The guest from the future

An account of Isaiah Berlin's dramatic meeting with Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, which she identified as the cause of the Cold War.

They talked through the night of Russian literature, common friends, her loneliness and isolation...

Anna Akhmatova: A 1922 portrait by Russian artist Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin.

Things left half done tend to nag. Last year, I recounted the meetings of the Oxford Don Isaiah Berlin with Boris Pasternak but left for another time the story of his dramatic night conversation with the poetess Anna Akhmatova which she, with some artistic exaggeration, identified as the cause of the Cold War. To set matters at rest, I turned to the biography, Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet, by Roberta Reeder.

Berlin enters the scene only on Page 286, more than half way through. Akhmatova was in her mid-fifties, having been born in 1889, in the twilight of Imperial Russia. She had already been the toast of literary Petersburg to the extent that she appears as a defining detail in a contemporary memoir of the city: “Fog, streets, bronze horses, triumphal arches over the gates, Akhmatova, sailors and academics, the Neva, railings, murmuring lines at the bread shops, stray bullets of light from broken street lamps have settled in my memory…of the past, like love, like a disease, like the years.”

She had also been condemned as a “half nun, half harlot” after the revolution and regarded as a relic of a bygone corrupt age, a selfish poetess obsessed with personal feelings and not sufficiently starry-eyed about the revolution. The Literary Encyclopaedia of 1929 described her as “a poetess of the aristocracy who has not found a new function in capitalist society, but has already lost her old function in feudal society.” She was not permitted to publish for 15 years until one day in 1939 Stalin asked: “Where is Akhmatova? Why isn't she writing?” Evidently, her collection From Six Books was allowed to come out because Stalin's daughter loved her poetry; the book was nick-named “Papa's gift to Svetlana.”

Akhmatova had already loved, and been loved by, many men; including the painter Modigliani, then unknown and poor. Together, they walked the streets of Paris in the moonlight and he drew her enigmatic features. As she wrote, the relationship was a turning point in their artistic lives: “Everything that had happened to us up until that point was the prehistory of our lives…it was the hour just before the dawn.” She had also seen many loved ones become victims to Stalinist terror in the years of the dreaded midnight knock including her first husband Gumilyov and the poet Osip Mandelstam.

Browsing in a Leningrad bookstore in the autumn of 1945, Berlin — then functioning as a First Secretary in the British embassy — met the literary scholar, V.N. Orlov. The two went to see Akhmatova the same afternoon. He found her “immensely dignified, with unhurried gestures, a noble head, beautiful, somewhat severe features, and an expression of immense sadness.” Suddenly he heard his name being shouted outside. Below the window stood Winston Churchill's son Randolph who was visiting Russia as a journalist and, having been told at the bookstore that Berlin had gone to see Akhmatova, had followed him there. Not knowing her apartment, he resorted to the method of an Oxford undergrad; standing in the courtyard and yelling the name.

Berlin left quickly with him, knowing how dangerous it was for a Soviet citizen to meet with a foreigner even privately, let alone having Churchill's son shouting in the garden below. He went back to see Akhmatova and they talked through the night of Russian literature, common friends, her loneliness and isolation. He noted that she spoke without self-pity, “like a princess in exile, proud, unhappy, unapproachable…” She would write in her cycle of poems, Cinque: “ That late night dialogue turned into/The delicate shimmer of interlaced rainbows.”

Rumours began to circulate, because of Randolph's presence that a foreign delegation had come to take Akhmatova away and Churchill would send a special plane for her. Word reached Stalin who said: “This means our nun is now receiving visits from foreign spies.” Berlin visited her again in January 1946 and the day after, a microphone was screwed into her ceiling. That summer Akhmatova was denounced by the Central Committee of the Party and expelled from the Writers Union. The Leningrad Party Secretary, Zhdanov, attacked her for her “gloomy tones of hopelessness before death, mystic experiences intermingled with eroticism….a harlot-nun whose sin is mixed with prayer.” More attacks followed and her son was arrested in 1949. Once again she began to burn her poetry after committing it to memory.

Isaiah Berlin returned to Russia in 1956. Fearing another arrest of her son, she refused to meet the man who had been the subject of some of her most beautiful love poems. He spoke to her on phone and also gave her the news of his recent marriage. He describes her reaction: “ I see. There followed a long silence. “I am sorry you cannot see me, Pasternak says your wife is charming. Another long silence.”

Her strong attraction to Berlin and its distillation into poetry had many reasons: He had grown up in Russia before going abroad and could relate to her suffering. His analytical mind, keen perception and wide knowledge made him a kindred soul with the sensitivity and intellect to understand her every nuance. The meeting with him brought out the feelings she had bottled up to avoid rejection: “And that door that you half opened/I don't have the strength to slam.” But it is these lines from “A Dream” which best capture the essence of the night-long meeting:

We met in an unbelievable year
When the world's strength was at an ebb,
Everything was in mourning, everything withered by adversity,
And only the graves were fresh.
Without streetlights, the Neva's waves were black as pitch,
Thick night enclosed me like a wall…
That's when my voice called out to you!
Why it did - I still don't understand.
And you came to me, as if guided by a star
That tragic autumn, stepping
Into that irrevocably ruined house,
From whence had flown a flock of burnt verse.