- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 1, 2004


By Isaiah Berlin

Edited by Henry Hardy; foreword by Strobe Talbott

Brookings Institution Press, $28.95, 242 pages


I once met Isaiah Berlin many years ago at a small dinner party hosted by Barbara Tuchman, the historian. I don’t know if he intended to monopolize the conversation that evening, but Berlin’s listeners didn’t mind one bit that he did. He went from subject to subject with a transitional anecdote to explain what was coming in the next canto, or to offer a moment’s pause in case someone might have a question.

Norman Podhoretz described Berlin in an essay in Commentary magazine as “a nonstop talker of legendary proportions” and an “effervescent conversationalist.” As the evening wore on I realized I was in the presence of a living polymath, someone who knew something of everything and everything of something.

He was eight years old when he and his Russian-Jewish family left Riga at the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution. Eventually the family ended up in England, where Berlin (1909-97) achieved his great reputation as an Oxford professor for four decades and as a popular BBC lecturer. His fame spread to American academic circles and he still has his admirers — witness this book, truly a labor of love.

“The Soviet Mind,” a collection of Berlin’s essays on Russia, Czarist and Stalinist, is a welcome arrival and confirms my personal impressions of this remarkable Western intellectual. What makes this book essential reading for Berlinophiles is that it contains essays never before published and some originally published under pseudonyms to protect relatives living in the Soviet Union. And they are as readable as when they were first composed.

The collection includes reports on Berlin’s meetings in postwar Russia with Russian writers after Joseph Stalin had begun his campaign against “cosmopolitanism,” a thinly-veiled epithet (with bloody consequences) against Russian intellectuals in general and Jewish intellectuals in particular. (I want to include a word of praise for Helen Rappaport, who does a remarkable job with her glossary of names in the book’s appendix.)

“The Soviet Mind” includes Berlin’s profiles of writers Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak; his survey of Soviet Russian culture in 1956, three years after Stalin’s death; a postscript to this essay inspired by the fall of the Berlin Wall and other events in 1989; and his celebrated 1945 Foreign Office memorandum on the state of the arts under the monstrous Stalin. He sent the latter to Averell Harriman, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, with this tasteless, self-demeaning disclaimer: “I enclose a long and badly written report on Russian literature etc… .” There is, of course, nothing badly written in this report.

Mr. Podhoretz’s essay, published in Commentary in 1999 and titled “A Dissent on Isaiah Berlin,” recognizes Berlin’s peculiar turn of mind: “He often denigrated his own achievements, a trait that might be considered the intellectual’s equivalent of the unseemly game of a rich person playing at being poor.” Michael Ignatieff, who wrote the authorized biography of Berlin, interpreted this habit as “part of a carefully cultivated strategy … intended to deflect and disarm criticism.”

I will say this: Really to appreciate Berlin’s essays on Russia one has to have a sense of attachment to the greatness of Russian culture in its art, literature and music, and especially in its folk music. And this was true even in the bloody days of the Stalinischina. That Russian culture survived seven decades of Communist totalitarianism means that it will survive the era of Vladimir Putin’s “managed democracy,” although there is an unusual quietude among Russian intellectuals today.

In Berlin’s case, his love of Russian culture transcended a sense of attachment; he was bound to Russian culture, in the words of Polonius in “Hamlet,” with “hoops of steel.” It is a connection that inspired the four-volume biography of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by the great American Russianist Joseph Frank. George Kennan was similarly inspired by Russian culture.

Today’s Russia, free for a decade and a half from the chains of totalitarianism, has become colorless and bland. What we need is an Isaiah Berlin to explain why Putin’s Russia as well as Russian culture seem to have fallen into a seemingly irrecoverable slump.

Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide