Russian scholar, moralist, dies at 92

Appreciation: Dmitri Sergeyevich Likhachev saw it all, from the last of the Romanovs to Boris Yeltsin.

October 01, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- 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 yesterday 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 yesterday, "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 were reduced 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 world."

Pub Date: 10/01/99

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