Prominent Russians: Dmitry Likhachyov
Dmitry Likhachyov’s personality is symbolic of Russian culture of the 20th century. He was an intellectual who survived a Soviet labor camp; one of Russia’s most outstanding scientists and a notable public figure, who managed to preserve his moral values and strength of mind throughout his life.
Dmitry Likhachyov was born in Saint Petersburg. From his early childhood he was passionate about literature, even though his parents didn’t approve of this interest.
In 1923, at only 16 years old, Likhachyov entered the Leningrad State University in the Department of Linguistics and Literature. He attended Roman-Germanic and Slavic-Russian sections at the same time, undertaking two diplomas. At the university young Likhachyov met many outstanding scientists and developed his own way of thinking. In 1928, at the end of his studies, Likhachyov was arrested and accused of being a member of the students’ club “Cosmic Academy of Science,” which was simply a playful
name for a group of like-minded youths. Shortly before his arrest Dmitry Likhachyov had
presented a short report, in which, either jokingly or seriously, he claimed that the new spelling rules were “demonic” and worse than the old ones. This document was used as proof of his “counter-revolutionary” ideas. After nine months in jail, the young scientist was unlawfully exiled without trial and spent five years in the USSR’s largest labor camp situated on the Solovetsky Islands.
At the camp hard work, poor living conditions and illness dramatically damaged Likhachyov’s health, but at least he survived. On the Solovetsky Islands he met both exiled Russian intellectuals and real criminals, who happened to save his life. As Dmitry Likhachyov said many years later, “At the Solovki I understood that every person is a person.”
Whilst on the islands, for some period of time Dmitry Likhachyov worked as a member of the Criminological Cabinet, organizing a labor colony for teenagers and saving them from death caused by hunger, drugs and cold. From 1931 Likhachyov was a worker on the construction of the White Sea-Baltic Sea Canal until his release.
Dmitry Likhachyov’s first scientific article, “Card Games of Criminals,” was written in the camp. He didn’t play cards himself, but was a keen observer. He also gathered much material about the languages of thieves and later published articles and a book about thieves’ slang and customs.
Having returned to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), Likhachyov worked for five years as a proofreader in the publishing house of the Academy of Sciences. In 1936, thanks to petitions by the president of the Academy of Sciences, Aleksandr Karpinsky, Dmitry Likhachyov’s criminal record was cleared. In 1938 the talented scientist was noticed and invited to the Department of Old Russian Literature of the Institute of Russian Literature (known as Pushkin’s House). Dmitry Likhachyov worked here until the end of his life.
Old Russian literature, which at that time did not receive much academic attention, became the main scientific interest of Dmitry Likhachyov who, by the beginning of the 1940s, was one of the most renowned specialists in this sphere. In 1941 Likhachyov presented his thesis “Novgorod Annalistic Corpus of the 12th Century.”
World War II brought new trials. Likhachyov, together with his wife and twin daughters, survived the horrors of the Siege of Leningrad. He described his experience in a story, full of harsh details, exposing different types of people and their heroic or appalling behavior when faced with starvation and death. In 1942, completely exhausted by hunger and cold, Dmitry Likhachyov started to gather materials on medieval poetry and soon published the book “Defense of the Old Russian Cities.” In 1943 Likhachyov and his entire family were exiled to Kazan, supposedly because of the “connection with the Solovetsky Camp.” But by the end of the war they were back in Leningrad.
In 1947 Dmitry Likhachyov received his Doctor of Philology, having presented his thesis “Essays on the History of Annalistic Literary Forms of XI – XVI Centuries.” Three years later he became a professor at the Leningrad State University. From 1953 he was a corresponding member and from 1970 - a member of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Dmitry Likhachyov’s conquering of the scientific world was definitely a triumphant one.
1950 marked the publication of Likhachyov’s two-volume edition containing unique, important literary works translated into the modern Russian language: “The Primary Chronicle,” a history of the Kiev Rus in the 9th and 11th centuries and “The Tale of Igor's Campaign,” based on a failed raid by the Prince of Novgorod-Severask against the Cumans in 1185.
Dmitry Likhachyov was not a scientist detached from real life. From the 1950s he began a campaign to save the wooden temples of the Russian North and preserve the historical look of
Russian cities. He helped found the museums of Dostoevsky, Pushkin and Pasternak. In the 1960s Likhachyov was one of the initiators of the movement for the protection of historical monuments, libraries and archives. Thanks to Likhachyov many monuments were saved, including Marina Tsvetaeva’s flat in Moscow, the Nevsky Prospect, which was supposed to be turned into a shopping street and Aleksandr’s Garden. In the 1980s he headed the Soviet (later renamed into Russian) Cultural Fund, supporting the process of the Orthodox Church’s reclaiming of its temples, formerly appropriated by the Soviet government. The scientist also participated in the preservation of national minorities in danger of dying out while aiding the return to Russia of emigrated public and cultural figures.
In 1975 Likhachyov was one of the members of the Academy of Sciences who refused to sign a letter requesting the expulsion the famous scientist Andrey Sakharov from the Academy because of Sakharov’s public disapproval of the introduction of Soviet troops into Afghanistan.
Despite his busy social life, Likhachyov still spent a lot of time on scientific work. Focusing on Old Russian literature, he developed the concept of artistic time and space. In 1969 the researcher was awarded with the USSR State Prize for his work “Poetics of the Old Russian Literature.”
Dmitry Likhachov gained world recognition as a theorist of culture and as a publicist. In the 1980s he developed a concept that considered the problems of humanization and the reorientation of educational goals and ideas. The scientist viewed culture as a historical memory, as a process of accumulation, rather than consecutive changes. This was also the theoretical basis for Likhachov’s attention to ancient monuments, especially in architecture. Inspired by the works of Vladimir Vernadsky, Dmitry Likhachyov suggested the idea of a “homosphere”- a human sphere of the Earth. His original contribution to general science was also the development of a new discipline called the ecology of culture, which was defined as an essential sphere of human life.
One of the ideas of Likhachyov’s concept was the correlation between culture and nature. In his book “Poetics of the Gardens” (1982), park and garden art was for the first time considered as a semiotic reflection of major cultural and artistic styles and their corresponding ideologies.
As a Christian, Likhachyov thought about his life journey as a vertical movement, towards the heavenly home. The reflections of his experience as a person are written in the book “Reminiscences” (1995).
The last works by Dmitry Likhachyov gathered together his general ideas about his native country. The book “Thoughts About Russia,” completed in 1999, a few days before the author’s death, is devoted to Russia’s place in world history, its myths and its most characteristic features. The edition “Russian Culture” was published in 2000, after the writer’s death.
As a great scientist, Likhachyov was a foreign member of the Academies of Sciences of Bulgaria, Hungary and Serbia and a corresponding member of the Austrian, American, British, Italian and Göttingen Academies. In 1984 the minor planet 2877 was named after Likhachyov.
Dmitry Likhachyov died on 30 September 1999. He was married to Zinaida Makarova, who devoted her entire life to her husband. They had twin daughters, Vera and Lyudmila.