“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 staying at the Hotel Astoria in Leningrad. When Berlin went out by appointment to meet Akhmatova, Churchill was at loose ends, and after what seemed to him a reasonable time sightseeing in the vicinity, he, having found out Berlin’s destination, walked along the Fontanka Canal and in the gloom of the November evening began to shout his friend’s name up at the windows. Perfectly normal behavior for a high-spirited upper-class youth of Oxford or London’s West End who never took foreigners very seriously. You’re looking for your friend who’s somewhere about on the town; in a genial fashion, and no doubt after a few glasses of vodka, you start to seek his whereabouts with a few “Hi’s” and “Hello’s.” All as it might be in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. In fact, according to Michael Ignatieff’s account, “Churchill simply wanted Isaiah…to return to the Astoria and explain to the hotel staff that the caviar he had just purchased should be placed on ice.”
To the KGB agents in the background it didn’t seem normal at all. In fact it had the makings of a skandal. Soviet propriety, in all its essential puritanism, would have been outraged by any such uninhibited behavior. But as Dalos reconstructs what happened, he leaves no doubt the KGB had taken note of the incident, and it may well have contributed to the fateful results of the encounter between Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin. To the KGB it may have seemed to have the makings not only of a skandal but of a konspiratsia.
Why, in Akhmatova’s wonderful and cryptic “Poem without a Hero,” should Isaiah Berlin make a brief enigmatic appearance as “The Guest from the Future”? The answer may lie in his role in her life as a bringer of hope that evening, hope from a world of freedom that was as yet very far from coming. Together with two other young poets, Osip Mandelstam and Nikolay Punin, Akhmatova had been a founder of the Acmeist movement in poetry. They wished to abandon the vague and subjective mysteries of the Symbolists, substituting for them a poetry that was spare, condensed, and outwardly unemotional. They had come to distrust the kind of portentousness which their friend and fellow poet Alexander Blok was to put, for example, into his apocalyptic poem “The Twelve,” with its long climax in which a band of dissolute Red Guards symbolized the advent of Christ and his apostles.
Akhmatova herself was in love with Blok at one stage, but her poems inspired by the experience are notably restrained and sardonic, conceived in precise terms of place and atmosphere—the raspberry-colored winter sun that shone coldly into the room, the other poet’s cold, expressionless eyes never quite meeting her own. In the shadowy kaleidoscope of “Poem without a Hero” (the title perhaps suggested by Lermontov’s sardonic little novel A Hero of Our Time) the same Acmeist technique is used in more complex and mysterious ways. The Guest from the Future and his movements are precise. He is coming to the poet’s tenement room in the Fountain House by the Fontanka Canal.
Within the gradual and dreamlike evolution of the poem the people who at different times of her life have meant much to the poet change and melt into one another, bringing the past into the future and the fateful privacies of the poet’s early life into the present. In a sense it was a present that had begun in 1914, the year that had inaugurated the twentieth century. “The real one,” as the poem says. “Not the calendar one.”
And so Isaiah Berlin was to play his own momentous but incongruous role in the iconography of the poem. He is not, as it were, the only candidate for the post. In his admirable account of the poet and her visitor, and also the consequences of the visit, György Dalos observes dryly at one moment that there are now so many candidates for the position of “guest” at Fountain House that the situation begins to resemble that rivalry among Greek cities in the ancient world for the honor of being the birthplace of Homer. All suggestions are perfectly plausible, because the whole structure of the poem is based on multiple identity:on the fact that memory may not so much confuse as fruitfully associate two or more persons with the same role or presence in the life of the person who remembers.
Probably the most likely rival, at least as claimed by his friends and family, is the writer and art historian Nikolay Punin, an intimate friend and lover of Akhmatova’s for many years. In his own diaries, very well translated and annotated, he seems to show no awareness of his possible candidature: Punin was naturally more concerned with Akhmatova as an individual with whom he was so closely and emotionally involved than as a poet. St. Petersburg, the phantasmal northern city of most Russian poets and intellectuals, was home to both of them. Having divorced her first husband, the poet Gumilyov, in 1918, Akhmatova was now married to Vladimir Shileiko, an Assyriologist and a scholar of international standing. Punin too was married, but in the heady era of free love and social and aesthetic experimentation which followed the Revolution the surviving and still hopeful intelligentsia claimed the right to behave as they chose. Akhmatova and Punin became lovers, each having other entanglements on their own side, and after Shileiko’s death Akhmatova moved in with the Punins.
Punin figures frequently in her poems and she remained close to him all his life. He never forgot his first glimpse of her—“strange and pretty, thin, pale, immortal and mystical.” And whether or not he has a claim to be the Guest from the Future his presence certainly haunts the pages of “Poem without a Hero,” as do so many of Akhmatova’s lovers and friends, like the famous beauty Olga Sudeykina, for love of whom a young Guards officer had shot himself outside her door. Akhmatova was living with Sudeykina at the time, and the incident has its own dramatic and mysterious place in the unfolding mythology of the poem.
St. Petersburg, with its great squares and streets, fountains and canals, is itself the real protagonist of Akhmatova’s long poem, and indeed of much of her poetry. This fascination with the town, as if it were a living character, is echoed in Punin’s diaries, which are often masterpieces of description sometimes reminiscent of Andrei Bely’s futuristic novel St. Petersburg. Punin was indeed the pioneer of Russian Futurism, a movement based on the Italian model of Filippo Marinetti but with all the fresh impetus given by revolution and by the cult of a brilliant and mechanized future, in art and architecture and social affairs alike.
There is thus a certain irony in Akhmatova’s cryptic reference to the Guest from the Future who, if he is indeed wholly or mostly the English visitor Isaiah Berlin, was scarcely the sort of human portent whom the Futurists were looking for. But as György Dalos points out, this strange encounter in the poem is one of love—not erotic love but love for a man who seemed to represent all the past culture and traditions which Akhmatova had lived on and been inspired by. The poem suggests, through its author’s own feelings and recollections, so many contrasts and conflicting loyalties that it is hardly possible to separate or distinguish them: its art requires all such problems in the poem to remain unresolved.
In her illuminating introductory essay on Punin and Akhmatova in The Diaries of Nikolay Punin, Jennifer Greene Krupala points out that Boris Eikhenbaum, in his study of Akhmatova’s poetry, published in 1924, had coined the phrase “half-nun, half-whore” for the lyrical persona created in her love poems both with intimacy and with cool Acmeist detachment. Eikhenbaum implied that such love poems nonetheless belonged to the past, to a previous age rather than to the revolutionary present. His phrase was copied in 1946 by the Soviet official Andrei Zhdanov in his well-known denunciation of Akhmatova and what her poetry stood for: this was an orchestrated display of hostility from the writers’ union which may well have had its origins in the stir created around the poet by Isaiah Berlin’s visit, as well as by the growing hostilities of the cold war.
Berlin himself had been full of hopes, perhaps naive ones, as a result of that meeting. In his report to London he recommended that an English cultural consulate be set up in Leningrad, still the only truly cosmopolitan Russian city; and he made plans to bring both Akhmatova and her fellow poet Boris Pasternak over to receive academic honors in Oxford. In the short term all such efforts were doomed to failure, and Berlin himself came to feel some guilt about the part he had unwittingly played in the persecution of Akhmatova. Its worst victim was her unfortunate son, Lev Gumilyov, who had been released from prison to fight in the war, only to be sent back to the Gulag afterward. His real offense was to be the son of the poet once married to Akhmatova. Not without cause he felt she had always neglected him, and on his eventual release he remained on bad terms with his mother.
Punin too suffered indirectly from his relation with Akhmatova, and as a result of the general attack on the intelligentsia launched in the later Forties by Stalin and his henchmen. He had been first arrested in the great purge before the war, and in 1949 he was sent to a camp at Vorkuta, where he died in 1953. His diaries—diary-keeping being a hazardous art in the Soviet Union—remained with his family. They are centered on St. Petersburg and its intellectual life and on his intimacy with Akhmatova, but on the city above all. The finest thing in their often rather scrappy pages is an account of the great flooding of the city in 1924, a century or so after Pushkin had written about a similar flood in his magnificent poem “The Bronze Horseman.” His description of the 1924 flood shows Punin’s staccato and informal diary style at its best. (The shots referred to are the flood warning alarms fired to announce danger—the same alarm signals about the flood as are mentioned in Pushkin’s poem.)
The Neva was threatening. Huge waves whipped right up to the parapet, splashed on the people, fell back, foaming. The whole embankment rose to the surface, paving blocks creaking moved in a thick mass along the surface of the water. Nothing was visible in the distance and this made the clouds seem still lower. A wild, violent wind whistled on the bridge. I will not forget that whistle, it cannot be described, a whistle shrill and predatory, tearing under the clouds right above our heads. It would quiet down for a few minutes, flying off somewhere further, and then it would fill the whole horizon with its roar, as if carried by some kind of gigantic wires. [Soldiers] began to shoot again, more often. A few times the wind jostled so that we had to hold onto the rails of the bridge. It was frightening because of the darkness, the insanity, the immensity of it. The faces of those few passersby who happened upon the bridge grew solemn. At that moment somewhere not far above us the gray-blackness tore open for a minute and through the dark-ness of night there shone a yellow light then everything clouded over again, and began to swirl and whistle. The rain poured. The sound of the shots was muffled. They didn’t seem so prophetic in this crashing, whistling, and roaring.
Naturally enough the Soviet authorities blamed the previous regime for not having done anything to stop these recurrent floods, and during the Thirties they began to take some belated action themselves.
György Dalos has interesting things to say about the way Stalin himself took a close interest in the poets and writers whom he persecuted. His was, as György puts it, not a modern dictatorship “but an archaic despotism in which the ruler’s benevolence or anger was transmitted and realized in action by tens of thousands of functionaries.” Such an atmosphere was decidedly Oriental. Mandelstam was sent to the camps in the far east for his lampoon on Stalin, which Lev Gumilyov made the mistake of reading to some friends, among whom there must have been an informer. Like many tyrants in history Stalin had dogmatic but by no means uninformed views on art and poetry, and as a youth had himself written and published poems in Georgian about the beauty of the Caucasus. If legend is to be believed it sounds as if he even had a certain ogreish regard for Akhmatova, as poet and woman or harlot and nun—she was at least saved from probable death during the German siege of Leningrad by being evacuated with other poets and writers to Tashkent—and legend also has him asking in his strong Georgian accent, “What’s our nun up to now?” (“Chto delayet nasha monakhinya?“) It is entirely believable that he should have shouted, “So our nun has been receiving British spies?” after the Guest of the Future incident, adding a few obscenities which Akhmatova was embarrassed to repeat to Isaiah Ber-lin when she finally came to Oxford, twenty years later. By that time Stalin was in his grave; the Soviet Union was headed toward eventual collapse; and she herself, in old age, was the most famous and distinguished of Russian poets, revered by all her fellow countrymen. Art does sometimes win in the end, after all, even under such a dictatorship as Stalin’s.
December 16, 1999