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He Opened the Open World

Nevskoe Vremya (Sankt-Peterburg, Russia)
Posted on November 29, 2006

By   By James Billington, Librarian of US Congress

I have come to St. Petersburg to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Academician Likhachev’s birth with his countrymen. I knew Dmitry Sergeevich quite well. He was a frequent visitor to our library where he worked, met with US congressmen and senators. They all agree that he was a pillar of absolute wisdom, a representative of the genuine culture of St. Petersburg.

I can say that, although he interacted a lot with the authorities of his country, he seemed to the Americans a representative of a “different Russia” that had nothing in common with the official one. I remember him arranging an exhibition of books and manuscripts of Old Believers in the Library of Congress during the summit meeting of George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev and explaining to Raisa Gorbacheva, who was opening the exhibition, how valuable those books were. And how much of his heart he put into guiding Nancy Reagan around Leningrad of that time!

His profound philosophical approach to history brought into being a whole new notion that hadn’t existed before – the ecology of culture. In my book Russia In Search Of Itself I wrote that Dmitry Sergeevich had pointed out three features that constituted the identity of Russian culture: its traditionally religious foundation, occasional borrowing of ideas from the West and a deep affinity with the land and nature. At the end of his long life he encouraged Russian culture to extend and deepen its links to the ancient traditions while being more open to the outer world.

Open World is the name of the program initiated by Congress in 1999 and co-chaired by Dmitry Likhachev and myself. Young leaders from all over Russia come to the United States in the framework of the program to get acquainted with the real life of America. Dmitry Likhachev did much to bring about the success of the Open World Program at the start and by now more than 11,000 Russians have come to America thanks to the program. And by the way, none of them have chosen to stay there, which speaks of the confidence your young people have in the future of their country.

We set up an exhibition in the Library of Congress in the memory of the Academician Likhachev. Dmitry Sergeevich is with us; his ideas are vital today.

[Reprinted with Permission]