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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Survivor, Historian, Fighter

"Let us praise while we can/ The vertical man/ Though we value none/ But the horizontal one." Dmitry Sergeyevich Likhachev, cultural historian, academician and the first honorary citizen of the new St. Petersburg, is 90 years old in two days' time. And it's time to praise him.


Dmitry Sergeyevich was born in another country: in St. Petersburg before the Revolution. His father was an engineer. He lived in a series of apartments near the Mariinsky Theater; he saw the great ballerina Karsavina; he went to the same church as the boy who was later to become the writer Vladimir Nabokov. He remembers the carriages and uniforms on Nevsky Prospekt and a time when St. Petersburg was a multinational metropolis: "a place of pan-European culture, with lots of Germans, Finns, Estonians, Latvians, French and English -- you could hear their languages everywhere in public places. The East influenced the city less, but we had many Tatars -- and also one of the biggest and most beautiful mosques in Europe."


The Revolution swept this cosmopolitan world away, of course, and with it -- almost -- Dmitry Sergeyevich. A decade after the Revolution, after Lenin had moved the capital to Moscow, he was arrested and sent to the camps. "We had a student discussion group at the University," he says wryly, "and one of my friends sent us a telegram of congratulation on some anniversary of ours pretending that it came from the Pope. We were all arrested for contact with a foreign power and agitation against the state. I was sent to the prison at Solovetsky Monastery," the birthplace, as Solzhenitsyn once called it, of the Gulag.


"It was my first real university," he says. "There were many professors there, and students" -- whom he recalls repeatedly quoting from memory the poetry of Osip Mandelstam. But there were also professional thieves and murderers, with whose codes and talk he became increasingly fascinated. (The first book he wrote was on the slang and games of criminals, though it was only published half a century later.)


Solovky, for all that, was a brutal and vicious Gehenna. Very many died there. And Dmitry Sergeyevich himself only escaped death after finding, by accident, a list of people to be shot the following night on a guards' barracks wall. His own name was among them. So instead of going back to his cell, he stayed out all night and slowly counted the shots fired. There was a shot for himself. "So ever since then" he says simply, "I have had to live two lives: my own and that of the man who was killed in my place."


He was eventually released from Solovky, and returned to Leningrad; he got a job as a proofreader in the Academy of Sciences building. But the atmosphere in the city was so dangerous, he says, that he spoke to virtually noone outside his own family for the next five years. Then came the German siege of Leningrad, during which he watched members of his family slowly starve to death, and only survived himself by eating wallpaper paste and soup made from leather bookbindings. And even when that ordeal was over -- and the War finished -- the Soviet State still hadn't done with him. By now a cultural historian of some standing, and an expert, in particular, on medieval Russia, he was accused in the '40s and '50s of "cosmopolitanism" and historiographical heresy. In the '70s, he was beaten in the street by KGB thugs for refusing to sign a letter of condemnation against Andrei Sakharov.


Slowly, though, the world began to change around him -- "though I didn't change my views," he says. In 1987, Raisa Gorbachev called on him to become joint president of the Soviet Fund for Culture. He became the doyen of the Academy of Sciences, a member of the Chamber of People's Deputies, and in 1993 the first honorary St. Petersburgian of the new (post-name-change) city. With Prince Charles' help, he organized the preservation of the manuscripts in the Pushkin House; he fought for funds for the damaged and "all-important" National Library; and he played a key role in rallying opposition to the Peter the Great Tower, St. Petersburg's first -- "and disastrous" -- skyscraper.


Dmitry Sergeyevich is a quiet, gentle man, with that hint of buried steel that you find in so many of those who survived the camps. He is still passionate about St. Petersburg's architecture; he loves the park at Pavlovsk. He spends part of the summer at a little dacha in Komorovo, not far from Anna Akhmatova's grave. And he is still very active, still exploring the old roots of democracy in Russia, still fighting for Russian culture wherever and with whomever he can. I'm extremely glad that he's still among us, and very proud that I know him. From Yelena and myself, Dmitry Sergeyevich, a very happy birthday!