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The Biography of Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev

(October 1, 1912 - June 15, 1992)

Л.Н. Гумилёв с родителями
Lew with his parents - Nikolai Gumilev (1886-1921) and Anna  Akhmatova  (1889-1966). Tsar Selo (near Sankt-Peterburg), 1916 (it's WWI).
Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev was born on October 1, 1912. It was still Imperial Russia, but World War I and the Revolution were just a few years away.

His father, Nikolai Gumilev, was a very well known poet. He was also a Traveler, an Adventurer, and an Officer of the Russian Imperial Army. He had a very strong concept of honor, and that was a good enough reason for the Bolsheviks to shoot him in 1921. Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev inherited that sense of honor, making it difficult for him to establish his career in the Humanities in the Soviet Union. His mother, Anna Akhmatova was a Poetess, one of the greatest Russia ever had.

Лёвушка Гумилев

Lew Gumilev in Bezhetsk (Tverskaya oblast, Russia), 14 year old. Foto by  P. N. Luknitskij in 1926.

Lev Gumilev was born in Imperial Russia, but studied at a Soviet high school, from which he graduated in 1930. After that he applied to the University, but he was rejected, since he was from a noble family (and that was a problem in the Soviet Union of the 1930▓s). Gumilev took a few jobs in some research expeditions (Sayany, Pamir). In Pamir (Central Asia) he learned colloquial Tajik and Kyrgyz.

1934 - Gumilev, 22 years old, finally enrolled in the Oriental Studies department of Leningrad University. Among his teachers there were Tarle, Struve, and other scientists who were very well known in the discipline. 1935 - Gumilev was expelled for not informing the authorities about conversations in the circle of his family (but somebody with "good will" anonymously informed on him). He was let out of prison along with some other students after appeals by Anna Akhmatova to the government (the authorities found no case for litigation).

But Gumilev was not reinstated to the University, and found a job at the Leningrad Branch of the Oriental Studies Institute. During his free time he kept studying materials on the history of the Ancient Turks. At the same time he continued to attend classes at the University.

1937 - Gumilev was reinstated at the University.

1938, January - Gumilev was again arrested because of someone informing on him, convicted and sentenced to 5 years of strict isolation. The place he was to do time was Belomorcanal. But then the authorities found it to be too soft and ordered death through shooting, and then finally they changed it to imprisonment in Norilsk GULAG. Later Gumilev often flashed back to that time while talking about the punishment systems of Rome, Spain, China, and Persia: galleys and mines, as he said, were the worst punishment - because it wasn't just hard, but involuntary labor. It was that GULAG where Gumilev wrote his dissertation (that later appeared as book "Huns") on the yellow wrap...

1943 - the term of imprisonment expired. Gumilev volunteered for the army; it's WWII. But not until the autumn of 1944 was he finally allowed to go into the active army, to a part of the Special Shock Army of the 1st Belorussian front. As a private he participated in the Berlin battle.

1945 - Gumilev was reinstated at the University.

1946 - Gumilev passed all 10 state exams to complete the whole course of study and graduated knowing four languages: French, German, Ancient Turkic and Latin. His concentration was on the history of the Hun and early Mongol civilizations.

1946, spring - Gumilev passed the entrance exams and enrolled in the graduate school of the Leningrad Branch of the Oriental Studies Institute of the USSR. He participated in archeological expeditions to the Ukraine, Altai, and Kazakhstan.

Л.Н. Гумилев - заключенный Карагадинской тюрьмы
Lew Gumilev as a prisoner of Karaganda gaol (GULAG), 1951 г.

1946 √ a new wave of communist purges began. Gumilev was expelled from the graduate school with a phony excuse and was rejected from the archeological expedition staff. With difficulty he found a job as a librarian at the Leningrad City psychotherapeutic hospital, and then only due to the good recommendation of the hospital was he allowed to defend his dissertation for a Masters degree in History. This was the first step in his scientific activity, and it was not easy. Due to the circumstances he had, that path was hard. Gumilev was already 36 years old.

1948, November 7 - Gumilev was arrested again, as he used to say: "For mother". (First time - in 1935 - "for himself", in 1938 - "for father"). He was convicted and sentenced to 10 years of camps (GULAG) "for contra-revolutionary activities".

1956 - Gumilev was released "for the absence of the case". He was 44 years old then. He worked again as a librarian at the Hermitage, and after a few years defended his doctoral dissertation (it was published in 1967 as a book: "The Ancient Turks").

Lew Gumilev (stands at the center) in the Chair of Economic Geography of Leningrad State University (LGU), end of 1960's.
Beginning from 1966, for 20 years, Gumilev taught his special course of lectures at the geography department. The course was called "narodovedenie", which meant "science of ethnology".

Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev worked at the research institute affiliated with Leningrad University until 1986, when he retired. Those lectures formed a few generations of Gumilev's disciples, who were researchers and students from the departments of history, physics, biology, math, etc. Gumilev is indeed "Father" of ethnology, which is principally a new science and didn't exist before, neither in the USSR nor abroad.

Soviet ideologized schools of ethnographists and orientalists did not accept Gumilev, whose theories contradicted their well-established "lay-outs". Science in the Soviet Union had its own implicit "political correctness" code, and Gumilev just didn't fit there. These days those accusations sound very funny, but then, when science was monitored by the Communist Party, it meant ostracism. Gumilev was accused of being an "anti-Marxist", "geographical determinist", "mystic biologist", "bourgeois solipsist", "behaviorist", "anarchist", etc. He was accused of forgetting about class struggle and class animosity as the basis and motivating force of history┘ It is really hard to believe educated people (and the accusers were professors and academics!) could come up with such a nonsense, but it was the reality in those years.

Gumilev was ostracized by the ideologized and politicized Soviet academics. The only scientists that appreciated his works were also exiles, Vernadsky and Savitsky, who lived abroad then.

Л.Н. Гумилёв выступает в Русского Географического общества

Lew Gumilev at a rostrum of Russian Geographical Society, begin of 1980's.

1974 - Gumilev defended his second Doctoral dissertation, this time in geography. The dissertation of Gumilev bore the same name as his book that was published 15 years later: "Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere". Politicized Council found the dissertation to be an achievement of Science, "higher than doctorate", therefore Gumilev was refused the doctorate!!! This was quite a trick of Soviet ideological bureaucracy!

Then some groups considering themselves patriots (pro-Communist patriots) accused Gumilev in some mutually exclusive acts: of being pro-Western and being pro-Asian. He was accused of "blindly following conservative Christian orthodoxy" and so on. He was accused of pan-turkism and pan-mongolism┘ Some provocateurs explained their hatred of Gumilev by the fact that they found the Communist Party hinted at by the Mongols and the struggle of medieval Russia against the Mongols as a struggle against the Party (no comment:). Gumilev didn't even acknowledge those accusations with a rebuttal, saying "one can't refute nonsense". Gumilev was accused of being an ideologist of the contra-revolutionary White Army ideology of Eurasism, etc.

Lew Gumilev after a lecture, begin of 1980's.

His works were banned from publication in the then politicized (when Communist Party decided what can be published and what can't) publishing house "Nauka" ("Science"). He was never accepted in the Academy of Sciences - Gumilev's ideas were too bold for the Soviet Academy, and his conclusions displeased many established academics┘

Gumilev lived through the beginning of "Perestroyka" (or, as he called it, "Re-combination of the genetic vices/defects of society"). He looked at it with the skepticism of a man who had seen a lot in his life.

Памятник на могиле Льва Николаевича Гумилёва
 The grave of Lew Gumilev at the Aleksandro-Nevskaya Lavra (St. Peterburg), 1993

In June of 1992 Gumilev appeared on TV and Radio. He read his lectures and his books were published. When he died on June 15, 1992, many people took it as a big loss. Lev Nikolaevich Gumilev was buried at the Aleksandro-Nevskaya Lavra, where the remains of Alexandr Nevsky are also located.

Lev Gumilev had a very deep knowledge and understanding of the interactions between various cultures, ethnic groups (he used term "ethnoi" in his books) and on a larger scale - civilizations. He was a Historian and a Geographer. When he was talking about the history of various regions - he knew their geography. Lev Gumilev was the Master of geographical history and historical geography. 

Lev Gumilev was a father of the theory of ethnogenesis, one of the most interesting and revolutionary theories in history, geography and ethnography. He originated the archeological discovery of Khazaria. Lev Gumilev was also a professional interpreter from several languages into Russian. His works are interesting food for thought, not only for historians and geographers, but also for climatologists, archeologists, physicists, ethnographists, cultural anthropologists, and all of those who are interested in those subjects.


For writing this short biography I used an article "L.N. Gumilev and his time", by Aider Kurkchi. I cannot say I translated it, I rather rendered some parts. And I cannot say that all that is said here comes from that article, although it was that article that served as a basis for this biography

Artyom Kochoukov

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