Putin and Gumilev

I am currently reading Charles Clover’s new book Black Wind, White Snow about Russian nationalism and Eurasianism, which I plan to review next week. I am also preparing a paper for the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Slavists on the subject of whom Putin cites in his speeches and what that means. I began the latter project believing that one could learn a lot about Putin from his choice of quotations, but as my research has developed, I have become a bit more sceptical. Whom Putin cites does tell us something, but not what some people seem to think.

The first few pages of Clover’s book (which has some good points) provide an example of the dangers of drawing too much from short quotations. Clover starts by mentioning Putin’s December 2012 speech to the Federal Assembly, in which the Russian president referred to the notion of ‘passionarity’ (roughly speaking, a nation’s willingness to make sacrifices) invented by the ethnographer Lev Gumilev (famous for his studies of steppe tribes and for supporting the notion that the peoples of Russia form a distinct Eurasian civilization). Clover writes:

It indicated a lot – a classic Kremlin signal … used to communicate to certain groups a message which only they could hear. It was a way of announcing in deniable terms what Putin probably could not say outright – that certain circles within the state enjoyed his understanding and support. … [Putin] was sending a subtle signal to the elite that new ideas had swept to power … these ideas would make themselves clearer 15 months later, in March 2014, when Russian soldiers quietly seized airports and transports across Crimea. … Putin was extolling chest-thumping nationalism, the martial virtues of sacrifice, discipline, loyalty and valour.

But did the use of a single term of Gumilev’s (‘passionarity’) really indicate all that? I think not. The 2012 speech was not the first time Putin had mentioned Gumilev. As far back as October 2000, when he visited the Lev Gumilev Eurasian National University in Astana, he spoke of the importance of the ‘Eurasian idea’ and of his desire to create a ‘Eurasian Union’. He mentioned Gumilev again in a speech in 2003. Yet, in the same period Putin was also making numerous statements about his desire for better relations with the West and about his belief that Russia is a European country. References to Gumilev did not at that time indicate an endorsement of Eurasianism, ‘chest-thumping nationalism’, annexation of foreign territories, or anything similar. It is a bit of stretch, therefore, to suggest that the very brief reference to Gumilev in 2012 heralded the annexation of Crimea. Nor could it be said to have meant that ‘new ideas had swept to power’, given that Putin had been referencing Gumilev for 12 years already.

Furthermore, if one looks at the one other occasion in which Putin not merely mentioned Gumilev but actually quoted him, it was for a purpose far removed from that claimed by Clover. On 26 August 2005, Putin spoke in Kazan on the occasion of the city’s one thousandth anniversary. He said:

Russia, developing as a multinational country, could organically integrate the richest heritage of the Volga land, or, as Lev Gumilev said, ‘the great steppe culture’. … Without exaggeration the principle of toleration, both national and religious, was central to the formation of Russian statehood. … Thanks to its multiethnic unity our country withstood many trials … the preservation of social, interethnic, and inter-religious peace is the basic, fundamental condition of Russia’s successful development. … In opposing nationalism and extremism the state must rely on all the Federation’s subjects.

In this instance, therefore, far from using Gumilev to promote ‘chest-thumping nationalism’, Putin used him to do the opposite – to buttress an argument against ethnic nationalism and in favour of Russia as a multicultural society.

All this shows that it is necessary to pay attention not only to whom Putin quotes, but also the exact words quoted. Clover’s statement about Putin and Gumilev is classic Kremlinology – drawing sweeping conclusions from a tiny clue (Putin’s use of the word ‘passionarity’). As part of my research, I have found that Putin has quoted or mentioned Gumilev five times in the last sixteen years. That surely indicates something, but it does not mean that by mentioning passionarity, ‘Putin was sending a subtle signal … that new ideas had swept to power’, nor that he ‘was extolling chest-thumping nationalism, the martial virtues of sacrifice, discipline, loyalty and valour.’

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12 thoughts on “Putin and Gumilev”

  1. ‘passionarity’ (roughly speaking, a nation’s willingness to make sacrifices)

    No, even not close. Just because Clover decided that this word means that (‘cause that suits his narrative he is pushing in this book) it doesn’t make it a right one.

    ”It indicated a lot – a classic Kremlin signal … used to communicate to certain groups a message which only they could hear…”

    No, it indicates that Kremlinology belongs to the same category of “sciences” as Astrology, Alchemy and Phrenology. Stick this down your phlogiston, Clover.

    “…these ideas would make themselves clearer 15 months later, in March 2014, when Russian soldiers quietly seized airports and transports across Crimea. … Putin was extolling chest-thumping nationalism, the martial virtues of sacrifice, discipline, loyalty and valour…”

    Sooooooo… Putin made plans for Crimea’s “annexation” back in 2012. Ouuuuuuuuh – how devious of him!

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  2. Roughly speaking Charles Clover is an idiot.

    Getting more in detail although “sacrifice” indeed was one of the words used by Gumilev in explanation of what passionarity is it certainly wasn’t nation’s ability to “make sacrifice”. More then that I dare Glover to explain how his idea of passionarity (for it is certainly not Gumilev’s) could be connected to Crimea.

    As for Putin using this word at all – in this instance it doesn’t even constitute quoting of Gumilev, since this word made it into larger Russian language and used even by people who never read Gumilev himself (just like Glover).

    Btw note geography of Putin quoting Gumilev. It is hard to explain why he would quote Russian nationalist-imperialist in places like Kazakhstan (who slavishly named university after him) and Tatarstan. Although may be he did it to instill some fear of God into despicable churki. Tyrant!

    Speaking of Gumilev himself and his ideas. Although he had his share of personal views which does resonate with nationalistic crowd (dislike of West and late in life fair share of antisemitism) those views never quite fitted in context of his ideas. Just as those ideas never had anything to do with nationalism or conquest or whatever else idiots like Glover would try hang on him for the sake of a good horror story.

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    1. I hope it is the latter, but it’s likely the former and will be compensated for by a hundred pieces on Putin’s troll factories or other junk. But perhaps I am being too pessimistic.

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  3. Hello, Paul. I’m looking forward to your review of ‘Black Wind, White Snow’ – it is also on the to-reads list for my own blog.
    “It indicated a lot – a classic Kremlin signal … used to communicate to certain groups a message which only they could hear. It was a way of announcing in deniable terms what Putin probably could not say outright – that certain circles within the state enjoyed his understanding and support. … [Putin] was sending a subtle signal to the elite that new ideas had swept to power … these ideas would make themselves clearer 15 months later, in March 2014, when Russian soldiers quietly seized airports and transports across Crimea. … Putin was extolling chest-thumping nationalism, the martial virtues of sacrifice, discipline, loyalty and valour.”
    *Please* tell me the book improves after that.

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    1. So far it’s better than I had expected, but I haven’t yet reached the section detailing how all the stuff about Trubetskoy, Gumilev, Dugin, etc relates to the present day. Other stuff keeps getting in the way of my finishing the book.

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      1. “So far it’s better than I had expected, but I haven’t yet reached the section detailing how all the stuff about Trubetskoy, Gumilev, Dugin, etc relates to the present day. ”
        Good to know. It will be interesting to see whether Clover falls into the same trap Laqueur did when he tried to explain the influence of the conservative philosophers on the present Russian government in ‘Putinism’.

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      2. Dugin’s has no connection to Eurasianism apart from brand name.

        He is basically a guy who sells hot dogs under name “cinnamon buns” because it sells better.

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  4. About the ‘Kremlinology’ thing:
    classic Kremlinology – drawing sweeping conclusions from a tiny clue

    I got the impression that Kremlinology was an art/science of analyzing (mostly) editorials in Pravda for hints of who’s up, who’s down, and what’s being planned… I believe it was a legitimate exercise, if you knew what you’re doing…

    But the thing is, Pravda editorials were a work of an apparatus, working hard to deliver the precise message, reflecting all the nuances of the today’s version of the party-line.

    And now consider the phenomenon of V.V.Putin. I’ve watched his interviews, his speeches. I don’t know, maybe I’ve been fooled by the dreaded ‘Russian propaganda machine’, but he seems perfectly spontaneous, unscripted. He’s not delivering the precise and nuanced message, he’s saying whatever pops up into his head. This would require a completely different Kremlinology – and a much simpler, much more straightforward one… Just listening what the guy says…

    Anyway, just a thought…

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