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Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.


In the summer of 1945 the British Embassy in Moscow reported that it was short-handed, especially in the matter of officials who knew Russian, and it was suggested that I might fill a gap for four or five months. I accepted this offer eagerly, mainly. I must admit, because of my great desire to learn about the condition of Russian literature and art, about which relatively little was known in the West at that time. I knew something, of course, of what had happened to Russian writers and artists in the Twenties and Thirties. The Revolution had stimulated a great wave of creative energy in Russia, in all the arts; bold experimentalism was everywhere encouraged: the new controllers of culture did not interfere with anything that could be represented as being a “slap in the face” to bourgeois taste, whether it was Marxist or not. The new movement in the visual arts—the work of such painters as Kandinsky, Chagall, Soutine, Malevich, Klyun, Tatlin, the sculptors Arkhipenko, Pevsner, Gabo, Lipchitz, Zadkine, of the theater and film directors Meyerhold, Vakhtangov, Tairov, Eisenstein, Pudovkin—produced masterpieces which had a powerful impact in the West: there was a similar upward curve in the field of literature and literary criticism. Despite the violence and devastation of the Civil War, and the ruin and chaos brought about by it, revolutionary art of extraordinary vitality continued to be produced.

I remember meeting Sergei Eisenstein in 1945: he was in a state of terrible depression: this was the result of Stalin’s condemnation of the original version of his film Ivan the Terrible, because that savage ruler, with whom Stalin identified himself, faced with the need to repress the treachery of the boyars, had, so Stalin complained, been misrepresented as a man tormented to the point of neurosis. I asked Eisenstein what he thought were the best years of his life. He answered without hesitation, “The early Twenties. That was the time. We were young and did marvelous things in the theater. I remember once, greased pigs were let loose among the members of the audience, who leaped on their seats and screamed. It was terrific. Goodness, how we enjoyed ourselves!”

This was obviously too good to last. An onslaught was delivered on it by leftist zealots who demanded collective proletarian art. Then Stalin decided to put an end to all these politico-literary squabbles as a sheer waste of energy—not at all what was needed for Five Year Plans. The Writers’ Union was created in the mid-Thirties to impose orthodoxy. There was to be no more argument, no disturbance of men’s minds. A dead level of conformism followed. Then came the final horror—the Great Purge, the political show trials, the mounting terror of 1937-1938, the wild and indiscriminate mowing down of individuals and groups, later of whole peoples. I need not dwell on the facts of that murderous period, not the first, or probably the last, in the history of Russia. Authentic accounts of the life of the intelligentsia in that time are to be found in the memoirs of, for example, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Lydia Chukovskaya, and, in a different sense, in Akhmatova’s poem Requiem. In 1939 Stalin called a halt to the proscriptions. Russian literature, art, and thought emerged like an area that had been subjected to bombardment, with some noble buildings still relatively intact, but standing bare and solitary in a landscape of ruined and deserted streets.

Then came the German invasion, and an extraordinary thing happened. The need to achieve national unity in the face of the enemy led to some relaxation of the political controls. In the great wave of Russian patriotic feeling, writers old and young, particularly poets, whom their readers felt to be speaking for them, for what they themselves felt and believed—these writers were idolized as never before. Poets whose work had been regarded with disfavor by the authorities, and consequently published seldom, if at all, suddenly received letters from soldiers at the fronts, as often as not quoting their least political and most personal lines. Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, who had for a long time lived in a kind of internal exile, began to receive an astonishingly large number of letters from soldiers quoting from both published and unpublished poems; there was a stream of requests for autographs, for confirmation of the authenticity of texts, for expressions of the author’s attitude to this or that problem. In the end this impressed itself on the minds of some of the Party’s leaders. The status and personal security of these frowned-upon poets were, in consequence, improved. Public readings by poets, as well as the reciting from memory of poetry at private gatherings, had been common in pre-revolutionary Russia. What was novel was that when Pasternak and Akhmatova read their poems, and occasionally halted for a word, there were always, among the vast audiences gathered to hear them, scores of listeners who prompted them at once with lines from works both published and unpublished, and in any case not publicly available. No writer could help being moved and drawing strength from this most genuine form of homage.

The status of the handful of poets who clearly rose far above the rest was, I found, unique. Neither painters nor composers nor prose writers, not even the most popular actors, or eloquent, patriotic journalists, were loved and admired so deeply and so universally, especially by the kind of people I spoke to in trams and trains and the subway, some of whom admitted that they had never read a word of their writings. The most famous and widely worshipped of all Russian poets was Boris Pasternak. I longed to meet him more than any other human being in the Soviet Union. I was warned that it was very difficult to meet those whom the authorities did not permit to appear at official receptions, where foreigners could meet only carefully selected Soviet citizens—the others had had it very forcibly impressed upon them that it was neither desirable nor safe for them to meet foreigners, particularly in private. I was lucky. By a fortuitous concatenation of circumstances, I did contrive, very early during my stay, to call upon Pasternak at his country cottage in the writers’ village of Peredelkino, near Moscow.


I went to see him on a warm, sunlit afternoon in September 1945. The poet, his wife, and his son Leonid were seated round a rough wooden table at the back of the dacha. Pasternak greeted me warmly. He was once described by his friend, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, as looking like an Arab and his horse—he had a dark, melancholy, expressive, very racé face, familiar from many photographs and from his father’s paintings. He spoke slowly in a low tenor monotone, with a continuous even sound, something between a humming and a drone, which those who met him almost always remarked upon: each vowel was elongated as if in some plaintive aria in an opera by Tchaikovsky, but with far more concentrated force and tension.

Almost at once Pasternak said, “You come from England. I was in London in the Thirties—in 1935, on my way back from the Anti-Fascist Congress in Paris.” He then said that during the summer of that year he had suddenly received a telephone call from the authorities, who told him that a congress of writers was in session in Paris and that he was to go to it without delay. He said that he had no suitable clothes—“We will see to that,” said the officials. They tried to fit him out in a formal morning coat and striped trousers, a shirt with stiff cuffs and a wing collar, and black patent leather boots, which fitted perfectly. But he was, in the end, allowed to go in ordinary clothes. He was later told that André Malraux, the organizer of the congress, had insisted on getting him invited; Malraux had told the Soviet authorities that although he fully understood their reluctance to do so, yet not to send Pasternak and Babel to Paris might cause unnecessary speculation; they were very well-known Soviet writers, and there were not many such in those days so likely to appeal to European liberals. “You cannot imagine how many celebrities were there,” Pasternak said—“Dreiser, Gide, Malraux, Aragon, Auden, Forster, Rosamond Lehmann, and lots of other terribly famous people. I spoke. I said to them ‘I understand that this is a meeting of writers to organize resistance to Fascism. I have only one thing to say to you: do not organize. Organization is the death of art. Only personal independence matters. In 1789, 1848, 1917, writers were not organized for or against anything. Do not, I implore you, do not organize.’

I think they were surprised, but what else could I say? I thought I would get into trouble at home after that, but no one ever said a word to me about it, then or now. Then I went to London and traveled back in one of our boats, and shared a cabin with Shcherbakov, who was then the secretary of the Writers’ Union, tremendously influential, and afterwards a member of the Politburo. I talked unceasingly, day and night. He begged me to stop and let him sleep. But I went on and on. Paris and London had awoken me, I could not stop. He begged for mercy but I was relentless. He must have thought me quite deranged: it may be that this helped me afterwards.” He meant, I think, that to be thought a little mad, or at least extremely eccentric, may have helped to save him during the Great Purge.

Pasternak then asked me if I had read his prose, in particular The Childhood of Lüvers. “I see by your expression,” he said, most unjustly, “that you think that these writings are contrived, tortured, self-conscious, horribly modernist—no, no, don’t deny it, you do think this, and you are absolutely right. I am ashamed of them—not of my poetry, but of my prose—it was influenced by what was weakest and most muddled in the symbolist movement, fashionable in those years, full of mystical chaos—of course Andrey Bely was a genius—Petersburg, Kotik Letaev are full of wonderful things—I know that, you need not tell me—but his influence was fatal—Joyce is another matter—all that I wrote then was obsessed, forced, broken, artifical, no use [negodno]; but now I am writing something entirely different: something new, quite new, luminous, elegant, well-proportioned [stroinoe], classically pure and simple—what Winckelmann wanted, yes, and Goethe; and this will be my last word, my most important word, to the world. It is, yes, it is what I wish to be remembered by; I shall devote the rest of my life to it.”

I cannot vouch for the complete accuracy of all these words, but this is how I remember them. This projected work later became Doctor Zhivago. He had by 1945 completed a draft of a few early chapters, which he asked me to read, and send to his sisters in Oxford; I did so, but was not to know about the plan for the entire novel until much later. After that, Pasternak was silent for a while; none of us spoke. He then told us how much he liked Georgia, Georgian writers, Yashvili, Tabidze, and Georgian wine, how well received there he always was. After this he politely asked me about what was going on in the West; did I know Herbert Read and his doctrine of personalism? Here he explained that his belief in personal freedom was derived from Kantian individualism—Blok had misinterpreted Kant completely in his poem Kant. There was nothing here in Russia about which he could tell me. I must realize that the clock had stopped in Russia (I noticed that neither he nor any of the other writers I met ever used the words “Soviet Union”) in 1928 or so, when relations with the outer world were in effect cut off; the description of him and his work in, for instance, the Soviet Encyclopedia bore no reference to his later life or writings.

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