Life of the conscience of a nation

Reflections on the Russian Soul
August 10, 2001

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. Solovki and its inmates accordingly assume a central place in this memoir.

Born into a relatively prosperous family in 1907 (his father was an electrical engineer and a member of St Petersburg's burgeoning professional classes), Likhachev grew up in a cultured environment, in which proximity to the Mariinsky Theatre was a priority. He was taken on trips to the Crimea and the Volga, spent blissful summers at seaside dacha resorts, and received his education at the prestigious school run by Karl May. This was where Alexandre Benois had once been a pupil - although Likhachev mistakenly associates him with the school he had attended earlier.

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.

Likhachev has not been terribly well served by this English edition of his memoirs. Apart from the lack of an index and a photograph captioned "author's mother and his sons", there are numerous spelling errors (the scholar Azadovsky's name is spelt "Adazovsky" twice on one page, with both spellings used on another). There are also oddities in the transliteration system used (the linguist Roman Jakobson, for example, is never referred to as "Yakobson"). The translation is mostly serviceable, although editorial work might have rendered it more idiomatic and eradicated the odd howler whereby Likhachev's early article "Features of the primordial primitivism of thieves' speech", for example, becomes "Features of the primordial primitivism of thieves". The nonsensical sentence "I believe that nothing ceases to be, but that everything outside the sphere of our consciousness remains" (which should read "I believe that nothing ever disappears - it simply remains beyond the field of our vision") is perhaps not the best tribute to the man regarded as "the last of the Russian intelligentsia".

Rosamund Bartlett is research fellow in Russian cultural history, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Reflections on the Russian Soul: A Memoir

Author - Dmitry S. Likhachev
ISBN - 963 9116 46 7
Publisher - Central European University Press
Price - £22.95
Pages - 296

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