Lev Nikolayevich Gumilyov (Russian: Лев Никола́евич Гумилёв; 1 October 1912, St. Petersburg – 15 June 1992, St. Petersburg) was a Soviet historian, ethnologist, anthropologist and translator from Persian. He had a reputation for his highly non-orthodox theories of ethnogenesis and historiosophy. He was an exponent of Eurasianism.
His parents, the two prominent poets Nikolay Gumilyov and Anna Akhmatova, divorced when Lev was 7 years old, and his father was executed by Cheka, Bolshevik secret-police, when Lev was just 9. Lev spent most of his youth, from 1938 until 1956, in Soviet labor camps. He was arrested by the NKVD in 1935 and released, but rearrested again and sentenced to five years in 1938. After serving the time, he joined the Red Army and took part in the Battle of Berlin of 1945. However, he was arrested again in 1949 and sentenced to ten years in prison camps. Aiming to secure his release, Akhmatova published a dithyramb to Joseph Stalin, which did not help to release Lev, although it possibly prevented her own imprisonment. The Soviet secret police had already prepared an order for her arrest, but Stalin decided not to sign it. Relations between Lev and his mother became strained, as he blamed her for not helping him enough. She described her feelings about the arrest of Lev and the period of political repressions in Requiem (published in 1963).
After Stalin's death in 1953, Gumilyov joined the Hermitage Museum, whose director, Mikhail Artamonov, he would come to appreciate as his mentor. Under Artamonov's guidance, he became interested in Khazar studies and in steppe peoples in general. In the 1950s and 1960s, he participated in several expeditions to the Volga Delta and to the North Caucasus. He proposed an archeological site for Samandar as well as the theory of the Caspian transgression in collaboration with geologist Alexander Alyoksin as one of the reasons for Khazar decline. In 1960, he started delivering lectures at Leningrad University. Two years later, he defended his doctoral thesis on ancient Turks. From the 1960s, he worked in the Geography Institute, where he would defend another doctoral thesis, this time in geography.
Although the official Soviet authorities rejected his ideas and banned most of his monographs from publication, Gumilyov came to attract much publicity, especially in the Perestroika years of 1985–1991. As an indication of his popularity, the Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered the L.N.Gumilyov Eurasian National University (Евразийский Национальный университет имени Л. Н. Гумилёва, founded in 1996) to be erected just opposite his own palace on the central square of the new Kazakh capital, Astana.
Gumilyov attempted to explain the waves of nomadic migration that rocked the great steppe of Eurasia for centuries by geographical factors such as annual vacillations in solar radiation, which determine the area of grasslands that could be used for grazing livestock. According to this idea, when the steppe areas shrank drastically, the nomads of Central Asia began moving to the fertile pastures of Europe or China.
To describe the genesis and evolution of ethnic groups, Gumilyov introduced the concept of "passionarity", meaning the level of activity to expand typical for an ethnic group, and especially for their leaders, at the given moment of time. He argued that every ethnic group passes through the same stages of birth, development, climax, inertia, convolution, and memorial. It is during the "acmatic" phases, when the national passionarity reaches its maximum heat, that the great conquests are made. Gumilyov described the current state of Europe as deep inertia, or "introduction to obscuration", to use his own words. The passionarity of the Arabic world, on the other hand, is still high, according to him.
Drawing inspiration from the works of Konstantin Leontyev and Nikolay Danilevsky, Gumilyov regarded Russians as a "super-ethnos" which is kindred to Turkic-Mongol peoples of the Eurasian steppe. Those periods when Russia has been said to conflict with the steppe peoples, Gumilyov reinterpreted as the periods of consolidation of Russian power with that of steppe in order to oppose destructive influences from Catholic Europe, that posed a potential threat to integrity of the Russian ethnic group.
In accordance with his pan-Asiatic theories, he supported the national movements of Tatars, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples, in addition to those of the Mongolians and other East Asians. Unsurprisingly, Gumilyov's teachings have enjoyed immense popularity in Central Asian countries. In Kazan, for example, a monument to him was opened in August 2005.
Historian Mark Bassin writes that Gumilyov was "not a credible theoretician... [and] his hypotheses are filled with inconsistencies, misunderstandings, and misapplications of the concepts he borrowed" (4) but that while his social theory is thoroughly problematic and lacks any sort of scientific or intellectual authority, his ideas are important to understand in that his theories of ethnos, ethnogenesis, and passionarity (among other concepts) have been massively influential and have had significant impact in a range of Soviet and post-Soviet contexts.
Several researchers, such as Vadim Rossman, John Klier, Victor Yasmann, Victor Schnirelmann, and Mikhail Tripolsky describe Gumilyov's views as antisemitic. According to these authors, Gumilyov did not extend this ethnological ecumenism to the medieval Jews, whom he regarded as a parasitic, international urban class that had dominated the Khazars and subjected the early East Slavs to the "Khazar Yoke". This last phrase he adapted from the traditional term "Tatar Yoke" for the Mongol domination of medieval Russia, a term Gumilyov rejected for he did not regard the Mongol conquest as a necessarily negative event. In particular, he asserted that the Radhanites had been instrumental in the exploitation of East Slavic people and had exerted undue influence on the sociopolitical and economic landscape of the early Middle Ages. Gumilyov maintained that the Jewish culture was by nature mercantile and existed outside and in opposition to its environment. According to this view, Jews share a specific way of thinking, and this is associated with the moral norms of Judaism. According to Gumilev, the medieval Jews also did not bear arms themselves, but waged wars by proxies or mercenaries.
- The Hsiung-nu (1960)
- Ancient Turks (1964)
- Гумилёв, Лев Николаевич (1970). Поиски вымышленного царства: Легенда о государстве пресвитера Иоанна [Searching for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John] (in Russian). Москва: Наука.
- The Hsiung-nu in China (1974)
- Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere of Earth (1978)
- Ancient Rus and the Great Steppe (1989)
- An End and a New Beginning (1989)
- From Rus to Russia (1992)