[Neal Ascherson on Lev Gumilev]

By pure chance, I’ve came across a review of Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Akhmatova by Neal Ascherson, a former Observer observer. Speaking of Akhmatova’s only son, Ascherson notes parenthetically:

The embittered Lev Gumilev grew up to be the ultra-nationalist historian who reintroduced mystic racialism into post-Soviet education.

The remark is absurd, of course; better yet, in the words of Bulgakov’s fiend in feline shape, “what is the most remarkable about this story is not its being a lie but its being a lie from the first to the last word.” To begin with, there is no “mystic racialism” in post-Soviet education. More importantly:

— Gumilev studied not races but “ethnoses” (“ethnies”), super- and sub-ethnoses. He never cared about race, always about culture. He praised Russians for their aracial worldview.
— Gumilev’s theories were no more “mystical” than Toynbee’s. General theories are easy to dismiss as “mystical” or just crackpot.
— Gumilev was not an ultra-nationalist, nor even a blood-and-soil nationalist in a Western mold. He can be described, very loosely, as a “culture-and-soil” nationalist. He did not think in terms of nations anyway.

Gumilev is much disliked by a good deal of Russian intellectuals for a number of reasons. His scepticism about the West and sympathy with the Turkic world; his negative assessment of the Jews’ role throughout history coupled with alleged private anti-Semitism; his contrasting cultural Orthodoxy to cultural Catholicism; a general aversion to general theories, and so on. Gumilev’s forecast for the Russian (or Eurasian) “superethnos” was actually encouraging: the “superethnos” of Western Europe is old and declining while the Russians are much younger, born in the 14th-15th centuries (Moscow is to old Kiev what the Rome of Popes was to the Rome of Caesars).

The rest of Ascherson’s review isn’t that weird. I’ve found his review of Deutscher’s Trotsky — it’s revolting.


  1. That is revolting — I’m sorry to discover he still has romantic ideas about the Revolution and people like Trotsky. But Black Sea is an excellent book.

  2. I’m wondering about this “aracial worldview” that supposedly exists in Russia. To me, Russians read faces, races, and ethnicity like they are some sort of code revealing your true character. God help you if you have big ears and a big nose in Russia … you will be labeled a Jew, even if you are not. Almond shaped eyes? Obviously, you have some Asian in you … there was a stranger in the clan, maybe? Good thing Angelina Jolie wasn’t Russian! She would have been teased as the “little Japanese girl” by her groupmates.

    Should I go on with Chukchi … Chechens … Ukrainians … Georgians … and Armenians? They are all stereotyped, labeled, joked about, ridiculed and flat out insulted in Russian culture.

    Aracial? Hardly. In the pecking order of racists cultures in the 21st century, there are the South Africans at the top … with Russia following in second place. Don’t worry, the US is on the list too .. following France and Germany.

    Why Russians try to deny this aspect of their culture is beyond me. It hits you like a brick wall within even casual conversations with Russians. It is so ubiquitous, they don’t even THINK that such commentary or opinions based upon ethnicity or race is RACIST. It is just fact, right? It is like a smell in the air that you stop noticing after some time.

    It seems that in the Russian mind, racism is when you actually KILL somebody for being a different race, apparently. Although, based on the defending of Serbs killing of whole villages of Muslims, even that is sometimes justified in the Russian mind. Insults and prejudices are ok and well justified. So as long as you aren’t killing stupid Chukchi, or greedy Ukrainians and Jews … you aren’t racist, right?

  3. Anonymous, I understand your brain is boiling with rage but I must ask you to tone down your invective or face eviction. Now to the essence of Gumilev’s claim. He is talking (as should be immediately clear from the context) about Russia as it existed before the enforced Westernization of its upper classes. Thus racist views are not native to the Russian worldview but got in from the West, mostly in the 19th century. Which sounds plausible to me.

    As for individual Russians living now, everybody’s entitled to their own prejudices. If people judge you by the shape of their ears, so be it — it’s their right. If the government does the same, that’s racism. It’s not a Russian view, it’s how American anti-racists see it (else they would recognize anti-white prejudice as racism). Do you observe much institutional racism even in today’s Russia?

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