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 …

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