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.’