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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.

He was interrupted by Lydia Seifullina, an elderly, well-known writer, who broke in while he was in mid-course: “My fate is exactly the same,” she said: “the last lines of the Encyclopedia article about me say ‘Seifullina is at present in a state of psychological and artistic crisis’—the article has not been changed during the last twenty years. So far as the Soviet reader is concerned, I am still in a state of crisis, of suspended animation. We are like people in Pompeii, you and I, Boris Leonidovich, buried by ashes in mid-sentence. And we know so little: Maeterlinck and Kipling, I know, are dead; but Wells, Sinclair Lewis, Joyce, Bunin, Khodasevich—are they alive?” Pasternak looked embarrassed and changed the subject. He had been reading Proust—French communist friends had sent him the entire masterpiece—he knew it, he said, and had reread it lately. He had not then heard of Sartre or Camus, and thought little of Hemingway (“Why Anna Andreevna [Akhmatova] thinks anything of him I cannot imagine,” he said).

He spoke in magnificent slow-moving periods, with occasional intense rushes of words. His talk often overflowed the banks of grammatical structure—lucid passages were succeeded by wild but always marvelously vivid and concrete images—and these might be followed by dark words when it was difficult to follow him—and then he would suddenly come into the clear again. His speech was at all times that of a poet, as were his writings. Someone once said that there are poets who are poets when they write poetry and prose-writers when they write prose; others are poets in everything that they write. Pasternak was a poet of genius in all that he did and was. As for his conversation, I cannot begin to describe its quality. The only other person I have met who talked as he talked was Virginia Woolf, who made one’s mind race as he did, and obliterated one’s normal vision of reality in the same exhilarating and, at times, terrifying way.

I use the word “genius” advisedly. I am sometimes asked what I mean by this highly evocative but imprecise term. In answer I can only say this: the dancer Nijinsky was once asked how he managed to leap so high. He is reported to have answered that he saw no great problem in this. Most people when they leaped in the air came down at once. “Why should you come down immediately? Stay in the air a little before you return, why not?” he is reported to have said. One of the criteria of genius seems to me to be precisely this: the power to do something perfectly simple and visible which ordinary people cannot, and know that they cannot, do—nor do they know how it is done, or why they cannot begin to do it. Pasternak at times spoke in great leaps; his use of words was the most imaginative that I have ever known; it was wild and very moving. There are, no doubt, many varieties of literary genius: Eliot, Joyce, Yeats, Auden, Russell did not (in my experience) talk like this. I did not wish to overstay my welcome. I left the poet, excited, and indeed overwhelmed, by his words and by his personality.

After Pasternak returned to Moscow I visited him almost weekly, and came to know him well. I cannot hope to describe the transforming effect of his presence, his voice and gestures. He talked about books and writers; he loved Proust and was steeped in his writings, and Ulysses—he had not, at any rate then, read Joyce’s later work. He spoke about French symbolists, and about Verhaeren and Rilke, both of whom he had met; he greatly admired Rilke, both as a man and a writer. He was steeped in Shakespeare. He was dissatisfied with his own translations: “I have tried to make Shakespeare work for me,” he said, “but it has not been a success.” He grew up, he said, in the shadow of Tolstoy—for him an incomparable genius, greater than Dickens or Dostoevsky, a writer who stood with Shakespeare and Goethe and Pushkin. His father, the painter, had taken him to see Tolstoy on his deathbed, in 1910, at Astapovo. He found it impossible to be critical towards Tolstoy: Russia and Tolstoy were one. As for Russian poets, Blok was of course the dominant genius of his time, but he did not find him sympathetic. Bely was closer to him, a man of strange and unheard-of insights—magical and a holy fool in the tradition of Russian Orthodoxy. Bryusov he considered a self-constructed, ingenious, mechanical musical-box, a clever, calculating operator, not a poet at all. He did not mention Mandelstam. He felt most tenderly towards Marina Tsvetaeva, to whom he had been bound by many years of friendship.

His feelings towards Mayakovsky were more ambivalent: he had known him well, they had been close friends, and he had learned from him; he was, of course, a titanic destroyer of old forms, but, he added, unlike other communists, he was at all times a human being—but no, not a major poet, not an immortal god like Tyutchev or Blok, not even a demi-god, like Fet or Bely. Time had diminished him. He was needed in his day, he was what those times had called for. There are poets, he said, who have their hour, Aseev, poor Klyuev—liquidated—Sel’vinsky—even Esenin. They fulfill an urgent need of the day, their gifts are of crucial importance to the development of poetry in their country, and then they are no more. Mayakovsky was the greatest of these—The Cloud in Trousers had its historical importance, but the shouting was unbearable: he inflated his talent and tortured it until it burst. The sad rags of the multi-colored balloon still lay in one’s path, if one was a Russian. He was gifted, important, but coarse and not grown up, and ended as a poster-artist. Mayakovsky’s love affairs had been disastrous for him as a man and a poet. He, Pasternak, had loved Mayakovsky as a man; his suicide was one of the blackest days of his own life.

Pasternak was a Russian patriot—his sense of his own historical connection with his country was very deep. He told me, again and again, how glad he was to spend his summers in the writers’ village, Peredelkino, for it had once been part of the estate of that great Slavophil, Yury Samarin. The true line of tradition led from the legendary Sadko to the Stroganovs and the Kochubeys, to Derzhavin, Zhukovsky, Tyutchev, Pushkin, Baratynsky, Lermontov, Fet, Annensky, to the Aksakovs, Tolstoy, Bunin—to the Slavophils, not to the liberal intelligentsia, which, as Tolstoy maintained, did not know what men lived by. This passionate, almost obsessive, desire to be thought a true Russian writer, with roots deep in Russian soil, was particularly evident in his negative feelings towards his Jewish origins. He was unwilling to discuss the subject—he was not embarrassed by it, but he disliked it: he wished the Jews to disappear as a people.

His artistic taste had been formed in his youth and he remained faithful to the masters of that period. The memory of Scriabin—he had thought of becoming a composer himself—was sacred to him. I shall not easily forget the paean of praise offered by both Pasternak and Neuhaus (the celebrated musician, and former husband of Pasternak’s wife Zinaida) to Scriabin, and to the symbolist painter Vrubel, whom, with Nicholas Roerich, they prized above all contemporary painters. Picasso and Matisse, Braque and Bonnard, Klee and Mondrian, seemed to mean as little to them as Kandinsky or Malevich.

There is a sense in which Akhmatova and her contemporaries Gumilev and Marina Tsvetaeva are the last great voices of the nineteenth century—perhaps Pasternak occupies an interspace between the two centuries, and so, perhaps, does Mandelstam. They were the last representatives of what can only be called the second Russian renaissance, basically untouched by the modern movement, by Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Joyce, Schoenberg, even if they admired them; for the modern movement in Russia was aborted by political events (the poetry of Mandelstam is another story). Pasternak loved Russia. He was prepared to forgive his country all its shortcomings, all, save the barbarism of Stalin’s reign; but even that, in 1945, he regarded as the darkness before the dawn which he was straining his eyes to detect—the hope expressed in the last chapters of Doctor Zhivago. He believed himself to be in communion with the inner life of the Russian people, to share its hopes and fears and dreams, to be its voice as, in their different fashions, Tyutchev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and Blok had been (by the time I knew him he conceded nothing to Nekrasov).

In conversation with me during my Moscow visits, when we were always alone, before a polished desk on which not a book or a scrap of paper was to be seen, he repeated his conviction that he lived close to the heart of his country, and sternly and repeatedly denied this role of Gorky and Mayakovsky, especially to the former and felt that he had something to say to the rulers of Russia, something of immense importance which only he could say, although what this was—he spoke of it often—seemed dark and incoherent to me. This may well have been due to lack of understanding on my part—although Anna Akhmatova told me that when he spoke in this prophetic strain, she, too, failed to understand him.

It was when he was in one of these ecstatic moods that he told me of his telephone conversation with Stalin about Mandelstam’s arrest, the famous conversation of which many differing versions circulated and still circulate. I can only reproduce the story as I remember that he told it me in 1945. According to his account he was in his Moscow flat with his wife and son and no one else when the telephone rang, and a voice told him that it was the Kremlin speaking, and that comrade Stalin wished to speak to him. He assumed that this was an idiotic practical joke, and put down his receiver. The telephone rang again, and the voice somehow convinced him that the call was authentic. Stalin then asked him whether he was speaking to Boris Leonidovich Pasternac. Pasternak said that it was indeed he. Stalin asked whether he was present when a lampoon about himself, Stalin, was recited by Mandelstam. Pasternak answered that it seemed to him of no importance whether he was or was not present, but that he was enormously happy that Stalin was speaking to him; that he had always known that this would happen; that they must meet and speak about matters of supreme importance. Stalin then asked whether Mandelstam was a master. Pasternak replied that as poets they were very different; that he admired Mandelstam’s poetry but felt no affinity with it; but that in any case, this was not the point at all.

Here, in recounting the episode to me, Pasternak again embarked on one of his great metaphysical flights about the cosmic turning-points in the world’s history; it was these that he wished to discuss with Stalin—it was of supreme importance that he should do so. I can easily imagine that he spoke in this vein to Stalin too. At any rate, Stalin asked him again whether he was or was not present when Mandelstam read the lampoon. Pasternak answered again that what mattered most was his indispensable meeting with Stalin, that it must happen soon, that everything depended on it, that they must speak about ultimate issues, about life and death. “If I were Mandelstam’s friend, I should have known better how to defend him,” said Stalin, and put down the receiver. Pasternak tried to ring back but, not surprisingly, failed to get through to the leader. The episode evidently preyed deeply upon him. He repeated to me the version I have just recounted on at least two other occasions, and told the story to other visitors, although, apparently, in different forms. His efforts to rescue Mandelstam, in particular his appeal to Bukharin, probably helped to preserve him at least for a time—Mandelstam was finally destroyed some years later—but Pasternak clearly felt, it may be without good reason, but as anyone not blinded by self-satisfaction or stupidity might feel, that perhaps another response might have done more for the condemned poet.1

He followed this story with accounts of other victims: Pil’nyak, who anxiously waited (“was constantly looking out the window”) for an emissary to ask him to sign a denunciation of one of the men accused of treason in 1936, and because none came, realized that he, too, was doomed. He spoke of the circumstances of Tsvetaeva’s suicide in 1941, which he thought might have been prevented if the literary bureaucrats had not behaved with such appalling heartlessness to her. He told the story of a man who asked him to sign an open letter condemning Marshal Tukhachevsky. When Pasternak refused and explained the reasons for his refusal, the man burst into tears, said that the poet was the noblest and most saintly human being whom he had ever met, embraced him fervently; and then went straight to the secret police, and denounced him.

Pasternak went on to say that despite the positive role which the Communist Party had played during the war, and not in Russia alone, he found the idea of any kind of relationship with it increasingly repellent: Russia was a gallery, a slave-ship, and the Party men were the overseers who whipped the rowers. Why, he wished to know, did a British Commonwealth diplomat then in Moscow, whom I surely knew, a man who knew some Russian and claimed to be a poet, and visited him occasionally, why did this person insist, on every possible and impossible occasion, that he, Pasternak, should get closer to the Party? He did not need gentlemen who came from the other side of the world to tell him what to do—could I tell the man that his visits were unwelcome? I promised that I would, but did not do so, partly for fear of rendering Pasternak’s none too secure position still more precarious.

Pasternak reproached me, too; not, indeed, for seeking to impose my political or any other opinions on him—but for something that to him seemed almost as bad: here we both were, in Russia, and wherever one looked, everything was disgusting, appalling, an abominable pigsty, yet I seemed to be positively exhilarated by it: “You wander about,” he said, “and look at everything with bemused eyes”—I was no better (he declared) than other foreign visitors who saw nothing, and suffered from absurd delusions, maddening to the poor miserable natives.

Pasternak was acutely sensitive to the charge of accommodating himself to the demands of the Party or the state—he seemed afraid that his mere survival might be attributed to some unworthy effort to placate the authorities, some squalid compromise of his integrity to escape persecution. He kept returning to this point, and went to absurd lengths to deny that he was capable of conduct of which no one who knew him could begin to conceive him to be guilty. One day he asked me whether I had heard anyone speak of his wartime volume of poems On Early Trains as a gesture of conformity with the prevailing orthodoxy. I said truthfully that I had not heard this, that it was an absurd suggestion.

Anna Akhmatova, who was bound to him by the deepest friendship and admiration, told me that, at the end of the war, when she was returning from Tashkent, to which she had been evacuated from Leningrad, she stopped in Moscow and visited Peredelkino. Within a few hours of arriving she received a message from Pasternak that he could not see her—he had a fever—he was in bed—it was impossible. On the next day the message was repeated. On the third day he appeared before her looking unusually well, with no trace of any ailment. The first thing he did was to ask her whether she had read this, the latest book of his poems. He put the question with so painful an expression on his face that she tactfully said that she had not, not yet; at which his face cleared, he looked vastly relieved, and they talked happily. He evidently felt ashamed, needlessly, of these poems. It seemed to him a kind of half-hearted effort to write civic poetry—there was nothing he disliked more intensely than this genre.

Yet, in 1945, he still had hopes of a great renewal of Russian life as a result of the cleansing storm that the war had seemed to him to be—a storm as transforming, in its own terrible fashion, as the Revolution itself, a vast cataclysm beyond our puny moral categories. Such vast mutations cannot, he held, be judged. One must think and think about them, and seek to understand as much of them as one can, all one’s life; they are beyond good and evil, acceptance or rejection, doubt or assent; they must be accepted as elemental changes, earthquakes, tidal waves, transforming events, which are beyond all ethical and historical categories. So, too, the dark nightmare of betrayals, purges, massacres of the innocents, followed by an appalling war, seemed to him a necessary prelude to some inevitable, unheard-of victory of the spirit.

I did not see him again for eleven years. By 1956 his estrangement from his country’s political establishment was complete. He could not speak of it, or its representatives, without a shudder. By that time his friend Olga Ivinskaya had been arrested, interrogated, maltreated, sent to a labor camp for five years. “Your Boris,” the minister of state security, Abakumov, had said to her, “your Boris detests us, doesn’t he?” “They were right,” Pasternak said: “she could not and did not deny it.” I had traveled to Peredelkino with Neuhaus and one of his sons by his first wife, who was now married to Pasternak. He repeated over and over again that Pasternak was a saint: that he was too unworldly—his hope that the Soviet authorities would permit the publication of Doctor Zhivago was plainly absurd—martyrdom of the author was far more likely. Pasternak was the greatest writer produced by Russia for decades, and he would be destroyed, as so many had been destroyed, by the state. This was an inheritance from the tsarist regime. Whatever the difference between the old and the new Russia, suspicion and persecution of writers and artists were common to both. His former wife Zinaida—now Pasternak’s wife—had told him that Pasternak was determined to get his novel published somewhere. He had tried to dissuade him, but his words were in vain. If Pasternak mentioned the matter to me, would I—it was important—more than important—perhaps a matter of life and death, who could tell, even in these days?—would I try to persuade him to hold his hand? Neuhaus seemed to me to be right: Pasternak probably did need to be physically saved from himself.

By this time we had arrived at Pasternak’s house. He was waiting for us by the gate and let Neuhaus go in, embraced me warmly and said that in the eleven years during which we had not met, much had happened, most of it very evil. He stopped and added, “Surely there is something you want to say to me?” I said, with monumental tactlessness (not to say unforgivable stupidity), “Boris Leonidovich, I am happy to see you looking so well. But the main thing is that you have survived. This seemed almost miraculous to some of us” (I was thinking of the anti-Jewish persecution of Stalin’s last years). His face darkened and he looked at me with real anger: “I know what you are thinking,” he said. “What am I thinking, Boris Leonidovich?” “I know, I know it, I know exactly what is in your mind,” he replied in a breaking voice—it was very frightening—“do not prevaricate. I can see more clearly into your mind than I can into my own.” “What am I thinking?” I asked again, more and more disturbed by his words. “You think—I know that you think—that I have done something for them.” “I assure you, Boris Leonidovich,” I replied, “that I never conceived of this—I have never heard this suggested by anyone, even as an idiotic joke.” In the end he seemed to believe me. But he was visibly upset. Only after I had assured him that admiration for him, not only as a writer, but as a free and independent human being, was, among civilized people, world-wide, did he begin to return to his normal state. “At least,” he said, “I can say, like Heine, ‘I may not deserve to be remembered as a poet, but surely as a soldier in the battle for human freedom.”’

He took me to his study. There he thrust a thick envelope into my hands: “My book,” he said, “it is all there. It is my last word. Please read it.” I read Doctor Zhivago during the following night and day, and when two or three days later I saw him again, I asked what he intended to do with it. He told me that he had given it to an Italian communist, who worked in the Italian section of the Soviet radio, and at the same time was acting as an agent for the communist Italian publisher Feltrinelli. He had assigned world rights to Feltrinelli. He wished his novel, his testament, the most authentic, most complete of all his writings—his poetry was nothing in comparison (although the poems in the novel were, he thought, perhaps the best he had written)—he wished his work to travel over the entire world, to lay waste with fire (he quoted Pushkin’s famous biblical line), to lay waste the hearts of men.

After the midday meal was over, his wife, Zinaida Nikolaevna, drew me aside and begged me with tears in her eyes to dissuade him from getting Doctor Zhivago published abroad. She did not wish her children to suffer; surely I knew what “they” were capable of? Moved by this plea, I spoke to the poet at the first opportunity. I promised to have microfilms of his novel made, to bury them in the four quarters of the globe, to bury copies in Oxford, in Valparaiso, in Tasmania, Cape Town, Haiti, Vancouver, Japan, so that copies might survive even if a nuclear war broke out—was he resolved to defy the Soviet authorities, had he considered the consequences?

For the second time during that week he showed a touch of real anger in talking to me. He told me that what I said was no doubt well intentioned, that he was touched by my concern for his own safety and that of his family (this was said a trifle ironically), but that he knew what he was doing; that I was worse than that importunate Commonwealth diplomat eleven years ago. He had spoken to his sons. They were prepared to suffer. I was not to mention the matter again. I had read the book, surely I realized what it, above all its dissemination, meant to him. I was shamed into silence.

After an interval, we talked about French literature, as often before. Since our last meeting he had procured Sartre’s La Nausée, and found it unreadable, and its obscenity revolting. Surely after four centuries of creative genius this great nation could not have ceased to generate literature? Aragon was a time-server, Duhamel, Guéhenno were inconceivably tedious; was Malraux still writing? Before I could reply, one of his guests, a gentle, silent woman, a teacher who had recently returned after fifteen years in a labor camp, to which she had been condemned solely for teaching English, shyly asked whether Aldous Huxley had written anything since Point Counter Point. Was Virginia Woolf still writing?—she had never seen a book by her; but from an account in an old French newspaper which in some mysterious fashion had found its way into her camp, she thought that she might like her work.

It is difficult to convey the pleasure of being able to bring news of art and literature of the outer world to human beings so genuinely eager to receive it, so unlikely to obtain it from any other source. I told her and the assembled company all that I could of English, American, French writing. It was like speaking to the victims of shipwreck on a desert island, cut off for decades from civilization. All they heard, they received as new, exciting, and delightful. The Georgian poet Titzian Tabidze, Pasternak’s great friend, had perished in the Great Purge. His widow, Nina Tabidze, who was present, wanted to know whether Shakespeare, Ibsen, and Shaw were still great names in the Western theater. I told her that interest in Shaw had declined, but that Chekhov was greatly admired and often performed, and added that Akhmatova had said to me that she could not understand this worship of Chekhov. His world was uniformly drab. The sun never shone. No swords flashed. Everything was covered by a horrible gray mist. Chekhov’s universe was a sea of mud with wretched human creatures caught in it helplessly. It was a travesty of life (I once heard Yeats express a similar sentiment: “Chekhov knows nothing of life and death,” he said; “he does not know that the floor of heaven is full of the sound of the clashing of swords”). Pasternak said that Akhmatova was wholly mistaken. “Tell her when you see her—we cannot go to Leningrad freely, as you probably can—tell her from all of us here, that all Russian writers preach to the reader: even Turgenev tells him that time is a great healer and that kind of thing; Chekhov alone does not. He is a pure artist—everything is dissolved in art—he is our answer to Flaubert.” He went on to say that Akhmatova would surely talk to me about Dostoevsky and attack Tolstoy. But Tolstoy was right about Dostoevsky, that his novels were a dreadful mess, a mixture of chauvinism and hysterical religion: “Tell Anna Andreevna that, and from me!” But when I saw Akhmatova again, in Oxford in 1965, I thought it best not to report his judgment: she might have wished to answer him. But Pasternak was in his grave. In fact, she did speak to me of Dostoevsky with the most passionate admiration.


And this brings me to my meeting with the poet Anna Akhmatova. I had been introduced to her poems by Maurice Bowra, and longed to meet her. In November 1945 I went from Moscow to Leningrad. I had not seen the city since 1919, when I was ten years old and my family was allowed to return to our native city of Riga, the capital of a then independent republic. In Leningrad my recollections of childhood - became fabulously vivid. I was inexpressibly moved by the look of the streets, the houses, the statues, the embankments, the market places, the suddenly familiar, still broken, railings of a little shop, in which samovars were mended, below the house in which we had lived. The inner yard of the house looked as sordid and abandoned as it had done during the first years of the Revolution. My memories of specific events, episodes, experiences, came between me and the physical reality. It was as if I had walked into a legendary city, myself at once part of the vivid, half-remembered legend, and yet, at the same time, viewing it from some outside vantage point. The city had been greatly damaged, but still in 1945 remained indescribably beautiful (it seemed wholly restored by the time I saw it again, eleven years later). I made my way to the Writers’ Bookshop in the Nevsky Prospekt. While looking at the books, I fell into casual conversation with a man who was turning over the leaves of a book of poems. He turned out to be a well-known critic and literary historian. We talked about recent events. He described the terrible ordeal of the siege of Leningrad and the martyrdom and heroism of many of its inhabitants, and said that some had died of cold and hunger, others, mostly the younger ones, had survived. Some had been evacuated. I asked him about the fate of writers in Leningrad. He said, “You mean Zoshchenko and Akhmatova?” Akhmatova to me was a figure from a remote past. Maurice Bowra, who had translated some of her poems, spoke about her to me as someone not heard of since the First World War. “Is Akhmatova still alive?” I asked. “Akhmatova, Anna Andreevna?” he said: “Why yes, of course. She lives not far from here on the Fontanka, in Fontanny Dom [Fountain House]; would you like to meet her?” It was as if I had suddenly been invited to meet Miss Christina Rossetti. I could hardly speak. I mumbled that I should indeed like to meet her. “I shall telephone her,” my new acquaintance said. He returned to tell me that she would receive us at three that afternoon. I was to return to the bookshop, and we would go together.

I returned at the appointed hour. The critic and I left the bookshop, turned left, crossed the Anichkov Bridge, and turned left again, along the embankment of the Fontanka. Fountain House, the palace of the Sheremetevs, is a magnificent late baroque building, with gates of exquisite ironwork for which Leningrad is famous, and built around a spacious court—not unlike the quadrangle of a large Oxford or Cambridge college. We climbed up one of the steep, dark staircases, to an upper floor, and were admitted to Akhmatova’s room. It was very barely furnished—virtually everything in it had, I gathered, been taken away—looted or sold—during the siege. There was a small table, three or four chairs, a wooden chest, a sofa, and, above the unlit stove, a drawing by Modigliani. A stately, gray-haired lady, a white shawl draped about her shoulders, slowly rose to greet us.

Anna Andreevna Akhmatova was immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness. I bowed. It seemed appropriate, for she looked and moved like a tragic queen. I thanked her for receiving me, and said that people in the West would be glad to know that she was in good health, for nothing had been heard of her for many years. “Oh, but an article on me has appeared in the Dublin Review,” she said, “and a thesis is being written about my work, I am told, in Bologna.” She had a friend with her, an academic lady of some sort, and there was polite conversation for some minutes. Then Akhmatova asked me about the ordeal of London during the bombing: I answered as best I could, feeling acutely shy and constricted by her distant, somewhat regal manner. Suddenly I heard what sounded like my first name being shouted somewhere outside. I ignored this for a while—it could only be an illusion—but the shouting became louder and the word “Isaiah” could be clearly heard. I went to the window and looked out, and saw a man whom I recognized as Randolph Churchill. He was standing in the middle of the great court, looking like a tipsy undergraduate, and screaming my name. I stood rooted to the floor for some seconds. Then I collected myself, muttered an apology, and ran down the stairs. My only thought was to prevent Churchill from coming to the room. My companion, the critic, ran after me anxiously. When we emerged into the court, Churchill came towards me and greeted me effusively: “Mr. X,” I said mechanically, “I do not suppose that you have met Mr. Randolph Churchill?” The critic froze, his expression changed from bewilderment to horror, and he left as rapidly as he could. I have no notion whether I was followed by agents of the secret police, but there could be no doubt that Randolph Churchill was. It was this untoward event that caused absurd rumors to circulate in Leningrad that a foreign delegation had arrived to persuade Akhmatova to leave Russia; that Winston Churchill, a lifelong admirer of the poet, was sending a special aircraft to take Akhmatova to England, and so on.

Randolph, whom I had not met since we were undergraduates at Oxford, subsequently explained that he was in Moscow as a journalist on behalf of the North American Newspaper Alliance. He had come to Leningrad as part of his assignment. On arriving at the Hotel Astoria, his first concern had been to get the pot of caviar which he had acquired into an icebox: but, as he knew no Russian, and his interpreter had disappeared, his cries for help had finally brought down a representative of the British Council. She saw to his caviar and, in the course of general conversation, told him that I was in the city. He said that I might make an excellent substitute interpreter, and unfortunately discovered from the British Council lady where I was to be found. The rest followed. When he reached Fountain House, he adopted a method which had served him well during his days in Christ Church,2 and, I dare say, on other occasions; “and,” he said with a winning smile, “it worked.” I detached myself from him as quickly as I could, and after obtaining her number from the bookseller, telephoned Akhmatova to offer an explanation of my precipitate departure, and to apologize for it. I asked if I might be allowed to call on her again. “I shall wait for you at nine this evening,” she answered.

When I returned, a learned lady, an Assyriologist, was also present who asked me a great many questions about English universities and their organization. Akhmatova was plainly uninterested and, for the most part, silent. Shortly before midnight the Assyriologist left, and then Akhmatova began to ask me about old friends who had emigrated—some of whom I might know. (She was sure of that, she told me later. In personal relationships, she assured me, her intuition—almost second sight—never failed her.) I did indeed know some of them. We talked about the composer Artur Lurié, whom I had met in America during the war. He had been an intimate friend of hers, and had set to music some of her, and of Mandelstam’s, poetry. She asked about Boris Anrep, the mosaicist (whom I had never met): I knew little about him, only that he had decorated the floor of the entrance hall of the National Gallery with the figures of celebrated persons—Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf, Greta Garbo, Clive Bell, Lydia Lopokhova, and the like. Twenty years later I was able to tell her that an image of herself had been added to them by Anrep. She showed me a ring with a black stone which Anrep had given her in 1917.

She had, she said, met only one foreigner—a Pole—since the First World War. She asked after various other friends—Salomé Andronikova, to whom Mandelstam dedicated one of his most famous poems; Stravinsky’s wife, Vera; the poets Vyacheslav Ivanov and Georgi Adamovich. I answered as best I could. She spoke of her visits to Paris before the First World War, of her friendship with Amedeo Modigliani, whose drawing of her hung over the fireplace—one of many (the rest had perished during the siege). She described her childhood on the shores of the Black Sea, a pagan, unbaptized land, she called it, where one felt close to an ancient, half-Greek, half-barbarian, deeply un-Russian, culture. She spoke of her first husband, the celebrated poet Gumilev. She was convinced that he had not taken part in the monarchist conspiracy for which he had been executed; Gorky, who had been asked by many writers to intervene on his behalf, apparently did nothing to save him. She had not seen him for some time before his condemnation—they had been divorced some years before. Her eyes had tears in them when she described the harrowing circumstances of his death.

After a silence, she asked me whether I would like to hear her poetry. But before doing this, she said that she wished to recite two cantos from Byron’s Don Juan to me, for they were relevant to what would follow. Even if I had known the poem well, I could not have told which cantos she had chosen, for although she read English fairly freely, her pronunciation of it made it impossible to understand more than a word or two. She closed her eyes and spoke the lines from memory, with intense emotion. I rose and looked out of the window to conceal my embarrassment. Perhaps, I thought afterwards, that is how we now read classical Greek and Latin. Yet we, too, are moved by the words, which, as we pronounce them, might have been wholly unintelligible to their authors and audiences. Then she read from her book of poems—Anno Domini, The White Flock, Out of Six Books—“Poems like these, but far better than mine,” she said, “were the cause of the death of the best poet of our time, whom I loved and who loved me…”—whether she meant Gumilev or Mandelstam I could not tell, for she broke down in tears, and could not go on reading.

There are recordings of her readings, and I shall not attempt to describe them. She read the (at that time) still unfinished Poem Without a Hero. I realized even then that I was listening to a work of genius. I do not suppose that I understood that many-faceted and most magical poem and its deeply personal allusions any better than when I read it now. She made no secret of the fact that it was intended as a kind of final memorial to her life as a poet, to the past of the city—St. Petersburg—which was part of her being, and, in the form of a Twelfth Night carnival procession of masked figures en travesti, to her friends, and to their lives and destinies and her own—a kind of artistic nunc dimittis before the inescapable end which would not be long in coming. It is a mysterious and deeply evocative work: a tumulus of learned commentary is inexorably rising over it. Soon it may be buried under its weight.

Then she read the Requiem, from a manuscript. She broke off and spoke of the years 1937-1938, when both her husband and her son had been arrested and sent to prison camps (this was to happen again), of the queues of women who waited day and night, week after week, month after month, for news of their husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, for permission to send food or letters to them. No news ever came. No messages ever reached them. A pall of death in life hung over the cities of the Soviet Union, while the torture and slaughter of millions of innocents were going on. She spoke in a dry, matter-of-fact voice, occasionally interrupting herself with “No, I cannot, it is no good, you come from a society of human beings, whereas here we are divided into human beings and….” Then a long silence: “And even now….” She would once more be silent. I asked about Mandelstam: she paused, her eyes filled with tears, and she begged me not to speak of him: “After he slapped Aleksey Tolstoy’s face, it was all over….” It took some time for her to collect herself. Then in a totally changed voice, she said, “Aleksey Tolstoy wore lilac shirts à la russe when we were in Tashkent. He spoke of the marvelous time he and I would have together when we came back. He was a very gifted and interesting writer, a scoundrel, full of charm, and a man of stormy temperament. He is dead now. He was capable of anything, anything. He was a wild adventurer. He only liked youth, power, vitality. He didn’t finish his Peter the First because he said that he could only deal with Peter as a young man; what was he to do with all those people when they grew old? He was a kind of Dolokhov. He called me Annushka. That made me wince, but I liked him very much, even though he was the cause of the death of the best poet of our time, whom I loved, and who loved me.” (Her words were identical with those she had used earlier; it now seemed clear to me to whom, on both occasions, she was referring.)

It was, I think, by now about three in the morning. She showed no sign of wishing me to leave, and I was far too moved and absorbed to stir. She left the room and came back with a dish of boiled potatoes. It was all she had, and she was embarrassed at the poverty of her hospitality. I begged her to let me write down the Poem Without a Hero and Requiem: she said there was no need for that. A volume of her collected verse was due to appear the next February. It was all in proof. She would send me a copy. The Party, as we know, ruled otherwise. She was denounced by Zhdanov (in a phrase which he had not invented) as “half nun, half harlot.” This put her beyond the official pale.

We talked about Russian literature. After dismissing Chekhov because of the absence in his world of heroism and martyrdom, of depth and darkness and sublimity, we talked about Anna Karenina. “Why did Tolstoy make her commit suicide? As soon as she leaves Karenin, everything changes. She suddenly turns into a fallen woman, a traviata, a prostitute. Who punishes Anna? God? No, not God—society—that same society whose hypocrisies Tolstoy is constantly denouncing. In the end he tells us that Anna repels even Vronsky. Tolstoy is lying. He knew better than that. The morality of Anna Karenina is the morality of Tolstoy’s Moscow aunts, of philistine conventions. It is all connected with his personal vicissitudes. When Tolstoy was happily married he wrote War and Peace which celebrates the family. After he started hating Sophia Andreevna, but could not divorce her, because divorce is condemned by society, and maybe by the peasants too, he wrote Anna Karenina, and punished Anna for leaving her husband. When he was old, and felt guilt for still lusting violently after peasant girls, he wrote The Kreutzer Sonata and forbade sex altogether.”

These were her words. I do not know how seriously they were meant, but Akhmatova’s dislike of Tolstoy’s sermons was genuine—she regarded him as a monster of vanity, and an enemy of freedom. She worshipped Dostoevsky and, like him, despised Turgenev. And, after Dostoevsky, Kafka, whom she read in English translations. (“He wrote for me and about me,” she told me years afterward in Oxford—“Kafka is a greater writer than even Joyce and Eliot. He did not understand everything; only Pushkin did that.”) She then spoke to me about Pushkin’s Egyptian Nights, and about the pale stranger in that story who improvised verse on themes supplied by the audience. The virtuoso, in her opinion, was the Polish poet Adam Mickewiecz. Pushkin’s relation to him became ambivalent. The Polish issue divided them. But Pushkin always recognized genius in his contemporaries. Blok was like that—with his mad eyes and marvelous genius, he too could have been an improvisateur. She said that Blok had never liked her, but that every schoolmistress in Russia believed, and would doubtless go on believing, that they had had a love affair. Historians of literature believed this too. All this, in her opinion, was based on her poem A Visit to the Poet, dedicated to Blok; and, perhaps, also on the poem on the death of The Grey-Eyed King, although that was written more than ten years before Blok died. Blok liked none of the Acmeists, of whom she was one. He did not like Pasternak either.

She then spoke about Pasternak, whom she loved deeply, though she had never been in love with him. After Mandelstam’s and Tsvetaeva’s deaths, they were alone. The knowledge that the other was alive and at work was a source of infinite comfort to both of them. They criticized each other freely, but allowed no one else to do so. The passionate devotion of countless men and women in the Soviet Union who knew their verse by heart, and copied it and circulated it, was a source of pride to them. But they both remained in exile. The thought of emigration was hateful to both. They longed to visit the West, but not if it meant that they would be unable to return. Their deep patriotism was not tinged by nationalism. Akhmatova was not prepared to move. No matter what horrors might be in store, she would never abandon Russia.

She spoke of her childhood, her marriages, her relationships with others, of the rich artistic life in Petersburg before the First World War. She had no doubt that the culture of the West, especially now, in 1945, was far superior to it. She spoke about the great poet Annensky, who had taught her more even than Gumilev, and died largely ignored by editors and critics, a great forgotten master. She spoke about her loneliness and isolation. Leningrad, after the war, was for her nothing but the graveyard of her friends—it was like the aftermath of a forest fire, the few charred trees made the desolation still more desolate. She lived by translating. She had begged to be allowed to translate the letters of Rubens, not those of Romain Rolland. After unheard-of obstacles, permission was finally granted. I asked her what the Renaissance meant to her—was it a real historical past, or an idealized vision, an imaginary world? She replied that it was the latter. She felt nostalgia for it—that longing for a universal culture of which Mandelstam had spoken, as Goethe and Schlegel had thought of it—a longing for what had been transmuted into art and thought—nature, love, death, despair, and martyrdom—a reality which had no history, nothing outside itself. She spoke in a calm, even voice, like a remote princess in exile, proud, unhappy, unapproachable, often in words of the most moving eloquence.

The account of the unrelieved tragedy of her life went beyond anything which anyone had ever described to me in spoken words; the recollection of them is still vivid and painful to me. I asked her whether she intended to compose a record of her literary life. She replied that her poetry was that, in particular the Poem Without a Hero, which she read to me again. Once more I begged her to let me write it down. Once again she declined. Our conversation, which touched on intimate details of both her life and my own, wandered from literature and art, and lasted until late in the morning of the following day. I saw her again when I was leaving the Soviet Union to go home by way of Leningrad and Helsinki. I went to say goodbye to her on the afternoon of January 5, 1946, and she then gave me one of her collections of verse, with a new poem inscribed on the flyleaf—the poem that was later to form the second in the cycle entitled Cinque. I realized that this poem, in this, its first version, had been directly inspired by our earlier meeting. There are other references and allusions to our meetings, in Cinque and elsewhere.

I did not see her on my next visit to the Soviet Union in 1956. Her son, who had been re-arrested, had been released from his prison camp earlier that year, and Pasternak told me that she felt acutely nervous about seeing foreigners except by official order, but that she wished me to telephone her; this was far safer, for all her telephone conversations were monitored. Over the telephone she told me something of her experiences as a condemned writer; of the turning away by some whom she had considered faithful friends, of the nobility and courage of others. She had re-read Chekov, and said that at least in Ward No. 6 he had accurately described her situation, and that of many others. Meanwhile her translations from the classical Korean verse had been published—“You can imagine how much Korean I know; it is a selection; not selected by me. There is no need for you to read it.”

When we met in Oxford in 1965 Akhmatova told me that Stalin had been personally enraged by the fact that she had allowed me to visit her: “So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies,” he is alleged to have remarked, and followed this with obscenities which she could not at first bring herself to repeat to me. The fact that I had never worked in any intelligence organization was irrelevant. All members of foreign missions were spies to Stalin. Of course, she said, the old man was by then out of his mind, in the grip of pathological paranoia. In Oxford she told me that she was convinced that Stalin’s fury, which we had caused, had unleashed the cold war—that she and I had changed the history of mankind. She meant this quite literally and insisted on its truth. She saw herself and me as world-historical personages chosen by destiny to play our fateful part in a cosmic conflict, and this is reflected in her poems of this time. It was intrinsic to her entire historico-philosophical vision, from which much of her poetry flowed.

She told me that after her journey to Italy in the previous year, when she had been awarded a literary prize, she was visited by officials of the Soviet secret police, who asked her for her impressions of Rome. She replied that Rome seemed to her to be a city where paganism was still at war with Christianity. “What war?” she was asked. “Was the USA mentioned? Are Russian émigrés involved?” What should she answer when similar questions were put to her about England and Oxford? For to Russia she would return no matter what awaited her there. The Soviet regime was the established order of her country. With it she had lived, and with it she would die. That is what being a Russian meant.

We returned to Russian poetry. She spoke contemptuously of well-known young poets, favored by the Soviet authorities. One of the most famous of these, who was in England at the time, had sent her a telegram to Oxford to congratulate her on her honorary doctorate. I was there when it arrived. She read it, and angrily threw it in the waste-paper basket—“They are all little bandits, prostitutes of their gifts, and exploiters of public taste. Mayakovsky’s influence has been fatal to them all. Mayakovsky shouted at the top of his voice because it was natural to him to do so. He could not help it. His imitators have adopted his manner as a genre. They are vulgar declaimers with not a spark of true poetry in them.”

There were many gifted poets in Russia now: the best among them was Joseph Brodsky, whom she had, she said, brought up by hand, and whose poetry had in part been published: a noble poet in deep disfavor, with all that that implied. There were others, too, marvelously gifted—but their names would mean nothing to me—poets whose verses could not be published, and whose very existence was testimony to the unexhausted life of the imagination in Russia: “They will eclipse us all,” she said, “believe me, Pasternak and I and Mandelstam and Tsvetaeva, all of us are the end of a long period of elaboration which began in the nineteenth century. My friends and I thought we spoke with the voice of the twentieth century. But these new poets constitute a new beginning—behind bars now, but they will escape and astonish the world.” She spoke at some length in this prophetic vein, and returned again to Mayakovsky, driven to despair, betrayed by his friends, but, for a while, the true voice, the trumpet, of his people, though a fatal example to others; she herself owed nothing to him, but much to Annensky, the purest and finest of poets, remote from the hurly-burly of literary politics, largely neglected by avant-garde journals, fortunate to have died when he did. He was not read widely in his lifetime, but then this was the fate of other great poets—the present generation was far more sensitive to poetry than her own had been: who cared, who truly cared about Blok or Bely or Vyacheslav Ivanov in 1910? Or, for that matter, about herself and the poets of her group? But today the young knew it all by heart—she was still getting letters from young people, many of them from silly, ecstatic girls, but the sheer number of them was surely evidence of something.

Pasternak received even more of these, and liked them better. Had I met his friend Olga Ivinskaya? I had not. She found both Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida, and his mistress equally unbearable, but Boris Leonidovich himself was a magical poet, one of the great poets of the Russian land: every sentence he wrote, in verse and prose, spoke with his authentic voice, unlike any other she had ever heard. Blok and Pasternak were divine poets; no modern Frenchman, no Englishman, not Valéry, not Eliot, could compare with them—Baudelaire, Shelley, Leopardi, that was the company to which they belonged. Like all great poets, they had little sense of the quality of others—Pasternak often praised inferior critics, discovered imaginary hidden gifts, encouraged all kinds of minor figures—decent writers but without talent—he had a mythological sense of history, in which quite worthless people sometimes played mysterious, significant roles—like Evgraf in Doctor Zhivago (she vehemently denied that this mysterious figure was in any respect based on Stalin; she evidently found this impossible to contemplate). He did not really read contemporary authors he was prepared to praise—not Bagritsky or Aseev, not even Mandelstam (whom he could not bear, though of course he did what he could for him when he was in trouble), nor her own work—he wrote her wonderful letters about her poetry, but the letters were about himself, not her—she knew that they were sublime fantasies which had little to do with her: “Perhaps all great poets are like this.”

Pasternak’s compliments naturally made those who received them very happy, but this was delusive; he was a generous giver, but not truly interested in the work of others: interested, of course, in Shakespeare, Goethe, the French Symbolists, Rilke, perhaps Proust, but “not in any of us.” She said that she missed Pasternak’s existence every day of her life; they had never been in love, but they loved one another deeply and this irritated his wife. She then spoke of the “blank” years during which she was officially out of account in the Soviet Union—between the mid-Twenties until the late Thirties. She said that when she was not translating, she read Russian poets: Pushkin constantly, of course, but also Odoevsky, Lermontov, Baratynsky—she thought Baratynsky’s Autumn was a work of pure genius; and she had recently reread Velemir Khelbnikov—mad but marvelous.

I asked her if she would ever annotate the Poem Without a Hero: the allusions might be unintelligible to those who did not know the life it was concerned with; did she wish them to remain in darkness? She answered that when those who knew the world about which she spoke were overtaken by senility or death, the poem would die too; it would be buried with her and her century; it was not written for eternity, nor even for posterity: the past alone had significance for poets—childhood most of all—those were the emotions that they wished to re-create and re-live. Vaticination, odes to the future, even Pushkin’s great epistle to Chaadaev, were a form of declamatory rhetoric, a striking of grandiose attitudes, the poet’s eye peering into a dimly discernible future, a pose which she despised.

She knew, she said, that she had not long to live. Doctors had made it plain to her that her heart was weak. Above all, she did not wish to be pitied. She had faced horrors, and had known the most terrible depths of grief. She had exacted from her friends the promise that they would not allow the faintest gleam of pity for her to occur; hatred, insult, contempt, misunderstanding, persecution, she could bear, but not sympathy if it was mingled with compassion. Her pride and dignity were very great.

The detachment and impersonality with which she seemed to speak only partially disguised her passionate convictions and moral judgments, against which there was plainly no appeal. Her accounts of personalities and lives were compounded of sharp insight into the moral center of characters and situations (she did not spare her friends in this respect) together with fixed ideas, from which she could not be moved. She knew that our meeting had had serious historical consequences. She knew that the poet Georgi Ivanov, whom she accused of having written lying memoirs after he emigrated, had at one time been a police spy in the pay of the tsarist government. She knew that the poet Nekrasov in the nineteenth century had also been a government agent; that the poet Annensky had been hounded to death by his literary enemies. These beliefs had no apparent foundation in fact—they were intuitive, but they were not senseless, not sheer fantasies; they were elements in a coherent conception of her own and her nation’s life and fate, of the central issues which Pasternak had wanted to discuss with Stalin, the vision which sustained and shaped her imagination and her art. She was not a visionary; she had, for the most part, a strong sense of reality. She described the literary and social scene in Petersburg before the First World War, and her part in it, with a sober realism and sharpness of detail which made it totally credible.

Akhmatova lived in terrible times, during which, according to Nadezhda Mandelstam, she behaved with heroism. She did not in public, nor indeed to me in private, utter a single word against the Soviet regime. But her entire life was what Herzen once described Russian literature as being—one continuous indictment of Russian reality.

The worship of her memory in the Soviet Union today, undeclared but widespread, has, so far as I know, no parallel. Her unyielding passive resistance to what she regarded as unworthy of her country and herself transformed her into a figure (as Belinsky once predicted about Herzen) not merely in Russian literature, but in the Russian history of our time.

My meetings and conversations with Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova; my realization of the conditions, scarcely describable, under which they lived and worked, and of the treatment to which they were subjected; and the fact that I was allowed to enter into a personal relationship, indeed, friendship, with them both, affected me profoundly and permanently changed my outlook. When I see their names in print, or hear them mentioned, I remember vividly the expressions on their faces, their gestures and their words. When I read their writings I can, to this day, hear the sound of their voices.

  1. 1

    Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam agreed to give him four out of five for his behavior in this case.

  2. 2

    His Oxford college.

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