburg, Baku, and Bishkek, and continues to expand. There is a Lev Gumilev Street in the capital of the Kalmyk republic Elista, a large public monument to him in the center of Kazan, and his bust is prominently displayed in scientific institutes in Moscow, Ufa, Yakutsk, and elsewhere. In Kazakhstan, a major university in the capital Astana proudly bears his name. On the centenary of his birth in 2012 the Kazakh government reaffirmed its veneration of his memory by naming a mountain in the Altai range in the eastern part of the country “Gumilev Peak” and issuing a commemorative postage stamp in his honor. Gumilev’s ideas are regularly invoked by leading politicians across the former Soviet Union, not least the Russian president Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who praises Gumilev’s “extraordinary talents” and the “unique impact” that his ideas have had. Indeed, Putin makes very clear the Gumilevian inspiration behind a major foreign-policy initiative of his third term—the establishment of a “Eurasian Union” among the former Soviet states.
Gumilev is mostly respected as an expert on the steppe tribes of inner Eurasia: the Scythians, the Xiongnu, the Huns, Turks, Khitai, Tanguts and Mongols. The most influential part of his work is about the relations that developed between the Russians and the steppe nomads, from Mongolia to Eastern Europe. This research is synthesized in his magnum opus, Ancient Rus and the Great Steppe, published three years before his death. Gumilev’s principal interest was in the khaganate known as the Golden Horde, which in the thirteenth century invaded and conquered the lands of ancient Russia.
He interpreted the reign of national hero and Orthodox saint Alexander Nevsky as the most important example of interethnic complementarity between the Slavs and the Tatars. He underscored the presence and influence of Nestorian Christians among the latter, and the historical importance of Nevsky’s friendship with the son of the great khan Batu. Their sworn “eternal brotherhood” formed an alliance “to halt the advance of the Germans, who wanted to reduce the remnants of the ancient Russian population to serfdom.” For his part, Nevsky sent his own troops to help the Golden Horde fight the Alans and other nomadic groups. This alliance enabled ancient Rus′ to resist the encroachment of the forces of the West under papal mandate, and was the key to Muscovy’s emergence as a great power. Ultimately, the interaction between Russo-Slavs and Tatar-Mongols must be viewed “not as the subjugation of Rus′ by the Golden Horde,” as traditionally depicted by the Westernized historiography elaborated under the Romanovs, but rather as an “ethnic symbiosis,” a union between two ethnies for their mutual benefit. Russia began its modern existence as a “Russian-Tatar country” and has remained so ever since.
The value of this new interpretation of Russian identity in geopolitical diplomacy cannot be overestimated. It justifies, for one thing, Gumilev’s stardom in the Russian republic of Tatarstan. After Gumilev’s death in 1992, the government of Tatarstan sponsored a memorial at his gravesite in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in St. Petersburg, and a memorial plaque on the apartment block where he last lived (photo on the book cover of Bassin’s The Gumilev Mystique). A large international conference on “The Ideas of Eurasianism in the Scientific Legacy of Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev” was held in 2004 in the capital of Tatarstan (Kazan). The following year, on the occasion of the thousand-year anniversary of the city, a statue of Gumilev was erected, bearing the inscription of his memorable declaration: “I am a Russian who has spent his entire life defending Tatars against insults.” Vladimir Putin attended the unveiling of the monument together with Tatar president Mintimer Shaimiev. Shaimiev’s successor, Rustam Minnikhanov, confirmed the “enormous respect and deep gratitude” of the Tatar people to Gumilev’s memory.
Gumilev is equally honored as a great benefactor in Kazakhstan, a former Soviet Republic that became independent in 1991. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbaev (1990-2019), the first post-Soviet leader to call for the creation of a “Eurasian Union,” inaugurated in 1996 the Lev-Gumilev Eurasian National University in his new capital city of Astana. In October 2000 Putin traveled to Astana to sign a convention establishing a Eurasian Economic Community, and a few years later, speaking at the Lev-Gumilev University, called attention to the importance of Gumilev for this Eurasianism project. Gumilev, he said, had made a “brilliant contribution not only to the development of historical thinking but also to the affirmation of the ideas of commonality through the ages and the interrelatedness of the peoples who settled the massive spaces of Eurasia, from the Baltic to the Carpathians and the Pacific Ocean.” In 2012 Vladimir Putin gave his public endorsement to Nazarbaev’s project, and in January 2015 the Eurasian Economic Union came into existence.
Although I have not found any information regarding public interest for Gumilev in Turkey, it is obvious that his assertion of the common ethnic bond between Turks and Russians is also potentially significant for future relations between Turkey and Russia, two empires which have often been at war in the nineteenth century, for the benefit of the British empire which used the former to “contain” the second. Israel Shamir has made this point in a magnificent article titled “Ottoman Empire, Please Come Back!”, dated August 29, 2005. Quoting Gumilev’s word that “Russia is unbeatable in its union with the brave Turks,” Shamir wished that Moscow and Constantinople—now Istanbul—those two heirs to the glory of Byzantium, would join in a new great civilization capable of resisting the pernicious influence of the West. He mentions that:
In a recent book, The Eurasian Symphony by St Petersburg writer van Zaichik, an alternative history of our [Eastern] part of the world is proposed. What would have happened if the Turkic Golden Horde’s enlightened ruler Sartak Khan, a friend of St Alexander Nevsky, had survived an assassination attempt and, as a consequence, the Russians and the Turks had remained in one prosperous state? Van Zaichik calls this resulting empire ‘Ordus’, an amalgam of Horde and Rus, embracing the bulk of the Eurasian landmass. Ordus is a land where modernity has incorporated tradition and religion; the family has remained intact; and even though there are wealthy men, the unbridled pursuit of wealth is frowned upon.
This vision of a new Russia reunited with Turkey owes much to Gumilev. But it has a long prior history in Russian geopolitical philosophy. Gumilev’s reappraisal of the “Tatar yoke” as a positive ethnic and civilizational bond expounded on the writings of earlier Russian historians such as Nikolay Karamzin (1766-1826) who, in one chapter of his 12-volume History of the Russian State, underscored the positive outcomes of the Turko-Mongol rule. Constantin Leontiev (1831-1891), a major pioneer of Eurasianism, also contributed greatly to raising awareness of Russia’s Asian history and destiny. Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1822-1881) himself became a prophet of Eurasianism at the height of his fame and the end of his life. I found in one of his latest entry in his Writer’s Diary an interesting comparison between what America has meant for Europeans, and what Asia should now mean for Russians: “to us Asia is like the then undiscovered America. With our aspiration for Asia, our spirit and forces will be regenerated” (January 1881, ch. II, §4). If we consider that the spiritual degradation of the West ultimately goes back to the way Europeans dealt with the natives in the Americas, then we can hope that a win-win Russian-Asian alliance will foster a new world order of a completely different nature.
Goumilev is a theorist of ethnogenesis. He is regarded as an essentialist who sees ethnos as a fundamental category of human social life. All ethnies, he believes, are distinguished from one another by their “special behavioral language,” or “behavioral stereotype.” This refers to “a strictly defined norm governing the relationships between the collective and the individual and between the individuals themselves. This norm operates imperceptibly in all aspects of life and daily routine.” It is passed between generations by “signal inheritance,” a process that enables children spontaneously “to assimilate a behavioral stereotype that represents adaptive skills,” and in the final analysis is the key to all ethnic survival.
Gumilev stresses the intrinsic interconnection between organic life and geographical environment. “Regardless of their size, the overwhelming majority of ethnies live or lived in particular territories, where they formed a part of the biocenosis of the respective landscape, and together with it formed a sort of ‘closed system.’” Only in its natural home could an ethnos secure its survival in a healthy manner. Its behavioral stereotype, its material culture, economy , and spiritual life were all inextricably tied to the specific environmental conditions of its “ecological niche”. When a people migrates into a substantially different landscape, the settlers eventually develop entirely new ethnic traits, a process Gumilev calls “ethnic divergence.” If an ethnic group moves into another people’s territory, several outcomes can result, from the group’s demise to its amalgamation with the natives.
There is, however, a specially “unhealthy” mode of ethnic interaction, by which a migrant ethnos can survive intact despite displacement, at the expense of the native ethnos. Unable to establish itself as an organic part of the new region and to draw sustenance from it in a normal fashion, the invader ethnos resorts to the exploitation of indigenous ethno-ecological systems. Gumilev famously termed this particular situation, in which two ethnies occupy a single ecological niche, a “chimera” (khimera). He borrowed the designation from the natural sciences.
An example of a chimeric relationship in zoology is that which forms when tapeworms are present inside an animal’s organs. Whereas the animal is able to exist without the parasite, the parasite will perish without its host. When the parasite lives in the body of the former, however, it takes part in its life cycle. By necessitating an increased inflow of nutrition and introducing its hormones into the blood and bile of its host organism, the parasite alters its host’s biochemistry.
In the realm of the ethnosphere, Gumilev characterized a chimera as an “ethno-parasite” that “exploits the indigenous population of the country, along with its flora, fauna, and precious minerals.” Just like “a population of bacteria or infusoria [a type of single-celled organisms]” that “spreads through the internal organs of the person or animal,” a chimeric invasion can be fatal for the indigenous ethnos, as it draws on the life energies and resources of their host organisms. Gumilev also compared the relationship between a chimera and an indigenous ethnos to a cancerous tumor. “The latter can grow only with the organism and not beyond it, and it lives exclusively at the expense of the host organism.” Just like a cancer, an ethnic chimera “sucks its sustenance out of the indigenous ethnos.”
The invader ethnos is itself also irredeemably degraded, but in a way that strengthens rather than weakens it. Uprooted ethnies survive precisely by developing traits that, however unnatural, give them critical advantages over their cohabitants. As their rootlessness becomes structural, it is turned into internalized skills to penetrate and prosper virtually anywhere.
Gumilev mentions several rather obscure examples of “chimera”, but he was mostly concerned with the particular case of the Jewish people. According to Mark Bassin,
Gumilev’s singular preoccupation with this particular problem runs like a red thread through the entirety of his work, indeed it can be argued that all of his theories and historical reconstructions are driven in significant measure by it. In Gumilev’s understanding, the Jews … emerge as a prototypical chimera and antisystem whose ethnic life history provides the best evidence of the disruption and devastation that this sort of negative ethnic contact is certain to entail.
Because their rupture with their original environment occurred at an early stage in their ethnogenetic cycle, Jews developed the ability to penetrate into all types of natural landscapes, and even codified their strategies in the Talmud. Wherever they settled, they acted as a chimera in regard to indigenous populations, deliberately fostering “skepticism and indifference” in order to erode the spiritual and moral resistance of their hosts and extend their dominance over them.
Gumilev, unlike Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn later, did not elaborate on the effect of the Jewish chimera on modern Russia. Rather, he invested his energy into the archeological, ethnographic, historical and geographical study of the Central Asian kingdom of Khazaria in the early Middle Ages. Gumilev treated Khazaria as his most fully developed illustration of an ethnic chimera. According to him, the Khazars developed harmonious interactions with all of their neighboring ethnies, to the exception of the Talmudic Jews. They had no problem with the Karaite Jews, who ignored the Talmud and recognized only the Torah, being therefore closer in spirit to Christianity and Islam. Everything changed in the seventh century when Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Persia and Byzantium poured into the Eurasian steppe. The most aggressive of these newcomers were the Radhanite Jews—medieval merchants active in the trade routes that connected the Christian and Islamic worlds with the Far East at the end of the first millennium AD.
Unlike the Karaites, the Radhanites were followers of the Rabbinic tradition. They were a “brutal ethnos” without moral scruples. Their monopolization of the caravan trade brought them fabulous wealth, which came in great part from the slave trade—mostly young girls and boys taken from the indigenous populations of eastern Europe. The fact that “Slav” came to mean “slave” testifies to the extent of this trade.
These Jewish merchants settled in large number in the Khazar capital Itil, and by the eighth century they had formed a foreign elite and gained ever-increasing political influence. The situation came to a head in the early ninth century when a Jewish prince seized power and made Rabbinic Judaism the official religion of state. The coup was resisted by the local population, and led to a bloody civil war which the Jewish caste won by hiring mercenaries. Although the mass of ethnic Khazars were eventually constrained to submit to the authority of the Jewish elite, they never converted to Judaism, which remained exclusively the faith of the political authorities. With this, Gumilev concludes, Khazaria was transformed into a full-fledged ethnic chimera. “In their very own country,” the Khazars became “the conquered, disenfranchised, and powerless subjects of a government that was foreign to them in terms of its ethnicity, its religion, and it goals.”
Jewish Khazaria became a “merchant octopus,” building an elaborate international network of alliances with major foreign powers, including the Tan dynasty in China, the Carolingians and their successors in Northern Europe, the Bagdad caliphate, and the Varangians from Scandinavia.
Kievan Rus’ came into competition and conflict with the Khazars and, in 965, the Khazar empire collapsed under the blows of the Kievian prince Sviatoslav. The surviving Judeo-Khazar elite scattered across Eurasia and Europe. Some retreated to Crimea, others fled to the West. Many, according to Gumilev, remained active in Rus′ lands, encouraging hostilities between the Russian princes and inciting the steppe peoples to attack the Russians.
Obviously, Gumilev’s extremely negative interpretation of the Jewish diaspora, and of the Radhanite Jews in particular, falls clearly under the category of the worst anti-Semitic tropes according to today’s Western (Jewish) standard. His depiction of uprooted Jews as ethno-parasites is reminiscent of the words printed by Henry Ford in 1920:
the genius of the Jew is to live off people; not off land, nor off the production of commodities from raw material, but off people. Let other people till the soil; the Jew, if he can, will live off the tiller. Let other people toil at trades and manufacture; the Jew will exploit the fruits of their work. That is his peculiar genius. If this genius be described as parasitic, the term would seem to be justified by a certain fitness. (The International Jew, November 13, 1920)
It is therefore highly significant that, rather than being “cancelled” and persecuted as is for example in America Kevin MacDonald, Gumilev’s name is held in great esteem in Russia and among peoples aspiring to play their part in the emerging Eurasia, notably the Kazhaks, whose country overlaps the ancient land of the indigenous Khazars (although the identity of the two ethnies cannot be confirmed).
Gumilev’s celebrity is more extraordinary than Solzhenitsyn’s, because Gumilev’s writings about Jews is an integral part of his scholarly work, whereas Solzhenitsyn published his two volumes on the relationship between Russians and Jews (Two Centuries Together: 1795-1995) only at the end of his life. Both men, however, are held as cultural giants in Russia, and neither suffered any official blame from their criticism of Jews.
Since Solzhenitsyn’s last work has been banned by the Judeo-Anglo-American publishing community (but translated in French), it is appropriate to end this article by mentioning that his analysis is consistent with Gumilev’s theory of the chimera. One of the most parasitic influences of Jews on Russians that Solzhenitsyn mentions came from their monopoly on the manufacture and sale of vodka that had been granted to them by the Polish nobility. Solzhenitsyn based his claim on official documents, such as a report from the Belarusian administration stating: “The presence of Jews in the countryside has harmful consequences for the material and moral state of the peasant population, because the Jews … promote drunkenness of the local population.” The Russian poet and statesman Gavrila Derzhavin wrote, in an investigative report intended for the emperor and the high dignitaries of the empire:
In every village there is one and sometimes several taverns built by the landlords, in which, for the profit of the Jewish tenants, vodka is sold day and night… In this way the Jews succeed to extract from them not only their daily bread, but also that which is sown in the ground, as well as their agricultural tools, their goods, their time, their health, their very life.
Solzhenitsyn was violently criticized in the West for having expressed aloud this ancient grievance of the Russians against the Jews. It is therefore heartening to know that an Israeli professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dr Judith Kalik, is now vindicating him, implicitly. Her thesis was even relayed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz under the title “The Link Between the History of Vodka and Antisemitism: Historical research reveals a gloomy chapter in the relations between Jews and Christians in Eastern Europe.” In this short video titled “Vodka and Rural Jews in Eastern Europe,” she summarizes her findings: