Reflection to Lev Gumilev's book "Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere"
Lev Gumilev was born into one of Russian culture's most illustrious families: his father Nikolai Gumilev was the founder of acmeism, a highly influential poetic movement of the Russian Silver
Age; he was shot by the Soviet Cheka in 1921. His mother, Anna Akhmatova, an even more celebrated poet, devoted one of her most poignant long poems, Requiem, to the tragic fate of her only son, Lev, who spent fifteen years in Stalin's concentration camps for the mere crime of being the son of "infamous" parents. After his return from the Gulag, Gumilev emerged in Leningrad as one of the most renowned historians and ethnologists of the 1970s-1980s. He authored numerous books, mostly dealing with the history, geography, and ethnography of Eurasia and with the interaction between Slavic and Turkic tribes in the vast region of the southern Russian and Mongolian steppes. Gumilev attempts to base his ethnological research on the methodologies of the natural sciences. His most significant influence is the work of Vladimir Vernadsky (1863- 1945), a great twentieth-century Russian scientist in several interconnected fields, including geology and biochemistry. An approach, reducing the human element of ethnology to natural laws, is elaborated by Gumilev, who argues for the priority of biological and chemical determinants in the historical process. Citing Vernadsky's theory of the biosphere as a reservoir of energy permeating and charging all living substances, including the human body, Gumilev explains ethnogenesis by the influence and infusion of cosmic energy. "Ethnos as a form of existence of the species Homo sapiens … preceded the creation of tools of production and social development. The character of its development correlates with the fluctuation of biochemical energy in the living matter of the biosphere."
2. Main part: Ethnogenesis and the Earth's Biosphere
Gumilev's most important work, Ethnogenesis and the Earth's Biosphere, represents a philosophical and methodological summation of his more specialized historical investigations. This book, completed in the 1970s, could not be published until shortly before the author's death in 1990 because its method, though based on materialist assumptions, was, from the standpoint of official Marxism, suspect-an example of "vulgar materialism," reducing the social form of materiality to its more primitive chemical and biological forms. The historical scope of Ethnogenesis and the Earth's Biosphere may be compared to Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History (1934-61), though Gumilev rejects Toynbee's methodology, in particular, his principal conception of human civilization as a response to the challenge of a severe natural environment. Gumilev's book explores the fates of dozens of ethnoi, from the Spanish and Italian to the Egyptian, Arabic, and Mongolian, and covers several millennia of their ascension and decline. But it is not based only on empirical research; the author advances an original conception to account for ethnic processes all over the world, relying in particular on Hegel's and Marx's views of the role of passion in human history. In his search for some decisive factor determining the seemingly variegated forms of ethnicity, Gumilev arrives at the concept of "passionate drive," or "passionarity." This coinage is meant to signify the extent of passion, which for Gumilev is the key factor determining the historical activity of a given ethnos.
"Passionarity" is the energetic drive that generates the formation and activity of an ethnos. "The work done by an ethnic collective is directly proportional to the tension of drive . Gumilev even proposes to calculate passionary tension as the amount of passionarity contained in an ethnic system divided by the number of individuals in that system. This is, however, solely an abstract notion, since Gumilev never goes so far in his scientific claims as to provide a mathematical means for quantifying the passionarity in a given ethnos. Nevertheless, he does make use of charts showing solar activity cycles in order to argue that the historical beginnings of new ethnoi chronologically correspond to periods of minimal solar activity, when cosmic radiation is more readily admitted to earth's atmosphere, giving rise to a greater frequency of mutation, hence to new passionarians and, correspondingly, to new ethnoi. Not all members of a given ethnos are equally charged with passionarity; thus Gumilev singles out a specific category of persons who are its true founders and leaders, "passionarians." Whereas most people, both individually and collectively, are motivated by a desire for self-preservation, and therefore behave reactively in the face of social and natural cataclysms, passionarians are people who devote their entire lives to the pursuit of a particular goal and are ready to give their lives for its attainment. As examples of passionarians, Gumilev points to Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Joan of Arc, Jan Hus, Avvakum, and Napoleon, among others. The decisive feature of the passionarian is his or her capacity to charge other people with the energy of action ("passionary induction"). Thus, for example, a given division of soldiers may be composed of varied individuals, but the presence of a few passionarians among them would raise their level of passionarity and convert the unit into a passionate organism capable of decisive action. Sub-passionarians are those satisfied by mere "bread and circuses"; according to Gumilev, they are typically found among vagrant populations or are employed as soldiers of fortune who "do not change the world and do not preserve it, but exist at its expense." The proportion ofpassionarians and sub-passionarians within a population fluctuates with the ascendancy or decline of a given ethnos. Thus, in Gumilev's view, "Ancient Rus was ruined by destabilization, which appeared as a consequence of a decrease in the passionary tension ofthe ethnic system or, more simply put, an increase in the number of sub-passionarians-egoists not capable of sacrifice for the sake of selfless patriotism." Notably, Gumilev cites patriotism - and not for instance artistic or philosophical genius-as the most convincing form of passionarity. Gumilev does not connect passionarity with any ethical norms. He recognizes its ability to produce both heroic deeds and terrible crimes, to create and to destroy; the only attitude excluded from passionarity is sluggishness and indifference. He is also careful to distinguish it from leadership as typically understood, arguing that it is the passionarity of the rank and file within "the pack" that often constitutes the true impetus for decisive action. For example, while Napoleon as a passionarian had no rival among the leaders of the monarchic European coalition arrayed against him, it was the greater proportion of passionarians in the ranks of the opposing forces that led to the downfall of a less passionate French force composed of fresh recruits. Thus, strong passionarity does not necessarily correlate with individual prominence. According to Gumilev, passionarity is a factor of an ethnos's negentropy, which resists the inevitable tendency toward entropy-the dead equilibrium to which all closed physical systems are liable. However, ethnoi too are susceptible to the law of the gradual exhaustion of passionarity. First ofall, the tendency for passionarians to perish prematurely in times of war explains why these persons rarely reproduce and pass on their passionary genes. Moreover, during peacetime, passionarians are apt to miss their callings and are forced into marginal status, alienated from societies in which moderate and cautious people enjoy greater success. Thus the fate of every ethnos is a gradual loss of passionarity and a multistage degradation into passivity and extinction.
2.2. Phases of ethnic evolution
More specifically, Gumilev identifies the following phases of ethnic evolution: the ascension, acme, fracture, inertia, obscuration, regeneration, relic, and memorial phases, after which an ethnos dissolves into nothingness. In the stages of ascension and acme, the ideal of victory prevails; next comes the ideal of success, followed by those of knowledge and creativity; then the search for well-being without risk; and finally, a quiet conformity adapted to the local biocenosis. The average term ofexistence for each ethnos is 1,000-1,500 years, after which entropy overcomes passionarity, ensuring this collective organism's demise. Gumilev charts the moral guidelines prevalent in each period of ethnic history. The phase of ethnic formation and ascension, for example, is inspired by such imperatives as: "It is necessary to correct the world because it is bad"; or "Be what you should be." The next stage, that of attaining the acme, demands: "Be yourself!" The transition to inertia is expressed as "We are tired of the great"; "Be like me"; and later, in the obscuration phase: "Be like us." The memorial phase may be summarized as "Remember how fine it was."In the last phase of ethnogenesis, people lose their memory of the past and even their sense of time. They enter a state of homeostasis, energy equilibrium with their natural environment, where their existence becomes almost identical to that of animals. According to Gumilev, an ethnos cannot preserve itself in the status quo; it is either developing or deteriorating. Thus he describes the Chukchi people of northern Siberia as having lost the sense oftime, not even noticing the change of seasons. Severe climate might be blamed for this exhaustion of spirit, but even the denizens of paradise are not immune to such entropy, as witnessed by the Onge people, who are "too lazy to live. They sometimes prefer to starve than hunt for food." Gumilev never considers the possibility that each ethnos may have its own criteria for growth and degradation, and that the same modes of time orientation may be "progressive," "regressive," or "neutral" for different ethnoi. On the one hand, Gumilev criticizes ethnic elitism, which he sees, for example, in Karl Jaspers's concept of the "axis" time, according to which five great nations-the Greeks, Jews, Iranians, Chinese, and Indians-produced the greatest prophets, who from the eighth to second centuries BC gave spiritual birth to contemporary civilization. On the other hand, Gumilev finds an original justification for those ethnoi that have traditionally been considered to be "backward," such as Native Americans and Black Australians, Eskimos, and Bushmen: these, he says, are "simply relics that have outlived their flourishing and decline." Contrary to the traditional white chauvinist view of these ethnoi as still too young, hence in need of the "blessings" of Western colonization to enter into historical development, Gumilev the "blessings" of Western colonization to enter into historical development, Gumilev believes them to be "decrepit" ethnoi whose best time is in the past: they have come to the last phase of entropy, to homeostasis; "that is why their material culture is so poor, and their spiritual culture so fragmentary. This is a paradoxical "multiculturalism" that does not recognize the different values of differing cultures, but rather seeks to explain perceived deficiencies with reference to a universal process. Gumilev pays considerable attention to the interaction among different ethnoi, and especially to the type of interaction that results in the formation of self-destructive ethnic complexes, which he calls anti-systems or "chimeras" (combinations of elements not organically united). When two ethnic systems interact, a kind of cacophonous disruption occurs instead of a seamless harmony. "Let both systems be positive, ecologically and culturally, but when combined they generate an anti-system, an epiphenomenon that arises beyond the will of the participants». With ethnic combination or transplantation, people begin to lose their sense of organic connection with their geographical environment and turn to abstract thinking, which ultimately leads such thinkers to hate their natural milieu, and life in general. "Then, at the site of collision, there emerges either a symbiosis, with ethnoi existing in a single region independently of each other; or a chimera, when the interaction changes the structures and stereotypes of behavior. Then development is halted amid chimeric formations, and a complex of negative attitudes toward nature, culture, and even life as such arises. As an example, Gumilev cites Gnosticism, which arose on the border between two prosperous ancient ethnoi, the Jews and the Greeks. The Gnostic worldview considers life on earth to be a hardship which the human soul must shed. In the same way, the collision between Hellenic and Persian civilizations in the third century generated Manicheism, a powerful anti-system that likewise identified life with evil. Adherents of this religion destroyed temples, icons, even human bodies, since the visible world was created by an evil god and must be subjected to annihilation. Gumilev traces the history of such chimeric concepts through Christian heresies and socialist utopias, hinting that communist revolution in Russia may also have been initiated by the interaction of two ethnoi, Jews and Russians, resulting in a chimeric Soviet ethnicity based on the ideological subjugation of the natural environment- which is self-ruinous for the ethnos. Notably, Gumilev's analysis of Christian heresies and early socialist movements has affinities with that offered by Shafarevich, and both authors see the Protestant and socialist movements as associated with a Manichean hatred for the world and grounded in a gravitation toward death. Gumilev's metaphysics includes the concept of the "infernal" vacuum as the opposite of life-generating nature.
He dedicates Ethnogenesis and the Earth's Biosphere to the great cause of defending the natural environment against anti-systems that have millions of adherents all over the earth, and that hold up, as their ideal, the void. In these terms, however, Gumilev himself may be viewed as a Manichean, since he insists upon dividing the world into two opposing forces of energy and vacuum. In his eyes, the force of anti-system would be irresistible if not for the new impetuses of passionarity, which infuse deteriorating ethnic systems with energy. In the final analysis, only nature and its vital energetic impulses are considered real and positive in the system of Gumilev's thought, whose conclusive thesis is that "we are not alone in the world! The near-Cosmos takes
part in protecting nature, which it is up to us not to spoil. Nature is not only our home; she is using. Gumilev's preference for a natural rather than historical approach to ethnicity is not purely methodological, but also reflects his metaphysical assumption that history is a waste of natural forces, a kind of cosmic illness. Central to Gumilev's philosophy is the problem of historical time, which he discusses as a function of entropy, the tendency of energy to dissipate into nothingness. According to this view, history has no creative potential in itself; the impetus for artistic, scientific, or political creativity, as well as for violence and destruction, comes solely from impulses arising in the biosphere. Another philosophical question underlying all of Gumilev's theorizing is the problem of free will. He distinguishes a hierarchy of levels of material organization ranging from the atom to the galaxy, and postulates a scale of determinism that correlates with the status of the material unit. Thus, on a galactic scale, the laws of material organization are absolutely predetermined, whereas the atom exists in a zone of indeterminacy. Ethnoi, in his view, are intermediate entities, which means that their processes are largely probabilistic. Gumilev is careful to assert that a given ethnos's history leaves room for the freedom of human actions, which can change its fate; however, the principal assumptions of his theory ground personality in a genetic and biochemical predisposition, determined by mutation. When Gumilev of indeterminism, he means not free will but randomness. One may be arbitrarily born with passionarity, but acting on this impulse is not a matter of free choice-it is biologically predetermined.
Gumilev was the brightest representative of the second generation of Russian Eurasianists. His legacy provoked heated debates. He became a cult figure for many followers of the "Russian idea," who enthusiastically embraced his apologias for thе greatness of Russia as the center of Eurasia and as a "super-ethnos." On the other hand, some nationalists accused him of "Russophobia" because of his high estimation of the Turkic peoples and their formative impact on Russian history. Most social scientists, meanwhile, took a rather skeptical view of Gumilev's works. Despite his indisputable erudition and the abundance of empirical material he cites, his general view of ethnogenesis is dictated by speculative "cosmological" hypotheses that are not subject to the criteria of verification or falsification. "Pseudoscience," "mythmaking" "folk-history"-such were some of the epithets applied to Gumilev's theory of passionarity. However, it is impossible to deny Gumilev's significant role, even as a mythmaker, in the intellectual history of the late Soviet period. Among all Russian historians, Gumilev turned out to be most successful in creating a "meta-discourse" of ethnicity that crosses the borders of disciplines and, even more essentially, the borders ofscience, history, myth, fiction, politics, and ideology.