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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)


"This remarkable volume is superb. Berlin's great powers of observation combine with his great knowledge and literary gifts to provide us with a fascinating series of insghts... Even a reader who is only casually interested in the history of Russia will be fascinated. Every day the media present us with lumps of coal, and to find a real diamond is a delight."

-Geoffrey Riklin, IntellectualConservative.com



by Strobe Talbott

Isaiah Berlin believed that ideas matter, not just as products of the intellect but as producers of systems, guides to governance, shapers of policy, inspirations of culture and engines of history. That makes him a figure of iconic importance for the Brookings Institution and others like it in Washington. Whatever their differences, these organisations are dedicated to the importance of ideas in public life. They’re in the business of thinking about the hardest problems facing our society, nation and world – and thinking up solutions. That’s why they’re called think tanks. Berlin probably would have had something gently teasing to say about these outfits (and their nickname), not least because of his scepticism about the uintessentially Yankee conceit that all questions have answers, and that any problem can be completely solved. But Berlin would have enjoyed an occasional visit to our own building at 1775 Massachusetts Avenue. He’d feel right at home, since from 1942 until 1946 he worked up the street at 3100 Mass. Ave., in the British Embassy. As a prodigious and exuberant conversationalist, he would have found the cafeteria on the first floor particularly hospitable. Every day, from noon to two, it’s teeming with Brookings scholars and others from up and down Think Tank Row, who gather regularly to field-test their own latest ideas over
lunch. It would have been fun to have Sir Isaiah in our midst, not least because fun was yet another ingredient of life – including the life of the mind – that he both dispensed and appreciated in others. His stepson, Peter Halban, recalls Berlin teaching him to play a Russian version of tiddlywinks. He loved wordplay, storytelling and gossip. His commentary on the human condition was often freewheeling and playful.

Berlin would have spent some time in the library on the third floor as well. He believed that ideas, like civilisations, States and individuals, owe much to their forebears. Those ideas live on in books. He called himself not a philosopher but a historian of ideas. He saw himself not so much as a promulgator of new truths as a student, critic, synthesiser and explicator of old ones. He put a premium on scholarship – on analysing the empirical evidence, pondering work others had done before him, and mastering its implications for their time and our own.

One quality anyone who knew Berlin, whether in person or through his writings, associates with him is open-mindedness. He had respect not just for the views of others but for the complexity of reality – and of morality. ‘Pluralism’ was one of the rare words with that suffix that, in his vocabulary, had a favourable connotation. Most other isms were somewhere between suspect and anathema. He was a champion of the spirit of openness and tolerance, whereby a community – a university common room, a gathering of
townspeople or a nation – encourages different and often competing ideas of what is good, true and right.

The last time I met Berlin was in 1994, a little over two years before his death. I was serving in the State Department at the time and gave a lecture in Oxford on the promotion of democracy as an objective of American foreign policy. It was unnerving to look down from the lectern and see him there, in the front row, fully gowned, eyes riveted on me, brows arched. After I finished, he came up to me and, along with several courtesies, offered his favourite piece of advice from someone who was not, I suspect, his favourite statesman: Talleyrand. ‘Surtout pas trop de zèle,’ he said. I had the impression that he was not so much reproving me as letting me in on what he felt was a home truth about pretty much everything American, notably including our foreign policy.

What he called ‘the unavoidability of conflicting ends’ was the ‘only truth which I have ever found out for myself’.[1] ‘Some of the Great Goods cannot live together . . . We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail an irreparable loss.’[2] It’s a kind of corollary to his concept of pluralism, and of liberalism.

Thus, for him, all interesting issues are dilemmas. The only thing worse than making a mistake was thinking you couldn’t make one. He believed we must face the inevitability of undesirable, potentially hazardous consequences even if we make what we are convinced is the right choice.

Had Berlin taken the matter that far and no further, he would have left all of us – including those of us in the think-tank business – in a cul-de-sac, a state of ethical and intellectual paralysis, not to mention chronic indecision.

But he did not leave us there. He argued that the difficulty of choice does not free us from the necessity of choice. Recognising a dilemma is no excuse for equivocation, indecision or inaction. We must weigh the pros and cons and decide what to do. If we don’t, others will decide, and the ones who do so may well act on the basis of one pernicious ism or another. All in all, the making of choices, especially hard ones, is, he believed, an essential part of ‘what it means to be human’.

Perhaps the best-known phrase associated with Berlin’s view of the world and humanity is the one used as the title for his essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox. It comes from a fragment of Greek poetry by Archilochus: ‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’ As he applied this saying to the major actors of history, Berlin was not praising one beast and condemning the other. Everyone combines both, although in different proportions and interactions. In that sense, the proverb doesn’t quite work as a bumper-sticker for life – which is appropriate, since Berlin was wary of slogans and nostrums.

He did, however, have one big idea of his own – his own personal hedgehog – and it was (also appropriately) paradoxical: beware of big ideas, especially when they fall into the hands of political leaders.

The American photojournalist James Abbe scored a rare publishing coup in 1932 by talking his way into the Kremlin for a private photo-session with Stalin. The results included this rare personal shot of the Soviet leader, at a time when he was becoming increasingly reclusive.

The antonym of pluralism is monism, which holds that there is one overarching answer to who we are, how we should behave, how we should govern and be governed. It’s when the powers-that-be claim to have a monopoly on the good, the right and the true that evil arises. Monism is the common denominator of other isms that have wrecked such havoc through history, including the two totalitarianisms of the twentieth century. One is associated with the name of Hitler, the other with that of Stalin, the photograph
of whom shows him sitting beneath a portrait of that Big-Idea-monger, Karl Marx. Stalin looms in the background, and sometimes the foreground, of all Berlin’s essays on Soviet politics and culture, including those written after the tyrant’s death in 1953.

After perusing the manuscript of this book, George Kennan had this to say: ‘I always regarded Isaiah, with whom I had fairly close relations during my several periods of residence in Oxford, not only as the outstanding and leading critical intelligence of his time, but as something like a patron saint among the commentators on the Russian scene, and particularly the literary and political scene.’

Berlin himself was not ethnically a Russian but a Jew (a distinction that has mattered all too much in Russian society); he was born not in Russia proper but in Riga, on the fringes of the empire; he was only eleven when his family emigrated from Petrograd to England, where he spent his long life; and he returned to Russia only three times. Yet he was, in many ways, a uniquely insightful observer of that country. As a boy, he had been able to dip into leather-bound editions of Tolstoy, Turgenev and Pushkin in his
father’s library and hear Chaliapin sing the role of Boris Godunov at the Mariinsky Theatre. And, of course, he retained the language, which gave him access to all those minds – Soviet, pre-Soviet, post-
Soviet, un-Soviet and anti-Soviet – that informed what he thought and what you are about to read.

Throughout his life, as Berlin’s own mind ranged over the centuries and around the world, he continued to think, read, listen, talk and write about Russia, both as the home of a great culture and as a laboratory for a horrible experiment in monism. In pondering how that experiment might turn out, Berlin rejected the idea of historic inevitability, not least because that itself was monistic. Instead, he believed in what might be called the pluralism of possibilities. One possibility was that Russia, over time, would break the shackles of its own history. He asserted that belief in 1945, immediately after his first meeting with the poet Anna
Akhmatova, recounted in ‘A Visit to Leningrad’ and ‘Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak’. He returned from Leningrad to the British Embassy in Moscow, where he was working
at the time, and wrote a visionary dispatch to the Foreign Office in London. It expressed a hope that the vitality and magnificence of Russian culture might withstand, and eventually even overcome, what he called the ‘blunders, absurdities, crimes and disasters’ perpetrated by a ‘most hateful despotism’; in other words, that the best in Russia’s dualism might win out over the worst.

Akhmatova wrote Berlin into her epic Poem without a Hero as‘the Guest from the Future’. Yet in real life, his powers did not include that of prophecy. He did not expect to outlive the Soviet Union. In 1952, in an essay included here, he advanced the concept of ‘the artificial dialectic’, the ingenious tactical flexibility in the Communist party line that would, he believed, never allow ‘the system to become either too limp and inefficient or too highly charged and self-destructive’. It was ‘Generalissimo Stalin’s original
invention, his major contribution to the art of government’ – and part of the tyranny’s survival manual. He feared it would work:

[S]o long as the rulers of the Soviet Union retain their skill with the machinery of government and continue to be adequately informed by their secret police, an internal collapse, or even an atrophy of will and intellect of the rulers owing to the demoralising effects of despotism and the unscrupulous manipulation of other human beings, seems
unlikely . . . Beset by difficulties and perils as this monstrous machine may be, its success and capacity for survival must not be underestimated. Its future may be uncertain, even precarious; it may blunder and suffer shipwreck or change gradually or catastrophically, but it is not, until men’s better natures assert themselves, necessarily doomed.

Some might find in this judgement evidence that Berlin was blind to the handwriting on the wall, or at least less far-sighted than Kennan, who had, in 1947, discerned in the USSR ‘tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power’. [3] Another interpretation may be closer to the mark. For one thing, the wall was a lot more solid-looking than anything written on it in the last year of Stalin’s reign. For another, ‘not necessarily doomed’ may not be a diagnosis of terminal illness but it’s not a certification of good health either. And finally, most pertinently,
Berlin did not believe in certainty – especially, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, about the future.

I interviewed Berlin in the summer of 1968, just after Soviet tanks overran Czechoslovakia and crushed the Prague Spring. He talked, at breakneck speed and in a baroque, erudite manner, but with great clarity, about how the invasion proved the weakness of a regime that relied so utterly on brute strength, and how it revealed the ‘decrepitude’ of the Soviet system and of its ideology.

Yet he – like myself and virtually everyone else I knew – still expected that system to hang on for a long time to come. In the mid-1980s, Margaret Thatcher chided Berlin for being a pessimist when he suggested that it would take a war to bring about what now would be called ‘regime change’ in Moscow.

Even in the Year of Miracles, 1989 – when the wall (literally and figuratively) came tumbling down – while others saw the end of history, Berlin was not ready to pronounce the end of anything. In‘The Survival of the Russian Intelligentsia’ he hails the Russians for their part in the peaceful revolution that was spreading throughout the Soviet bloc. They are, he wrote, ‘a great people, their creative powers are immense, and once they are set free there is no telling what they may give to the world’.

But even amidst what he calls his ‘astonishment, exhilaration, happiness’ about what was happening in Central Europe, he recalls Madame Bonaparte’s comment when congratulated on being the mother to an emperor, three kings and a queen: ‘Oui, pourvu que ça dure.’ There’s an echo of that caution at the end of the essay – which concludes: ‘A new barbarism is always possible, but I see little prospect of it at present. That evils can, after all, be conquered, that the end of enslavement is in progress, are things of which men can be reasonably proud.’

He believed that history, including the history of ideas, is always‘in progress’. At moments when the direction seems positive, progress can be acknowledged, even celebrated – but without excessive zeal, or certainty.

This much can be said with total certainty: to be associated with the publication of this book is a cause for all of us to be more than reasonably proud.


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


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Strobe Talbott is president of the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books on Russia and the Soviet Union.



[1] Letter to Jean Floud, 5 July 1968; cited by Michael Ignatieff in Isaiah Berlin: A Life (London and New York, 1998), p. 246.

[2]‘The Pursuit of the Ideal’, in The Crooked Timber of Humanity, ed. Henry Hardy (London, 1990), p. 13.

[3] ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’, Foreign Affairs 25 No 4 (July 1947), pp. 566–82, at p. 582. The article was published under the pseudonym ‘X’ in what the editor described to Berlin as ‘our normal series of anonymous articles signed with an initial’


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