Prescription for a sick country Russia: A highly respected academic who has seen nine decades of history pleads for his nation to overcome its fear and psychosis and restore its culture before it is too late.

Sun Journal

July 23, 1998|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- Boris N. Yeltsin leaned slightly toward Dmitri Likhachev and lighted the older man's candle with his own, sharing the flame.

It was a small, momentary gesture. They were standing side by side in the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, the funeral of Nicholas II and his family about to begin.

Yeltsin had just finished speaking about repentance and atonement for the terrible crimes committed in the name of the Russian people through the long course of the 20th century. It was a powerful speech. It wouldn't have happened without Likhachev.

Dmitri Sergeyevich Likhachev is 91 now. As a young boy growing up in St. Petersburg he once saw Alexis, the Romanov heir to the throne, who was two years his senior.

When he was 21 he was arrested by the Communists and sent off to the Solovki prison camp, an island hell in the White Sea. He was one of hundreds of thousands of prisoners who dug the White Sea Canal, a useless waterway; he was one of a handful still living when the canal was completed.

He returned to Leningrad, where his friends shunned him.

He survived the 900-day siege by the German army during World War II. He doggedly pursued his studies and made himself Russia's pre-eminent cultural historian.

Since the death of physicist Andrei Sakharov nine years ago, he has become the country's most respected academic.

Likhachev believes that Russia today is on the brink of disaster. He believes there is a malignant national sickness, rooted in the era of Josef Stalin, that has warped the culture and psychology of the country. And he believes things are only getting worse.

In a series of interviews with The Sun, Likhachev described why he feels so strongly about the need for Russia to make itself well again. He sees a country whose citizens are suspicious, secretive, superstitious, violent, unprincipled and avaricious.

"Seventy years of dictatorship has changed the psychology," he says. "This spy mania was typical of the Stalin era -- he was psychologically ill because he had a persecution complex. But these psychological diseases are contagious, and the infection he started is still spreading.

"For 70 years they have been squeezing out of us feelings like sympathy, kindness, warmth. It was a diabolic regime, and it stays in the psychology. You see it today in this egoism, this desire to snatch something from others."

Simply throwing off communism was not enough.

Russia, he says, has to find a way to recover. But the poverty into which the country has sunk means that precisely those things that Russia needs -- culture, science, intellect -- are under greater threat than at any time in history.

"The situation is much worse than right after the revolution, when the intelligentsia were arrested and shot by the Bolsheviks," he says. "They still didn't manage to kill culture to the extent that it can be killed now.

"Today, the layer of intellectuals and scientists is much thinner than in the beginning of the century."

Salaries don't get paid, journal subscriptions lapse, laboratories are closed. Threads are lost that may never be picked up again.

Why is this so dangerous?

"Whenever science is silent, false sciences begin to appear," Likhachev says. "Fantastic, nonscientific, stupid theories are appearing. It's absurd."

The government, he says, has no understanding of this. Yet it is a short step from crazy popular delusions to the sort of willful blindness that leads to nationalist demagogy and fascism.

"Everyone wants Russia to be a stable European country, with European freedom and thinking, rationalism, recognition of other cultures as equals," he says.

"If European culture in our country is not preserved, then it will be replaced by some sort of perversion. It's extremely dangerous to the nation itself and to surrounding nations as well."

The government has just cut its already low level of spending on culture and education. There's a suggestion to turn over these areas to local officials.

"But they have little interest in culture -- you can imagine what will happen," Likhachev says.

Into the breach has stepped George Soros, the Hungarian-born American businessman who has pledged millions of dollars to support Russian science. He has been met with great suspicion. Some have accused him of trying to steal Russian scientific secrets.

"This talk about Soros surprises and infuriates me," Likh-achev says. "Soros has realized a very important idea -- that Russia should be reborn as a cultural force.

"He wants to use his wealth not for Russia only but for the whole world. Because if Russia falls back into ideological wildness, it will threaten not only Europe but the whole world.

"And yet our people cannot understand why a person would spend his money, not on himself or to entertain himself, but to establish a stronghold of thought and culture. The most precious thing Russia has is culture, but people have forgotten this."

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