Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev, 1912-1992, was a Soviet historian, anthropologist and translator. He was the son of two celebrated Russian poets, Nikolay Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, who both were pursued by Stalin. His father was shot when Lev was only 7 and he spent most of his youth in Soviet labor camps. His mother, Anna Akhmatova, wrote paeans to Stalin to save her life but she never managed to help her son. After Stalin’s death, Gumilev began working at the Hermitage Museum in Moscow where he became interested in the history of the Khazars and other people of the Central Asian steppes. In 1960 he began lecturing at Leningrad University and wrote a PhD on the ancient Turks.
Gumilev was a neo-Eurasianist, meaning that he regarded Russian identity as closer to the identity of the peoples of Central Asia than to Europeans. The Eurasianist movement originally arose among the Russian diaspora community in the 1920s. Although the Eurasianists were staunchly anti-Communist, they defended the October Revolution of 1917 as a way to protect Russia against the onslaught of European capitalism and its materialistic values. Yet when their main organization in 1929 turned out to be sponsored by the Soviet regime, the Eurasianists lost credibility among fellow émigrés. In today’s Russia, Eurasianist arguments are used to defend the notion of a “Greater Russia,” a Russia which is based on Central Asian rather than European values, and which once again incorporates Central Asian states within its territory. A “Eurasian Economic Community” was established in October 2000, with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members. Some observers in the West regard this community as a way of recreating a Soviet-style empire or perhaps a twenty-first-century version of the Golden Horde.
Gumilev’s most notorious argument was that the Mongol invasion never happened. Rather, he said, the various Rus principalities concluded a defensive alliance with the Mongols in order to repel the Teutonic Knights which attacked them from the west. The Knights were a religious order which had participated in the Crusades but which in the thirteenth-century turned its attention to Poland and Lithuania. Ferocious and Catholic they represented a far greater threat to Russian society than the Mongols. Gumilev supported the nationalist movements of Tatars, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples, as well as of Mongolia, but his ideas were rejected by the Soviet authorities and he, much as his parents, was unable to publish anything he wrote. This changed when the Soviet Union was disintegrating in the 1980s and Gumilev was suddenly widely read by nationalists in both Russia and in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Yet there is an obvious tension between the way nostalgia for the Mongol past is invoked by Russians and by Central Asians since the newly independent states are weary of the rhetoric of empire. A monument was erected in Gumilev’s honor in Kazan, Tatarstan, in 2005; he was featured on stamps in Kazakhstan in 2012, and the main university in Astana, the Kazakh capital, is named after him.