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 antischolar. 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.
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 War.
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 Eve.”
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 does?
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