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By Isaiah Berlin


The Montréal Review, May 2012


 "The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism" by Isaiah Berlin (Brookings Institution Press, 2011)


"As always, Berlin's writings are as engaging as they are informative. Framed between Hardy's preface and Rappaport's glossary, however, The Soviet Mind is a distinguished collection."

-Jason Ferrell, McGill University, Slavic and East European Journal



By Henry Hardy

"He possesed a clever but also cruel look and all his countenence bore an expression of a phanatic he signed death verdicts, without moving his eyebrow. His leading motto in life was “The purpose justifies the WAYS” he did not stop before anything for bringing out his plans."

Isaiah Berlin, ‘The Purpose Justifies the Ways’ (1921) [1]


I have long known that this book ought to exist. Isaiah Berlin’s scattered writings on the Soviet era of Russian politics and culture are substantial both in quality and in quantity, as well as being unlike those from any other hand.

In 1991, after the successful publication of The Crooked Timber of Humanity, and in response to the collapse of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, I suggested to Berlin that a collection of his pieces on the Soviet Union might be especially timely, but he demurred, saying that most of the items in question were occasional, lightweight and somewhat obsolete. I returned to the fray, setting out the arguments in favour of the proposal. He replied as follows:

No good. I realise that all you say is perfectly sensible, but this is the wrong time, even if these things are to be published. [. . .] I think at the moment, when the Soviet Union has gone under, to add to works which dance upon its grave would be inopportune – there is far too much of this going on already – the various ways of showing the inadequacies of Marxism, Communism, Soviet organisation, the causes of the latest putsch, revolution etc. And I think these essays, if they are of any worth, which, as you know, I permanently
doubt, had much better be published in ten or fifteen years’ time, perhaps after my death – as interesting reflections, at best, of what things looked like to observers like myself in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s etc. Believe me, I am right.

More than a decade later, and some six years after Berlin’s death, it seems right to put these hesitations aside, especially since developments in the former Soviet Union have not followed the swift path towards Western liberal democracy that so many (not including Berlin himself ) rashly predicted; it is a commonplace that much of the Soviet mentality has survived the regime that spawned it. As for Berlin’s doubts about the value – especially the permanent value – of his work, I am used to discounting these
with a clear conscience, and his phrase ‘observers like myself ’ splendidly understates the uniqueness of his own vision

What has brought the project to fruition at this particular juncture is the welcome proposal by my friend Strobe Talbott that the pieces in question be made the subject of a seminar on Berlin’s contribution to Soviet studies and published by the Brookings Institution Press. Strobe’s foreword expertly places the contents of the book in the context of Berlin’s oeuvre as a whole.

A few supplementary remarks now follow on the circumstances in which the essays I have included came to be written.

The Arts in Russia under Stalin

In the autumn of 1945 Berlin, then an official of the British Foreign Office, visited the Soviet Union for the first time since he had left it in 1920, aged eleven. It was during this visit that his famous meetings with Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak took place. He did not record his memories of these encounters
until thirty-five years later. [1]

But he also wrote two official reports at the time. At the end of his period of duty he compiled a remarkable long memorandum on the general condition of Russian culture, giving it the characteristically
unassuming title ‘A Note on Literature and the Arts in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in the Closing Months of 1945’.

He also understated the coverage of his report. He enclosed a copy of it with a letter dated 23 March 1946 to Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to the USSR, congratulating him on his appointment
as Ambassador to Britain. In the letter, written from the British Embassy in Washington, he told Harriman:

I enclose a long and badly written report on Russian literature etc. which I am instructed to forward to you by Frank Roberts [2]. I doubt whether there is anything in it that is either new or arresting – here only Jock Balfour [3] has read it, in the Foreign Office I doubt if anyone will. It is confidential only because of the well-known consequences to the possible sources of the information contained in it, should its existence ever become known to ‘them’. I should be grateful if you could return it to me via the Foreign Office bag addressed to New College, Oxford, in the dim recesses of which I shall think with some nostalgia but no regret of the world to which I do not think I shall ever be recalled.

Berlin’s self-effacing account of his despatch is of course quite misleading. As Michael Ignatieff writes in his biography of Berlin:

Its modest title belied its ambitions: it was nothing less than a history of Russian culture in the first half of the twentieth century, a chronicle of Akhmatova’s fateful generation. It was probably the first Western account of Stalin’s war against Russian culture. On every page there are traces of what she – Chukovsky and Pasternak as well – told him about their experiences in the years of persecution. [3]

A Visit to Leningrad

The other piece written contemporaneously with the events of 1945 is a more personal account of his historic visit to Leningrad from 13 to 20 November, less than two years after the lifting of the German siege. He deliberately underplays, indeed slightly falsifies, his encounter with Akhmatova on (probably) 15–16 November. But in a letter to Frank Roberts, the British Chargé d’Affaires in Moscow, thanking him for his hospitality, he writes that when he called on Akhmatova again on his way out of the Soviet Union at the end of his visit, she ‘inscribed a brand new poem about midnight conversations for my benefit, which is the most thrilling thing that has ever, I think, happened to me’.[4]

A Great Russian Writer

On 28 January 1998 ‘An American Remembrance’ of Isaiah Berlin was held at the British Embassy in Washington. One of the tributes delivered on that occasion was by Robert Silvers, [5] co-editor of the New York Review of Books, and a friend of Berlin’s for more than thirty years. In the course of his remarks he spoke of the circumstances under which the next essay was written, and of his own reaction to Berlin’s writing:

The prose of the born storyteller – that seems to me quintessential in comprehending Isaiah’s immensely various work. I felt this most directly [in autumn 1965] when he was in New York, and a book appeared on the work of the Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam, and Isaiah agreed to write on it. The days passed, and he told me that he was soon to leave, and we agreed he would come to the Review offices one evening after dinner, and he would dictate from a nearly finished draft. As I typed away, I realised that he had a passionate, detailed understanding of the Russian poetry of this century. [. . .] When he finished and we walked out on 57th Street, with huge, black garbage trucks rumbling by, he looked at his watch and said, ‘Three in the morning! Mandelshtam! Will anyone here know who he is?!’

Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak

Berlin’s famous essay ‘Meetings with Russian Writers in 1945 and 1956’ was published in full in 1980 in his Personal Impressions. The story it tells so clearly forms a part of any volume on the present theme that I have made an exception to my general practice of not publishing the same piece in more than one collection, and have included this shortened version of the essay, taken from The Proper Study of Mankind. Besides, the latter volume differs from my other collections of Berlin’s work in being an anthology of his best writing, drawn from all the other volumes, and this is the only piece it contains that had not already been published (in this form) in another collection.

Ever since he visited Leningrad in 1945 Berlin had intended to write an account of his experiences there. It was in 1980, while Personal Impressions was in preparation, that he finally turned to this long-postponed labour of love, in response to an invitation from Wadham College, Oxford, to deliver the (last) Bowra Lecture. The text he wrote was much too long to serve as it stood as an hour-long lecture, so he abbreviated it. The result is the version included here, with the addition of some material restored from the full version when the lecture was published in the New York Review of Books.

Boris Pasternak

This appreciation was probably composed in 1958. In the September of that year Doctor Zhivago was published in England, and in October Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Berlin had been strongly against Pasternak’s nomination, on the grounds that, if the prize were awarded to him, he
would be in even more serious trouble with the Soviet authorities than Doctor Zhivago had already brought him. Indeed, Pasternak formally declined the prize, under considerable duress. Old and sick, he did not have the strength or the will to confront the Soviet authorities, and was also worried about threats to his economic livelihood (and that of his lover, Olga Ivinskaya) if he did accept; in addition, had he left the Soviet Union to collect the prize, he would not have been allowed to return.

The fact that the piece was written at all is slightly surprising. Berlin had earlier promised an article to the Manchester Guardian, presumably in connection with the publication of Doctor Zhivago; ‘then after the fuss about the Nobel Prize I said I would rather wait’.[6] He would surely also have been asked to
write something for publicity purposes once the Swedish Academy’s decision was announced. At all events, the text was drafted, but if there was a published version, I have not found it; perhaps it was used as a source rather than printed verbatim. When I came across the typescript, I showed an edited version to Berlin, who read it through and filled in a few gaps. He himself could not tell me the circumstances of its composition.

What did appear in print, at the end of 1958, was Berlin’s appreciation of Doctor Zhivago in his ‘Books of the Year’ selection for the Sunday Times:

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, seems to me a work of genius, and its appearance a literary and moral event without parallel in our day. The extraordinary circumstances in which this book was published in Italy, and, in particular, the crude and degrading misuse of
it for propaganda purposes on both sides of the Iron Curtain, may distract attention from the cardinal fact that it is a magnificent poetical masterpiece in the central tradition of Russian literature, perhaps the last of its kind, at once the creation of a natural world and
a society of individuals rooted in the history and the morality of their time, and a personal avowal of overwhelming directness, nobility and depth.

Some critics have tended to attribute the exceptional success of this novel to curiosity, or to the scandal that its appearance created. I see no reason for this belief. Its main theme is universal, and close to the lives of most men: the life, decline and death of a man who, like the heroes of Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov, stands at the edges of his society, is involved in its direction and fate, but is not identified with it, and preserves his human shape, his inner life and his sense of truth under the impact of violent events which pulverise his society, and brutalise or destroy vast numbers of other human beings.

As in his poetry, Pasternak melts the barriers which divide man from nature, animate from inanimate life; his images are often metaphysical and religious; but efforts to classify his ideas, or those of the characters of the novel, as specifically social or psychological, or as designed to support a particular philosophy or theology, are absurd in the face of the overwhelming fullness of his vision of life.

To the expression of his unitary vision the author devotes a power of evocative writing, at once lyrical and ironical, boldly prophetic and filled with nostalgia for the Russian past, which seems to me unlike any other, and in descriptive force today unequalled.

It is an uneven book: its beginning is confused, the symbolism at times obscure, the end mystifying. The marvellous poems with which it ends convey too little in English. But all in all it is one of the greatest works of our time.[7]

He returned to the book in 1995 when asked by the same newspaper to choose a book for their ‘On the Shelf ’ column. Because his comments add significantly to what he says in ‘Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak’, I reproduce them here:

A book that made a most profound impression upon me, and the memory of which still does, is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. In 1956, I was in Moscow with my wife, staying at the British Embassy. (I had met Pasternak when I was serving in the embassy
in 1945, and I made friends with him then, and saw him regularly.) I went to see him in the writers’ village of Peredelkino, and among the first things he told me was that he had finished his novel (of which I had read one chapter in 1945) and that this was to be his
testament, far more so than any of his earlier writings (some of them undoubted works of genius, of which he spoke disparagingly). He said that the original typescript of the novel had been sent the day before to the Italian publisher Feltrinelli, since it had been made clear to him that it could not be published in the Soviet Union. A copy of this typescript he gave to me. I read it in bed throughout the night and finished it late in the morning, and was deeply moved – as I had not been, I think, by any book before or since, except, perhaps War and Peace (which took more than one night to read).

I realised then that Doctor Zhivago was, as a novel, imperfect – the story was not properly structured, a number of details seemed vivid and sharp, but artificial, irrelevant, at times almost crudely cobbled together. But the description of the public reception of the February Revolution was marvellous; I was in Petrograd at that time, at the age of seven, and I remembered the reactions of my aunts, cousins, friends of my parents and others – but Pasternak raised this to a level of descriptive genius. The pathetic efforts of moderates and liberals were described with sympathy and irony. The crushing, elemental force, as he saw it, of the Bolshevik takeover is described more vividly than any other account known to me.

But what made the deepest impression upon me, and has never ceased to do so, was the description of the hero and heroine, surrounded by howling wolves in their snow-swept Siberian cottage – a description that is virtually unparalleled.

Love is the topic of most works of fiction. Nevertheless, what the great French novelists speak of is often infatuation, a passing, sometimes adversarial, interplay between man and woman. In Russian literature, in Pushkin and Lermontov, love is a romantic outburst; in Dostoevsky, love is tormented, and interwoven with religious and various other sychological currents of feeling. In Turgenev, it is a melancholy description of love in the past which ends, sadly, in failure and pain. In English literature, in Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray, Henry James, Hardy, D. H. Lawrence, even Emily Brontë, there is pursuit, longing, desire fulfilled or frustrated, the misery of unhappy love, possessive jealousy, love of God, nature, possessions, family, loving companionship, devotion, the enchantment of living happily ever after. But passionate, overwhelming, all-absorbing, all-transforming mutual love, the world forgotten, vanished – this love is almost there in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (not in War and Peace or the other masterpieces), and then, in my experience, only in Doctor Zhivago. In this novel it is the authentic experience, as those who have ever been truly in love have always known it; not since Shakespeare has love been so fully, vividly, scrupulously and directly communicated. I was terribly shaken, and when I went to see the poet the next
day, his wife begged me to persuade him not to publish the novel abroad, for fear of sanctions against her and their children. He was furious, and said that he did not wish me to tell him what to do or not to do, that he had consulted his children and they were prepared
for the worst. I apologised. And so that was that. The later career of the novel is known; even the American film conveyed something of it. This experience will live with me to the end of my days. The novel is a description of a total experience, not parts or aspects: of what other twentieth-century work of the imagination could this be said? [8]

Why the Soviet Union Chooses to Insulate Itself

A month after his return in early April 1946 from his wartime duties in the USA Berlin was invited to speak to the Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London on ‘Soviet insulationism’. He sought and received assurances about the composition of his audience and the confidentiality of the proceedings, and gave his talk on 27 June, under the title used here. This piece is the text of the talk as it appears in the minutes of the meeting, edited for inclusion in this volume. I have omitted the introductory remarks by the chairman, Sir Harry Haig, and the discussion period, which are posted on the official Isaiah Berlin website as part of the original minutes, written in the third person, in indirect speech. I have here translated this into direct speech for the sake of readability; but the result should not be taken as a full verbatim transcript of Berlin’s remarks.

The Artificial Dialectic

The story of the articles from Foreign Affairs included here is best told by quotation from Berlin’s entertaining letters to the journal’s editor, Hamilton Fish Armstrong, to whom Berlin’s readers owe a great debt of gratitude for his tireless attempts over more than two decades to extract articles from this reluctant author. He succeeded four times, and two of his successes appear below.

The trail that leads to ‘The Artificial Dialectic’ begins on 29 June 1951, when Armstrong presses Berlin to write for him again, following the critical acclaim that greeted ‘Political Ideas in the Twentieth Century’ in 1950. Berlin replies that he does in fact have a ‘piece’ that might do, and explains its origins in a letter dated 16 August 1951:

The circumstances are these: months & months & months ago [Max] Ascoli wrote, not once but repeatedly, reproaching me for writing for you & for the N.Y. Times & for the Atlantic Monthly, but never for him. I have, I must admit, no great opinion of his ‘Reporter’, but him I like quite well. At any rate, bullied in this way, I sat down, wrote a piece, & sent it him, explaining that though it might be too long for him, I wd rather have it rejected &
forever unpublished, than cut or edited (he criticised the piece in Foreign Affairs for being too long, filled with truisms which he cd have cut out, etc.). He replied eulogistically, sent me a handsome turkey for Christmas, then fell ill & there was a long silence. I took (I am ashamed to say) the opportunity of the silence, & wrote (not altogether truthfully) that I wanted the piece back in order to lengthen it, which wd doubtless make it still more unsuitable for him. He returned it, I did add a line or two in ink (as in MS enclosed) & asked me to give it back to him in October. This I am determined not to do whatever happens. I am not keen to appear in the Reporter; my obligation vis a vis Ascoli is now discharged; I wd rather always be printed by yourself, or if you don’t want it, by the
N.Y.T., or if they don’t, by nobody. After doing nothing with the piece for 3 or 4 months (although he assured me it was scheduled for publication in August) Ascoli can have no claims.

The second point is more difficult: as I have (I hope still) relations in the U.S.S.R., & as I visited innocent littérateurs there, I have always followed the policy of publishing nothing about the Sov. Union directly under my own name, because that might easily lead to something frightful being done to people I talked to there. I needn’t enlarge on that prospect. Hence if I am to publish anything about Uncle Joe [Stalin] it must be (a) anonymously or under a pseudonym (b) the identity of the author must be really, & not as in
George Kennan’s case, only notionally secret. I invented the name of John O. Utis for the ‘Artificial Dialectic’. O utis means ‘nobody’ in Greek & you will recall elaborate puns about this in the Odyssey where Odysseus deceives the one-eyed ogre by this means. Also it sounds vaguely like a name which a Lithuanian D.P., let us say, or a Czech or Slovene cd have: & so, plausible for the author of such a piece. Ascoli & possibly a confidential typist may know the secret. Nobody else; & he will certainly be honourable & lock it in his breast, whatever his feelings about where & how the piece is published. Do you ever publish anonymous pieces? if not, I shall, of course, fully understand: since lives depend upon it, I wd obviously rather suppress altogether than compromise on this – I really have no choice. There is only one other person to whom I showed it – Nicholas Nabokov – who has begged it for his ‘Preuves’ – some Paris anti-Soviet institution. If you do want it, I
shd be grateful if you cd give me permission to have it translated, after U.S. publication, into German (The Monat) & French etc.: I shall, of course, never read it aloud myself to anybody: my authorship must remain a secret from as many as possible: but I may let Nabokov have a copy, provided he promises formally not to have it published anywhere (until you reply) but only uses it for informal discussion as a letter from an unknown source, offering various loose ideas. I apologise for this rigmarole – these queer conditions – the recital of the past etc. I hope you’ll like it, but I’ve no opinion, as you know, of anything I write: & if you’ld rather have nothing to do with the piece, pray forget this letter.

Armstrong replies on 30 August. He feels that ‘people will see through the disguise’, but agrees to the pseudonymity. Shortly thereafter a colleague reads the piece, finding its style difficult and its conclusion unsatisfactory. Armstrong makes these points, tactfully, to Berlin on 10 September, and Berlin (who was in Maine) replies two days later:

You let me off much too gently, of course. Well do I know that, like my unintelligible speech, my prose, if such it can be called, is an opaque mass of hideously under-punctuated words, clumsy, repetitive, overgrown, enveloping the reader like an avalanche. Consequently, of course I shall, as last time, accept your emendations with gratitude for the labour they inevitably cost you. You are the best, most scrupulous, generous & tactful editor in the world: & I shall always, if occasion arises, be prepared to submit to civilising
processes – judicious pruning you kindly call it – at your hands [. . .]

Although you are no doubt right about impossibility of real concealment, there is, I think, from the point of view of repercussions on my acquaintances & relations in the U.S.S.R., a difference between suspected authorship & blatant paternity. Hence I think it best to stick to a pseudonym. If you think O. Utis (no “John”) is silly – I am attracted to it rather – I don’t mind anything else, provided you & your staff really do refuse to divulge & guard the
secret sacredly. So that I am [open] to suggestions. [. . .]

I don’t know whether ‘Artificial Dialectic’ is at all a good title, or ‘Synthetic Dialectic’ either: if you cd think of something simpler & more direct – I’d be very grateful. [. . .]

I have just had a line from Ascoli wanting to see the piece again – but he shan’t – I’ll deal with that & it needn’t concern you at all.

Armstrong (17 September) thanks Berlin for his ‘untruthful flattery’, and shortly afterwards sends an edited script, explaining in more detail the case for revision of the conclusion. After some desperate cables from Armstrong, Berlin writes (30 October):

Do forgive me for my long delay, but Mr Utis has been far from well and overworked. He will be in New York next Saturday, but too briefly – for a mere 4 to 5 hours – to be of use to anyone. But he will, under my firm pressure, complete his task, I think, within the next fortnight and you shall have the result as soon as possible. He is displaying a curious aversion to social life at present, but it is hoped that the completion of some, at any rate, of his labours will restore his taste for pleasure, at any rate by mid-December. I shall certainly keep you posted about the movement of this highly unsatisfactory figure.

All this was composed before your telegram – the technique of your communication has by now, I perceive, been established in a firm and not unfamiliar pattern of the patient, long-suffering, but understanding editor dealing with an exceptionally irritating and unbusinesslike author who does, nevertheless, in the end respond, apologise, and produce, although after delays both maddening and unnecessary, which only the most great-hearted editor would forgive.

But in this case, I should like to place the following considerations before you:

(a) Mr Utis would like a little time in which to incorporate ideas induced in him by casual conversations with intelligent persons – e.g. that the rhythm of Soviet scientific theories is induced by extrascientific considerations – this being a point useful for consumption by local scientists of an anti-anti-Soviet cast of mind. Also, he feels the need to say something, however gently, to deflate the optimism, which surely springs from the heart rather than the head, of those who like Mr X1 argue that some things are too bad to last, and that enough dishonour must destroy even the worst thieves; Mr Utis does not believe in inner corrosion, and this, pessimistic as it may seem, seems to be worth saying; he is prepared to withdraw the story about the waiter-steward as being perhaps in dubious taste unless it could fitly appear as an epigraph to the whole, in which form he will re-submit it, but will not have the faintest objection if it is eliminated even in this briefer and more mythological guise;

(b) It would surely be most advisable for the piece to appear after Mr Utis’s friend is out of the country and is not put to unnecessary embarrassment or prevarication. He intends to sail back to his monastery towards the end of March or the beginning of April;

(c) A plus B would have the added advantage of making it possible for the incorporation of any new evidence which may crop up in the intermediate period. However, Mr Utis sticks to his original resolution; the manuscript shall be in the hands of the editor within two or three weeks in a completed form ready to print as it stands. Any additions or alterations – which at this stage are neither likely nor unlikely – could be embedded by mutual consent only if there was something really tempting. Mr Utis’s name is O. Utis. I hope this is not too much for you – do not, I beg you, give me up as altogether beyond the bounds of sweet reasonableness and accommodation. I really think that the arrangement proposed is the best all round.

The revised script is acknowledged by a relieved and satisfied Armstrong on 16 November, though he wonders again whether anyone will be taken in by the pseudonym; on 20 November Berlin sends further thoughts:

I see that a somewhat different analysis of U[ncle] J[oe] is presented by Mr A. J. P. Taylor in the New York Times this last Sunday,[9] but Mr Utis sticks to his views. I think the signature had better remain as arranged. All things leak in time and there are at least a dozen
persons in the world now who know the truth. Nevertheless, the difference from the point of view of possible victims in the country under review seems to me genuine; and so long as the real name is not flaunted, and room for doubt exists, their lives (so I like to think) are not (or less) jeopardised. More thought on these lines would make me suppress the whole thing altogether on the ground that you must not take the least risk with anyone placed in so frightful a situation. (Never have so many taken so much for so long from so few. You may count yourself fortunate that this sentence is not a part of Mr Utis’s manuscript.) So, I drive the thought away and Mr Utis is my thin screen from reality behind which I so unconvincingly conceal my all too recognisable features.

Only one thing has occurred to Mr Utis since his last letter to you; and that is whether some added point might not be given to the bits scrawled in manuscript concerning the chances of survival of the artificial dialectic. Perhaps something might be said about how very like a permanent mobilisation – army life – the whole thing is for the average Soviet citizen and that considering what people do take when they are in armies – particularly Russians and
Germans – provided that things really are kept militarised and no breath of civilian ease is allowed to break the tension, there is no occasion for surprise that this has lasted for so long, nor yet for supposing that its intrinsic wickedness must bring it down (as our friend Mr X seems to me too obstinately to believe). I was much impressed by what someone told me the other day about a conversation with one of the two Soviet fliers – the one who did not go back. He was asked why his colleague who returned did so (I cannot remember the names, one was called, I think, Pigorov, but I do not know whether this is the man who stayed or the man who returned). He replied that after they had been taken for a jaunt around Virginia, they were dumped in an apartment in New York, provided with an adequate sum of money, but given nothing very specific to do. The flier who ultimately returned found that this was more intolerable than a labour camp in the Soviet Union. This may be exaggerated, but obviously contains a very large grain of truth. Apparently the people here who were dealing with some of the ‘defectors’ found the same problem – how to organise them in a sufficiently mechanical, rigid and time-consuming manner, to prevent
the problem of leisure from ever arising.

If you think well of the military life analogy, could I ask you – you who now know Mr Utis and his dreadful style and grammar [10] so intimately – to draft a sentence or two, to be included in the proof in the relevant place, saying something to the effect that the question of how long the lives either of executive officials or the masses they control can stand the strain of a system at once so taut and so liable to unpredictable zigzags is perhaps wrongly posed; once the conditions of army life and army discipline have been imposed, human beings appear to endure them for what seems to the more comfortloving nations a fantastic length of time; provided they are not actually being killed or wounded, peasant populations show little tendency to revolt against either regimentation or arbitrary disposal of their lives; the decades of service in the army which Russian peasants in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries had to endure led to no serious rebellions and the emancipation of the serfs less than a century ago had less psychological effect than is commonly assumed, or civilised persons hoped it would have. The possibility of cracking under the strain is smaller in a system where everything obeys a dead routine, however inefficient and costly in lives and
property, than one in which ultimate responsibility rests in nervous or fumbling fingers; hence, the prospect of upheavals and revolt, etc. when M. Stalin (I hope you will keep the ‘M.’) [11] is succeeded is greater than during his years of power, however oppressive,arbitrary, and brutal. But perhaps I have said this already in the article.
If so, I apologise for repeating myself this way.

With well repressed resignation Armstrong accepts, on 28 November, the expansion, even though he had asked Berlin for a cut; another piece is shortened to make room for it. And with that the dust settles and the article is printed.

Four Weeks in the Soviet Union

This piece is based on an unfinished draft of an account of Berlin’s visit to the USSR in 1956 with his wife Aline, whom he had married five months earlier. They were the guests of the British Ambassador, Sir William Hayter, at the British Embassy in Moscow. If Berlin had any plans to publish this piece, they
appear to have been abandoned after he incorporated some of its contents, in a somewhat altered form, in the last section of the following essay; but much was omitted in this process, and not the least interesting material, so that it is well worth preserving this more personal narrative in full.

Particularly toward its end, the typescript, made from recorded dictation by a secretary, contains gaps (some large) and uncertainties; these I have edited out to provide a continuous text, without, I trust, altering Berlin’s intended meaning. At the very end of the typescript there was a sentence that evidently did not belong there, but was probably an afterthought intended for insertion earlier: it does not seem to fit exactly anywhere, but it appears in the least unsuitable place I could find, as a footnote.

Soviet Russian Culture

This essay was originally published as two articles, one pseudonymous, in Foreign Affairs, but is here restored to its original unitary form. For its history we return to Berlin’s correspondence with Armstrong, beginning with Berlin’s letter of 6 February 1957, responding to an invitation from Armstrong to apply
the thesis of ‘The Artificial Dialectic’ to recent events:

My friend Mr Utis is, as you know, a poor correspondent and liable to be distracted by too many small and mostly worthless preoccupations. Your praise acted upon him as a heady wine, but his moods are changeable, and although, as his only dependable friend, I am trying to act as his moral backbone – an element which he conspicuously lacks – it is difficult to make any promises on his behalf, and the prospect of a decision by him on the subject of which you wrote, especially by the first week in August, is by no means certain. It would therefore be a far far safer thing not to anticipate its arrival too confidently. I will bring what pressure I can upon my poor friend, but I need not tell you, who have had so
many dealings with him in the past, that his temperament and performance are unsteady and a source of exasperation and disappointment to those few who put any faith in him. I shall report to you, naturally, of what progress there may be – there is, alas, no hope of a permanent improvement in his character. Utis is under the queer illusion that his very unreliability is in itself a disarming and even amiable characteristic. Nothing could be further from the truth, but he is too old to learn, and if it were not for the many years of association
with him which I have had to suffer, I should have given up this tiresome figure long ago. Nor could I, or anyone, blame you if you resolved to do this; there is no room for such behaviour in a serious world, without something more to show for it than poor Utis has thus far been able to achieve. You are too kind to him; and he, impenitently, takes it all too much for granted.

Armstrong nags gently over the ensuing months, and is rewarded with a script, not totally unrelated to the subject he had suggested, a mere six months later. Its original title had been ‘The Present Condition of Russian Intellectuals’, but this has been altered, with typical Berlinian understatement, to ‘Notes on
Soviet Culture’. In his acknowledgement, dated 28 August, Armstrong writes: ‘I have accepted your suggestion [presumably in a letter that does not survive] and am running the first six sections under your name, and running section seven as a separate short article, signed O. Utis, under the title “The Soviet Child– Man”.’ This seems to give us the best of two worlds.’

It is clear from Armstrong’s next letter (4 September) that Berlin cabled disagreement about the title of the Utis piece and lest anyone suspect that he was the author – the re-use of Utis as a pseudonym. Armstrong tells Berlin that it is too late to make changes, as printing of the relevant part of the journal has already occurred. Berlin must have begged or insisted (or both), since on 9 September Armstrong writes that he has now ‘made the changes you wanted’, adopting ‘L’ as the pseudonym, which ‘puts the article in our normal series of anonymous articles signed with an initial’. To accommodate Berlin he had had to stop the presses, and he withheld the honorarium for ‘The Soviet Intelligentsia’ as a contribution to the costs involved.

The only sign of what must by this point have been firmly gritted teeth is Armstrong’s remark in a letter of 20 September that he ‘only didn’t quite see why if there was to be no Utis it mattered what Mr L called his article, but doubtless you had a good reason for protecting him too’.

As an example of editorial forbearance this episode would surely be hard to beat. I conclude my account of it with a splendid account that Berlin sends Armstrong (17 December) of the feedback he has received to the pieces:

I have had two delightful letters from unknown correspondents in the USA: one from a lady who encloses a letter she wrote to John Foster Dulles, commenting on his articles in the same issue, and drawing his attention to the deeper truths of mine – so far so good. She goes on however to say that the article by the unknown ‘L’ seems to her to give a truer picture of some of these things than even my own otherwise flawless work – and wishes to draw my attention to an article from which I have to learn, she hopes she is not hurting my feelings, but she does think it a good thing to be up to date, my own article is somewhat historical, the other article is on the dot and on the whole a better performance altogether. I am oscillating between humbly expressing my admiration for the genius of ‘L’ and jealously denouncing him as a vulgar impressionist who is trading on people’s ignorance and giving an account which no one can check, which is, when examined, no better than a tawdry fantasy, which has unfortunately taken innocent persons like her – and perhaps even Mr John Foster Dulles – in. The other letter is from an Indian at Harvard who praises my article and denounces that of ‘L’ as a typical American journalistic performance unworthy to stand beside the pure and lofty beauty of my deathless prose. I thought these reflections might give you pleasure.

The Survival of the Russian Intelligentsia

This comment on the post-Soviet situation provides an interesting postscript to the previous essay, recording Berlin’s delight and surprise that the intelligentsia had emerged so unscathed from the depredations of the Soviet era, contrary to his rather gloomy expectations. In subsequent years his confidence that the death of that era was truly permanent steadily increased, despite the immense problems of its aftermath, some of them only too reminiscent of those engendered by Communism.




*Reprinted from "The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture under Communism" (Brookings Institution Press, 2011) by Isaiah Berlin. Preface © Henry Hardy 2004.


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Henry Hardy is a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford University. He is one of Isaiah Berlin's literary trustees and has edited a number of other collections of Berlin's essays.



[1] In his The First and the Last (New York/London, 1999), pp. 9–19, at p. 17.

[2] British Minister in Moscow

[3] British Minister in Washington

[4] Letter of 20 February 1946. The poem is the second in the cycle Cinque.

[5] The whole tribute is posted under ‘Writing on Berlin’ in The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library (hereafter IBVL), the website of The Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust, http://berlin.wolf.ox.ac.uk/.

[6] Letter to David Astor, 27 October 1958.

[7] Sunday Times, 21 December 1958, p. 6.

[8] Sunday Times, 7 November 1995, section 7 (‘Books’), p. 9. Readers may like to have a note of Berlin’s other shorter publications on Pasternak: ‘The Energy of Pasternak’, a review of Pasternak’s Selected Writings, appeared in the Partisan Review 17 (1950), pp. 748–51, and was reprinted in Victor Erlich (ed.), Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1978); and there is a letter on Pasternak, written in reply to an article by Gabriel Josipovici, in the Times Literary Supplement, 16–22 February 1990, p. 171.

[9] A. J. P. Taylor, ‘Stalin as Statesman: A Look at the Record’, New York Times Magazine (New York Times, section 6), pp. 9, 53–60.

[10] Berlin annotates: ‘Did you know that “grammar” is the same word as “glamour”? It proceeds via “grimoire”. If further explanation is needed, I shall provide it when I see you.’

[11] He did; I haven’t. So long after Stalin’s death, the appellation (used throughout the piece) loses whatever point it had. Even Armstrong had his doubts (28 November): ‘I didn’t mind the ironical courtesy – indeed, rather liked it – but have a dislike of using a French term in speaking of another nationality. However, to put “Mr” looked ridiculous, so “M.” it is.’


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