By Piotr Dutkiewicz, a member of the Valdai Club Academic Council and Director of the Center for Governance and Public Policy at Carleton University, Canada.
In recent years, Vladimir Putin has mentioned several times the ideas of Lev Gumilev – one of the fathers of modern Eurasianism – in the context of the roles of civilization and cultural factors in Russian domestic politics.
In an article ostensibly about Ukraine, published last week, the Russian president expanded Gumilev’s initial argument, outlining what we might now call Putin’s Civilizational Doctrine in International Relations.
Before analyzing this doctrine’s key points and potential international consequences, let me take a step back to briefly trace its roots. Why Gumilev, and why now?
Lev Gumilev was the son of Russian literary icon Anna Akhmatova and Nikolay Gumilev, a tsarist officer and poet. He became a prominent social geographer, ethnographer, and anthropologist whose work focused on the role of culture, history, geography, and spirituality in the process of the formation of the Russian nation. He was an exponent of Russian uniqueness and greatness.
Such thoughts were not popular with the leaders of the multinational Soviet Union and the authorities rejected his ideas, while banning most of his texts from publication. However, he finally attracted mainstream public attention during the Perestroika years, in the late 1980s.
Being a unique civilization does not, according to Gumilev, preclude the acceptance of either European values or political multipolarity. His views provide a template, as British journalist Charles Clover has argued in the Financial Times, “for a synthesis of nationalism and internationalism that could form the founding idea of a new Eurasia, a singular political unit enjoying much the same frontiers as the USSR.” Gumilev’s Russia has its own great destiny but should be open to inter-civilizational dialogue. This stands in stark contrast to some more extreme and closed versions of neo-Eurasianism.
For a conservative politician like Vladimir Putin, leading Russia during a period of worldwide turbulence, Gumilev’s mix of cultural and spiritual-based prophesy of Russian greatness has served as a good foundation for Putin to suggest that the civilizational uniqueness of Russia can be used in not only the domestic but also the international agenda.