The Guest from the Future

2010110750160501 Navtej Sarna in The Hindu:

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.