Sunday, March 19, 2006

Russian Anna

In this week's Washington Post Book World Michael Dirda reviews a new biography of Anna Akhmatova. In it he gives a short version of the story of her meeting with Isaiah Berlin in 1945. It's a good one; worth a fuller treatment than Dirda had space for. Here's an authoritative version.
The Guest from the Future:

In November 1945, Isaiah Berlin, then First Secretary at the British Embassy in Moscow, was visiting Leningrad and learnt from a conversation in a bookshop that Anna Akhmatova was living nearby. Telephoned, she invited him to call at her flat in the old Fontanny Palace on the Fontanka.

Their meeting that afternoon was interrupted, as he describes in his Personal Impressions: ‘Suddenly I heard what sounded like my first name being shouted somewhere outside. I ignored this for a while - it was plainly 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.' Berlin hurriedly led him away, but himself returned that evening to continue his conversation with the poet.

They talked all night of their respective Russian childhoods, of such of her early friends as Modigliani and Salomé Andronikova, of the war, of Tolstoy, of what she had written - and read him - of ‘Poem without a Hero'. In the small hours of the morning they were joined by her son, Lev Gumilev, bringing the only food they had in the flat.

This meeting, because of Churchill's interruption, came to Stalin's attention (‘So our nun is receiving visits from foreign spies'), altering the course of Akhmatova's life and, she believed, the course of history. She became convinced that, fuelling Stalin's paranoia, they had caused the first move in the Cold War.

Berlin came to say goodbye to her, before leaving the Soviet Union, on 5 January 1946. The next day, uniformed men screwed a microphone into her ceiling. That summer she was denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and expelled from the Writers' Union.

On 6 November 1949, her son Lev was arrested for the third time and the following day Akhmatova committed her poems finally to memory before burning their manuscripts; among them, the completed ‘Poem without a Hero' in which Berlin appears as ‘The Guest from the Future'.

Anna Akhmatova by Zinaida Serebryakova, 1922

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