There is something epic and humbling about the old Russian masters. There they sat, atop the great Eurasian plain, not Europe’s afterthought but its fount. That which came before; that which is always there.
Russia moves in waves. It ebbs and flows and ebbs again. Aleksandr Nevskyy; Ivan the Terrible; Catherine the Great. The explosion of the Russian masters like Lermontov and Dostoyevsky and Pushkin. The Soviet period with Gorky and Lenin. Lev Gumilev. Gumilev was the son of Anna Akhmatova and Nicolai Gumilev. He was a committed Soviet, and as such he suffered the worst of Stalin’s rage. He went to the gulag, for 14 years. When the Cheka investigated Osip Mandelstam (who died in the gulag) for a poem he wrote about Stalin called “The Kremlin Highlander” they found a copy of the poem in Lev’s written hand.
I don’t know how Gumilev, after 14 years in Siberia and inside Stalin’s oxygenless Soviet Union acquired the tremendous knowledge displayed in this, his most famous book. Modern intellectuals in the West have tunnel-vision, product of too great a prosperity which allows the specializations that bifurcate and narrow the field of view, especially of the historian and ethnographer and anthropologist. There is nothing narrow about Gumilev’s masterpiece. He stands atop his Eurasian plain like a collosus and casts his wide gaze across the full scope of the human experiment on planet earth. From arcane tribes who battled the Parthians to the Olmec and their Aztec hangers-on.
The world he describes is one of struggle and strife and a particular trait he calls “drive” but which has been better translated as “passionarity“; man’s struggle for greatness against all odds and belying his personal comfort, safety, and future. Alexander the Great and Napoleon and Jesus and Mohammad and so many others; names we know who defined moments in time and who also set in place whole movements of cultures and peoples and ethnicities.
Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere is Gumilev’s academic treatise on where ethnicities come from, why some turn into ‘super-ethnicities’ that command all of history for a season (like Rome or Byzantium), how some find stasis and lasting meaning (the Basques and the Armenians), why some fall away before they achieve greatness (the Nestorians) and so many other things. For Gumilev groups of people who share common traits, a common future, interact in a social and economic system into which they are born and upon which they depend start to form a unique ethnicity. This is something that is always happening, never once and done but a synthesis of peoples that never ends.
But the key for Gumilev is a person, an individual, somebody who enters into the turbulent waters of what is going on and projects out beyond it with decision and power. Genghis Khan comes to mind. A product of their environment, drawing from the isotopic abundance of their land, defining it and allowing it to define them and how they react to it and dominate it and live within their environments and find balance. There is much of that ancient Russian contemplation of blood and soil in Gumilev’s treatise; that vast Eurasian steppe as this tremendously difficult but ultimately glorious thing that defines Russians and hones their view of the world around them.
There are a lot of people these days looking at Russia and its Ukraine war; at China and Persia and the Turks and wondering if what is coming now is a return of their moments. But they are missing what Gumilev understood. Cycles never come around twice; China, Russia, Persia – the Ottoman Empire – they all had their seasons. What we are witnessing in the instability and the violence is the falling away of the strictures of the modern Western mono-ethnicity (a unitary landless cultureless ethnicity sold, ironically, as a love of diversity, which is incidentally an artificial construct of utopians and has little to do with the incredible American experiment, but that is another topic — and one I will get to soon). And as the West falls away people are returning to what is comfortable and nostalgic to find meaning in what is over, not project to what is coming. The wars are not explosions of ‘drive’, as Gumilev would have defined and recognized them, but instead are the last phases of ending ethnicities in their last great expansion like a star that is weak and dying becomes a red giant before collapsing upon itself as a dwarf or finishing itself off in a supernova that is violent and terrible.
Something is coming next, something new is bubbling up as the West enters a period of decline (a decline which has been coming for a while, which has been slow, but which seems to be accelerating as we deny more and more that which made the American system powerful and good). This is not to be feared, that was the best takeaway from Gumilev’s masterpiece. This has happened before; and it will happen again. We did not attain utopia, nor did we find perfect cultureless opinionless balance. We lived under the shadow of great men – Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison – men with tremendous drive, tremendous “passionarity” who gave meaning and energy to the world in which we abide and to which we owe so much. Men who risked everything for an empire that has been the greatest in world history, about which much has been and will be written, and in whose apogee we live now – and we are therefore lucky.
I leave you with this chart, a summary by Gumilev of the rise and fall of civilization:
Which phase, would you say, are we in?