Russian president Vladimir Putin had a private meeting the other day with the heads of key media organizations. Normally, the content of these meetings remains secret, but on this occasion one of those present leaked what Putin had said. Apart from the statement that ‘We will not abandon Donbass,’ what grabbed the headlines was the following words of Putin:
I believe in passionarity [passionarnost’], in the theory of passionarity. As in nature, so in human society, there is development, a peak, and extinction. Russia hasn’t yet reached the peak. We are on the march, on the march of development. The country passed through very tough experiences in the 1990s, at the start of the 2000s, but it is on the march of development. I look at what is happening here: we have a sea of problems, but unlike other nations that are old or aging, we are still on the rise. We are quite a young nation. We have an immortal genetic code. It is founded on the mixing of bloods, if you can say it in such a simple, popular, way.
I mentioned this odd topic of passionarity once before, but it’s worth returning to it for a more detailed explanation of what Putin is on about, as I suspect it doesn’t mean a lot to most Western readers.
The term ‘passionarity’ was invented by the Soviet ethnologist Lev Gumilev and was a key point in his (failed) doctoral dissertation, later published as a book, entitled Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. But before going on to that, it’s necessary to introduce a bit of historical background.
In the quote above, Putin refers to three stages of national development. This comes out of Gumilev, but it originated in the writings of the late nineteenth century thinkers Nikolai Danilevsky and Konstantin Leontyev. Danilevsky was a biologist and compared civilizations to natural organisms that were born, lived, and died. Leontyev took this up and argued that civilizations have a natural life span of around 1,000 years, divided into three stages – primary simplicity, flowering complexity, and secondary simplicity.
The problem with this thesis is that there is basically no evidence to support it. In a new biography of Leontyev that is to be published this year, Glenn Cronin notes that for all Leontyev’s imaginative genius his ideas consistently lacked any empirical justification. He had a tendency to slap together cherry-picked ideas to suit his rhetorical purposes, without much concern about factual accuracy.
That didn’t stop his theory from having a considerable influence on Eurasianist thinkers in the early 20th century, and in due course, via the Eurasianists, the idea filtered down to Gumilev.
Now, to his credit, Gumilev seems to have realized that the civilizational theory was lacking in scientific evidence. So, he decided to provide it. Well, at least, that’s what he seems to have thought he was doing. The reality was rather different.
In Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere, Gumilev came up with the theory that humans naturally live in groups, which are called ‘ethnoi’. Passionarity is the factor that determines why some ethnoi flourish and others rapidly disappear. According to Gumilev, some individuals have a surplus of energy that induces them to make great sacrifices for a greater goal. This is passionarity, and it is the presence of great ‘passionate’ people with this impulse to great achievement that drives an ethnos to conquest, expansion, scientific and cultural progress, and so on.
And where does the passionarity come from? Well, at this point, the theory begins to get very strange. To be frank, reading Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere, I didn’t feel that Gumilev made it at all clear, though maybe that’s due to the limitations of my intelligence. Passionarity is sometimes described as the product of a genetic mutation caused by environmental factors, but I got the impression that what Gumilev had in mind was more of an epigenetic thing – i.e. there is a genetic disposition to it, but it needs some outside source to stimulate it. But however it’s defined, it is a natural phenomenon deriving from something outside the person, and that thing, according to Gumilev, is the energy of the biosphere and cosmic rays.
Biosphere? Cosmic rays??? Come again. Are you serious? Gumilev apparently was, and spent some time trying to prove his point, in the process alienating various members of the Soviet scientific community who decided that he was a bit of crackpot. It’s almost four years since I read his book, so I can’t remember all the details and may be getting part of this wrong, but as I recall it the idea was basically that occasionally high periods of cosmic radiation produce an excess of energy which activates the disposition to passionarity, inducing the passionate people to go and do their thing and so push the ethnos into its period of expansion. Over time, though, the passionarity weakens and so the ethnos loses steam and goes into decline. The overall process lasts (as in Leontyev’s scheme) about 1,000 years.
What’s the evidence for this? Therein, lies a problem. As far as I can see, there isn’t any. When Gumilev submitted Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere for a doctoral degree, the examining committee was, to say the least, not too impressed by his logic, and threw the thesis out. I can’t say that I blame them.
In a book on Eurasianism, British journalist Charles Clover cites another Soviet ethnographer Sergei Cheshko, who I think put it very well.
Gumilev’s whole conception was basically poetry. Maybe he inherited this from his father [poet Nikolai Gumilev], but it was very effective. … Gumilev was fun. It was utter, unprovable nonsense, but it was good to read. Like a novel.
“Utter unprovable nonsense’ – I think sums it up neatly. Unsurprisingly, the theory has completely failed to take off outside of Russia and Kazakhstan, and I don’t think that’s just because Westerners are ignorant of Russian philosophy. In Russia, though, as Putin’s comments show, it’s proven remarkably popular. I can’t say that I know why, but I suspect that those who babble on about passionarity don’t swallow the whole ethnogenesis theory lock, stock, and barrel, even if they know it, which they probably don’t.
And that’s just as well, because if they did, they’d soon experience some cognitive dissonance. Putin says that Russia is a young country, but in the past he’s cited the conversion of St Vladimir in 988 AD as one of the key moments in Russian history. That makes Russia over 1,000 years old, which coincidentally, according to the Leontyev-Gumilev schematic, is pretty much the end of the civilizational life cycle. So, if you’re really going to say you believe in this stuff, you’d have to conclude not that Russia is young, but rather that it’s pretty much at death’s door. Russians should consider themselves lucky that it’s all hocus pocus.