Vladimir Putin’s annual address to the federal assembly, delivered every year in the glittering St George’s Hall of the Kremlin, is a festival of crystal-chandeliered, live-televised grandeur. More than 600 dignitaries fill the room in their costumed finery: sleek designer suits, minority nationality headdresses, lacquered towers of hair, Chanel gowns, cassocks, turbans, shoulder-boards, braids of all sorts and absurdly tall peaked caps. Sitting awkwardly on small, white, hard-backed chairs, the assembled dignitaries know they are in for three hours of gruelling oratory.

As the president takes the stage, the applause from the audience is rapturous and sustained. Russia’s hand-picked elite fill the room knowing that their careers, their incomes, their property and their futures depend on one man, and that this speech will contain vital clues about which way their fortunes are tending.

Civil servants hang on Putin’s every word to hear which programmes will be funded and which will not. Kremlinologists watch to see who is seated next to whom. Journalists hope Putin will say something threatening or off-colour (he frequently does), and this will become a Twitter hashtag within seconds. And in December 2012, everyone was watching to see if Putin, who had limped noticeably during a meeting with Israeli president Shimon Peres and who was rumoured to be in ill health, would make it through the speech.

He did, but almost no one was paying attention to the most important thing in it: a fleeting reference to an obscure Russianised Latin term, flung into the speech at about minute five: “I would like all of us to understand clearly that the coming years will be decisive,” said Putin, hinting, as he often does, at some massive future calamity. “Who will take the lead and who will remain on the periphery and inevitably lose their independence will depend not only on the economic potential but primarily on the will of each nation, on its inner energy, which Lev Gumilev termed passionarnost: the ability to move forward and to embrace change.”

Putin’s passing mention of the late Russian historian Lev Gumilev and this odd word passionarnost meant little to the uninitiated; but to those familiar with the conservative theories of nationalism that have made dramatic inroads into Russian politics since the end of the cold war, it indicated a lot. It was a classic Kremlin signal, what is known in US politics as a “dog whistle”, used to communicate to certain groups a message that only they could hear. It was a way of announcing in deniable terms what Putin probably could not say outright — that certain circles within the state enjoyed his understanding and support.

Lev Gumilev
Lev Gumilev in 1983 © akhmatova.org

The word passionarnost is resistant to easy translation (passionarity? passionism?) but the few who knew its provenance took immediate notice. It was seven months after Putin’s inauguration for a third term as Russia’s president and he was sending a subtle signal to the elite that new ideas had swept to power along with him. Ideas that might, just a few years previously, have been considered marginal or even barking mad were suddenly the anchor of his most important speech of the year. And these ideas would make themselves clearer 15 months later, in March 2014, when Russian soldiers quietly seized airports and transport choke points across Crimea, starting a domino effect that would lead to war in eastern Ukraine. Instead of the polite, non-ideological civic patriotism of the previous two decades, Putin was extolling chest-thumping nationalism, the martial virtues of sacrifice, discipline, loyalty and valour.

Putin’s definition of “passionarity” (from the Latin word passio) was a slightly sanitised one. “Moving forward and embracing change” was one way of putting what Gumilev meant, though more accurate would be something like “capacity for suffering”. It was a word with allusions to the New Testament and the crucifixion, that had been dreamt up by Gumilev during his 14 years in Siberian prison camps. In 1939, while digging the White Sea Canal and daily watching inmates die of exhaustion and hypothermia, Gumilev invented his theory of passionarnost. The defining trait of greatness, he would write in Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere, the book that established his ideas (written in 1979 and circulated in samizdat form until 1989), was sacrifice.

Observing inmates forced to behave like beasts in order to survive had taught him that the virtues of society, friendship and brotherhood were not a mark of human advancement but an instinctual urge, common to all humans at all times, to distinguish us from them.

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.

The young Lev with his parents, the poets Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova, c1913 © akhmatova.org

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.

It is something of a paradox that the vision for a new union has been supplied by someone who suffered so much at the hands of the old one. Lev Gumilev was the son of two of Russia’s renowned poets, Nikolai Gumilev, who was shot by the Bolsheviks in 1921, and Anna Akhmatova, the conscience of the Russian people during the darkest days of Stalin’s purges. He was also the subject of what is one of the greatest poems of the 20th century, “Requiem”.

It was in 1938, at the height of Stalin’s terror, when Lev, a student at Leningrad University, was arrested in his dormitory room and shipped to an Arctic labour camp. For 17 months his mother waited in queues and wrote letters to police officials beseeching them to tell her the fate of her son. Her struggle is immortalised in “Requiem”, her most famous work. Alternating between elegy, lamentation and witness, it culminates in its most famous stanza:

For 17 months I’ve been crying out,
Calling you home.

I flung myself at the hangman’s feet,
You are my son and my terror.

Lev shows up fleetingly in a few of Akhmatova’s other poems, while she looms large in his work. Each was a heavy weight for the other to bear. Akhmatova knew that any transgressions by her would rebound on her son, and so his very existence shackled her artistic freedom: she could not help but see him as an enormous responsibility and a curb on her poetic gift, which — for his sake — she refused to use for decades.

During the years of Soviet ideology, which stressed selfless collectivism and ululating, broad-chested heroes, Akhmatova’s poetry — with its private loves, despair and tender-hearted longing — was subversive. This was her paradox: the unrelenting publicity she gave to her private life. It bothered Lev, the subject of “Requiem”, who liked to point out that while it was his death that was being written about, the poem was basically about her.

“I know what the problem is,” he complained to his sometime lover and lifelong friend Emma Gerstein. “Her poetic nature makes her frightfully lazy and egotistic . . . for her, my death will be a pretext for some graveside poem: how poor she is, she has lost her son. Nothing more.”

Gumilev’s attachment to Akhmatova seems to have bordered on the neurotic. He would throw tantrums (even in his mid-forties) if she ignored him, sometimes rebuking her or complaining about her in his letters (“Mama is not writing to me. I imagine I am once again the victim of psychological games”). He was also intensely jealous of her other husbands and lovers after the death of his father. After their first meeting, Gerstein said of Gumilev that he “took no interest in girls. He adored his mother.” It may have been coincidence, but Gumilev only married in 1967, the year after his mother died. In her autobiography, Gerstein said she believed that his political writings were formulated in the wake of Akhmatova’s death, “a substitute for his mother”.

Gumilev c1951, during his imprisonment at the Karaganda camp © akhmatova.org

As the son of Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev, Lev had grown up with a sense of entitlement but was also under pressure to live up to their expectations. All the names that would become synonymous with modern Russian poetry — Boris Pasternak, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva — were close friends of his mother and father. But for Gumilev it was his acquaintance with Mandelstam that was to prove the most fateful.

The year 1933 saw the rise of Stalin’s terror machine throughout the USSR. Intellectuals, already living in isolation and penury, began to live in fear. They retreated to hushed discussions in kitchens but even there they weren’t safe. That year, Mandelstam composed a poem so lethally funny and insulting about the dictator that he decided not to write it down. Instead he had his wife and Gerstein commit it to memory. Gumilev was one of Mandelstam’s first “listeners”, according to the latter’s wife Nadezhda — one of those to whom the poet would recite a finished work in order to get a first reaction. She wrote: “It so happens that all of M’s [Mandelstam’s] first listeners came to a tragic end.” Soon enough, the poem got out, and all who had heard it were, one by one, hauled in for interrogation, including Gumilev. An intervention by Pasternak seems to have saved Gumilev’s life following his arrest in 1935, but he was rearrested in 1938 and sent to a work camp digging the White Sea Canal in Russia’s far north, along with two other “co-conspirators” who had named each other under torture as members of a terrorist cell.

Gumilev was a keen observer of his own fate and that of his fellow “zeks” — the slang term for the prisoners. Later, in a series of journal articles and interviews, he spoke with great interest and a somewhat odd detachment about watching men interacting with each other as they plummeted closer to the primordial state of survival.

His theories about the role of “nature” in social relations would be the basis of his later academic career. What types of relationship did men form in a state of pure competition to survive? Camp life was his laboratory. And he gradually came to understand that, while brutal and violent, life among inmates was not entirely Hobbesian — a war of all against all. There were certain “laws” of social organisation that seemed immutable.

Gumilev noticed that the zeks, irrespective of background, education or cultural level, all displayed a tendency to form into small groups of two to four people. “These are real consortiums,” he wrote, “the members of which are obliged to help each other. The composition of such a group depends on the internal sympathy of its members for each other.” The members of these small groups would also defend and make sacrifices for each other.

This process of distinguishing order from chaos was, he noted, universal. For example, half the camp’s inmates were “criminals” — that is, they had been convicted of ordinary crimes rather than political ones, as Gumilev and his circle had been. But even among the criminals there was a tendency to distinguish the lawless from the law-abiding: the criminals divided themselves into urki — criminals who obeyed the “laws”, the informal code of criminals — and “hooligans” who did not. The emergence of social order from chaos that Gumilev witnessed made a profound impression on him, and formed a core part of the theory of history that would make him famous.

As he continued to fell logs in the permafrost, watching fellow inmates die of exhaustion and hypothermia, he slowly became fascinated by the irrational in history. One example he often referred to in later writings was the march of Alexander the Great across Eurasia.

“A thought occurred to me on the motivation for human action in history,” he said later. “Why did Alexander the Great go all the way to India and Central Asia, even though he . . . could not return the spoils from these countries all the way to Macedonia? Suddenly, it occurred to me that something had pushed him, something inside himself. It was revealed to me that the human has a special impulse, called passionarity.”

Freed in 1956 after two stints in Siberia, Gumilev went to work for the Institute of Geography at Leningrad University. His first publication was a trilogy on the history of the steppe nomads: The Xiongnu, about the nomads who terrorised Han dynasty China, and Ancient Turks and Searches for the Imaginary Kingdom, about the Mongols. But his epiphany about “passionarity” stayed with him. For decades, he never tired of telling people about his breakthrough, the biological impulse that drives men to irrational deeds.

His theories were at best unorthodox, and at worst quite eccentric. “Passionarity” in Gumilev’s work is a quantifiable measure of the mental and ideological energy at the disposal of a given nation at a given time. He believed one could actually calculate it with impressive equations and plot it on graphs. He even assigned it a symbol as a mathematical variable: Pik.

In 1970, Gumilev published an article in the journal Priroda (Nature), in which he laid out the idea of the “ethnos” — something similar to a nation or ethnic group — which he described as the most basic element of world history: the national or ethnic self-identification that is “a phenomenon so universal as to indicate its deep underlying foundation”. Drawing on his labour-camp theories, he argued that ethnoi were not social phenomena but rather the result of a biological instinct to acquire a “stereotype of behaviour” early in life. “There is not a single person on earth outside of an ethnos,” he was fond of saying. “Everybody will answer the question, ‘What are you?’ with ‘Russian, ‘French’, ‘Persian’, ‘Maasai’ etc, without a moment’s hesitation.”

For Gumilev, the existence of ethnoi was the result of “passionarity” — the instinct to self-abnegation. What distinguishes an ethnos from a jumble of languages, religions and historical experiences is a common purpose, and the willingness of members to sacrifice themselves for it. Ethnoi, he theorised, always start with the actions of a small group of “passionaries”.

His theory was met with strident criticism from the Soviet academic establishment, which saw in his ideas a biological explanation for social phenomena, an unacceptable approach because of its links to Nazism. To be fair to Gumilev, he was not devising a racially or ethnically tinged theory of nationalism, but stating only that the urge to identify with a nation is so pervasive that it must be an essential part of human nature.

While his colleagues railed against him, Gumilev received support from a surprising corner: officials on the Communist party’s central committee increasingly stepped up to back him. One of these was Lev Voznesensky, whose father, as rector of Leningrad University, had allowed Gumilev to defend a dissertation in 1949 before he was himself purged. Voznesensky was one of Gumilev’s fellow camp prisoners and had kept in contact with him. Later he joined the central committee and was in a position to aid his father’s friend. “I would only say that much of his work would not have seen the light of day without help from friends of friends,” Voznesensky wrote in a memoir.

But the most powerful friend Gumilev made, one who would time and again intervene on his behalf in his frequent brutal fights with rival academics, was Anatoly Lukyanov, a future hardliner who in the mid-1970s held a high-ranking post in the presidium of the Supreme Soviet. He would eventually rise to become chairman of the central committee and then chairman of the Supreme Soviet.

Gumilev had met Lukyanov through Voznesensky. Lukyanov, an avid fan of Akhmatova’s, offered to help Gumilev with an ugly court fight surrounding the disposal of her archive. From that time on, the two maintained close contact until Gumilev’s death in 1992.

When I met Lukyanov in Moscow in 2009, he reminisced over tea and cakes at the Pushkin restaurant about his friendship with Gumilev — a staunch anti-communist — and the paradox this appeared to present. In the 1970s, Lukyanov was an up-and-coming Soviet bureaucrat who would play a major role in the 1991 coup attempt against Mikhail Gorbachev. It destroyed his political career and sent him to jail. But he was a complex man. Though a hardline Marxist, he idolised Akhmatova. He even made an audio recording of Gumilev reciting “Requiem”, of all things.

For the next two decades, Lukyanov would be Gumilev’s protector. Fights with the academic establishment were sometimes solved by a phone call from the presidium of the Supreme Soviet or the central committee. “I could always call the Leningrad officials who were putting the clamps on [Gumilev’s work] and they listened to me,” Lukyanov said. “It wasn’t some great feat on my part; it was just that I had an understanding of Lev Gumilev’s importance and his work.”

For Lukyanov, Gumilev’s theories represented something utterly original: not nationalism, not Marxism, but rather a third way — a synthesis of nationalism and internationalism, which emphasised the unconscious sympathy of the people of the Soviet Union, the millennia-old unity of inner Eurasia, and a lurking distrust of the west. “If one were to describe him in party terms,” said Lukyanov, “Gumilev was an internationalist. He considered that all the influences on the Russian people — from the Polovtsians, the Chinese and the Mongols — only enriched us . . . Among real communists, the ones who knew Marxism at first hand, Lev Gumilev did not have enemies.”

Gumilev’s political beliefs legitimised, in theoretical terms, the nationalism that would burst out of the collapse of communism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating the scientific (or pseudo-scientific) basis for many nationalist writers. His vocabulary of “passionarity”, “complementarity”, “super-ethnos” and so on has been absorbed into the political mainstream, and his theories stand today at the nexus of scholarship and power. He has been championed both by Russian hardliners and by breakaway republics. Georgian, Kyrgyz and Azeri nationalists have all claimed his inheritance.

Lukyanov saw Gumilev’s Eurasianism as the continuation of the USSR. “The fact is that Eurasianism, Eurasia and the Soviet Union are a completely different world,” he said. “With all due respect, the west does not understand it . . . This is a huge territory . . . The climate is very severe, so the individual, the western individualist, would find it impossible to live here. So there was a collectivism — a special relationship.”

For someone who had lost so much at the hands of the USSR, Gumilev was nonetheless surprisingly embittered by its collapse. Like many of his fellow prisoners, he later became possessed by an odd patriotism — an inexplicable loyalty to the homeland (and even the regime) that had stolen his health, his years and his friends. It was a type of Stockholm syndrome that produced some singularly odd scholarship.

In life, Gumilev had been a complex figure, resisting all facile ideological pigeon-holing. But in death, his legacy was transferred to the side of those who would use his wonderful and fanciful history books for demagoguery. With his reputation as a scholar assured by the demise of the USSR, Gumilev’s theories would soon become the textbook for putting it back together.

Charles Clover is the FT’s Beijing correspondent and former Moscow bureau chief. His new book “Black Wind, White Snow, the Rise of Russia’s New Nationalism” is published by Yale University Press on March 15, £25; yalebooks.co.uk

Photographs: akhmatova.org

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