Philosophy and Life: An Interview

The following is based on several interviews in London between Isaiah Berlin and the Iranian philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo, who now lives in Paris.

Ramin Jahanbegloo: You were born on June 6, 1909, in Riga, and you left Russia with your parents at the age of ten. Do you still have memories of this period, in particular of the conditions of your immigration?

Isaiah Berlin: I left Riga with my parents for Petrograd1 in 1915. We left Petrograd in 1919. In Petrograd I witnessed both Russian Revolutions at the age of eight. I remember the first Revolution very well. There were meetings, banners, crowds in the streets, enthusiasm, posters with the faces of the new Lvov2 ministry, propaganda by more than twenty parties for the Constituent Assembly. Not much talk about the war, at any rate in the circles in which my family was living. The liberal revolution was greatly welcomed by the Jews (whose disabilities were likely to be abolished) and the liberal bourgeoisie. But this did not last long. The Bolshevik Revolution broke out in November. We—my family and their friends—hardly knew that it had happened. The first sign was a general strike against the Bolshevik seizure of power. Various newspapers disappeared. I remember there was a liberal newspaper called Day—it reappeared as Evening, then as Night, then as Midnight, then as Darkest Night, and then, after four or five days or so, it was finally suppressed. There was distant shooting. People in our world thought that the Putsch might last at most for two of three weeks. If you look at the London Times of that date you will read reports from the Russian ambassador in Paris: he predicted a quick end to the Putsch. The Bolsheviks were called “Maximalists” in the Times, and not regarded as a major force. Gradually Lenin and Trotsky emerged as the two dominant figures of the Revolution.

My parents, who were bourgeois liberals, thought that Lenin would create a society in which they would not be able to survive; they looked on him as a dangerous fanatic but a true believer, honest and incorruptible, a kind of sea-green Robespierre. Trotsky, on the other hand, they regarded as a wicked opportunist. At the age of eight I had no idea why this strange opinion was so strongly held. They were never referred to apart—“Lenin and Trotsky” were spoken of in one breath, like the name of a firm. The only people who remained loyal to the tsarist government, I recollect, were the police. I do not think that there is much about this in the literature. The police in the streets were called Pharaohs—oppressors of the people. Some of them sniped at the revolutionaries from rooftops and attics. I remember seeing a policeman being dragged off, pale and struggling, by a mob, obviously to his death—that was a terrible sight that I have never forgotten; it gave me a lifelong horror of physical violence.

Jahanbegloo: Did you have problems leaving Russia…

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