“This book is the story of a single night, the night of Isaiah Berlin’s visit to Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in November 1945,” György Dalos writes. “It is a love story, the story of a love that became a focal point in the life of the poet, giving meaning to events that preceded and followed it.” A Hungarian writer who became fascinated by Berlin and Akhmatova, he is quite right. He is telling a love story, but a love story of a very peculiar kind, one that could only have taken place between two persons from wholly different backgrounds and cultures, and in a country whose authorities and ideology were doing their best to ensure that those two cultures never encountered, still less fraternized with, each other. It was like the parting in the Bible between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; but it also has tragic overtones that made it as fateful as Juliet’s first glimpse of Romeo in Shakespeare’s play.
Not that the parties concerned were in any sense ingénues, like the young couple in Verona. Nor, although the pair spent the entire evening, night, and early morning together, was it a night of love in a Shakespearean or indeed a Hollywood sense. It was a night of meeting of minds, the minds of two famous people who had never met before, both of whom were greedy to know more not only of each other but of the countries and cultures which each represented. One was an aging poet of great distinction, whose enormous popularity had made her a martyr of the hostile and repressive officialdom of the Soviet Union. The other was a brilliant young don and diplomat, born a Jew in tsarist Russia, who had won high honors for his work on politics and philosophy at Oxford University, and who during the war had worked for the British Foreign Office in Washington.
As with so many of the best love stories there was also a strong element of farce involved. Isaiah Berlin still spoke perfect Russian, but he had not been back to the country since childhood. This was his first visit to the Soviet Union, which had just played such a heroic part in the wartime defeat of Germany, and he was eager not only to find out how things were but to understand and even to admire them. Although well aware of the Soviet Union’s terrible record he revered Russian poets and thinkers and was confident, perhaps naively so, that intellectuals and artists could always understand each other and be on close terms, whatever the political differences of their governments might be. Akhmatova, older as she was, and bitterly experienced in the ways of the Soviet government, knew better.
Their evening began with an episode which showed all too clearly what great gulfs existed between Soviet attitudes and those taken for granted by the ruling British upper class. Berlin was friendly with Randolph Churchill, Winston’s son, who was also …