Azerbaijan International

Summer 2002 (10.2)
Pages 24-25

Thor Heyerdahl
Memoirs of Thor Heyerdahl
First Encounters in the Soviet Union

by Thor Heyerdahl

Other articles related to Thor Heyerdahl:

(1) Thor Heyerdahl in Azerbaijan:
KON-TIKI Man 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)
Azerbaijan's Primal Music Norwegians Find 'The Land We Come From' by Steinar Opheim (AI 5.4, Winter 1997)
Thor Heyerdahl in Baku (AI 7:3, Autumn 1999)
Scandinavian Ancestry: Tracing Roots to Azerbaijan - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.2, Summer 2000)
Quote: Earlier Civilizations - More Advanced - Thor Heyerdahl (AI 8.3, Autumn 2000)
The Kish Church - Digging Up History - An Interview with J. Bjornar Storfjel (AI 8.4, Winter 2000)
Adventurer's Death Touches Russia's Soul - Constantine Pleshakov (AI 10.2, Summer 2002)
(9) Reflections on Life - 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, Summer 2002)
(12) Heyerdahl Burns "Tigris" Reed Ship to Protest War - Letter to UN - Bjornar Storfjell, Blair (AI 11.1 Winter 2003)

This article below has been translated into Romanian by Alexander Ovsov.

Thor Heyerdahl was dearly loved and respected in Azerbaijan as well as the rest of the former Soviet Union, perhaps because he dared to question some of the basic Euro-centric theories about history. These ideas, which were labeled as radical, brought Heyerdahl to Azerbaijan on several occasions (1982, 1994, 1999 and 2000) in his pursuit to better understand how migration by early man might have taken place via ancient waterways.

At the beginning of the Cold War, however, Heyerdahl was still relatively unknown in the Soviet Union. Once his book about the Kon Tiki expedition was published in Russian and allowed to circulate, it inspired a great deal of controversy. This excerpt from Heyerdahl's memoir "In the Footsteps of Adam" describes the strong political opposition that he faced on his first visit to Moscow in 1962.


The Kon-Tiki book was forbidden in the Soviet Union, and I was an unknown figure during Stalin's lifetime [1879-1953]. But when Nikita Khrushchev came to power [1958] and allowed the book to be translated, it went to the top of the bestseller lists in all of the Eastern European languages. "Kon Tiki" was the first book to ever sell more than a million copies there. With this, my peaceful days ended and controversy started among the literati of the Soviet Academy of Science.

The basic controversy was launched by the literati - specialists in letters - who themselves were not even able to decipher the texts of which they claimed to be experts. Throughout the entire Pacific region, which happens to fill exactly half of the world's surface, any form of writing was totally unknown until the Europeans arrived. The only exception was Easter Island, where approximately 20 wooden boards with hieroglyphics have been found. But even the inhabitants of Easter Island have not been able to decipher them.

A team of language researchers and cryptologists in Moscow had attempted to understand this "rongo-rongo" writing, but no one had paid any attention to them until their criticism of my book, which had managed to pass from the West through the Iron Curtain, hit the newspapers. My brave translator Lev Zjdanov sent copies of the attacks translated into Norwegian, via censored mail from Moscow, and the controversy started over again.

At that time, no Russian researcher had ever been free to travel outside the Soviet Union, least of all to Easter Island. Mail service was slow and as I started answering, the attacks from Soviet researchers increased and became ever more aggressive. There were always a few weeks of delay, since the censors suspected that everything I wrote was in special code.

Then something totally unexpected took place. The Director of the Soviet Academy of Science, Mstislav Vsevolodovich Keldysh, the man who had launched the first Sputnik into space, entered the arena. He invited me to Moscow to meet Soviet academics face to face.

I accepted. The year was 1962 - the middle of the Cold War. I had not met any Russians or communists since battles in Finnmark, so it was a new experience to arrive alone with my Russian translator as interpreter in a hall filled with Soviet scientists and which Keldysh himself presided over.

Keldysh opened the meeting by giving the floor to a comrade who headed the Anthropological Section. He rose to his feet - a powerful hulk of a man with a muscular physique and an impressive Stalin - like moustache. He was the exact stereotype of what Westerners imagined communists to be. With a voice as deep as a sailor's in a storm and a raised, clenched fist, I knew that his introductory remarks to his comrades were less than flattering. A deathly silence filled the room when he finished and returned to his seat.

As my interpreter quietly translated into Norwegian, I heard a totally new argument against the possibility of early migration from America: my theories of migration routes in the Pacific Ocean did not comply with the teachings of Lenin. According to Lenin, all emigration had occurred because of overpopulation or enemy invasion.

An expectant silence filled the room. What could I answer? The interpreter looked unhappy. Any discussion was dead before it had even had a chance to begin.

Then I surprised myself and everyone else by commenting aloud: "I had no idea that Lenin was an anthropologist."
Still total silence. Then the interpreter, in a calm voice, repeated my words in Russian. It was then that I noticed that some of the members of the audience had covered their mouths to hide their smiles. A feeling of unease began to grow, and Keldysh immediately invited me to take the stand.

I understood the situation perfectly. Academics were present. The Stalin look-alike who had opened the debate was not even a scientist but rather a faithful communist who had been rewarded by the Party and made manager for this division of the Academy. Each and every professional field within the arts, culture and science had a leader who resembled Stalin, if not physically, then mentally. The man with the giant moustache had done his duty - he had referenced the teachings of Lenin - and then he had sat down with nothing more to say.

Nor did anyone else object when, without wavering from Lenin's line, I used Peru as an example of how since time immemorial, overpopulation and pressures from the country's interior had been a typical problem for the fishing population in the narrow river valleys along the desert-like coast of the Andes. Cultures replaced one another in succession until the Spaniards came to power with the Inca Empire in the 1530s. The Spaniards learned that the Incas' history was preserved in the Sun Temple in Cuzco, on wooden boards that the Spanish subsequently burned.

But the "amauta", the Inca Empire's scholars, referred to frequent migrations from the country. The last migration had taken place only three generations prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. Inca Tupac Yupanqi, the grandfather of the two Inca brothers who welcomed the Spanish, had left his own empire in the mountains and found his way through the narrow valleys along the desert coast. He went on to conquer the Chimu Empire and all the settlements along the coast from the equator and southwards for 4,000 miles. When the coastal population told him there were populated islands far out in the Pacific Ocean, he forced them to build hundreds of balsa rafts and then sailed across the ocean for nine months with a flotilla that included half of his army. He returned with dark-skinned prisoners.

I had no idea whether my Russian listeners knew any of this. It was a seemingly passive assembly that sat there in silence and let me continue. I added that every so often Peru still suffered dreadful natural catastrophes along its coastline when floods from the mountains and the El Niño currents from the ocean flooded the valleys and drove the whole population away from their home and onto their rafts. In the so-called El Niño years, the mighty ocean current ran directly from Peru to Easter Island.

Then I added that we must not think that people in the olden days and in foreign countries had less courage, curiosity, greed and need for adventure than we have today. And back then, there was nothing to stop them if they had wanderlust.

No one protested. Keldysh demanded to hear the arguments from those who had been the keenest opponents of my theory of the origin of the Polynesians. Several rose to their feet, but there were no new attacks; those who had something to add were satisfied with their answers.

Soberly and calmly, the man who had sent the first manned capsule into space directed the debate about who had sent the first vessels out into the Pacific Ocean in the Stone Age. He refrained from making any personal comments during the discussion, and waited until everyone had spoken before giving his. At that point there were no doubts about his personal opinion. He reprimanded the anthropologists in his own Academy unconditionally, pointing out that they were poorly prepared for the debate and lacked any basis for their earlier criticism. Speaking directly to me, he said smilingly that the next time I set off on an expedition, he hoped I would take a Russian along.

That ended my private little Cold War with opponents in the Soviet Union. It was definitely over, and the proof of the fortunate outcome was that they bestowed upon me the Lomonosov Medal from the State University in Moscow. Since I had already been named a Fellow of the New York Academy of Sciences, it must have been President Keldysh who saw to it that I also received an Honorary Doctorate from the Soviet Academy of Science while the Iron Curtain was still in place.

A few years later when I was making plans to sail with a multinational crew over the Atlantic Ocean on the papyrus reed ship, the Ra, I recalled President Keldysh's words. I wrote and reminded him of his suggestion to bring along a Russian and asked him to choose a medical doctor who spoke English and who had a keen sense of humor. And thus Dr. Yuri Aleksandrovich Senkevich, smelling faintly of vodka and slightly intoxicated, descended the airplane's staircase in Cairo to meet me for the fist time. Keldysh had won his political tug-of-war with the highest political leadership, and Yuri became the first Russian to be let out of the Soviet Union on his own to participate in a private capitalist raft journey. I had asked for a Russian with a sense of humor to avoid getting a fanatical party politician. Besides, a good laugh doesn't require any additional weight but counts for so much on any expedition.

Heyerdahl's book, "In the Footsteps of Adam," was originally published in Norwegian in 1998 under the title "I Adams Fotspor: En Erindringsrise" (copyright by Thor Heyerdahl / J.M. Stenersens Forlag) and translated from Norwegian into English by Ann Zwick, published by Little, Brown and Company.


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