Lev Gumilev and Eurasianism

Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev, 1912-1992, was a Soviet historian, anthropologist and translator, and the son of two celebrated Russian poets, Nikolay Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. His father was shot when Lev was only 7 years old and he spent most of his youth in Soviet labor camps. His mother 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. Gumilev was a neo-Eurasianist and 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 in Western Europe in the 1920s. Although the Eurasianists were staunchly anti-Communist, they defended the October Revolution of 1917 as a way to protect Russia against 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. 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 regard this organization 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 small Russian principalities concluded a defensive alliance with the Mongols in order to repel the European forces which had attacked them from the west. [Read more:The Mongol invasion of Europe”] 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 came to be widely read by nationalists in both Russia and in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. A monument was erected in Gumilev’s honor in Kazan, Tatarstan, in 2005; he was featured on stamps in Kazakhstan in 2012, and a university in Astana, the Kazakh capital, is named after him.

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