I did not know the answer to that question, but now I am very glad that I do. In an excellent weekend piece in the Financial Times, Charles Clover explains why this Russian “academic scribbler of a few years back” is now being name-checked by Putin:
Working as a historian from the late 1950s to the end of his life, Gumilev became a renowned expert on the steppe tribes of inner Eurasia: the Scythians, the Xiongnu, the Huns, Turks, Khitai, Tanguts and Mongols. Their history did not record the progress of enlightenment and reason but rather an endless cycle of migration, conquest and genocide. Every few hundred years, nomads would sweep out of the steppes, plunder the flourishing kingdoms of Europe, the Middle East or Asia, and then vanish into history’s fog just as quickly as they had come. The victors in these struggles were not the societies that led the world in technology, wealth and reason. Instead, they had something that Machiavelli described as virtù, or martial spirit, while the medieval Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun described the tribal solidarity of nomadic raiders of civilised cities as asabiyya. To Gumilev, this was passionarnost.
In this idea was the germ of a new Russian nationalism. In his later years, Gumilev celebrated Eurasianism, a theory developed in the 1920s by Russian exiles. Nostalgia for their homeland and the trauma of the Bolshevik revolution had led them to reject the idea that Russia could ever be western and bourgeois. Instead, they wrote, it owed its heritage more to the fierce nomads and steppe tribes of Eurasia. The Enlightenment, in the form of advanced European social theories, had brought Russia to genocide and ruin, while there was a harmony in the wildness of the Huns, the Turks, the Mongols. The steppe lands and forests of the inner continent had traditionally been prone to rule by a single conquering imperial banner. The Russians, they — and now Gumilev — wrote, were the latest incarnation of this timeless continental unity.
Gumilev’s theories have become the standard for a generation of hardliners in Russia, who see in his books the template for a synthesis of nationalism and internationalism that could form the founding idea of a new Eurasia, a singular political unit enjoying much the same frontiers as the USSR. Gumilev’s Eurasianism, a buzzword in official circles, provided the inspiration for Putin’s Eurasian Union, a vision first laid out in October 2011, a week after he announced his intention to return as president of the Russian Federation. Russia, said Putin, would join its former Soviet subjects in a union “that won’t be like other previous unions”. Few, however, doubt that the new union aims to bring the region once again under the Kremlin’s hand.
Clover’s book on Russian nationalism is out later this year.