Summer 2002 (10.2)
Death Touches Russia's Soul
by Constantine Pleshakov
Published in the Japan Times,
May 5, 2002
related to Thor Heyerdahl:
(1) Thor Heyerdahl in Azerbaijan: KON-TIKI
by Betty Blair (AI 3:1, Spring 1995)
(2) The Azerbaijan Connection: Challenging
Euro-Centric Theories of Migration by Heyerdahl (AI 3:1, Spring 1995)
Primal Music Norwegians Find 'The Land We Come From' by Steinar Opheim (AI
5.4, Winter 1997)
Heyerdahl in Baku
(AI 7:3, Autumn 1999)
Ancestry: Tracing Roots to Azerbaijan - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.2, Summer 2000)
Earlier Civilizations - More Advanced - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.3, Autumn 2000)
Kish Church - Digging Up History - An Interview with J. Bjornar Storfjel
(AI 8.4, Winter 2000)
(8) Reflections on Life
- Thor Heyerdahl (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(9) First Encounters in
the Soviet Union - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(10) Thor Heyerdahl's
Final Projects - Bjornar Storfjell (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(11) Voices of the Ancients:
Rare Caucasus Albanian Text - Dr. Zaza Alexidze (AI 10.2,
Burns "Tigris" Reed Ship to Protest War - Letter
to UN - Bjornar Storfjell, Blair (AI 11.1Winter 2003)
Left: Thor Heyerdahl in 1994 viewing boat petroglyphs
near Baku, Azerbaijan
MOSCOW - One does not
have to be a pop singer or a movie actor to have loyal fans all
over the globe. Occasionally even a scholar can become an international
star, as the recently deceased Norwegian Thor Heyerdahl demonstrated.
A remarkable thing about his popularity, however, was that Russia
was one of the nations that loved him most.
The news about his death at the age of 87 has upset the Russians:
The famous anthropologist and adventurer was their icon for more
than 40 years. But more importantly, people feel that with his
death our world has become a less romantic place. With Heyerdahl's
death, impractical chivalry and personal crusades for knowledge
move that much closer to extinction in the 21st century.
The Russians could not care less whether the theories Heyerdahl
tried to prove with his breathtaking voyages were true. Could
an engineer from Khabarovsk be really interested in the ethnic
origins of the Easter Island people or the ancient connection
between Egypt and America? Of course not. What excited such a
person was the total craziness of Heyerdahl's enterprises.
In a way, Heyerdahl was an anti-scholar. Instead of looking for
physical evidence of the Egyptians' journeys to pre-Columbian
America in the ruins of ancient cities and desert tombs, he built
a reed boat, named it after the Egyptian sun god Ra and crossed
the Atlantic on it. Earlier he had crossed the Western Pacific
in the Kon-Tiki raft; later he would attempt to reach Ethiopia
from the Persian Gulf area in another reed boat. To any historian,
such attempts to replicate the past look pretentious and vain.
One could just as easily build a 19th-century schooner, board
it in Nice, sail it to Australia and afterward claim that Napoleon
had done the same back in 1810. But the Russians adored Heyerdahl
exactly because he challenged common sense - and acquired iconoclastic
fame in the process.
However silly and annoying Heyerdahl's journeys appeared to
some, they sent a message of hope to many others: No matter what
happened in the Kremlin or in the White House, the ocean, with
waves and riddles, was still there, the coral reefs were just
as beautiful as ever and life went on.
The Soviet Union might have
been extremely inefficient, but its system rested upon a "scientific"
basis. Even the ideological sacred cow, Karl Marx and Vladimir
Lenin's teachings on an ideal society, was referred to as "scientific
communism." Meanwhile, Heyerdahl defied every scientific
approach and every dogma. He spent his whole life loudly fantasizing
about the most improbable events, and driving university professors
nuts in the process. The Russians loved that.
Heyerdahl's boisterous individualism also appealed to them. In
spite of the fact that he lived in the age of superpowers, corporate
conglomerates and global conflicts, Heyerdahl behaved as if he
were a 12th-century knight looking for the Holy Grail.
While the world agonized over one crisis after another during
the Cold War, Heyerdahl utterly ignored politics. While Moscow
and Washington headed toward the first Berlin crisis in 1947,
Heyerdahl sailed the Kon-Tiki from South America to Easter Island.
While the world struggled with the Suez crisis and the Soviet
occupation of Hungary in 1956, he dug soil on Easter Island.
He crossed the Atlantic on the Ra at the peak of the Vietnam
However silly and annoying these journeys appeared to some, they
sent a message of hope to many others: No matter what happened
in the Kremlin or in the White House, the ocean, with its waves
and riddles, was still there, the coral reefs were just as beautiful
as ever and life went on.
Heyerdahl's adventures also implied one more thing: an ultimate
escape. Yes, he attempted each voyage for the sake of proving
one of his hopeless theories, but each one looked like a heroic
flight from the world of aircraft carriers, missiles, stock exchanges,
red tape and cancer. His boats were deliberately primitive and
so was his equipment. In a way, he behaved as if he were going
to survive a nuclear war on a tropical island with tools almost
as basic as those of the ancient Egyptians. At one point he and
his bride spent a year in Polynesia living "as Adam and
Interestingly enough, Heyerdahl never headed for some dreary
northern destination of the type found in abundance in his native
Norway or adjoining Russia. Living the dreams of many, he explored
not the tundra but the beaches, not the snowy waste of the Arctic
but the blessed shores of Polynesia and the Caribbean. Hence
the additional appeal of his books to his Russian audience. Not
too many people would be interested in reading a description
of bitter frost when they encountered it in their everyday lives.
But Heyerdahl's "Fatu Hiva," "Kon-Tiki,"
"Aku-Aku" and other books told stories about jellyfish,
sharks and kauri shells.
Heyerdahl appreciated his fanatic following in Russia and tried
to reciprocate. He visited the country many times, put a Russian
doctor on his Ra team and when he was forced to stop his journeys
due to old age, he began researching the Russian roots of the
Scandinavian deity Odin.
Of course, younger people in Russia have never heard of Heyerdahl;
his international fame started to fade in the 1980s when they
were just toddlers. However, their parents and older siblings
still cherish the Norwegian adventurer as an icon of their youth.
When Russia entered the stage of wild capitalism with its mind-boggling
opportunities and the new rich were desperate to spend their
money in the most extravagant way, the hippest tour was a trip
to Easter Island. If shaping the tastes of the new bourgeoisie
does not count as a lasting imprint on a foreign culture, what
Constantine Pleshakov, a former
member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is a freelance writer
living in Moscow.
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