“I have done everything I wanted and I am dying with clean conscience…” These were the last words of Lev Gumilev, who died in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) on June 15, 1992. An outstanding Russian historian, ethnographer, philosopher and one of the most ingenious thinkers of the 20th century, his burial service took place in the Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Laura, but the Tartars put a Muslim praying felt under the coffin, and Mongols put Buddhist prayers at his feet that accompany the dead to the other side.
The almost 80 years of Lev Gumilev’s life were filled with deep drama and hard labor, both literally and in terms of the enormous scientific search he conducted. Devoting himself to history and first of all the history of his motherland, Gumilev tried to conceive the complicated many-century-long journey of Russians in connection to all people of the Eurasian continent, in the context of the humankind’s common destiny. As a result, a new light was shed on the world history.
The scientist’s thought created a unique theory of the genesis of ethnoses. He was the first to not only lay it out, but to discover the moving force behind this genesis. He saw this force as biochemical energy brought to live organisms from the outer space. This phenomenon was discovered by the great Russian thinker Vladimir Vernadsky. Gumilev described the way energy acted as a “passionary impulse.” The essence of this phenomenon, which means an irresistible urge for action, suggests that at different stages of history passionaries, or super activists, appeared among the humankind,full of passion (sometimes fatal) to do something for the sake of the future and dominating others on the way to their goals.
Gumilev applied his theory to the facts of ancient history. His interpretation of Ancient Russia’s history was especially shocking – he offered a new assessment of the three centuries of the Mongol-Tartar yoke, the biggest tragedy of the young Russian state. Gumilev, however, insisted that there had been no yoke. Under his theory, Russian princes found a common language with the comers from the East and even attracted their forces to their side when fighting for national independence. Mixed marriages were also telling – Russian and Golden Horde nobilities “exchanged” grooms and brides as a sign of friendship, reconciliation and kinship.
The scientist’s paradoxical arguments challenged the well-established theories and confused mind. Some simply called him “insane.” His point of view was not accepted officially, his books were not published. The innovator was simultaneously accused of Russophobia and chauvinism, racism and Mongolophilia; was called a “cocksure fictionist.” But lecture halls, where he delivered lectures on history, were always full of those willing to listen to the courageous ideas overturning the rigid truths.
I was lucky to have once attended a Gumilev lecture at the Leningrad University. There was no room to move. Besides students, there were some quite famous people. It was then that I met Natalia Bekhterova, the outstanding neurophysiologist, researcher of the human brain, now dead. She was interested not only in Gumilev’s passionarity theory, but also, professionally, in the fact that he had managed to preserve his brilliant intellect in the inhuman living conditions (16 years of Stalin-era labor camps and prisons).
Apart from the notion of passionarity, Gumilev introduced many other terms to science. For example, he proved that ethnoses have a subtle, invisible tie that alternately results in their like or dislike for each other. He called it “complimentarity”, described its nature and made the conclusion,
“Ethnoses cannot be taught truths, the truths are always inside an ethnos, so attempting to manage it is the same as attempting to manage Vesuvius.” He called for tolerance, advocated a dialog between national cultures and warned against imposing on each other one’s way of life. Gumilev often scolded political leaders for their historic illiteracy and shortsightedness.
The researcher turned his knowledge into a new science, ethnology, which lies at the joint of several sciences. His legacy included 200 scientific works and 10 books that testify to his great literary talent.
Lev Gumilev was called the last son of the Silver Century. He was the only child of Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilev, two famous Russian poets of the early 20th century (the period was known as the Silver Century). All three were outstanding personalities and brought fame to Russia. And all three were to have a terrible and tormented life.
Nikolay Gumilev was executed by Bolsheviks in 1921 on allegations of participation in a counter-revolution conspiracy. Anna Akhmatova was to be in disfavor with Soviet leaders for her “harmful” and “decadent” poems. And their son was to spend 16 years in prisons and labor camps under the totalitarian regime, “for Mom and Dad,” as he jokingly used to say.
He was first arrested when still a student, but was discharged, though expelled from the university. He went to archaeological expeditions as a worker, continued self education and studied foreign languages. In addition to German and French, which he studied when still a child, in the home of his noble grandmother and at a school in Bezhetsk, the Tver region, Gumilev learned Arab, Farsi and Tajik.
Some time later, he was convicted and sent to work in the mines in the Polar region. Finding himself in barracks together with Tartars, Kyrgyzes and Kazakhs, he learned their languages. The latter (what a coincidence!) he learned from Omar Suleimenov, father of the well-known poet and linguist Olzhas Suleimenov. Having passed through thick and thin alive, Gumilev told Olzhas everything when they met.
In 1944, when the Great Patriotic War was driving to a close and warfare was on the German territory, Gumilev voluntarily joined a “suicide battalion” that consisted of prisoners. They were sent for breakthroughs. Gumilev’s last hell was the storming of Berlin. But the fate protected him, and the authorities thanked him with a release.
After the Victory, Gumilev graduated from the history department of the Leningrad University and began post-graduate studies. But in 1949, the Communist Party leaders once again publicly condemned his mother… and he was given a new sentence. “Lying on the bunk bed, in order not to go berserk, I again and again thought about the force that created and destroyed human civilizations; I wanted to discover the law that moves this force,” he remembered later. He wrote down his thoughts on scraps of paper prison inmates collected for him.
It was only in 1956 that Lev Gumilev, at the age of 44, returned to his native Leningrad. All his possessions were a cardboard box full of scraps of paper, his future books The Hsiung-nu and Ancient Turks. At the age of 55, he found love and started a family.
Like any other man, Gumilev had his own partialities: he admired the military glory of the Romans, Arabs, Chinese, Mongols and, of course, Russians. And he also respected the wisdom of the ancient Iranian divinity Mithra, the god of consent, patron of peaceful interpersonal relations.