Dmitri Sergeyevich Likhachev was a nation's conscience. The literary historian Dmitri Sergeyevich Likhachev, who learned about hopelessness and survival first in a Soviet prison camp in the 1920s and again in blockaded Leningrad during World War II, died in St. Petersburg. He was 92.
Mr. Likhachev was Russia's most respected scholar, a man whose eloquently expressed dark views about the course of Russian culture brought him attention until nearly the last days of his life. He embodied his country's
painful 20th century history in a way no other intellectual could claim -- from a remembered glimpse of Alexis, the heir to the Romanov throne, in St. Petersburg before the Russian Revolution, to his work as adviser on cultural affairs to President Boris N. Yeltsin.
"In our pragmatic century," Yeltsin said, "he personified the best traits of the Russian intelligentsia -- the selfless duty to the Fatherland, nobility and devotion to duty. It is bitter for me to be aware that this good and talented person is no longer with us."
Mr. Likhachev's first scholarly article, published in Leningrad in 1935, was based on material he had gathered while a prisoner at the notorious Solovki camp in the northern White Sea. He was later to say that Solovki -- where he
met czarist officers, Ukrainian bishops, intellectuals from the Caucasus and other enemies of the Soviet state -- was the best university he could have attended.
He only barely made it out alive, paroled for applying himself as a "shock worker" during the building of the White Sea Canal, a useless waterway on which hundreds of thousands of prisoners worked and, mostly, died. Yet as bad as that was, he said in an interview last year, the 900-day blockade of Leningrad by the German army was worse. Starving, freezing, terrified by bombers and suspicious of everyone, the people of the city werereduced to despair and brutal callousness; 1.5 million of them died.
Mr. Likhachev was born into a middle-class family in St. Petersburg, into a world that has utterly vanished. His father was an engineer at a printing plant who lost his job when, in 1928, his university-student son was arrested for reasons never made clear. He was a bookish and studious scholar, not a spellbinding speaker and not in any sense a dissident. He wrote more than 1,000 articles and books, most on fairly narrow themes of Russian literary history.
But in the late 1980s and '90s, he emerged as a sort of elder conscience, particularly after the death of the physicist Andrei Sakharov. He believed in a Russia that was a part of Europe and a pillar of European culture.
"If European culture in our country is not preserved," he said last year, "then it will be replaced by some sort of perversion." But he found little to be optimistic about, from budget cuts by a government that seemed to have no understanding of science, to crazy popular delusions and superstitions sweeping the country, to an upsurge in Islamic extremism. Mr. Likhachev believed that Russia is in real danger of falling into some type of nationalist -- and irrational -- demagogy. "If Russia goes into the abyss," he said, "it will threaten the whole
October 1, 1999
EDITORIAL: Likhachyov's Certainties To Be Missed
Russia always seems to lose -- or silence - voices of courage just when they are most needed. Andrei Sakharov's death came with that of the Soviet Union; the physicist and Nobel Prize-winner's moral genius was lost to the nation just as it set out rebuilding a new society. Alexander Solzhenitsyn once offered passionately angry and intelligent critiques of the war in Chechnya and of the corruption that had flourished under Boris Yeltsin's regime; for his pains, the
government took away a TV show it had granted him on state-owned ORT. And now - as we enter what may be the ultimate low point in Russia's post-Soviet moral reasoning, an unjust and unreasonable war of revenge based on ethnic hates - we have lost literary historian Dmitry Likhachyov.
Likhachyov was less famous abroad than Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn - but at home in Russia he was treasured, and rightly so. He saved many an architectural gem in St. Petersburg, and anyone who likes to stroll in the tsarist gardens of Catherine the Great can thank him for helping to derail a scheme to remake them as "model socialist parks."
All forms of culture were near to his heart, and it is partly thanks to Likhachyov that the national television station Kultura came about. He has also been uncompromisingly critical of the thuggish St. Petersburg Television - which is run by puppets of the city's authoritarian governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, and glorifies things like organized crime and proposals
for ethnic cleansing of non-white Russian citizens.
For expatriates, an hour spent listening to Likhachyov hold forth in his wonderful soft-spoken and precise Russian was worth all the trouble of learning the difficult language in the first place; for St. Petersburgers, Likhachyov was another point of hometown pride; for Russians he was comforting and delightful, with his lively blue eyes, wispy white hair and
the moral certitudes of a 19th century-style intelligent.
You might not have agreed with him when he quietly insisted that Russia was an entirely European nation, and not at all an Asian nation or even a Eurasian one. You might not have fully shared his view that Russian civilization was built on the Bible. You might not support him in criticizing Ukrainian independence on grounds that Kiev is as Russian as Moscow.
But you knew there was no hatred or self-interest lurking behind his stated beliefs (except perhaps the self-interest of wanting to visit Kiev more often to study in the archives there). And in a place and age when moral certaintyand conviction have been lacking, Likhachyov was refreshingly real.