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Russia: 'Last Great Moral Authority' Speaks Out

St. Petersburg, 27 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Dmitry Likhachyov defies the usual image of a powerful person. He is a peaceful, quiet man of modest means; a 90-year-old, soft-spoken literary historian. Yet Likhachyov's is without doubt one of the most authoritative voices in Russia.

When Likhachyov writes a letter to the Kremlin, officialdom pays careful attention to what he has to say. President Boris Yeltsin at times acts on Likhachyov's advice; at times he even cites Likhachyov's opinion as an argument in debate.

A year ago, for example, the idea of a national television station devoted to high culture was laughed at by many. But when Likhachyov added his voice in support of the project, President Yeltsin took heed, and the national Kultura station is now a reality (although it cannot yet be seen in Likhachyov 's home city, St. Petersburg).

Likhachyov's influence derives from his moral authority as an individual who did not give in to the Soviet system, and as a leading specialist in Russian literature and culture who works at St. Petersburg's Institute of Literature. He spent four years at the notorious Gulag camp SLON, better known to the world as Solovki -- a former Russian Orthodox monastery on the White Sea's Solovetski Islands that the Soviets turned into a prison for the country's intelligentsia.

While Likhachyov has earned his stature, it is also a result of natural processes. Most other giants of the anti-Soviet movement have died. Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, meanwhile, has faded angrily from view with the 1995 canceling of his show on ORT Russian Public Television.

At 90, Likhachyov does not get out often but, last week, he was featured at a press conference. Topics ranged from the burial of the Romanovs to restitution of art looted during World War Two.

During the press conference, Likhachyov said: "I write to Yeltsin about many questions and he reads my letters very carefully. Recently, I wrote that it is necessary to give peace to the tsarist family. Bury the remains in the place where Tsar Nicholas II wanted to rest in peace -- the Peter and Paul Fortress."

On the state of contemporary Russian culture, Likachyov is a rare voice of optimism. In his words: "Russian culture is prospering as we are returning to our ancient roots. Now there is the freedom to do what you want."

But he says he sees difficulties on the horizon. Here's how he put it: "Culture needs financing and protection. The economic situation in the country portends badly for the future of Russia's culture. The government needs to support it."

Likhachyov said that the government's main task should be culture -- taking care of schools, libraries, museums and archives.

On World War II art booty, Likachyov supports Yeltsin. Likhachyov's words again: "The president is correct in disagreeing with the Duma in its call to ban any return of war trophies to Germany. This issue is a complicated matter, that requires careful legal study. But as a victorious country we do have the right to reparations. After all, the Germans attacked us and not we them."

For Likhachyov, however, the greatest problem in society is a growing evil and anger, which must be combated by what he called "spreading good feeling through raising the level of culture."

Likhachyov said: " A lot of jealousy is the result of people not realizing themselves culturally. The level of culture needs to be raised."