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Ethnogenesis and the Biosphere

Chapter Three

Lev Gumilev



in which the generally accepted ways of studying ethnic phenomena are set out and it is shown that the sought-for result cannot be obtained


Ideas about World History


Two aspects of world history. It is the job of any science to survey the subject it studies as a whole, and history is no exception. We consequently need to find a convenient standpoint for the survey and, with that, there arms a need for a theory that will guide practice, i.e. the choice of aspect. The aspect of study does not follow from some philosophical construction. It is dictated exclusively by practical considerations, and we class it in the field of the theory of science only because its choice is determined by the aim set at the beginning of an investigation and not by the gathering of material. My aim is to understand World History as the forming of one of Earth's envelopes, viz., the ethnosphere.

Two conceptions that long ago took shape in the theory of historical thought still exist in our day, viz., the world-historical and the cultural-historical The first treats the history of peoples as a single process of progressive development more or less embracing all the regions inhabited by people. It was first formulated in the Middle Ages as the conception of the 'four empires' of the past (the Assyrian, Persian, Macedonian, and Roman), and a fifth, the 'Holy Roman Empire of the German nation', which, in the tenth and eleventh centuries, along with the Papal throne, headed the Catholic unity (Christianity) that arose in Western Europe at the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries A.D.

With this system of interpreting events, the consistent extension of territories subordinate to the imperial power was considered 'progress'. When, in the sixteenth century, the Reformation broke the ideological unity of Western Europe and undermined the political hegemony of the Hapsburg emperors, the world-historical conception held its ground and was simply formulated rather differently. Now 'civilization' was recognized as progressive, by which was understood the culture of the same old Western, Romano-German Empire, the former 'pagans' and 'schismatics' being simply renamed savages and 'backward' peoples. And there was even an attempt to call both 'unhistorical'. This system, rightly called 'Eurocentrism' in the nineteenth century, was perceived (often unconsciously) as self-explanatory and not requiring proof.

The cultural-historical conception was first proclaimed by Herodotus, who counterpoised Europe to Asia. By Europe he understood the system of Hellenic city-states, and by Asia the Persian monarchy. Subsequently, Scythia and Ethiopia had to be added, which were equally not like either Hellas or Iran; the fist of cultural regions was later extended until the whole Oecumene had been assigned to cultural-historical regions. In the Old World, the Near East or Levant, India, China, the island cultural region of the Pacific Ocean, the Eurasian steppe region, Africa south of the Sahara, and the circumpolar region with rudimentary ethnoi were considered such, as a first approximation, in addition to Europe.

The main difference between the cultural-historical and the world-historical schools is the postulate that every cultural region has its own path of development, so that one cannot speak of the 'backwardness' or 'stagnation' of non-European peoples but can only note their special features. The major spokesmen of the cultural-historical school in the nineteenth century were Friedrich Ratzel, N.Ya. Danilevsky, and K.N. Leontiev, and in the twentieth Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee.


Why I do not agree with Toynbee. I shall not go into the history of this matter, since that would be too great a digression. But one writer must not, for all that, be left out of account. Arnold Toynbee proposed a conception of the rise of 'civilization' based on use of geographical sources. In short it amounted to the following.

The unit of history was taken as 'society', which was divided into two categories 'primitive', which did not develop, and 'civilizations', of which 21 took shape in 16 regions. It was consequently assumed that two or three civilizations arose consequently in one territory; these were called daughters. Such were the Sumerian and Babylonian civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Minoan, Hellenic, and Orthodox Christian in the Balkan Peninsula, the Indian (ancient) and Hindu (mediaeval) in Hindustan. In addition, 'abortive' civilizations were distinguished in special sections, viz., Irish, Scandinavian, Central Asian Nestorian; and 'arrested' Eskimos, Ottoman Turks, the nomads of Eurasia, the Spartans, and the Polynesians.

According to Toynbee, societies developed through mimesis, i.e. imitation. In primitive societies the elders and ancestors were imitated, which made these societies static, while in 'civilizations', creative personalities were imitated, which made for dynamic development. The main problem of history was therefore to discover the factor of dynamism; Toynbee, moreover, rejected racism. There remained the influence of the geographical environment, and Toynbee proposed a very original solution for it.

It is clear that if the geneses of civilizations are not the result of biological factors or of geographical environment acting separately, they must be the result of some kind of interaction between them. [+1]

Brilliance and creative capacity are thus regarded as a reactive state of the organism to outside stimulation; in that connection one of his chapters is headed 'The Virtues of Adversity'.

'Challenges' are divided into three sorts: (1) unfavorable natural conditions, for example the swamps in the delta of the Nile a challenge for the ancient Egyptians; the tropical forest of Yucatan, a challenge for the Mayas; the waves of the Aegean, a challenge for the Hellenes; forests and frosts a challenge for the Russians. (According to this conception, English culture should have been generated by rain and fog, but Toynbee did not claim that);

(2) the attack of foreigners, which could also be treated as a geographical element-partial migrations; so, according to Toynbee, Austria outstripped Bavaria and Baden in development in its time because it was attacked by the Turks; but the Turks first attacked Bulgaria, Serbia, and Hungary, and they responded to the challenge by capitulation, while Austria was defended by the hussars of Jan Sobieski, whom the Turks at that time did not challenge (the example speaks rather against the conception than for it);

(3) decay of the preceding civilizations a challenge they had to fight against; thus the collapse of the Helleno-Roman civilization allegedly 'challenged' the Byzantine and West-European civilizations as a reaction to the perversion of the ancient Greeks. That, too, could be classed as a geographical condition, if we allow for the time co-ordinate (change of biocoenosis), but the depravity in Byzantium, alas, was no less than the Roman, while more than 300 years lay between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the creation of viable feudal kingdoms. The reaction was rather delayed.

But the most important conclusion from this is that man's relation with the landscape and relief is not resolved by Toynbee's conception, but confused. The thesis that a harsh nature stimulated man to heightened activity is a version of geographical determinism on the one hand, and on the other hand is simply untrue. The climate around Kiev, where the old Russian state took shape was never harsh. The statement that domination of the steppes required so much energy from the nomads that it left them shows Toynbee's ignorance and lack of imagination. [+2] The Altai and the Onon forest, where the Turks and the Mongols took shape, are spa resorts. If the seas that washed Greece and Scandinavia were 'challenges', then why did the Greeks only respond to it in the eighth to sixth centuries B.C., and the Scandinavians in the ninth to twelfth centuries A.D.? In other periods there were no victorious Hellenes, nor madly rapacious Phoenicians, nor terrible Vikings, but there were sponge-divers or herring-catchers. The Sumerians made an Eden out of Mesopotamia, 'separating the water from the land', but the Turks damaged everything so much that there was swamp again there, although, according to Toynbee, they should have responded to the challenge of the Tigris and Euphrates. It's all not true.

The geographical classification of civilization by regions looks no less arbitrary. Toynbee counted the Byzantine and Turkish Empires in one on only because they were located on the same territory, the Turks, and not the Greeks and Albanians, therefore being declared 'arrested'!

The Kingdom of Judaea, the Achaemenid Empire, and the Arab Caliphate come, into Syrian civilization, but Sumer and Babylonia are divided into mother and daughter. The criterion of classification was obviously the author's will.

I have dwelt in such detail on this subject because I consider it necessary to show how easy it is to compromise a fruitful scientific idea by weak arguments and unsuccessful application of an ill-considered principle. I have deliberately not touched on Toynbee's sociological constructions although they contradict the chronology and real course of events no less. But this will be clear to most readers, although many still take the geographical conception of 'challenge and response' seriously. And it is very regrettable that, after such experiments, there is always a tendency in general to refuse to allow for and examine the data of geography, tacitly taking nature as a stable quantity that does not influence the historical process. The development of an arbitrarily selected postulate by way of speculative constructions drives science up a blind alley.


Blind alleys. So, both approaches have certain advantages and major shortcomings. The latter are particularly palpable for the development of my theme. From the standpoint of the world-historical school for instance, the Turko-Mongolian peoples and their specific nomadic culture cannot be counted as eastern civilizations or put into the category of 'savages'. They consequently drop out of the field of view of theoretical historians. But since the Turks and the Mongols made themselves weightily felt in the history of humanity, the attempts were repeatedly made to treat them as the 'barbarian periphery' of China, Iran, and Byzantium, which has distorted the picture so through the very posing of the problem that it is simply not suitable for scientific perception. Blind alley!

On the other hand, the cultural-historical school which finds a place for the role of Turks and Mongols in the history of mankind, is unable to provide an explanation of the inner patterns of their historical development because these patterns are not only local but also are variants of the universal patterns. And without allowing for the general the particulars are also incomprehensible, because they are not comparable and are incommensurable with such an approach. Unjustified gaps arise in understanding of the history of mankind. Also a blind alley!


Why I disagree with N.L Konrad. But the third path may perhaps prove correct, viz., to take the rational kernel from each conception and join them together so as to get a maximum approximation to the aim. The eminent Soviet historian, N.I. Konrad, for example, suggested noting transition periods leading from one formation to another, namely. (1) the era of the transition from ancient society to mediaeval Hellenism; (2) the era of the transition from the Middle Ages to modem times the Renaissance; (3) the era of the transition from modem to recent times the middle of the nineteenth century. As an indicator Konrad cites the history of literature, viz.,

each (of the three epochs) is opened by a literary work of genius, that heralds its onset. The first was heralded by St. Augustine's treatise The City of God, the second by The Divine Comedy, and the third by The Communist Manifesto. [+3]

The author of the new conception is very consistent. He looks for analogous epochs in the development of the culture of extra-European countries which he considers neither inferior to nor culturally dependent on Western Europe.

the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages among the Chinese and the Iranians [he writes] was also accompanied with a revolution of minds which was generally called Taoism m China and Manichaeanism in Iran. There was also an external factor involved here: a system of ideology coming from outside. In China it was Buddhism, in Iran Islam. [+4]

An epoch of 'Rebirth' or 'Renewal' was also traced. In China that was the eighth century A.D., in Central Asia, Iran, and North-Western India the ninth century, and finally in Italy the thirteenth century. [+5] The third transition period was not discussed, correctly, because it is not completed.

I have selected this place from a big book only because the author's idea is expressed here most vividly and clearly. In other essays Konrad not only distinguished transition periods but also stable forms of social existence that he called by the established terms antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modem times. [+6] He saw the main trend of history in the consolidation of peoples and extension of the area of culture, while at the same time recognizing the polycentric character of the genesis of world civilization and the existence of local features in the development of peoples. [+7] It seemed the way out of the blind alley bad been found, but let us look more closely at the fundamental side of the thesis I have set out here.

The chronological incommensurability of the transition periods in Konrad's conception strikes the eye. The epoch of Hellenism began in the fourth century B.C. and in fact coincided with a crisis of the antique world outlook. Konrad brings this 'transition period' up to St. Augustine, i.e. to the fifth century A.D. Its total length is around 900 years.

The age of the Renaissance in Italy was packed into 150 to 200 years, and the third transition period into half-a-century, which involuntarily suggests the thought that the author suffered an aberration of perspective, i.e. phenomena close to him seemed more significant to him than remote ones. It is enough to compare Hellenism with the Renaissance to show that they were incommensurable and, even more, that they were magnitudes of a different order. Let us try and examine the problem again, without drawing on new evidence for the present, but limiting ourselves to a comparison of old, indisputable data with the new, original idea. If the latter is true, coincidence will be inevitable.


About Hellenism. From 336 B.C., i.e. from the moment Alexander the Great smashed the hegemony of Thebes and crushed the freedom of Athens, the majesty of Persia, the independence of India and, with the founding of Alexandria, the ancient culture of Egypt, to the composition of The Divine Comedy, the following happened.

In Iran, after a short Macedonian occupation, Parthians arrived from the Aral steppe, who were fascinated at first by the brilliant Hellenistic culture, but were later attracted by the profundities of Zoroastrianism (250 B.C. to 224 A.D.). Iranian reaction later set in; in our days it would be called nationalistic. Ardashir I broke the hegemony of the aristocracy, and relied on an alliance of the petty nobility (dihaans) and clergy (mobeds), employing the reprieved Parthian aristocrats as cavalry.

At; the beginning of the sixth century A.D. the grandee Mazdak seized power and began to exterminate the nobles and clergy, who both represented the most intellectual part of the population. The revolution of Khosrov I Anushirvan in A.D. 530 put an end to the reform and the excesses associated with it, but brought the soldiery to power, in the literal sense of the term, because the professional soldiers received day-wages. The soldiers' leader Bahram Cobin gained the throne in A.D. 590, but the whole civilian population rose against him and he was defeated.

The next period (A.D. 591-651) was one of steady decline of culture and of the state system until the Arab conquest, which entailed the emigration and death of all the literate and educated Persians, after which a new people took shape, with a new culture and even a new language.

During the period described there were five changes in the sphere of culture, each of which was equal in significance for the system, in this case Iranian culture, to the Italian Renaissance, although unlike it in genesis, character, and consequence: (1) the Hellenization of the Parthian steppe-dwellers, i.e. their acceptance of an alien civilization; (2) the Iranization of the Parthian nobility an attempt at a rapprochement with their own people; (3) the Zoroastrian victory of A.D. 224-226 over the Parthian aristocracy an alliance of throne and altar; (4) Mazdakism; and (5) the reaction of Mithraism, because the Armenians called Bahram Cobin 'he who worshipped Mithra, the mutineer'. And on that background the breath of Christian and Gnostic ideas is hardly noticeable, as they affected an insignificant part of the refined and unstable intellectuals.

No! I simply cannot believe that this thousand-year period of tense creative life was just a transition between the Macedonian and Arab occupations. For Iran this Parthian-Sassanid period was equivalent not to the Italian Renaissance but to the whole Romano-German culture of Western Europe from the Carolingians to the Bonapartes. A thousand years is a thousand years, although the cultures compared were not at all similar to one another. But it is this 'dissimilarity' that is, like similarity, one of the postulates of Konrad's conception.

In Rome Hellenism can be counted from one of two dates: (1) from the epoch of the Twelve Tables, when the group of exiles who had settled on the seven hills, organized themselves on the model of the Greek polis. But if so, then the whole of Republican Rome comes into this; obviously this date is not suitable as the beginning of a transition period. (2) The cultural Hellenization of Rome is usually ascribed to the activity of the circle of the Scipios in the second century B.C. That is so, of course, but Konrad puts the Roman Republic into the consolidation of the slaveowning formation and not into the transition period. Consequently, there remains only the age of the Empire, characterized by Konrad as 'the time of its Zenith and at the same time decay', for the 'transition period'. [+8] Let it be so.

But if so, then we can and must distinguish several cultural and, at the same time, socio-political periods in it, each equivalent to the Italian Renaissance. Equivalence is asserted, I repeat, only for their significance for contemporaries, and by no means for similarity of the character of the phenomena.

The Romans themselves by no means regarded the republic of the second and first centuries B.C. as a finished political form. From the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 130 B.C. to the death of Marcus Antonius in 30 B.C., Rome did not know peace and quiet. Civil wars so sapped the vitality of the Roman Senate and people that they were glad of any firm authority.

The 'golden mediocrity' of Octavian Augustus was a slogan of Political stabilization, consolidation of military power, and turn to the past for edifying examples. That system maintained itself until the death of Marcus Aurelius, i.e. around 200 years. If we regard the activity of Han Yu and other Confucianists as the 'Rebirth' in China, then the Plinys, Titus Livius and Suctonius are rightly and consistently characterized as the 'Rebirth of Antiquity' in Rome itself. Well then, so we agree with the term.

The second period was Rome's rapid assimilation of Asian cults. There, from the third century A.D., Isis, hidden by the veil, Hermes Trismegistos, Cybele, Magna Mater, the charmer Astarte, ruled minds, and finally the soldier god Mithra, the unconquerable Sun, won over all. From Aurelian to Julian the Apostate, Mithraism was the state religion and official world outlook of the Roman Empire. That revolution in culture was much more significant than humanism and even Reformation. For the Italians and Germans remained good Christians in the sixteenth century, having changed only their aesthetic and political notions, and even them not radically.

But the third shift, which embraced the whole Mediterranean in the first to fourth centuries A.D. was even more grandiose. It is usual to link it with the spread of Christianity, but we thereby lose sight of the fact that Christianity was only one stream of the flood of new ideas conquering the Roman Empire. Simultaneously with the Christians the Egyptian Gnostics Valentinus and Basilides, who cursed the Matter, were preaching, and the Syrians Saturninus and Mani, who equated the elements of Good and Evil, the Ophites who esteemed the wisdom of the Serpent, the opponent of the evil demiurge Yahweh, the Marcionites, who denied the holiness of the Old Testament, the Origenists, who asserted the symbolic interpretation of the Old Testament, and finally the Neoplatonists, who proclaimed the supreme monism the fullness of everything that exists the Divine Pleroma. These proved closest of all to the Christian theodicy of St. Basil and of Gregory of Nazianzus, and were furthest of all away from antique Platonism in spite of their taking Plato's name for their original doctrine. Konrad subtly remarks that

the revolution of minds began and developed in the Roman East, but it embraced as well the Greco-Roman part of the Empire, in which its own crisis of the old established world outlook was proceeding. [+9]

That is just, but then this chaos cannot be treated as a transition period for the history of Europe's culture. In fact, what relation did Christianity or Manichaeanism have to the rationalistic arguments of Seneca or the bloody mysteries of Aurelian in the Mithraea or the orgiastic entertainments of Hetiogabalus? The new creative stream of the world outlook equally rejected both the one and the other. It swept aside the disintegrating antique thought and did not continue it. In other words, there was no 'transition period' but a break with old tradition and the creation of a new one.

The Christian and Manichean churches displayed a quarrelsome disposition that astonished contemporaries but stemmed logically from the feeling of a complete break with the antique past. Even when the Emperor Constantine decided to yield all the positions of paganism, only one dilemma faced the Christian community, namely whether to admit the ruler of the world to it as a deacon (diakonos) so that he would have a say in church matters or let him remain a layman, as the Carthaginian Donatus demanded, saying 'What business has the Emperor in the Church'. And on that background, already in the fifth century A.D., when the Empire was being torn to pieces by barbarians, St. Augustine lived, created, and acted, first as a Manichean and later as a Christian, a talented writer and great disputant. One must note that his main ideas were a presage of heretical thought rather than of Catholic. His thesis of predetermination, which actually annulled the Catholic dogma of man's free will, shifted all responsibility for the ugliness that occurred in the world onto the Creator. This thesis of St. Augustine's was employed and developed by Calvin a thousand years later, but in the Middle Ages it was disregarded.

Unlike Dante, who did not dispute the ideas existing in his time but was very dissatisfied with his contemporaries, St. Augustine expended the full force of his talent on a polemic both with his former fellow-thinkers the Manicheans, and with the humane conception of the Irish monk Pelagius. The latter preached that the sinfulness of man was the result of his wicked actions, and consequently that good pagan was better than an evil Christian. St. Augustine put forward a thesis of original sin and so declared all pagans inferior, and theoretically justified intolerance. That idea did not get wide dissemination in the next five centuries, while Dante's verses were hailed in his own lifetime, and brought him deserved fame. No, there is no similarity between St. Augustine and Dante Alighieri either in historical role, response, or personal qualities, and the periods in which they lived and worked were even less similar. If anyone was similar to Dante, it was the great poet and denouncer of scandals, St. John Chrysostom. But if we accept that correction, the next step in the argument will take a different path. And this new path, incidentally, seems more fruitful even if it looks rather unexpected.


Re: Byzantium. Remember that the trend I have described, which can be called Early Christian, or arbitrarily, Byzantine (by no means in the political sense, but only in the 'cultural' one) is recorded in secular history only in the middle of the second century A.D., i.e. 150 years later than in the history of the Church. It was then that the famous debate between Roman philosophers and the Christian apologist Justin, who, having won the dispute, paid for victory by a martyr's death, took place. If we begin counting from that date (which is convenient because it does not give rise to doubts or disputes), then it turns out that the new trend of thought had spread by the end of the fourth century A.D. (after the apostasy of Julian) not only throughout the territory of the Roman Empire, but also beyond it. It yielded offshoots: a western in Ireland, a southern in Ethiopia, an eastern in Central Asia, a northern in Russia, or rather among the Goths of the Dnieper Valley.

The peripheral Christian cultures themselves, not linked politically with the main stem of culture, the Byzantine Empire in the proper sense of the term, felt as much a unity as, say, Iran, already described, as the Greco-Roman world, and subsequently West European Chretienite, in spite of the fact that Nestorianism predominated in Transeuphratian Asia and Monophysitism in Syria, Armenia, and Africa.

Byzantine culture had its period of 'rebirth' of Hellenistic antiquity when Greek ousted Latin from public administration (under the Emperor Mauricius), its Reformation iconoclasm, and its epoch of enlightenment under the Macedonian dynasty. This culture became extinct almost simultaneously: Ireland fell in the thirteenth century, the Central Asian Nestorians were routed, Constantinople fell prey to rapacious Crusaders, and Abyssinia was converted into a mountain fortress surrounded by Gallas and Somalis who had adopted Islam. The hectic efforts of the Nicean Empire to hold its position dragged out the agony for a hundred years, but already in the middle of the fourteenth century the Paleologues were forced to accept union, which meant subordination to the West, i.e. a cultural entity was again formed that arose on the basis of Charlemagne's conquests. It is this entity that it is customary in European historiography to regard as a prolongation of antique culture (which is even reflected in the compilation of school textbooks), but it would seem more correct to regard the thousand-year period separating 'Antiquity' from its 'Rebirth' as an independent segment of the history of culture than a transition period, the more so that Catholic knights and prelates did not inherit the achievements of Byzantine culture in its Greek and Irish variants, but simply laid them waste.

If that is so, then the Rebirth or Renaissance in Europe must be referred to the same line of the pattern and sequence of events as the Crusades which preceded it and the colonial conquests that followed it. That is how it was!

From the moment of its rise West-European culture strove to expand. The descendants of Charlemagne's barons subdued the Western Slavs, the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts, drove the Arabs from the Iberian Peninsula, and carried war against the Muslims to the basin of the Indian Ocean. The descendants of the mediaeval burghers annexed America, Australia, and South Africa. Both conquered India, Tropical Africa, South America, Polynesia, etc. It was an expansion in space. But the humanists? They were driven by the same stimulus of acquisitiveness. But their expansion developed in time. They set themselves the aim of occupying the past, which was not theirs but someone else's. And they achieved their aim. World History on a philological basis became the fruit of their efforts a phenomenon that has no analogues in other cultures, because history is everywhere, as a rule, a description of one's own forebears, i.e. an absolutized genealogy. But if that is so, then the 'Chinese Renaissance' should have differences of principle from the European, and the features of similarity should be considered fortuitous coincidences. Konrad holds the opposite point of view-, to answer this cardinal problem we must turn to the history of Eastern Asia.


Re: China. For a start let us note that there are two ethno-relief regions in Eastern Asia: an agricultural one China; and a nomadic Central Asia and the Tibetan plateau. In spite of China's dense population and the small numbers of the steppe-dwellers (Turks and Mongols) these cultural regions have interacted on equal terms throughout the whole historical period. Unless this unceasing struggle is taken into account the history of Asia will always be interpreted incorrectly.

In the last century there was a never-disputed opinion that Chinese culture was stable or stagnant, and development with rises and falls was the achievement of Western Europe. That conception is an example of the aberration of distance by which the sun, for example, may seem smaller than a pig's snout. When Chinese history is studied in adequate detail, this aberration disappears like smoke, and it becomes obvious that breaks of tradition and epochs of obscuration proceeded uniformly in East and West. The discreteness of historical development was noted by two great historians of antiquity, Polybius and Ssu-ma Ch'ien, and both suggested an explanation of the observed events starting from the science of their time. Ssu-ma Ch'ien wrote his Records of the Historian in the first century B.C. but he noted a period that was 'antiquity' for him, i.e. the past with a broken tradition. For Ssu-ma Ch'ien antiquity was the epoch of the first three dynasties Xia, Yin, and Zhou. After the fall of the Zhou there followed a political and cultural disintegration. 'The path of the three kingdoms was like a cycle: it finished and began again'. [+10] That does not mean, of course, that the Han dynasty literally repeated antiquity. Rather it proved- to be a quite independent phenomenon with its own local features. In the opinion of Ssu-ma Ch'ien, it was not the actual reality that was uniform, but the inner pattern of the phenomena, which he considered a natural law of history.

The pattern discovered by the historian not only explained the past but also made it possible to forecast. While archaic China disintegrated as a consequence of inevitable inner rhythms, then the China contemporary for Ssu-ma Ch'ien, but ancient for us, i.e. the Han Empire, could not avoid the same fate. Ssu-ma Ch'ien could not, of course, predict the details of the death of his country, but the result would be identical. And so it was. In the third century A.D. civil war bled China white, and in 312 the capital of the Celestial Empire was captured by the attack of small emergency reinforcements of Hsiung-Nu, who then subjugated all the time-honored Han lands in the basin of the Huangho. The most determined Chinese patriots fled to the non-Chinese frontier, to the basin of the Yangtse-kiang, and the agony of the old Chinese culture lasted there for around another 250 years, i.e. almost twice as long as the analogous agony of Rome. But in the homeland of the Chinese people nomads and mountaineers, Hunni, Tabghatchi, and Kyany (Tibetans) were rampant and wreaked havoc.

A new upswing began in China in the sixth century A.D. The leader of the Chinese ultrapatriots, the general Yang Jian made short work of the descendants of the degenerating nomad princes and founded the Sui dynasty. That was the dawn of the Middle Ages in China, the setting of which came in the seventeenth century when the Manchus conquered both the troops of the Ming dynasty and the peasant levies of the Li Jie-cheng uprising. And then began a period of decline that unobservant European scholars considered China's permanent state and christened 'stagnation'. The forecast of Ssu-ma Ch'ien's conception was confirmed.

But there was a special feature in the East, compared with the West, that ensured a relatively great continuity of cultures, namely hieroglyphic writing. In spite of its inadequacy compared with alphabetic writing, it had the advantage that the semantemes continue to be understood even with a change in the phonetics of the developing language and with a change of ideological notions. The rather small number of mediaeval Chinese who were literate read Confucius and Lao-tzu and felt the charm of their thoughts much more than mediaeval monks studying the Bible, because words change meaning in accordance with the translation and the intonation and the erudition of the reader, and even depending on his system of associations. Hieroglyphs are as unambiguous and single-valued as mathematical symbols.

The ruptures between cultures within China were therefore rather less than between the antique (Greco-Roman) and mediaeval (Romano-German) cultures, or between the Middle Persian and Arabic, i.e. Muslim, etc. That was reflected both politically and ideologically in the history of China. It is particularly important that it was this external feature of similarity that led all historians into error who have postulated the stagnant character of China, taking the conservative character of hieroglyphic writing for it. The history of China proceeded no less intensively, in fact, than the history of the countries of the Mediterranean basin. But it is necessary, in order to see this passionate intensity of the fife of the ethnoi that rose and declined on the territory of China, to break away from admiration of objets d'art and the zigzags of abstract thought, and to trace the thousand years' war on the boundary of the Great Steppe and China. But that can only be done specially.


Thoughts on Ethnic History


The indeterminacy principle in ethnology. All the examples cited above would seem to prove the correctness of the cultural-historical school but there is one detail in them themselves that shows the correctness of the opposite point of view. For all the 'cultures' I have analyzed developed, in spite of local peculiarities, and perished so uniformly that one cannot help seeing a general dialectical process in it.

But if so, then we not only have not resolved the problem posed but have even complicated it. Are we really once more up a blind alley? No. There is a way out, and we shall discover it as soon as we turn to analogies with other sciences. From the seventeenth century physicists have debated whether light consists of particles (corpuscles) or represents waves in the ether. Both conceptions had such serious shortcomings that neither could come out on top. The dispute was only resolved in the middle of the 1920s with the development of quantum mechanics. Modern physicists consider light to be neither a wave nor a particle, but both simultaneously, and it can manifest both groups of properties. The well-known indeterminacy (or uncertainty) principle, according to which the value of only one of a pair of connected variables, for example energy and time (or impulse and co-ordinate) can be established, and not both together, was formulated on this basis.

There are also two forms of motion in ethnic phenomena - social and biological; consequently the significance of one aspect or other of a complicated phenomenon can be established by some means or another, or rather the precision of the meanings will mutually exclude one another. Having noted that, let us apply the indeterminacy principle to our material.

First of all, let us change the aspect. Instead of pooling the methods of both schools, let us delimit their sphere of application. Directly observed historical phenomena will clearly be grouped by the cultural-historical principle, while the world-historical scheme will be a Procrustean bed for the facts.

But it is also clear that the essence of phenomena inaccessible to visual observation will come within the competence of the world-historical conception when local features are sifted out, and the discreteness (discontinuity) of development noted and demonstrated by the cultural-historical school, will be simply one property of a single but very complex process.

Then let me change my approach. In the last century in Russia history was studied in two ways: in grammar schools together with geography, and in the universities with philology. In our day the second method of perception has gained the ascendancy, study of sources has begun to be made the keystone. But there is a great danger in that, because the historian risks becoming a prisoner of the author of the source, i.e. he will simply paraphrase what he has read, trying to convey the content as literally as possible. But the ancient author was guided by ideas unacceptable to us, and his readers, having a different system of associations from us, did not understand him as a reader of our day would, which means that if Herodotus or Rashid al-Din were writing for us they would put the same ideas differently. And with a literal translation of the text we do not catch the meaning for the sake of which the text was written. And, finally, the author of an ancient source naturally left out banal truths well known in his day. But it is they that are not known and are of particular interest to us. Therefore every source is a cryptogram for posterity, and restoration of its true meaning is a difficult matter, not always achieved. Suffice it to recall the disputes around The Lay of Igor's Host. And there is no guarantee that several more hypothetical interpretations will not be added to those that now exist just as justified and convincing. In short, the study of sources is the best means, for my posing of the problem, of digression so as never to return to the posed task, i.e. comprehension of the historical process.

The grammar school method is a different matter. Take from the sources what is beyond dispute, i.e. the bare, mute facts, and place them on the canvas of time and space. That is how all natural scientists act, drawing material from direct observations of nature. And when it turns out that the facts quarried from texts have an inner logic, are governed by statistical patterns, are grouped by degree of similarity and difference, it becomes possible thereby to study them by comparative methods.

That approach is reasonable because it makes it possible to comprehend an already found standard of historical existence historical entity, but of what? I can now answer the chains of events and phenomena in which the connections between the links are realized through causality. Direct observation shows that these chains have a beginning and an end, i.e. it is a flash or an outburst with inertia that fades through the resistance of the medium. Here is a mechanism that explains all the indisputable observations and generations of the cultural-historical school.

But where do the flashes come from, and why are inertial processes so surprisingly like one another? The world-historical conception should answer that but it, alas, can only describe it by the means that historical science possesses. Description is the limit for humanitarian science, and interpretation by way of speculative philosophy does not satisfy anyone in our day. It remains to pass wholly to the basis of the natural sciences and to ask about the filling of the concept 'culture' and about its material substance, which undergoes the described changes.


Two systems of reference. The first point that comes to mind as the simplest and most intelligible explanation of the observed phenomenon is to try and compare it with social formations based on one mode of production or another. That is the road Prof. Konrad took, defining the following proposition:

The slaveowning formation is characterized not by slavery as such but by a social system in which slave labour plays the role of the mode of production that determines the economic basis of social existence at a given stage of a people's history. [+11]

That stage he compares directly with 'antiquity' or the ancient history of the whole world.

The concept 'Middle Ages' is defined with the same case as the 'period of the forming, consolidation, and flourishing of feudalism', and once again for the whole Oecumene. What is new in this is only the attempt to extend the socioeconomic categories to the sphere of the regularities or causal connections of the chains of events. That is wrong, and here is why. The theory of historical materialism was created especially in order to reflect the progressive development of society as a spiral, and not in order to interpret changes of dynasty, military successes, the spread of epidemic diseases, or the nuances of religious conceptions.

The method of advancing from the abstract to the concrete is simply the way in which thinking assimilates the concrete and reproduces it as a concrete mental category. [+12]

Social development has its logic, and the succession of events its. Between the two systems there are interconnections and even feedback, but it is its existence that shows that there is not one frame of reference in it, but at least two. So it is often observed that one 'culture' lies in two or three formations, and sometimes in one, as I showed above when analyzing so-called 'transition periods'. Besides, a 'culture' is much greater than a formation, which also points to the incompatibility of these concepts. The main thing, though, is that both systems of reference do not contradict each other but supplement one another.

Let me explain. The features of the slaveowning formation noted in Egypt, Babylonia, Hellas, India, and China provide grounds for counting these societies in one taxonomic group, but in no case does it make it possible to affirm their genetic continuity or real living interconnection. But as 'culture', each of the countries enumerated interacted with neighbors that were at quite different levels of social development. Such slaveowning centers as Athens and Corinth, for example, constituted a single whole with agricultural Thebes, cattle-raising Aitolia and Thessaly, and even with Epirus and Macedonia, where there was a disintegrating gentile system. Taken all together, that was Hellas, which the Greeks themselves considered an entity. But an entity of what?

Let me leave this matter open, so as to answer it at the end of my investigation, and limit myself now to noting the difference in frames of reference social and ethnic and return to the problem of cultural processes, because there has repeatedly been a tendency to seek the answer to problems of ethnogenesis in the history of material and spiritual culture.


The history of culture and ethnogenesis. Since the activity of an ethnos is embodied in the products of its hands and brains, i.e. in culture, it can be supposed that, by studying the history of local cultures, we will at the same time understand the history of the ethnoi that created them, and so, too, ethnogenesis.

If that were true, the investigator's task would be very much simplified but, alas, although there is a link between ethnogenesis, the history of ethnoi, and the history of cultures, it is complicated by attendant phenomena, different in all cases. Let me begin with the history of culture as obvious without the use of special techniques of historical synthesis.

Do the concepts of culture and ethnos, or even superethnos, coincide? As a rule they do not, with the exception of certain cases that confirm the rule. This will be seen most clearly from a well-known example, Hellas.

The culture of the Hellenic polis, both of mainland Greece and of the colonies, had already spread in the classical period of the sixth to fourth centuries B.C., to the non-Hellenic lands, for example, Macedonia, which took on, under Alexander, the role of leader and defender of the 'Hellenic cause'. The subsequent spread of Hellenic culture embraced countries and peoples of the Near East, Egypt, Central Asia, and India, conquered by the Macedonians, and also Latium which borrowed Hellenic culture from Athens. This is so-called Hellenism, i.e. the formation of a grandiose superethnos.

But by no means all the ethnoi that accepted Hellenic culture were part of this superethnos. The Parthians learned to speak Greek, staged the tragedies of Euripides at the court of their kings, fortified their towns according to the plans of Hellenic architects, and adorned them with statues like Athenian and Miletian ones, but remained 'Turanians', [+13] masters of Iran, enemies of the Macedonians, i.e. the Syrian Seleucids. Carthage was organized on the type of the Hellenic polls, but its inhabitants, in contrast to the Syrians and Anatolians, did not become Greeks. But the Romans, having conquered Hellas, became the heirs and guardians of its culture, while preserving their own ethnic features as a local peculiarity. And they passed the Hellenistic culture on to all their provinces and, after the fall of Rome's political power, to the European Roman and in part German ethnoi.

Thus, by studying the history of culture we see an unbroken line of tradition constantly overlapping ethnic boundaries. The descendants of the Germans and Slavs assimilated geometry, the idealist philosophical systems of Plato and Aristotle, the medicine of Hippocrates, the art of building (classicism), theatre, literary genres, legal norms (Roman law), and even mythology, although they forced the ancient gods to appear in operetta rather than mysteries.

But of course the Hellenes and the Romans have long since not existed, which means that the great culture survived the ethnos that created it. The incompatibility both in space and in time is obvious.

Is it legitimate, however, to employ the term 'survival' of a culture, in spite of all its customary nature? A culture is the creation of people, be it items of technique, masterpieces of art, a philosophical system, a political doctrine, a scientific conception, or a legend about ages past. Culture exists, but does not live, because, without the injection of peoples creative energy into it, it may either be preserved or disintegrate. But this 'non-living' influences the consciousness of its creators, models fanciful forms in it, and then churns them out until their descendants cease to be receptive of them. It is customary to call this 'degeneration', and not liberation from outmoded standards of old world outlooks that have lost their significance, or have compromised themselves like the Olympian gods in the Roman Empire. No one any longer believed in those gods in the first century B.C., although their statues stood at all crossroads. Hellenes and Romans, who observed various omens, and equated their generals with gods exclusively from toadying to force and power, were in fact cynics and hypocrites; nevertheless they kept up the empty pagan temples because their fear of losing their culture was stronger than their contempt for it. People guessed, by some sixth sense, that their culture was a burden but that it was impossible to live without it. That is why very deep decline did not reduce the level of culture to nought. And with the course of time a new upswing began not of the old culture, but of a new ethnos that picked up old fragments from Earth, and adapted them to its needs. That is a fine schema of the transformation of culture.

But ethnogenesis? It is a condition without which it is impossible to create. or revive a culture. For cultures are the work of peoples' hands, and in our world there is no person without an ethnos. The creation and development of an ethnos, i.e. ethnogenesis, is like connecting a current up to a motor that had died away, after which it begins to work again.

Ethnogenesis is a natural process and consequently independent of the situation that had been established through the molding of a culture. It can begin at any moment, and if there is an obstacle in its way from active cultural entity, it will smash it down or be broken on it. If it begins when 'the ground is fallow', the rising ethnos will create its own culture as its mode of existence and development. In both cases the break or gap is a blind force of natural energy uncontrolled by any consciousness. Such an answer to the problem follows without contradiction from the principles set out above.

But there is another point of view.

The social factors that shape an ethnos, including ethnic self-awareness, lead to the appearance of an attendant population, i.e. before us is a picture that is directly opposed to that which LN. Gumilev presents. [+14]

So the discussion continues about whether being underlies consciousness or, on the contrary, consciousness underlies being. With such a posing of the question there is, in fact, matter for dispute. Let us examine it.

Every scholar has the right to adopt any postulate for his logical construct, even one according to which the real being of an ethnos is not only determined but also generated by its consciousness. A believing Christian or a materialist, it is true, will be unable to accept his opinion. Since the act of the creation of material reality is ascribed to human consciousness placed above the Creator or in his place, a Christian cannot agree with that. And materialist philosophers do not accept the thesis of the primacy of consciousness.

But even an empirical scientist has no right to agree with the thesis put forward above, because it infringes the law of the conservation of energy. For ethnogenesis is a process that is manifested in work (in the physical sense). Campaigns are undertaken, temples and palaces are built, there is a reconstruction of the landscape, disagreements within and outside the system being created are suppressed. And to do that work, energy is needed, very ordinary energy, measurable in kilogram-meters or calories. To consider that consciousness, even ethnic, can be the generator of energy means to admit the reality of telekinesis, which is out of place except in make-believe and flights of fancy.

Let me explain. The stone blocks at the top of a pyramid were not raised by ethnic self-awareness but by the muscle power of Egyptian workers on the principle of 'heave ho!' And if the rope was pulled by Libyans, Nubians, Canaanites, besides Egyptians, things were not changed. The role of consciousness, and in this case not ethnic consciousness but the personal consciousness of the engineer-builder, lay in the co-ordination of the forces at his disposal, and the difference between the management or control of a process and the energy by which it works is obvious.

The combination of various ethnogeneses with social processes on a background of the different cultures inherited from times past, and of the terrains that give people food, also diverse, creates ethnic histories that are fantastically interwoven with one another. Ethnic history, unlike ethnogenesis, is a multi-factor process that experiences various effects and reacts sensitively to them. At the same time ethnic history is not so obvious as the history of cultures and countries, social institutions and class struggle, since the events associated with a change of phases of ethnogenesis are not recorded in sources.

In other words, ethnic history is a historical discipline that is closer than any other to the geography of the biosphere, which determines the diversity that the French scholar Rene Grousset has noted. He compared the historical panorama of the middle of the twentieth century with the starry firmament in which we observe stars that have long been extinct but whose light is only now falling on Earth, and we do not see supernovae whose rays are still speeding in cosmic space and are consequently not observable by terrestrial observatories.

Continuing the resemblance, Grousset considered the countries of Islam to be analogous in age to the European fourteenth century, the 'Trecento'; he compared the Germans' invasion of France in 1940 with the campaigns of Alaric and Gaiseric in the fifth century A.D.; and he called the Japanese armies samurai decked out in modern uniform.

But if, even in the twentieth century, in conditions of all-equalizing urbanist civilization, the French orientalist finds such immense disparities, their significance would be even greater in other ages, when they were less smoothed out by the general technosphere. Grousset considers that 'most of our ills come from peoples who, living in the same epoch, do not obey either the same logic or the same morality'. [+15] He considers unevenness of ethnic development the cause of many wars and of such monstrous crimes as the German concentration camps. In fact, for such terrible crimes to be committed without excruciating remorse, there has to be a psychic structure that can only be represented as a pathology. These arc not chance individual deviations, however, but ethnic ones affecting the stable moods of the masses, which means that it is a phase of ethnogenesis not compatible with what we consider the norm, which we take as the initial point of reference. But if we start to calculate from the other aspect, then the pathological seems to be what we consider normal.

If that is so, however, then we have to find some standard for measuring ethnic history similar to that which socioeconomic formations are for social history. The task is complicated, however, by there being additional difficulties on the road to solving it -the relation of an ethnos to the enclosing geographical environment, which also changes, sometimes even more rapidly than the ethnos itself. Calliope is powerless here, and must beg help from her sister Urania.



[+1] A.J. Toynbee. A Study of History. Abridgement of Vols. I-VI by D.C. Somervell. Oxford University Press, New York, London, 1947, p 60.

[+2] Ibid., pp 167-169.

[+3] N.I. Konrad. Zapad i Vostok (West and East), Nauka, Moscow, 1966, p 454.

[+4] Ibid., p 455.

[+5] Ibid., p 457.

[+6] Ibid. See the sections 'On the Slaveowning Formation', pp 33-53, and ' "The Middle Ages" in Historical Science', pp 89-118.

[+7] Ibid, p 454.

[+8] Ibid, p 37.

[+9] Ibid, p 455.

[+10] Ibid, p 76.

[+11] Ibid, p 33.

[+12] Karl Marx. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1977, p 206.

[+13] The counterpoising of Iran to Turan, i.e. of the settled Arians, who adopted Zoroastrianism, to the steppe Arians, who preserved the cult of devas, did not lose its significance until the Arab conquest in the seventh century A.D.

[+14] Yu.V. Bromley. Etnos i etnografiya (Ethnos and Ethnography), Nauka, Moscow, 1973, pp 122-123.

[+15] Rene Grousset. Bilan de l'histoire. Plon, Paris, 1955, p 92.


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