WASHINGTON — FROM the age of 12, Ilya Gililov has loved Shakespeare. He has read all the Great Bard's works. He has read as many books about the man as he could find. Eventually, he taught himself to read English - both modern and Elizabethan - to widen his scope.
"Shakespeare is my spiritual life," says the distinguished-looking Russian. "It is essential."
Now, as secretary of the Shakespeare Commission of Russia's Academy of Sciences and proponent of an original hypothesis about one of the writer's lesser-known poems, Mr. Gililov has landed in the mecca of Shakespearean scholarship: the Folger Shakespeare Library.
He is the first Russian in the library's fellowship program, which, with aid from the Soros Foundation, has brought him here for three months of research. Gililov represents part of Folger's widened international outreach, which has brought in scholars from many non-Western countries.
In Moscow, Gililov is a regular at the huge Lenin Library, but over time, he says, he exhausted its resources. And as his research into Shakespeare's "The Phoenix and the Turtle" progressed, he began sending abroad for documents related to it.
Gililov's theory is that the poem, which mourns the death of two mated birds (the turtle being a turtledove), refers to the Earl of Rutland and his wife, who died within weeks of each other in 1612. Gililov says the poem's reference to the birds' "leaving no posterity" would apply to the Rutlands, who died childless.
But what of the fact that two original copies of the anthology containing the poem have conflicting printing dates, 1601 and 1611, both before the Rutlands died? Gililov calls it a deliberate mystification. He has also concluded by comparing the watermarks on the two anthologies that both were printed at the same time and that, inexplicably, the books were back-dated.
The Phoenix and the Turtle has always been dated at 1601. Numerous candidates have been proposed, including Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Essex.
One Shakespeare expert, Donald Foster of Vassar College, disputes Gililov on the publication date. Professor Foster says that the 1611 edition was simply a reissue of the original 1601 printing, with a new title sheet.
Gililov doesn't mind criticism. Ultimately, he says, his main goal is to spur interest. In Russia, he has gotten plenty of attention, including a two-part series this year in the popular weekly Ogonyok.
REMARKABLY, in a country that usually requires experts to have formal credentials, literature played no role in Gililov's career. Gililov served in the Army and earned degrees in history and economics, eventually becoming head of a technical enterprise. He was a Communist Party member until 1990. "But simultaneously, all that time, my main interest was in humanitarian things - history, philosophy, religion, literature," he says.
At around age 35, he began a deep study of Shakespeare, and began to question whether the writings were really by Shakespeare. "When you read someone's works, you naturally want to know something about the author," he explains. "I started to read his biography and I couldn't make it come together."
Gililov made some notes and showed them to the chairman of Russia's Shakespeare Commission, who asked him to work there. In 1985, Gililov became secretary of the commission, an unpaid post that entails coordinating conferences and publications. "But this is not a hobby!" he protests in Russian. "It is a search for meaning, a search for truth, a search for God, you can say."
Shakespeare has long been cherished among the Russian intelligentsia, who have read him, translated him, argued about him, and put his works on stage and screen. Pushkin once referred to him as "our father." Tolstoy and Nabokov wrote about him.
Shakespearean drama is close to Russian life, Gililov says, perhaps because Russian history is "abundant with tragedy." He says interest in Shakespeare rose during key moments in history, such as during Stalin's repressions. "At that time, there were great arguments about Shakespeare, including the 'Shakespeare question,' " he says. "There was even discussion of 'Shakespearization seeing life as if it were on a Shakespearean stage."
When Gililov returns to Moscow next month, he may see further Shakespearean parallels - and perhaps some escape in the Bard's work.