Life of the conscience of a nation
Times Higher Education Supplement, 10. August 2001
Reflections on the Russian Soul: A Memoir
Dmitry S. Likhachev
Central European University Press
For members of Russia's beleaguered intelligentsia, the death of Dmitry Likhachev in September 1999 at the age of 92 represented the end of an era, since he was not just an eminent scholar of medieval literature, but the conscience of the nation. A modest and retiring man, Likhachev became a public figure in Russia in his 80s, after being appointed by Gorbachev as head of the Soviet Cultural Fund, where he led a vigorous campaign for the restoration of neglected monuments, churches and libraries. In his role as a senior people's deputy in the shortlived Soviet parliament at the end of the 1980s, his stature was further enhanced by his condemnation of anti-Semitic and nationalist political groups. It seemed entirely fitting that when Russian astronomers discovered a new asteroid, they decided to name it after him.
Likhachev's deep-seated belief that culture was first and foremost morality was born from his unwavering faith as an Orthodox Christian and from the circumstances of his remarkable life. It was a belief that informed all his work and defined him as the archetypal Russian intelligent. His lifelong refusal to conform to political demands, combined with his exceptional talents as a historian and then custodian of Russian culture are what turned him into such a revered figure of authority. Likhachev never identified himself openly as a dissident, or sought to draw attention to himself, but his refusal to sign an official letter attacking Sakharov, his fights to prevent old churches and monuments from being demolished, and his activities as an environmentalist resulted in various forms of intimidation from the authorities. Contributing to Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago in 1976, for example, provoked an arson attempt on his flat. Likhachev does not dwell on such incidents in the account of his life, but it is regrettable that the reader equally learns nothing about his campaigns to save trees and ancient buildings. Instead, several chapters are devoted to Likhachev's time in Solovki, the labour camp set up by Lenin in 1920 on an island in the White Sea. Likhachev was sentenced to spend several years there, narrowly missing a mass execution in 1929. It was the formative experience of his life. . . .
Likhachev's description of the St Petersburg of his childhood is richly evocative, and certainly the most enjoyable part of the book. Inevitably inviting comparisons with Nabokov's Speak, Memory, to which it provides an attractive complement, it is much more down to earth in every respect. Whereas the aristocratic Nabokov surveys the city from the vantage point of the family limousine, Likhachev (whose parents both came from merchant backgrounds) goes on foot, watching the barges on the crowded Neva, or riding a noisy red and yellow electric tram. What distinguishes this part of Likhachev's memoir is his elegy for the lost sounds of the city the hooting of steamers, the jangling of soldiers' spurs, the whisper of carriage wheels on wooden roads and its rich colours. A sharp contrast is drawn between the kaleidoscopic palette of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg and the drabness of its spectrum after 1917. Yet it is the colourless years of Stalinist rule to which the bulk of Likhachev's memoir is devoted. Apart from his experiences in the camps, he provides a compelling account of life in Leningrad during the blockade. In between, we learn something of his scholarly career, which began in 1928 with the delivery of a spoof paper to an irreverent student society, in which he defended the old orthography. For this he was awarded the Chair of Melancholy Philology, and then promptly arrested. . . .