Tag Archives: Lev Gumilev

Ethnogenesis in America

I’ve just finished reading Lev Gumilev’s Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere (which, for those of you who don’t know, is an influential work in neo-Eurasianist thought). It certainly isn’t light reading, and is more than a little odd. The idea that ethnic groups (ethnoi) are a product of an upsurge of people who have a mutation giving them a greater capacity to convert energy into work (passionarnost’) is weird enough. The idea that this energy comes from the animate matter of the ‘biosphere’ and also from some sort of mysterious and undefined ‘cosmic radiation’ is downright kooky. At least old Lev was smart enough to realize that the ‘noosphere’ [derived from the Greek word ‘nous’, meaning mind] was a load of nonsense, but otherwise I can’t say that he convinced me of his theories. I sympathize with those who think that they’re pseudo-scientific gobbledegook. Yet, looking at the United States, I can’t help wondering if there isn’t something to the theories after all.

An ethnos, Gumilev said, is not a social-economic phenomenon as described in Marxist theory. Nor is it a racial, or a cultural, or a territorial phenomenon. Nor is it, as Benedict Anderson has said of nationality, an ‘imagined community’. Ethnoi are very real, according to Gumilev, and what distinguishes one from another is that they all have different ‘behavioural stereotypes.’ Everyone except a newborn baby has an ethnos, wrote Gumilev, because everybody behaves in some way. How he or she behaves determines what ethnos he or she belongs to.

According to Gumilev, behavioural stereotypes are a product of adaptation to the physical landscape. Although he never said this, one could regard big cities as a type of landscape. The modern city has required adaptation which in turn has created new behavioural stereotypes. In other words, there has been a process of ethnogenesis which has led to the emergence of a new ethnos in the cities alongside the existing one in the rest of the country.

This model actually fits the United States, which in Gumilevian terms contains not one ethnos but two. Ethnos 1 lives in the big cities, and behaves one way; ethnos 2 lives in the smaller towns and the countryside, and behaves another way. If two ethnoi have sufficient ‘complementarity’ (another Gumilevian term) they can form a ‘superethnos’. To do so, they must share what Gumilev called a ‘dominant’ – that is some ideal which can be given verbal expression. The two American ethnoi, however, appear to increasingly lack either complementarity or a dominant. Consequently, the American superethnos is disintegrating.

In Gumilev’s theory, the rise and decline of ethnoi is not a constant; the graph has numerous peaks and troughs. Perhaps an unexpected shower of cosmic radiation will generate a great ‘passionary’ who will revitalize the American superethnos. Or perhaps the two American ethnoi will each throw up their own passionaries who will accelerate the process by which the two Americas become distinguished from one another. Or then again, the whole thing might just be a load of pseudo-scientific hogwash after all.

Book review: Black Wind, White Snow

As British journalist Charles Clover explains in the preface, his new book Black Wind, White Snow arose out of a meeting he had in Kiev in 1998. Somebody suggested that he read the Foundations of Geopolitics by Alexander Dugin, a philosopher/geopolitical theorist/political activist generally considered an extreme and rather dangerous nationalist. Subsequently Clover got to know Dugin, whom he describes as ‘a funny, hip, and altogether likeable guy as well as one of the most interesting, well-read intellectuals I have ever met.’ Black Wind, White Snow is Clover’s attempt to explain the phenomenon that is Dugin – where his ideas came from and how (in Clover’s opinion) they came to exercise a powerful hold on contemporary Russian political thought.

Dugin is often described as a ‘neo-Eurasianist’, and so to achieve his goal, Clover spends the first half of his book explaining the origins of Eurasianism through an examination of the lives of linguist Nikolai Trubetskoi and ethnographer Lev Gumilev. Trubetskoi was one of the contributors to the 1920 volume Exodus to the East, which is normally considered the founding document of Eurasianism, and Gumilev was supposedly responsible for introducing many Eurasianist ideas into the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia.

Clover’s style is journalistic, focusing far more on the lives of Trubetskoi, Gumilev, and Dugin than on their ideas. Given their interesting personal stories (especially Gumilev), this makes for an often fascinating read. The second half of the book, which focuses on Dugin, is sometimes hard to follow, due to the complicated collection of characters Clover introduces, as well as the numerous conspiracy theories he recounts. Clover has researched his subject well and interviewed many of the key players. This is a much better book than many I have reviewed on this blog.

Clover makes it clear that he regards Eurasianism as pseudoscientific nonsense, a point of view with which I am sympathetic. To Clover, Gumilev was more of a poet, like his parents Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, than he was a scholar. As Clover writes, ‘Lev’s histories were often fanciful and, strictly speaking, not very scholarly; he invented people, he invented documents, or transported things magically through time so that they would fit his narrative. … His opponents accused him of complete disregard for the evidence.’ His doctoral thesis Ethnogenesis and the Human Biosphere was rejected not because of political pressure (senior Communist Party members actually tried to get his institution to pass it), but because it was poor scholarship which ‘argued theory into the realms of science fiction.’ Clover cites ethnographer Sergei Cheshko saying, ‘Gumilev’s conception was basically poetry. … It was utter, unprovable nonsense, but it was good to read, like a novel.’

As for Dugin, Clover describes him as a sort of postmodern fascist, ‘his political projects born of the same stuff as surrealist art’. For instance, a youth movement Dugin set up was ‘undertaken with a postmodern wink to the audience’, and was ‘almost a self-parody of itself’. Clover remarks: ‘To this day I wonder: does he actually believe it or not?’ Regardless of the answer, he considers Dugin dangerous. Eurasianism, Clover writes, is defined by ‘its arbitrariness, its flimsiness, and its fakery’, but has ‘become the officially sanctioned national idea’ due to Dugin’s sponsors in the Kremlin and among important people in the military and security agencies. Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, and the current war in Ukraine were, Clover implies, Eurasianism in action, as Russia pursues an alleged plan ‘to remake the Russian Empire in all but name’.

At this point, I part company with Clover. He notes that ‘Dugin himself is circumspect about his connection to the events of the last two years [in Ukraine], insisting that he simply has a knack for getting it right, and is not some “whisperer” in the ear of mandarins or a behind-the-scenes influencer.’ This is surely correct. Eurasianism does have some influence on Russian public discourse, but it is just one set of ideas among many, and by the time those ideas influence public policy they have become highly bowdlerized. As Dugin says in Clover’s book: ‘there are whole circles that stand between me and the government … that add on to the concentrated idea of Eurasian geopolitics, conservative Traditionalism, and the other ideologies I am developing … and create a watered-down version.’ Again, this seems correct.

Somewhat ironically, Clover accuses Russian nationalists of being conspiracy theorists, but is also something of a conspiracy theorist himself. Describing various fringe far right Russian groups, he can never resist speculating that they are all pawns of the Kremlin, despite providing evidence to the contrary. ‘The stars of the new era were not the politicians … but rather the unseen puppet masters behind the scenes’, he writes. Clover cites Pavel Zarifullin, a leader of the Eurasian Youth Union, as saying that ‘the movement was autonomous’, but then adds that ‘The Eurasian Youth Union was the first of a series of Kremlin-backed unofficial street gangs tasked with controlling the streets of Moscow’. A spokesman for the group ‘Russian Image’ tells him that, ‘We do not have direct cooperation from the Kremlin’, but Clover still concludes that, ‘the evidence of Kremlin involvement is too great to ignore’. The 2008 war with Georgia suspiciously coincided with a summer camp organized by Dugin and Zarifullin in South Ossetia. It was the ‘tail that wagged the dog’, claims Clover; ‘it may have emboldened [South Ossetian leader] Kokoity to continue to escalate a low-level conflict to an extent that forced the Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili to intervene with a badly planned and bloody operation’.

More generally, Clover notes that from 2003 onwards the Russian government moved in a nationalist direction because that was where public opinion was headed. He cites theatre producer/political activist Sergei Kurginyan as saying, ‘They [Kremlin leaders] brought us in not because they love our ideas, but because they are reading the public opinion polls, the sociological research’. And yet, a little later Clover blames the Kremlin for the rise of nationalist feeling, complaining that ‘nationalism of all types [was] allowed to flourish by the Kremlin’. This seems contradictory.

Together with some other things that I have read recently, Black Wind, White Snow has persuaded me that I ought to take Eurasianism and Dugin a bit more seriously than I have in the past. But I’m still not convinced that they matter quite as much as Clover thinks they do.

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.’

Book Review: Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine

My recent post on Sergei Lavrov’s article provoked a discussion about whether it matters whom politicians cite. French philosopher Michel Eltchaninoff has written a small book entitled Dans la tête de Vladimir Poutine [Inside Vladimir Putin’s Head] based on the principle that it does.

Given how many people have written articles claiming to know what Putin wants or what he is thinking, it is surprising how few of them have bothered to go through all Putin’s speeches to find out what it is that he has actually said. Eltchaninoff has trawled 15 years of Putin’s pronouncements to discover which philosophers the Russian president has cited and to locate ideological statements. He has also interviewed a number of Russians who have taken part in the country’s ideological debates, such as philosopher/political activist Alexander Dugin, outspoken priest Vsevolod Chaplin, writer Alexander Prokhanov, and political philosopher Boris Mezhuev. He proposes that Putin is of more philosophical bent than commonly imagined.

By examining Putin’s speeches in depth, and using them to make a serious analysis of Putin’s ideological preferences, Eltchaninoff’s book breaks new ground. It contains much interesting material, and I certainly learnt a lot from it. In that respect, its contents are a valuable addition to our knowledge of Russia’s leader.

That said, I have some strong doubts about Eltchaninoff’s analysis of Putin’s philosophical sources. Eltchaninoff’s conclusion is that Putin is above all an ‘imperialist’ and an ‘arch-conservative’. But to reach this conclusion he has to treat some sources differently from others. Eltchaninoff dismisses as unimportant or irrelevant quotations from philosophers whom Putin has cited whose work doesn’t support his conclusion. Meanwhile, he puts a lot of emphasis on things other philosophers wrote which could support the conclusion, even when the things in question are not what Putin was quoting. The result is misleading.

Eltchaninoff mentions six main thinkers whom Putin has cited: Immanuel Kant, Konstantin Aksakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Konstantin Leontiev, Ivan Ilyin, and Lev Gumilev. He deals with the first three very differently from the last three.

Eltchaninoff discusses Putin’s references to Kant, and in particular Kant’s essay on ‘Perpetual Peace’, in the context of his liberal, pro-European discourse in the early 2000s. But he doesn’t allow himself to conclude that Putin is, or indeed ever was, liberally-inclined or pro-European. Eltchaninoff notes that when speaking in Kaliningrad or Berlin, Putin said that Russia was part of Europe, but when speaking in Asian cities he said that Russia was Eurasian. The citation of Kant was, therefore, just a diplomatic ploy, an example of Putin’s ‘pseudo-liberalism’.

As for Aksakov, Eltchaninoff considers Putin’s mention of him to be irrelevant. Aksakov, he notes, was a ‘first generation Slavophile’, but these Slavophiles were not imperialists; Putin is an imperialist; therefore, we cannot draw any conclusions from Putin citing Aksakov! Instead, Eltchaninoff says that Putin is closer to ‘second generation Slavophiles’ such as Nikolai Danilevskii, and proceeds to provide a long explanation of Danilevskii’s beliefs. But as far as I know (and Eltchaninoff doesn’t produce any evidence to the contrary), Putin has never cited Danilevskii.

Putin’s mentions of Berdyaev are similarly regarded as meaningless. Eltchaninoff remarks that the concept of freedom was at the core of Berdyaev’s philosophy. Putin is, as we all know, against freedom. Thus, it follows, according to Eltchaninoff, that Putin simply doesn’t understand Berdyaev. If he did, Eltchaninoff says, he wouldn’t have cited him.

Leontiev, Ilyin, and Gumilev receive very different treatment, with Eltchaninoff taking care to emphasize the anti-Western and illiberal parts of their philosophies. He segues neatly from Leontiev to the so-called ‘crown jurist of the Third Reich’ Carl Schmitt (to whom Putin has never in fact referred), thus creating the impression that Putin has fascist tendencies, while ignoring the fact that Schmitt is quite popular nowadays with a whole array of entirely non-fascist Western thinkers.

Eltchaninoff describes Putin’s references to Ilyin as ‘a manner of avoiding fascism while coming very close’. Like many other commentators, he draws attention to the positive statements Ilyin once made about fascism and to his repeated calls for ‘dictatorship’, while ignoring those things Ilyin said about the need to limit state power and the importance of personal freedom. And yet, it is precisely those latter points that Putin has cited, not the former.

As for Gumilev, Eltchaninoff provides some interesting information about Putin’s knowledge of his works, but fails to provide context for all the citations. When speaking at Kant University in Kaliningrad, Putin cites Kant; and when speaking at Lev Gumilev University in Astana, he cites Gumilev. Eltchaninoff believes that the latter cancels out the former, but not for some reason vice-versa. If Putin quoting Kant is merely ‘pseudo-liberalism’, could not Putin quoting Gumilev be ‘pseudo-Eurasianism’?

Having finished his survey of Putin’s speeches, Eltchaninoff comes to the conclusion that, ‘The philosophical sources of Putinism, however diverse they may be, all rest on two pillars: the idea of empire and an apology for war. This is the common core of Sovietism, Ilyin’s ‘White’ imperialism, Leontiev’s conservatism, Danilevskii’s panslavism, and Eurasianism.’

There are two major problems with this conclusion. First, the thesis that Putin is pursuing an empire by means of war is highly debatable as a matter of fact. Second, the interpretation of Putin’s philosophical sources as being united by empire and war is also highly debatable. Sustaining this interpretation requires one to ignore several of the most important sources and to be highly selective in one’s use of those sources which remain. After all, Putin’s citation of Kant’s ‘Perpetual Peace’ hardly fits Eltchaninoff’s conclusion.

Overall, this book is, as we academics like to say, ‘an original contribution to the literature’ on Russia’s president. But I am unconvinced that it really tells us what is going on ‘inside Vladimir Putin’s head’.