Корейская косметика премиум класса

Reflection to Lev Gumilev's book «Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere»

Table of contents:

1 A biographical overview

2 Main part: The Theory of Ethnogenesis and Philosophy of History

2.1 Humankind, the biosphere and passionarnost’

2.2 Vernadskii and the biosphere

2.3 Nature of history

3 Conclusion: final thoughts

1 A biographical overview

Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev was born in St.Petersburg on 1 October 1912, the only child of Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev and Anna Andreevna Gorenko (generally known by her pseudonym of Akhmatova). Both his parents were poets, and outstanding young participants in St Petersburg’s cultural “Silver Age” which was then at its zenith: during Lev’s early childhood, visitors to their apartment included many of the leading literary and artistic names of the day, such as Alexander Blok, Vladimir Maiakovskii and Andrei Belyi.

In 1966, Gumilev took part in a scientific conference in Prague, where he had a chance to meet Savitskii. His interest in nomadic studies was crucial to Gumilev’s intellectual evolution. “I want to revive the history and culture of the nomads just as the humanists in the fifteenth century revived the forgotten culture of Hellas and later archaeologists resurrected Babylon and the Sumerians”, wrote Gumilev to Savitskii in one of his letters. It should eventually be possible to reconstruct the history of Eurasia with the same completeness as exists in the case of the history of Europe and the Middle East. The very idea of Eurocentrism will then be compromised, especially since it has been based to a considerable degree on the fact that little has been known about Asia and Siberia, while the unknown has been deemed non-existent. His specialization in the history of Eurasian nomads was one of the central ingredients in the evolution of Gumilev’s unique view of history. The study of an obscure area remote from traditional historiography required the development of a new conceptual framework for understanding history, and thus played a vital role in his elaboration of his theory of ethnogenesis.

In 1965, Gumilev published his first article on the theory of ethnogenesis. It was followed by another twenty articles over the next ten years expounding his theory of ethnogenesis, culminating in his major theoretical work Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere. The origins of Gumilev’s theory of ethnogenesis, however, go much further back than his bibliography suggests. In December 1968, Gumilev wrote to Pereslegin, his old teacher from Bezhetsk, “I’ve completed the third part of my ‘Steppe trilogy” - Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom... it turned out to be a treatise rather than a monograph, but it will be more interesting this way. I also submitted to the journal Priroda a huge article “Ethnos and ethnogenesis as natural phenomena”. They have accepted it! Both of these were bom from our conversations, when you devoted to a silly boy so much time and attention. From 1928, inspired by you, my thought has been working.” Gumilev maintained that he had already outlined certain aspects of the theory of ethnogenesis in his student years. The turning point in the development of his theory occurred in March 1939, when Gumilev was awaiting his re-trial in Leningrad’s prison Kresty. Gumilev recalled how he disturbed his fellow-inmates by shouting “Eureka!” in the middle of the night. “The other inmates in my cell, there were about eight of them, looked at me with gloom and thought I had gone mad.” That night, Gumilev discovered the key element of his theory, the idea of passionarnost’.

The intuition behind the concept of passionarnost’ was that the underlying cause of the behaviour manifested in ethnic processes was not based on rational deliberation. Instead, it was based on an ability to formulate ideals or goals of various complexities and sustain them for long periods of time, comparable to a person’s lifetime. Gumilev later remarked that “I saw that the birth of an ethnos is preceded by the emergence of a certain number of people with a new passionary quality.”

At the time when Gumilev began to publish his ideas on the theory of ethnogenesis, there was a debate in Soviet ethnography over the definition of the concept of ethnos. This was a natural context in which Gumilev could expound his own views on the nature of ethnos and its development. Although none were accepted by the leading journals in the field of ethnography, Gumilev managed to publish a series of articles elaborating his theory in Vestnik LGU and Priroda. As Gumilev’s views gained modest publicity, his theory was rebuffed by the official Soviet ethnographic establishment led by Iu. Bromlei, the head of the Institute of Ethnography.

2 Main part: The Theory of Ethnogenesis and Philosophy of History

2.1 Humankind, the biosphere and passionarnost’

I will try to examine the theory of ethnogenesis, Gumilev’s main intellectual achievement. It is essential for understanding the rest of his thought. It might seem surprising that a theory about the origins and development of ethnos should have such significance for Gumilev. To understand why it did so, it is necessary to know what “ethnos” meant for him.

Ethnos, a form of collective existence specific to humans, was one of the unique characteristics which differentiated humankind from other animals, and as such was essential for understanding human nature and history. Ethnos was one of the main factors which formed human perception of the world and behaviour. Given this view of ethnos, answers to such questions as “where does ethnos come from”, “how does it develop” and “why does it disappear” held the key not just to problems of ethnology, but to the understanding of human nature itself.

In this chapter I will begin with an examination of the theoretical background of Gumilev’s theory. V.I. Vernadskii’s concept of the biosphere is outlined and its relation to the theory of ethnogenesis is examined. The connections between Gumilev’s ideas on the relations between ethnos and the environment are explored, the distinction between dynamic and static ethnoses is introduced, and the concept of passionarnost’ discussed.

Then, Gumilev examined concepts of ethnos and ethnic identity. It looks at alternative theories of ethnos, in response to which Gumilev developed his own theory before examining Gumilev’s definition of ethnos and his concepts of a behavioural stereotype and an ethnic field. Finally, it looks at the hierarchy of ethnic units as presented by Gumilev.

The principal postulate of Gumilev’s thought was the inseparability of human nature, including ethnic history, from the natural world. Gumilev took the “natural” to include those phenomena which did not derive from deliberate and rational action of humankind. Natural phenomena were contrasted with products of human activity which were the result of a conscious effort on the part of their creator, for example, artefacts. This distinction between natural phenomena and artefacts is central to Gumilev’s thought. Against the background of the above definition of the natural world, it is necessary to look at V.I. Vernadskii’s concept of the biosphere, which was the theoretical framework within which Gumilev developed his own ideas about ethnogenesis.

2.2 Vernadskii and the biosphere

Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadskii (1863-1943), one of the most distinguished Russian scientists of the twentieth century, had interests ranging from mineralogy to biochemistry and radiology. He was the founder of several new sciences such as geochemistry, biogeochemistry, radiogeology and hydrogeology. Vernadskii was the founder and the director of the Radium Institute (1922-39) and the Biogeochemical Laboratory (1929), which later became the Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, part of the Russian Academy of Science. Vernadskii also made important contributions to the history and philosophy of science. Of special interest to the theory of ethnogenesis is Vernadskii’s teaching on the biosphere and the relation between humankind and nature.

Vernadskii viewed the biosphere as an integral part of the material structure of the earth and regarded man as inseparable from it. Humanity, according to Vernadskii, was not just irrevocably connected to the biosphere by its need for food and shelter, but was a constituent part of this natural phenomenon. Human evolution and history were, therefore, subject to the laws and evolutionary processes of the biosphere. Vernadskii argued that the biosphere “consists of living matter and inanimate matter, which over the whole of geological time are sharply separated from each other by their genesis and structure. There is, however, a perpetual connection between living and inanimate matter, which can be expressed as a constant biogenic flow of atoms from living into the inanimate matter of the biosphere and vice versa. This process is generated by living matter and manifests itself in the constant breathing, feeding, breeding etc. of its living organisms.” This diversity of its structure was the most fundamental factor differentiating the biosphere from other spheres of the planet such as the atmosphere and the lithosphere.

According to Vernadskii, there were two important and distinct processes in the biosphere. First, the growth in the power of living matter over the span of geological time, i.e. a gradual increase in its importance and influence on the inanimate part of the biosphere, and second, the evolution of species in geological time. “Living matter is flexible, changing, adopting to changes in the environment, but, possibly, it also undergoes its own, independent process of evolution, manifested in changes within geological time, independent of environmental changes.” In particular, Vernadskii noted that over geological time, especially in the last two billion years, there had been a gradual growth of the central nervous system. Living matter, i.e. the total sum of all living organisms in the biosphere, was both the creator and the carrier of the free energy which existed on a significant scale only in the biosphere. This free energy, namely the biogeochemical energy of living matter, encompassed the whole biosphere and determined its history. For example, it generated and affected the intensity of the migration of the chemical elements which created the biosphere and determined the biosphere's role as a factor of a geological significance.

Vernadskii described the biogeochemical energy in the following way. “The biogeochemical energy of living matter is defined above all by the propagation of living organisms, by their unceasing urge, determined by the energy of the planet, to reach the minimum of free energy. This is determined by the fundamental laws of thermodynamics which ensure the existence and stability of the planet.” Vernadskii emphasized that humankind was part of this phenomenon.

The conclusion of Vernadskii’s argument was that the biosphere as a whole was entering a new geological era, when human activity would be the main geological factor in the biosphere. Since human power is based on the intellect, Vernadskii proposed calling this new stage of the planet’s evolution the “noosphere”. Vernadskii thought that “the evolutionary process has created a new geological sphere - the scientific thought of social humanity. Under the influence of scientific thought and human labour the biosphere is changing into a new state - the noosphere.” He stressed, however, that “the transformation of the biosphere by scientific thought through human labour is not a chance phenomenon, dependent on human will, but a natural process, the roots of which lie deep in evolution.” The principle tenets of Vernadskii’s thought postulated that man was an integral part of the natural phenomenon of the biosphere and was, therefore, subject to its laws. The common assumption of an opposition between man and nature was thus intrinsically wrong and illogical. The biosphere was undergoing a long-term process of evolutionary development. In the recent stages of this development, due to the evolution of the central nervous system, a new geological era had begun in which the human intellect became the principal factor.

Gumilev adopted Vernadskii’s ideas about the biosphere to the study of ethnic history. In particular, three concepts from Vernadskii’s theory played a central role in Gumilev’s thought. The first was Vernadskii’s contention about the logical inseparability of man and nature. The second concerned the importance of biochemical energy for the functioning of living organisms. The third was the special role of humans in the biosphere. Within this framework, Gumilev attempted to explain how ethnic collectives operated. Gumilev thought that the key to understanding the special place of humans in the biosphere was their ability to adapt to various environments. He argued that ethnos, as a form of collective existence specific to humans, adapted to the environment, rather than political and social institutions. People adapted to a new environment by changing their behavioural stereotypes, instead of physical characteristics, as was the case with other mammals. This did not have an explanation in either social or biological terms. Therefore, a different kind of phenomenon was involved. This specific form of adaptive behaviour was ethnic transformation or ethnogenesis.

Gumilev suggested that ethnic division was the key human characteristic which allowed man to spread over the planet and become a factor of geological importance, a fact which Vernadskii emphasized. The ability to develop distinct behavioural stereotypes appropriate to different environments, a key feature of any process of ethnogenesis, meant that the biological evolution of human race had reached a new phase of development in which biological evolution was superseded by ethnic development. Gumilev argued that humans changed the environment to meet their needs. He argued that radical transformation of the environment coincided with the emergence of a new ethnos with a new and original behavioural stereotype, after which a newly established way of life was maintained. Changes of environment by an ethnos were a result of a brief period in its history, at the time when it had an ability to make an extraordinary effort.

2.3 Nature of history

The theory of ethnogenesis is the first attempt in the history of Russian historical thought to develop a general historical model without a specific focus on Russia. This chapter develops the examination of the theory of ethnogenesis by comparing it with two other theories of history. This also helps to place Gumilev’s theory within a wider context of the development of historical thought. In particular, I compare it with Danilevskii’s theory of cultural-historical types (1991) and Toynbee’s theory of challenge and response. Its comparison with Danilevskii’s theory helps to put the theory of ethnogenesis within the context of Russian historical thought, while Toynbee is particularly useful because his theory was one of the few contemporary works with which Gumilev engaged. The prevalent view of history in the second half of the nineteenth century was based on the idea of a linear progress. The concept of linear progress divided history into successive phases of development, representing a progress from the lower to higher forms of development. There were thought to be three main phases in history – the ancient, the medieval and the modem. Bazhov (1997) argues that the linear view of history has some parallels with the evolutionary view of nature, in that both had at their core the idea of a progression from lower to higher forms of organization on the basis of a universal principle of development. Just as Danilevskii rejected Darwin’s theory of evolution by proposing the morphological principle as the key to the development of species, he also rejected the idea of linear progress in history.

Danilevskii gave two main reasons for the rejection of the linear idea of history. First was the morphological principle of development of species. By identifying historical types with biological species, he denied that history could have a unified principle of development. Second was the idea of an artificial classification in history, based on the distinction between artificial and natural systems of science. Danilevskii argued that history was an artificial level of classification.

According to Gumilev, each ethnogenesis was a separate and distinct process. Ethnogenesis was a natural phenomenon of the biosphere, while ethnic identity was based on behavioural stereotypes. Fluctuations of passionarnost’ caused global behavioural changes which were manifested as discrete processes of ethnogenesis. An initial passionary impulse caused a surge in activity which led to emergence of an original behavioural stereotype. Henceforth, the process of ethnogenesis consisted in the expenditure of the initial passionary impulse, manifested in the phases of ethnogenesis. These phases were analysed in terms of dominant imperatives peculiar to each phase.

Two principal similarities can be distinguished between the two theories. First, both Gumilev and Danilevskii shared a polycentric view of the world, expressed in the rejection of Eurocentrism. Danilevskii was the first to reject the idea of the unity of humanity and replace it with the idea of cultural-historical types. Gumilev also dismissed the idea of the unity of mankind and saw ethnic history as a succession of discrete processes of ethnogenesis. Second, Danilevskii introduced the idea of various cultural-historical types at different stages of development which is similar to Gumilev’s idea of superethnoses undergoing the same phases of ethnogenesis. Overall, Gumilev and Danilevskii had in common a vision of history based on the rejection of unified linear development and a desire to explain historical phenomena in positivist terms.

To return to the comparison with Danilevskii, Gumilev also argued that the dynamic state could not last indefinitely; an ethnos would either disintegrate or enter a static condition, depending on historical circumstances. Some phases of ethnogenesis were similar to some of Danilevskii’s laws of historical development. For example, in the inertial phase there was a flourishing of civilization which could not last indefinitely.

To sum up, in contrast to Danilevskii, Gumilev distinguished between different aspects of history. Political, cultural, social, and economic aspects of history were outside ethnic history. Linguistic ties, political independence and other aspects which Danilevskii listed as factors regulating the development of cultural-historical types did not directly affect ethnic history as understood by Gumilev, but rather served as a background to ethnogenesis. The principal factor in ethnogenesis was passionarnost’ which influenced human behaviour over long periods of time. Gumilev advanced a behaviourist, nonvoluntaristic theory of history which had no parallels in Danilevskii’s thought.

3 Conclusion: final thoughts

The theory of ethnogenesis was Gumilev’s most important intellectual achievement. The global nature of ethnic transformations led Gumilev to argue that these processes were part of the biosphere. Gumilev’s life was a combination of personal hardships, academic dedication and great intellectual ambition. His background, ideals and intellectual calibre, combined with his personal experiences, resulted in a unique philosophy which is impressive in its scope and originality. He rejected both Soviet and Western theories of history and attempted to create new historical paradigm. Each of the two principal areas of his intellectual activity, namely the nomad studies,  the theory of ethnogenesis, are sufficient to make him an outstanding thinker. Taken as a whole, Gumilev’s thought is an intellectual phenomenon. Although many aspects of his thought are controversial, it should not be overlooked that Gumilev, with all his faults, was not afraid to address the grand questions of history. As has been noted, “the highway of science is strewn with corpses of deceased theories which just decay or are preserved as mummies in the museum of the history of science.” Credit should be given to those who are not afraid to tackle the grand questions of nature and history, even if their answers are not always completely satisfactory; otherwise “the museum of the history of science” would be a wearisome place. Gumilev - the explorer of new worlds and forgotten epochs, the creator of a new philosophy, Russian thinker and patriot - was an original mind who made the study of history and human nature a more fascinating enterprise.

List of bibliography:

1. Savitskii, P.N., ‘Evraziistvo’ in Ponomareva, L.V. (ed.), Evraziia: Vzglyadi Russkikh Emmigrantov, M oscow, 1992, pp. 164-72.

2. Savitskii, P.N, “N a mezhdunarodnom s”ezde istorikov v Varshave. 1933 (iz reziume doklada)” in Ponomareva, L.V. (ed.), Evraziia: Vzglyadi Russkikh Emmigrantov, Moscow, 1992, p. 40.

3. Vernadskii, V.I., Khimicheskoe stroenie biosfery Zemli i ee okruzheniia, Moscow, 1965.

4. Vernadskii, V.I., Nauchnaia m ysl’ kakplanetam oe iavlenie, M oscow, 1991.

5. Bazhov, S.I., Filosofiia istoriiN.la. Danilevskogo, Moscow, 1997

6. Danilevskii, N.Ia., Rossiia i Evropa: vzgliady na ku l’turnye i politicheskie otnosheniia Slavianskogo mira k Germano-Romanskomu, St. Petersburg, 1871.

7. Danilevskii, N.Ia., Rossiia i Evropa, Moscow, 1991.


1. Gumilev, L.N., ‘Etnogenez i etnosfera’, Priroda (Moscow), 1, 1970, pp. 46-55, and 2, 1970, pp. 43-50.

2. Gumilev, L.N., ‘Drevniaia Rus’ i ee sosedi v sisteme mezhdunarodnoi torgovli i natural’nogo obmena’, Izvestiia Vsesoiuznogo Geograficheskogo Obshchestva, 1987, pp. 227-34.

3. Titov, A.S., "Lev Gumilev, Ethnogenesis and Eurasianism" (USA), March 2005

4. https://en.sodiummedia.com/3955172-lev-nikolaevich-gumilev-the-passionary-theory-of-ethnogenesis-basic-concepts

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