By Irina Vinokurova


The Montréal Review, December 2023


Nina Berberova: Known and Unknown

By Irina Vinokurova
(Academic Studies Press, 2023)


Inherent to memoir and especially autobiographical prose is reverse perspective. Distant events come to the fore, imposingly, in all their more and less salient details, but as the story approaches the present, it becomes increasingly blurry, disjointed, and abbreviated, due not only to the well-known properties of human memory or the necessity of a certain distance for making sense of what has occurred but also to purely practical considerations that militate against touching on certain topics.

Berberova’s autobiography, The Italics Are Mine (1960-1966), is, accordingly, built on the law of reverse perspective. She says relatively little about her life in America, where, by the time Berberova finished the book, she had been for more than fifteen years. When she does say something, then it is with emphasis on her very first, general impressions of the country, which bowled her over with the grandiosity of its architecture, the diversity of its nature, and the goodwill of its people.

Not that Berberova tries to hide from the reader the difficulties that came with those first years: her ignorance of the language; the string of random, low-skilled jobs; her chronic impecuniousness. True, in her case these difficulties, typical for most immigrants, were resolved in a far from typical and in fact quite unexpected and fortunate way. In the summer of 1958, Berberova was offered a teaching job at Yale University, which had been given money to expand its “Russian” program. The job at Yale was the start of Berberova’s successful academic career, although this extremely important life change is mentioned in the sparest and vaguest terms in Italics.

Berberova writes not a word about how she came to be employed at Yale, or about her five-year sojourn there, or about her subsequent move to Princeton and a substantially better position. Berberova also chooses not to speak about her students, colleagues, acquaintances, or friends, either at Yale or at Princeton. She explains this to the reader: “Here, in America, there were people I met whose time to talk about had not yet come. They are my present.”

Nearly two decades later, in 1986, Berberova gave serious thought to whether the time had come to talk about the people she had met in America. That was when she sketched out the plan, preserved in her archive, for her future “Book,” which was meant to be the continuation of Italics. For various reasons, though, she never did get to write that book.

This is, of course, a great shame. Judging from her plan, as well as from other materials in Berberova’s archive, her American years were generous in acquaintanceships and encounters. Among those whom Berberova met in America and planned to talk about were quite a few famous and even celebrated names, including the celebrated physicist Robert Oppenheimer. It is with Oppenheimer that one if not the most surprising subject of the contemplated book is linked.

I shall attempt to reconstruct this subject based on a document from Berberova’s archive: her notes on Oppenheimer. Written in English, they set out the story of their very personal and quite dramatic relationship. Before moving directly to this story, though, I should touch on its prehistory, if only briefly.


When Berberova moved to Princeton, she certainly knew that also working there was Robert Oppenheimer, the founder and director of the Institute of Advanced Study, which under his leadership became one of the foremost centers of theoretical physics.

Of course, Oppenheimer was famous first and foremost not as an administrator and not even as an outstanding physicist but as the creator of the atom bomb, having become known as such after the bombing of Japan in August 1945, when the public learned about his work for the Manhattan Project. That project’s successful culmination brought Oppenheimer world fame and even made for a triumphal ascent in his career. Soon after the war, he accepted an important government post as chief advisor to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

In the early 1950s, though, Oppenheimer ran into trouble as a result of which he also became known as a victim of McCarthyism. In 1954, his Communist ties, which stretched back to the prewar era, served as grounds for judicial hearings that ended extremely unfavorably for Oppenheimer: he was deemed insufficiently reliable and lost his security clearance. And although Oppenheimer remained in his post as director of the Institute for Advanced Study, he was immediately removed from his much more prestigious and influential post on the Atomic Energy Commission. True, nine and a half years later the U.S. government in the person of John F. Kennedy felt it necessary to apologize and awarded Oppenheimer the Fermi Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes in the field of nuclear physics. He received the prize (by then from Lyndon Johnson) in December 1963, to stormy exultation in intellectual and leftist circles. Nonetheless, the unproved but widespread story about Oppenheimer’s involvement in espionage for the Soviet Union was not discounted as before.1

It’s understandable that the figure of Oppenheimer could not have failed to pique Berberova’s curiosity, but she was scarcely expecting a personal introduction. A little more than a year later, though, once Berberova had found her feet in Princeton and acquired a circle of friends, that possibility ceased to seem so unreal. One of those friends, the well-known journalist and Sovietologist Louis Fischer, who soon became more than just a friend to Berberova, knew Oppenheimer well.

They had met in the late 1950s, when Fischer went to work at the Institute for Advanced Study, which included the School of Historical Studies. And although subsequently Fischer moved from the Institute to Princeton University, his relationship with Oppenheimer continued. Oppenheimer valued Fischer’s experience and knowledge, discussed especially important topics with him concerning the Soviet Union, and was inclined to take his advice seriously.

Oppenheimer also followed Fischer’s publications closely, read his books, and wrote an extremely complimentary and warm letter in response to his 1964 biography of Lenin, which furthered their closeness.

As is apparent from Berberova’s memoirs, she met Oppenheimer through Fischer in April 1965, at a celebration in honor of a triumphant event: Fischer receiving the National Book Award for his Lenin biography. Among those invited as well was Oppenheimer, to whom Fischer introduced Berberova.

Evidently she had never seen Oppenheimer up close before, so she was struck by his appearance, which was quite sickly and tired, especially his “unhappy, watery and strained, light blue eyes.” Berberova knew Oppenheimer was only sixty-one (he’d celebrated his sixtieth birthday the year before), but he easily looked seventy.2

Berberova was somewhat taken aback, but she tried not to show it and to hold up her end of the conversation. She recalled that Oppenheimer spoke quite emotionally, but the topics of their conversation did not stick in her memory, possibly because Berberova was unaccustomed to following the logic of his discourse. They spoke both before and after the dinner, moreover Berberova got the impression that Oppenheimer had singled her out among the guests. According to her count, at least twenty-five people had gathered, yet somehow he always ended up by her side. Berberova even wondered whether Fischer had praised her to Oppenheimer, although compliments like that were not in his nature.

As further events would show, Berberova had not just imagined Oppenheimer’s interest in her own persona, but whether this truly came about with Fischer’s help remains unclear, not that it matters. More than likely, Oppenheimer’s own impressions were more than enough.

At sixty-three (Berberova’s age in April 1965), she looked amazingly young and attractive. And Berberova and Fischer’s close relationship, which explained her presence at the event, lent her additional interest. Fischer’s reputation as a famous lady-killer was perfectly well known to Oppenheimer and apparently even aroused something like envy.3

However, Oppenheimer was attracted to Berberova not only by her feminine charm and not only by a subconscious (or conscious) rivalry with Fischer. As his biographers attest, Oppenheimer had always felt a special attraction for “people in the arts,” and that Berberova belonged to that guild had to have been clear from their very first conversation. Berberova’s Russian origins also worked in her favor, both due to Oppenheimer’s general interest in Russian culture and, especially, due to his personal relations with several representatives of the first Russian emigration. The composer Nicolas Nabokov was a very close friend, and he knew the renowned choreographer George Balanchine well. So someone with a similar background was bound to intrigue him.

As Berberova was leaving, Oppenheimer said he hoped they would meet again. True, he did not choose his pretext for that meeting particularly well. Oppenheimer told her that his daughter Toni was studying Russian at college, and he wanted to introduce them when she came to Princeton over the vacation. This prospect did not generate much enthusiasm from Berberova (she had enough of her own students), but she had to agree.

Of course, that conversation could have remained just a conversation, but Oppenheimer did not forget it. A few months later he called to say that Toni was in Princeton and asked Berberova to see them. Evidently, she had not been expecting Oppenheimer’s call and at first didn’t understand who Toni was, but when she did she was rather disappointed, though she did not look for an excuse to say no.  

In her memoirs, Berberova describes in detail how Toni and Oppenheimer arrived at the appointed time and how he examined her modest home with unconcealed curiosity: the bookshelves, the desk, the papers, the Russian typewriter. . . . This time, Oppenheimer looked substantially better and was much more cheerful, and it was obvious he liked being at Berberova’s a lot.

True, he did not spend long with her. When he heard with satisfaction Toni speaking Russian with Berberova, Oppenheimer said he had to go but would leave his daughter there for a while. He asked Berberova to see her home and have dinner with them. Berberova immediately declined the dinner invitation, citing how busy she was, but did promise to see Toni home.

Berberova writes not a word about what Oppenheimer’s twenty-year-old daughter was like, how she looked and behaved, making it clear she found nothing remarkable about her.

However, she did methodically list the topics of their conversation because in it a detail came up that Berberova found curious. Talking about her vacation time, Toni ingenuously mentioned that they had had guests the day before and “Mama fell in the middle of the living room.”4 Berberova inquired solicitously whether her mama was ill and heard in reply that no, she wasn’t ill, but “sometimes she could not stand on her feet.”5

Berberova leaves this episode without comment, although, of course, she might have remarked that it was widely known in Princeton that Oppenheimer’s wife drank heavily. It’s no surprise that, having delivered Toni home, Berberova, despite renewed persuasion, refused to go in. She obviously had no desire to meet the mistress of the house.

Judging from Berberova’s notes, a few days later Oppenheimer called again and asked permission to come over, this time without Toni. He wanted to come the next Monday, but Berberova was busy on Monday and so—not without some pressure on his side—they agreed on Wednesday. When Oppenheimer showed up, he again looked tired and ill. Berberova was surprised by his blue lips such as she’d seen before on a dead man, but she was even more surprised, one has to think, by the conversation that began:

He did not complain about his present life. He just spoke about it in a matter of fact way. He practically had no home. There was no place to relax, to think (“I like to think, do you?”), to be alone. “No, I am wrong, I do not really like to be alone, I like to be with someone I need. Please do not misunderstand me: I badly need you at this moment of my life. The details are not important, I mean, the details of our relationship, but you cannot know how good it is to be here. How I liked this room the moment I entered it. No wonder I was longing to come here. . . .6  

To defuse the situation a little, Berberova said: “This room is yours for the asking.” And they both laughed. This joke felt especially comic in the context of Oppenheimer’s “housing situation”: he lived on a genuine estate provided for him by the Institute, complete with an enormous house and a surrounding park that even had stables for horses. It’s another matter that all this luxury did not make his family situation any easier. And although, according to Oppenheimer’s friends, colleagues, and relatives, he did not like to talk about his domestic problems and never admitted that they were the least bit grave,7 with Berberova, as we see, he was as open as could be.

Of course, this kind of candor with a virtual stranger and—especially—the unexpected turn Oppenheimer’s monologue took, which was strongly reminiscent of a confession of love, seems not only extremely odd but also not particularly believable. One shouldn’t rush to conclusions, though. This outburst of emotions gets a perfectly believable explanation in the context of Oppenheimer’s specific life circumstances, as made public in his more extensive biography.

The point in question is Oppenheimer’s many-year affair with Ruth Tolman, the wife of his colleague Richard Tolman, which was, as can be concluded from Oppenheimer’s biographers, his strongest and longest-lasting love.8 I would dare suggest that Oppenheimer saw in Berberova a kind of reincarnation of Ruth, who died in 1957, because the two women had a surprising amount in common.

Both women were older than Oppenheimer (Tolman by eleven years; Berberova by three), but age evidently didn’t matter very much him. What did matter were other qualities that distinguished both Tolman and Berberova. Invariably smart and elegant, they were similar in physical type and intellectual ambitions (Tolman was a successful clinical psychologist) as well as character—even-tempered and vivacious. And if Tolman had become for Oppenheimer not only his lover but also his chief confidante, advisor, and friend, then apparently he was hoping to acquire in Berberova the same sort of person capable of taking on all those roles.

True, Berberova was married technically, but Oppenheimer probably didn’t know that. He evidently did know, though, about the affair between Berberova and Fischer, which by that time was no secret to the people around them. As Oppenheimer’s biography attests, however, this kind of “engagedness” did not usually stop him. On the contrary, it spurred him on. And the widely known fact that Fischer continued at the same time to court his young assistant inspired Oppenheimer’s hope of success. 

Apparently, Oppenheimer had no plan to give up on Berberova, and she had no plan to drive him away. Oppenheimer’s attentions had to have flattered her, although Berberova had ruled out the possibility of their relationship moving beyond the purely platonic from the very beginning. She makes that clear in her memoirs, oral as well as written.

This is obvious from the diary entries of Berberova’s French publisher Hubert Nyssen, with whom she spoke about Oppenheimer. Judging from Nyssen’s notes, Berberova invariably adopted a jocular tone when Oppenheimer started complaining about his family life. In particular, she once gave him the following advice: go to the Riviera, stay in a good hotel, ask them to find him a pretty young woman (a blonde or a brunette, whichever he preferred), and in her arms forget all about his problems with his wife. Oppenheimer responded to this joke rather seriously, saying quietly: “It’s too late.”9

At that point Berberova evidently did not yet know that it truly was “too late” for Oppenheimer to follow that kind of advice. He was already ill with a serious disease from which he would die a little more than a year later.  

In February 1966, Oppenheimer was discovered to be suffering from an advanced stage of throat cancer. That is the date Oppenheimer’s biographers cite, but Berberova dates the discovery of his cancer to December of the previous year. Her mistake is explained, evidently, by the fact that Oppenheimer looked exhausted and was feeling unwell back in December. As Berberova recounted in her memoirs and then repeated to Nyssen, on one of his December visits Oppenheimer was so weak that he fell asleep on her living room couch while she was making tea in the kitchen.

Oppenheimer told Berberova about his diagnosis himself. In so doing, he did not hide his utter distress at the prospect of imminent death:

. . . I asked him if he thought of death (he was the first to mention it) as a complete annihilation or as of a journey to some unknown place? He said that to him it was an annihilation. So in this case, there should not be any fear, isn’t it? Yes, no fear, but an unwillingness. “C’est un faiblesse,”10 said I. “Haben Sie keine Schwächen?”11 said he with a faint smile. . . . Then he went home. I saw him off to his car. “I am afraid I make the impression of falling to pieces. Can I come again? I am not falling to pieces. Here is my excitement, my joy and my repose.” “Thank you. Come again.” “It’s awfully nice of you to invite me. I am certainly on the way out. Do not answer me. . . .”12

Judging from the archived letters and reminiscences, conversations like this were not characteristic of Oppenheimer. He discussed his diagnosis with others rarely and reluctantly, and when he did, he tried to limit himself to a brief recap of how he felt and his plans for treatment, while usually keeping his emotions to himself. The episode Berberova recounts, though, which gives an idea of Oppenheimer’s emotional upheaval, emphasizes even more the rare courage his friends and colleagues say he showed during his illness. In early October he learned that the cancer had returned and was no longer operable, and the only remaining hope was intensive radiation.

Oppenheimer’s invariable restraint inspired unanimous admiration in those around him, and, simultaneously, raised questions that one of his good acquaintances formulated in his diary. After meeting with Oppenheimer in October 1966, he wrote:

What this man thinks on the brink of death, a man so full of brilliant ideas, so wise in many respects, who appreciates so well the most complex structure of the physical world—what thoughts pass through his mind, what pictures arise before his eyes, once vivid blue and now dulled from pain and, evidently, medications, what does he think in the face of the inevitable?13

The same questions troubled Oppenheimer’s biographers, too, of course, but due to the absence of direct testimony, they had to limit themselves to the most general notions, assuming that anyone in that situation “thinks about the past: decisions made, successes and failures, regretting some things, taking pride in others”14 And if Oppenheimer’s biographers knew well enough what he might and did take pride in (for example, despite the widespread legend, his role in the Manhattan Project15), the matter was more complicated when it came to reasons for regret. Oppenheimer’s biographers knew that he had such reasons, but what he himself thought and felt in this regard remained unclear.

The one document that offered the possibility of constructing any surmises in this regard was Oppenheimer’s letter to his former student, the physicist David Bohm, sent shortly before his death. Discussing the question Bohm had raised about his feelings of responsibility and guilt, Oppenheimer wrote that his feelings had “always been connected to the present” and that “to this day this had been more than enough [for him].”16 It turned out that Oppenheimer was utterly disinclined to excessive reflection regarding past events, although, as his biographers write, “for reasons known to him alone,” he crossed out those words from the letter’s final text.17

Apparently, though, Berberova’s reminiscences can help explain the reasons for this self-editing. The crossed-out words did not correspond to reality plain and simple. Oppenheimer was as prone as other mortals to reflect on the past. Attesting to this is this monologue reproduced in Berberova’s notes:

“Cancer is not destroying me. I guess I have been destroyed long ago. I did it myself. . . . I started to destroy myself early. There was something always lacking in me. Something connected with the most intimate side of myself. No one could have helped me. I wish you could not understand what I’m saying now. I wish it could stick as a puzzle in your memory, not as a confession. But you do understand me.”18

True, Berberova herself does not say she guessed what Oppenheimer was talking about then. But she is also in no hurry to refute his certainty, in this way hinting that she had quite specific notions in this regard. Of course, Berberova certainly could not have known about the various episodes attesting to his early tendencies to self-destruction. They would come out much later.19 However, she did know, including from Oppenheimer himself, that his family situation done nothing to facilitate his emotional or physical well-being for a long time. Berberova had every reason to think that in talking about his principal mistakes in life Oppenheimer had in mind his by no means idyllic marriage, but her thoughts could not have gone in that direction alone.

After all, she knew—from newspaper reports about the 1954 judicial hearings, from Robert Young’s bestseller Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, and from Haakon Chevalier’s recently published Oppenheimer: History of a Friendship—about another fact in Oppenheimer’s biography that had been quite catastrophic in its consequences: the “idiotic” (as Oppenheimer himself put it) story of 1943, when he was already working on the nuclear project.

Despite the secrecy requirements attached to this project, Oppenheimer continued to maintain his longstanding ties with extreme left-wing circles, including his close friendship with Berkeley professor Haakon Chevalier, who was known for his Communist convictions. During a visit, Chevalier told Oppenheimer that someone he knew was prepared to assist in the transfer of scientific information to someone from the Soviet Union and that he had asked him to raise the subject.

Oppenheimer responded with a brusque refusal but subsequently decided that this conversation could become known to the FBI and then harm both him and Chevalier, of whose innocence he was convinced. Oppenheimer contacted FBI agents—with the goal of diverting suspicions from his friend—and gave them knowingly false information concerning the circumstances of the recruitment, but he was unable to hide Chevalier’s name, as he’d planned.20

As a result, the completely unsuspecting Chevalier was incriminated less for the conversation that actually took place than for the much more sinister version of events invented by Oppenheimer, which resulted in Chevalier losing his contract at Berkeley and being unable to find another job in the United States.21 Chevalier was not this story’s sole victim, though. In 1954 it hit Oppenheimer himself very hard, too, when it surfaced during the judicial hearings. Forced to admit publicly to his attempt to mislead the FBI, he cast himself in an extremely unfavorable light, and this had a direct impact on the verdict issued.

Apparently, in talking about self-destruction, Oppenheimer had in mind primarily this string of events, and that is how Berberova understood him. She did not try to clarify anything, however, let alone ask questions, even though the entire story, beginning with Chevalier’s true goals (he had said he just wanted to warn his closest friend) and ending with the behavior of Oppenheimer himself, had to have intrigued her greatly.

Delicacy, but also possibly caution, prevented Berberova from expressing curiosity in this regard. After all, she could not rule out the possibility that in a burst of unexpected candor Oppenheimer might decide to initiate her into some secret. Would would she have done then?

It’s hard to say just how much Berberova believed the rumors about Oppenheimer’s involvement in espionage for the Soviet Union. But she did know of his Communist convictions, which were quite strong at one time (Chevalier insisted on that), as well as that it was political views that induced most of the scientists exposed by the FBI to work for the Soviet Union, including the protagonists of three trials in the early 1950s: Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and the Rosenbergs.

Those trials also attested that the Manhattan Project, in which Fuchs and Greenglass were direct participants, was an object of particular interest for Soviet intelligence. And Berberova had no doubt of the virtually limitless possibilities of Soviet intelligence. She would scarcely have bet her life on the fact that Oppenheimer had not been recruited. Evidently, this fact explains the tension that retained its grip on Berberova during their interactions and that is so palpable in her notes, in their very tone, which are at times surprisingly detached, not to say perfunctory.  

Berberova met with Oppenheimer for the last time in mid-February, two days before he was admitted to the hospital for an operation. He did not just inform her of the upcoming procedure but described to her in a fairly buffoonish tone all the clinical details, obviously trying to show that he was in a fighting mood:

They know how to do it now, they don’t cut your throat in the middle , they don’t put a whistle in the permanent hole, they slice it at the side, gee, they are real artists, what a trade! From the side they are able not to cut the vocal cords. I might even talk, I might even sing. Imagine me coming to see you and happily singing a song!22

As he said goodbye, Oppenheimer asked Berberova not to visit him in the hospital. He said that if all went well, if he could speak, move about, and drive, then as soon as he got out he would call and come over: “If you don’t hear from me this will not mean that I don’t want to see you but only that I do not want you to see me.”23

Oppenheimer never came or called again, but that turn of events is not surprising. After the operation, he was prescribed a three-week course of radiation, and although the tumor seemed to have shrunk, Oppenheimer still felt poorly—he tired immediately, had trouble speaking, and could only consume liquids.24

He tried to work as much as he could and show up at the Institute (he left his post as director soon after), but he hardly wanted to present himself to Berberova looking like that. She knew about Oppenheimer’s condition from Fischer, who saw him from time to time and, most important, received regular reports on his health from mutual acquaintances. Those reports got sadder and sadder, for despite the intensified treatment, the cancer continued to spread. Kept informed of the state of things, Berberova made no attempt to restore the connection with Oppenheimer.

She did not try to connect with him until late January 1967, ten months after their last meeting. It was at this time that Fischer learned from one of Oppenheimer’s close friends that he was in a very bad way and wasn’t seeing anyone, but would like to see him. Evidently Fischer told Berberova about this, and that was when she decided to write Oppenheimer a letter.

As Berberova explains in her memoirs, she wanted to make the letter as warm as possible while not exceeding the bounds of an ordinary friendly missive, since it was unclear whether it would land in Oppenheimer’s hands. Berberova did not get an answer, so she didn’t know whether her letter had been delivered.25 If she did have hopes of that, though, that hope had to have evaporated after Fischer visited Oppenheimer and reported on the situation, so to speak.

Fischer described this visit, which took place on February 16, that is, two days before Oppenheimer’s death, in a letter to one of their mutual acquaintances, so we know all the details of their meeting. Before going, Fischer called Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty and agreed on a day and time for the visit, but when he arrived, no one answered the bell. After waiting rather a long time at the door, he got ready to leave, but Oppenheimer noticed him from his bedroom window on the second floor and went down himself to open the door. Due to his illness, he was almost deaf and hadn’t heard the bell, and Kitty, as became clear, was sleeping. To Fischer’s amazement, there was no one else in the house.

Robert <. . .> wanted to help me out of my coat but I didn’t let him, then we sat down on opposite sides of a bare table. I tried to do most of the talking, telling him about Toni, who is doing some research for Kennan and had been shy about telephoning  me, but she subsequently did, and I told Robert I was always available to her. When he spoke, he mumbled so badly that I suppose I understood about one word out of five. I understood him to say that Kitty was asleep and asked to be awakened when I came. But I told him that sleep was so important that she mustn’t be awakened. And he said she had been sleeping badly. Then he said several things which sounded like questions and I didn’t quite get his meaning and made some statements which probably had no relevance to what he had asked <…> I now handed Robert two chapters of my book which I had brought along. He began reading. He read the first page and the second page of the chapter on Germany in the 1920’s, and inquired where I had got the documents, “From Berlin?”, although there was a footnote in the center of the page saying that I had obtained them in Bonn this last summer <…> . He looked extremely thin, his hair was sparse and white, and his lips were dry and cracked. As he read, and at other times too he kept moving his lips as if to speak but did not speak, and probably realizing that this made a bad impression, he held his bony hand in front of his mouth; his fingernails were blue. He offered me a drink and stretched out his hand to a glass om his side of the table containing a bit of a red liquid.  He didn’t touch it, and of course I said I didn’t want to drink. I had been there about twenty minutes and I said, “I’ll go now”, and he replied with a very thick tongue, “Come again.”26

More than likely, Fischer told Berberova about his visit in the same detail. It is evidently with this story that the entry in her diary, made on February 17 and beginning with words extremely unusual for her, “Darkness in my soul,” is connected. Her February 18 entry begins with the exact same words. That morning, Oppenheimer’s friends learned he had died in the night. Curiously, Berberova does not explain the reason for this mood of hers and doesn’t mention Oppenheimer by name. Also not noted in her diary is the funeral, held a few days later, which Berberova must have attended (there were more than six hundred people there!) and which she did describe in her memoirs, albeit briefly.

Strange though it seems, Oppenheimer’s name does not appear even once in Berberova’s diaries. True, there are 1965 diary entries in her archive only for the three summer months, and there are no entries for April, when Berberova met Oppenheimer, or for December, when they met again. Also absent are entries for January, February, and the first half of March 1966, when they met for the last time.

There is no doubt that the preserved diary entries, made on pages torn from a thick notebook, had once been part of a larger whole. And this means that Berberova did continue to keep a diary over the course of all those months but at some stage destroyed it. Of course, she could have had many reasons for such an act, but it can’t be ruled out that one of them was her mention of Oppenheimer in the diary. It is no accident that in the entries we have for the next two years, 1966 and 1977, Berberova assiduously avoids bringing up his name, moreover even when it simply could not have failed to surface. The silence on Oppenheimer’s death and funeral are the most eloquent if not the sole examples. Nor does Berberova write in her diary about the letter to Oppenheimer mentioned in her memoirs, although she had a habit of noting all the letters she’d written, and contrary to habit she did not leave a copy of the letter.

Why Berberova behaved in this way one can only guess, of course, but more than likely she was moved by a wish to protect herself. Oppenheimer had remained under FBI observation even after he received the Fermi Prize, as he himself, along with many from his circle, including Fischer, knew.27 So Berberova could not rule out the possibility that she might fall into the field of vision of the special services.

Of course, there was nothing even remotely criminal in the contacts between Berberova and Oppenheimer. But she had to have considered that if the FBI did express interest in her person, a certain fact of her biography might surface that did have a criminal element, although of a completely different nature: her fictitious marriage entered into in the mid-1950s. By the mid-1960s, Berberova and the person technically her husband could barely stand each other and had stopped observing the most elementary decorum, so there would not have been much difficulty blowing the lid off it.

That possibility always frightened Berberova, but especially in the latter half of the 1960s. It was at this time that the Soviet authorities’ attitude toward first-wave emigrants changed substantially and previously unimaginable possibilities opened up for Berberova. In particular, it had been proposed that she take part in the making of a planned Soviet-American film based on her book, Tchaikovsky. After signing the contract and receiving her advance, Berberova supposed that if all went according to plan, Italics might be published in the Soviet Union. Given this, Berberova, understandably, tried to avoid any unnecessary risk.

It’s another matter that her participation in work on the Tchaikovsky film (1970) would be minimal, and Berberova’s name would not even appear in the credits, as she would learn from acquaintances, since the film was screened only in Russia (there were no buyers to be found in America).28

In short, all her Tchaikovsky-related hopes would collapse ultimately, and all her fears would prove in vain. So that if it was just a matter of Oppenheimer, then the diary entries had been destroyed for nothing. Posterity was none the worse off, though. Instead of fragmentary diary entries, Berberova left fairly detailed reminiscences of Oppenheimer.

The date under them, March 1967, speaks to the fact that Berberova sat down to write her reminiscences almost immediately after Oppenheimer’s death. His demise, which provoked a tremendous public response the world over, shed light on the importance of all testimony relating to Oppenheimer, and this evidently inspired Berberova to pick up the pen.

Judging from the manuscript, Berberova worked on her memoirs with exceptional care, retyping and tacking on scraps of text and then editing them all over again. True, instead of a few dates she was forced to leave blanks: by this time her diary had evidently been destroyed. These blanks would have been filled in, most certainly, had Berberova begun to write the continuation of her autobiography, in which she planned to talk about Oppenheimer, relying on her notes.

And if in the first biographies of the “father of the atom bomb,” his biographers could not talk about his family problems openly, then after the death of Oppenheimer’s widow (in 1972) and the suicide of his daughter Toni (in 1977), the situation gradually began to change.

Beginning in the mid-2000s, a whole series of basic biographies came out, however even in the context of all those books, Berberova’s notes are no less significant. They put Oppenheimer’s tragic figure in an even more tragic light, attesting to the longing for love and sympathy that ate away at him in his final years.

This fact of Oppenheimer’s inner life remained unknown to his biographers, but the presence of this kind of lacuna is not surprising. All the people who knew him attested unanimously to Oppenheimer’s exceptionally closed nature, as does his impressive archive, including his extensive correspondence.29 Oppenheimer turned a complete different side of himself toward Berberova, though.

She was probably not the only person with whom he let himself be so disarmingly candid, but the authors of his biographies would be hard pressed to name any specific names along those lines other than Ruth Tolman. Ruth did not leave reminiscences of Oppenheimer, though, and destroyed practically all of his letters before her death. In the absence of those documents, Berberova’s notes take on especial value.

These notes are important not only for Oppenheimer’s biography, though. They are no less so for Berberova’s own biography. Added to the impressive list of famous people with whom fate brought Berberova into contact and who were not indifferent to her feminine charm and human originality was none other than Robert Oppenheimer. And that, we have to agree, is impressive.


Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz


Dr. Irina Vinokurova (aka Irene Kolchinsky) is a Russian-American literary scholar and critic. Her articles appeared in The Russian ReviewThe Slavic and East European JournalRussian Literature, as well as in Russian literary magazines Voprosy literaturyZnamia, and Zvezda. The biography of Nina Berberova (2023) is her third book. Since 1991, Dr. Vinokurova has lived in the US.

“Here, in America, there were people I met whose time to talk about had not yet come. . ." is a translation of a slightly edited chapter from Irina Vinokurova's book "Нина Берберова: известная и неизвестная" (Nina Berberova: Known and Unknown), published by Academic Studies Press, 2023.


1 It was not definitively refuted until 2009. See Harvey Klehr, John Earl Haynes, and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 33-35, 39-58.

2 Oppenheimer’s biographers write about this, too, citing people who met him during those years. See Abraham Pais and Robert P.Crease, J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life(New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 300; Ray Monk, Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center (New York: Doubleday, 2013), pp. 688, 692.

3 Attesting to this are Fischer’s notes, in which he reproduces Oppenheimer’s joking comments about his success with the ladies. In Louis Fischer Papers, b. 9, f. 3.

4 Nina Berberova Papers, b. 46, f. 1075.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 See Peter Goodchild, J. Robert Oppenheimer: Shatterer of Worlds (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), p. 272.

8 See Kai Birdand Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: Knopf, 2005), pp. 363-365. Oppenheimer’s special feelings for Ruth Tolman are mentioned in his other biography, too, which says that all Oppenheimer’s correspondence at Princeton was always opened and perused by his secretary, with the exception of letters from Ruth Tolman. The same secretary said that Oppenheimer almost always carried several of Ruth’s letters in his jacket pocket. Pais and Crease,J. Robert Oppenheimer, p. 275.

9 Note dated July 12, 1990. In Hubert Nyssen,“L’editeur et son double,” Carnets -- 3 (1989-1996): 76.

10 It’s weakness. (Fr.)

11 Have you no weaknesses? (Ger.)

12 Nina Berberova Papers, b. 46, f. 1075.

13 The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, vol. 6: Creativity and Conflict 1964-1967 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), p. 300.

14 Mark Wolverton, A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2008), p. 284.

15 Ibid., pp. 264-267; Monk, Robert Oppenheimer, pp. 685-687.

16 Oppenheimer to Bohm, December 2, 1966, in Wolverton, A Life in Twilight, p. 284.

17 Ibid.

18 Nina Berberova Papers, b. 46, f. 1075.

19 These episodes include, in particular, Oppenheimer’s attempt as a student at Cambridge to slip a poisoned apple to one of his tutors with whom he was on bad terms. True, that story ended well. The apple was not eaten, and Oppenheimer—thanks to his father’s intervention—was not expelled from Cambridge, but they insisted that he undergo treatment with a psychiatrist. See Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, pp. 46-47.

20 David C. Cassidy, J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (New York: Pipe Press, 2005), pp. 227-232, 315-319; Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, pp. 195-201, 506-511; Wolverton, A Life in Twilight, pp. 247-255.

21 See Haakon Chevalier, Oppenheimer: The Story of a Friendship (New York: George Braziller, 1965), pp. 61-84, 97-103.

22 Nina Berberova Papers, b. 46, f. 1075.

23 Ibid.

24 See Peter Michelmore, The Swift Years: The Robert Oppenheimer Story (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1969), pp. 253-254; Bird and Sherwin, American Prometheus, p. 583; Wolverton, A Life in Twilight, pp. 280-283.

25 Berberova’s letter was not preserved in Oppenheimer’s archive.

26 Fischer to Michael Josselson, February 25, 1967, in Louis Fischer Papers, b. 5. f. 39. This letter is partially paraphrased and quoted in Birdand Sherwin, American Prometheus, pp. 586-587. The same authors point out, citing the admission of Oppenheimer’s wife Kitty, that he spent the last hours of his life completely alone. “His end was terribly sad,” Kitty wrote to close friends. “First he turned into a child, then into an infant, and he made unintelligible noises. I couldn’t make myself go into his room. I should have gone into his room, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t bear it” (Ibid., p. 587). These are the qualities of Kitty’s personality remarked upon by other Oppenheimer biographers as well, who noted that she hadn’t found the strength to go see her dying father and had sent Oppenheimer’s secretary instead (See Pais and Crease, J. Robert Oppenheimer, p. 275).

27 See Wolverton, A Life in Twilight, pp. 193. The Oppenheimer case was not considered closed even after his death. In 1969, his daughter was turned down for a job at the UN on those grounds. Ibid., p. 298.

28 See Berberova to Sergei Rittenberg, April 16, 1971, in “My Dear, Close and Distant Friend,” p. 227.

29 Monk, Robert Oppenheimer, p. 694.




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