Kategorie-Archiv: Sir Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin: Against the Current. Essays in the History of Ideas.

Against the Current: Essays in the History of Ideas

by Isaiah Berlin

Viking Press, 394 pp., $16.95


Edmund Wilson once described Isaiah Berlin as “an extraordinary Oxford don, who left Russia at the age of eight and has a sort of double Russian-and-British personality. The combination is uncanny but fascinating.” But even these words from such a usually restrained source fail to do justice to the variety of gifts of this civilized and widely admired man who at one time or another has been a philosopher, a political theorist, an acute practical analyst of American and European politics, a historian of ideas, a biographer of Marx and translator of Turgenev, an active and influential participant in Jewish affairs, a long-time director of the Royal Opera House, founder of Wolfson College at Oxford, and President of the British Academy. Those who have been in his presence have witnessed his intellectual gaiety; he is a man of universal learning, a justly celebrated conversationalist, a man who inexhaustibly enlarges the lives of his colleagues, his students, his friends.

The four volumes of Isaiah Berlin’s collected essays and other writings that are currently appearing under the editorship of Henry Hardy should dispel the persistent myth that he has not found much time for scholarly writing among his many activities and that his work consists largely of critical and fragmentary occasional pieces that have no collective shape and express no single point of view.1 Berlin, as these volumes show, is a highly imaginative philosopher and historian of ideas who has repeatedly reminded us not to underestimate the influence of abstract ideas in human affairs, however harmless such ideas may appear when detached from their historical settings and microscopically analyzed by philosophers. He has reminded us that we cannot live without explaining the world to ourselves; that such explanations always rest on a conception of what is and can be; that whether we know it or not, insofar as we care about ideas at all, we are all participants in debates once familiar only to coteries of intellectuals.

Berlin sees his task as one of contributing to our self-knowledge by exhuming, clarifying, and criticizing the main ideas and values that lie behind our current conceptions of ourselves—of understanding historically whence we came, and how we came to be where we are now, thereby diminishing the dangers of being at the mercy of unexamined beliefs. This task requires rare psychological sensitivity, the capacity to enter into the consciousness of men far removed in space and time, and Berlin discharges it with grace and skill in the essays in the history of ideas collected in Against the Current.

In these portraits of thinkers from Machiavelli to Sorel he displays the powers of exposition, analysis, and lucidity familiar to readers of his other work. Berlin’s essays are neither chronicles nor exegetical exercises: he approaches ideas as incarnated in the men who conceived them; his subjects are never mere vehicles. Berlin is thoroughly at home with ideas in their personal and emotional, social or cultural embodiments—whether his subject is a humorless and fanatical reactionary like Joseph de Maistre or a fastidious dandy like Benjamin Disraeli, he manages to achieve an astonishing directness of contact with it.

His intellectual preoccupations and unparalleled gifts of imaginative reconstruction are brought together in these essays on men who dissented from shallow views of human nature: the ambiguous Machiavelli, the heroic and profound scholar Vico, the celebrated savant Montesquieu, as well as lesser known men, eccentric fanatics like Georges Sorel and J.G. Hamann, and the gentle visionary Moses Hess. Berlin, who has himself often stood apart from or against the fashionable trends of his own time, appreciates how all these men were treated by their contemporaries, more often than not, as “immovable, isolated rocks with their absurd appearance of seeking to arrest or deflect the central current.” All of them struggled with, or timidly grasped, or celebrated human freedom and the diversity of human values and patterns of life.

According to Isaiah Berlin, one of the deepest assumptions of Western political thought, found in Plato and scarcely questioned since, is “the conviction that there exist true, immutable, universal, timeless objective values, valid for all men, everywhere, at all times; that these values are at least in principle realizable, whether or not human beings are, or have been, or ever will be, capable of realizing them on earth; that these values form a coherent system, a harmony which, conceived in social terms, constitutes the perfect society.”

We may desire, for example, both expensive missiles to protect “national security” and freedom from burdensome taxation; an excellent secondary educational system for all but not an admissions policy which overlooks merit or the effects of past discrimination; equal rights for all but not unwanted, neighbors. These conflicting sentiments are expressions of more abstract values we prize—justice, freedom, happiness, security, loyalty. It is a common conviction (or hope) that these conflicts are apparent, that our various values can be somehow harmoniously realized—or at least ranked in importance—perhaps by the efforts of some especially clever thinker, a politician or religious savior or sociologist, or by the use of some method, scientific or philosophical, or by some technological invention.

This conviction is familiar enough, but is it true? Berlin thinks that it is not, and his criticism of it is expressed—as so often in his work—through inspection of the ideas of the historical figures he believes were especially prominent in undermining it. His essay on Machiavelli is an eloquent portrait of a man who questioned this psychologically attractive doctrine in uncompromising fashion. As Berlin claims, “it is this rock, upon which Western beliefs and lives had been founded, that Machiavelli seems, in effect, to have split open.” (“The Originality of Machiavelli”)

In Berlin’s view Machiavelli’s central aim was to provide a set of therapeutic maxims designed to help the statesman in restoring Italy to a position of security and stability, vigor and magnificence, to create “a state conceived after the analogy of Periclean Athens, or Sparta, but above all the Roman Republic.” To do so, the statesman must be realistic, “pagan”: he must be prepared to use terrible measures to ensure the general good, be willing to kill the innocent to create a show of strength, to deceive and betray and falsify. Once he has embarked on the course of transforming a diseased society, he cannot be squeamish. As Berlin expresses Machiavelli’s point,

to be a physician is to be a professional, ready to burn, to cauterise, to amputate; if that is what the disease requires, then to stop half-way because of personal qualms, or some rule unrelated to your art or technique, is a sign of muddle and weakness, and will always give you the worst of both worlds.

The code of behavior the statesman must apply is not a game of skill unconnected with morality but a new ethic concerned exclusively with the good of all, with public, not personal, morality—and certainly not with the popular Christian personal morality of Machiavelli’s time, which dictated humility, kindness, compassion, sanctity, and the quest for salvation in personal life.

Berlin finds much to criticize in Machiavelli’s thought: “His human beings have so little inner life or capacity for cooperation or social solidarity that, as in the case of Hobbes’s not dissimilar creatures, it is difficult to see how they could develop enough reciprocal confidence to create a lasting social whole, even under the perpetual shadow of carefully regulated violence.” But Machiavelli’s “vision of the great prince playing upon human beings like an instrument” with the aid of a novel morality condoning murder, hypocrisy, and fraudulence raises a disturbing question which Berlin regards as “the nodal point of Machiavelli’s entire conception.” Can these different moralities—the public “paganism” of the prince and the personal ethics of the Christian—be held by the same man at the same time?

Berlin believes that Machiavelli rightly held the two moralities to be not merely in practice but in principle incompatible. He thus posed a problem of choice: “one can save one’s soul, or one can found or maintain, or serve a great and glorious state; but not always both at once.” Two moralities, two sets of virtues, two ethical worlds—with no common ground—are in collision. Each is coherent and integral; we cannot have both. Machiavelli shocked his contemporaries (and many others since) by frankly renouncing Christian morality, but, Berlin claims, he did so “in favor of another system, another moral universe,” “a society geared to ends just as ultimate as the Christian faith, a society in which men fight and are ready to die for (public) ends which they pursue for their own sakes.”

Machiavelli’s problem of choice, Berlin suggests, has outlasted the specific conflict to which it was addressed and lives with us still, not merely in its obvious applications to such questions as the propriety of the conduct of our statesmen, or indeed any officials authorized to protect the public good, but more pervasively, in a wide variety of cases in which he claims we must, like Machiavelli’s men, choose between incompatible values.

Suppose, he has asked on another occasion, we were placed in charge of a hospital’s supply of kidney machines, costly machines vastly outnumbered by those who suffer from diseases from which they would provide relief: “If there is a great scientist who suffers from a kidney disease, should the only machine we have be reserved for him alone? Should we use the few machines we have for only gifted or important people who, in our view, confer a lot of benefit on society? If some child is dying whom the kidney machine might save, how do we decide between them?”2 In deciding, should we think only of the happiness of mankind and therefore reserve the machine for the scientist, who is more likely to confer greater benefits on humanity than the child? But then doesn’t this clash with the view that all human beings have certain fundamental rights, that we cannot grade lives in importance, that all have an equal claim to be saved? We must decide and yet what are we to do?

Berlin is careful to point out that this kind of conflict is not like the familiar ones we encounter in daily life; it is not like the business of adjusting the demands of work and leisure, or of choosing between a trip to the beach and remaining at home to watch a television program—a conflict that might be removed by having a television set one could take to the beach. The kind of choice in question is radically unlike that in common speech and thought, where we choose among different courses of action—what school to attend, what stock to invest in—with the help of stable, previously held values and standards: living near our families, getting the best return on our money. Such values serve as a secure basis for measuring the merits and demerits of the options.

In the dilemma posed by Machiavelli, we are dealing with a less familiar, more radical, kind of choice: there is no stable background of standards against which we can appraise the alternatives, no common criterion whereby a rational decision between them can be made. There are just the competing alternatives; we must somehow settle for one of them. As Berlin expresses it, such “choices must be made for no better reason than that each value is what it is, and we choose it for what it is, and not because it can be shown on some single scale to be higher than another.” No alteration of our circumstances, no new technology or scientific knowledge can remove such conflicts. “Whom shall I save, the scientist or the child?” is not a fact to be discovered but requires an action, a spiritual movement making one moral attitude to the problem ours—an “invention,” as Berlin puts it, obedient to no pre-existing rules. This radical kind of choice can be protracted and painful precisely because it concerns alternatives we care deeply about.

Machiavelli, says Berlin, “helped to cause men to become aware of the necessity of having to make agonizing choices between incompatible alternatives in public and private life (for the two could not, it became obvious, be genuinely kept distinct).” But, as this remark suggests, the “agony of choice” discovered by Machiavelli is double, not single: the moralities of the personal and public spheres of life are distinguishable; and they can collide. But a choice of the one affects the choice of the other. If we must have “dirty hands” in public life, we may find it impossible to remain Christians in personal life; if we are humble seekers of salvation in personal life, we may find it impossible to pursue the realization of the successful state. We are agonized in two ways: we must choose not merely what we are to consider virtuous in the personal sphere, but in the public sphere as well, and each of these very different kinds of choices inevitably will refer to the other.

And of course the same problem of choice arises within these spheres in addition to arising between them. We could well be forced, for example, to make the sort of choice described by Machiavelli as a part of public morality—to choose, for example, between values like freedom or security. Is not the man who is troubled whether taxation is compatible with individual liberty concerned with a problem of this kind? As for personal life, do we not face Machiavelli’s problem of choosing between incompatible values and ways of life when we ask ourselves whether we should become involved in social issues or “drop out”; whether we should devote our lives to active involvement in a consuming cause or to scholarly research; whether, like Gauguin, we should dismiss our responsibilities to our family and flee to an undisturbed paradise in order to cultivate our genius?3

As Berlin sums up, Machiavelli discovered that “ends equally ultimate, equally sacred, may contradict each other, that entire systems of value may come into collision without possibility of rational arbitration, and that not merely in exceptional circumstances, as a result of abnormality or accident or error—the clash of Antigone and Creon or in the story of Tristan—but (this was surely new) as part of the normal human situation.”

If what Machiavelli wrote is true, “the idea of the sole, true, objective, universal human ideal crumbles. The very search for it becomes not merely Utopian in practice, but conceptually incoherent.” As Berlin interprets him, Machiavelli planted “a permanent question mark in the path of posterity” by his discovery of the diversity and incompatibility of human values—of “pluralism.”

These themes arise again and again, not merely in these essays, but throughout Berlin’s work. “If, as I believe,” he writes,

the ends of man are many and not all of them in principle compatible with each other, the possibility of conflict—and of tragedy—can never be wholly eliminated from human life, either personal or social. The necessity of choosing between a solute claims is then an inescapable characteristic of the human condition.4

These contentions are of immense importance for that branch of philosophy called “moral theory,” many of whose practitioners continue to seek ways to harmonize or systematically order our deepest values. Berlin nowhere, so far as we know, rashly claims that all systems of this kind are necessarily false. Nor, on the other hand, does he merely assert that some such systems have been false. In agreement with the fundamental insight of Machiavelli, Berlin views conflict among values as a permanent feature of life which no system or theory is likely to remove.

To reduce such conflict hastily and artificially by logical or theoretical means is for him a species of self-deception that could be dangerous; as he has written, the notion that “it is in principle possible to discover a harmonious pattern in which all values are reconciled…seems to me invalid, and at times to have led (and still to lead) to absurdities in theory and barbarous consequences in practice.”5


If the “permanent question mark in the path of posterity” planted by Machiavelli is closely scrutinized, important consequences for our conception of human beings seem to follow from it. If it is an “inescapable characteristic” of our lives that we make choices among absolute claims, choices that may have fruitful or ruinous consequences for human life, then are we not in some sense unconstrained, undetermined, “free”? And if so, then doesn’t this indicate an important fact about “human nature,” about man and his actions, individual or collective, past or present? Berlin’s essays on “The Counter-Enlightenment” and on Giambattista Vico explore the historical growth and consolidation of the “pluralist” insights he commends in Machiavelli as they were extended by other thinkers to address this question.

The eighteenth-century French Enlightenment philosophers—Voltaire, Diderot, Helvetius, Condorcet—further developed, according to Berlin, the “ancient and almost universal” philosophical doctrine of the harmony of human values by combining it with a theory of human nature and by invoking the promise of new “sciences of man”:

The central doctrines of the progressive French thinkers, whatever their disagreements among themselves, rested on the belief, rooted in the ancient doctrine of natural law, that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places; that local and historical variations were unimportant compared with the constant central core in terms of which, human beings could be defined as a species, like animals, or plants, or minerals….

It was further believed that methods similar to those of Newtonian physics, which had achieved such triumphs in the realm of inanimate nature, could be applied with equal success to the fields of ethics, politics and human relationships in general, in which little progress had been made; with the corollary that once this had been effected, it would sweep away irrational and oppressive legal systems and economic policies the replacement of which by the rule of reason would rescue men from political and moral injustice and misery and set them on the path of wisdom, happiness, and virtue. [“The Counter-Enlightenment”]

In other words, human nature is fixed and determined; underneath the apparent diversities of men lies an unchanging “nature,” endowed with identical needs, motives, values. On this view, Machiavelli must have been in error: ultimate ends could not be in conflict; they are identical throughout the “species” of man, for is it not true that all men seek the satisfaction of hunger and thirst, the realization of security, justice, happiness? If Mongols, Hottentots, and Semites ostensibly differ from Parisians, the Enlightenment thinkers held, the new sciences of man will show this to be a mere surface phenomenon. Human beings can be studied as ants or bees are; what can be applied with success to nature can be applied with equal success to human nature. Everything that exists on this view can be explained and possibly even predicted by general laws.

In opposition to this body of beliefs, a great stream of dissident thought evolved in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, reaching its most astonishing and virulent peak in the work of the German Romantics—J.G. Hamann, his pupil J.G. Herder, F.H. Jacobi, the Sturm und Drang poets, and their assorted idealist and irrationalist successors. These men, who form the core of what Berlin calls the “Counter Enlightenment,” protested the facile transfer of scientific methods from the inanimate realm to the human: could Newton’s methods for plotting the movements of the planets, they asked, explain the efforts of an original artist? Could mechanics or indeed any general scientific theory offer understanding of a moral dilemma, the aspirations of those touched by God, the radical choices performed by the free and creative self—in short, the complex inner life of the spirit? In the case of some of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, like the eccentric Königsberg sage Hamann, the preoccupation with the inner life led them to demand the total destruction of Enlightenment values. In his essay on Hamann, Berlin vividly describes how that thinker violently attacked not merely the claim that science has something to say about human nature but its claim to do anything useful at all.

According to Berlin, Hamann saw analysis, classification, deduction, and system as “infantile” efforts to “confine the unconfinable”; nature, he thought, could not be caught by the simple nets put up by the French and English scientists. Hamann held that only the man who feels and loves, the artist and the poet, can fully understand nature: that faith in things unseen was the foundation of true knowledge; art or religion provide truth, not the “stuffed dummy” called “reason” which creates foolish rules—“walls of sand built to hold back the waves of an ocean”—and systems which ignore “the teeming variety of the living world, the untidy and asymmetrical inner lives of men, and crush them into conformity for the sake of some ideological chimera.”

Berlin writes, “No system, no elaborate construction of scientific generalities, will, in Hamann’s view, enable a man to understand what is conveyed by a gesture, a look, a style, or to understand a line of poetry, a painting, a vision, a spiritual condition, an état d’âme, a form of life.” Hamann’s challenge in his fulminations against the Enlightenment was, in Berlin’s words, “How dare these pathetic pedants impose on the vast world of continuous, fertile, unpredictable, divine creation their own narrow, dessicated categories?” (“Hume and the Sources of German Anti-Rationalism”)

Hamann’s celebration of natural variety and the free, rich, spontaneous patterns of the will and the inner life was shared by other German Counter-Enlightenment figures—Herder, and later Schelling, the Schlegels, Novalis, Fichte—and indeed artists and thinkers in other countries like Coleridge and Wordsworth, Blake, Chateaubriand, Stendhal and Emerson, Carlyle.

Berlin is sharply aware of the excesses of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers—their haste, their gross errors of detail, their eccentric prescriptions, their wild mythologies—but he sees in their work sound intuitions, expressed perhaps most fully and coherently by Herder, but anticipated, with far greater force and depth, a half-century before him by the “obscure, poverty-ridden Neapolitan recluse” Giambattista Vico, a lonely professor of rhetoric “who might have had a decisive role in this counter-movement if anyone outside his native country had read him.”

According to Berlin, Vico was the most powerful of the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, a man who in a single, complex vision discredited in advance the Enlightenment conceptions of human nature, the perfect society, the progress of humanity, the nature of history, a thinker who has a claim to be the founder of the history of ideas, of comparative cultural history, comparative anthropology, law, religion, aesthetics—indeed, of the modern “social sciences.” Vico set in train the idea, as Berlin puts it, that

history did not consist merely of things and events and their consequences and sequences (including those of human organisms viewed as natural objects) as the external world did; it was the story of human activities, of what men did and thought and suffered, of what they strove for, aimed at, accepted, rejected, conceived, imagined, of what their feelings were directed at. [“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”]

Vico argued that history is neither a tissue of gossip and travelers’ tales (as the celebrated Descartes had argued a century earlier), nor “a collection of factual beads strung on a chronicler’s string,” nor (as his younger contemporary Voltaire thought) a disparate mass of instructive and entertaining truths retrieved from the past.

Closely linked to this view of history, Berlin claims, was Vico’s bold idea that human nature is not unchanging—as the Enlightenment held; that human nature is not like a fan (or a peacock tail) that opens out over the centuries, with all its qualities and properties present (but hidden) at the beginning. In place of these views, Vico appealed to a radical new principle, that the “nature” of man is his history. Moreover, for Vico, man’s history reveals that human beings have changed over time in vitally important respects: men were once savage brutes; now they are democrats; but—in his famous “cyclical theory of history”—they will be brutes again.

In Vico’s view, shared by Berlin, men have had different values at different times and in different circumstances. They have employed different concepts or categories of interpreting their experience; as these patterns have changed, so have men’s reasons for acting, their ruling conceptions of good and evil, happiness and humor, their duties, their song, art, dance. The values men cherish have changed over time, on this view, as the interests, needs, desires in which these values are rooted change, as the ideas men formulate in response to the questions they ask of the world become obsolete.

History then, for Vico and Berlin, is a process of man’s self-creation, a transforming and correcting process; “a changing pattern,” Berlin writes, “of great liberating ideas which inevitably turn into suffocating straitjackets, and so stimulate their own destruction by new, emancipating, and at the same time enslaving conceptions.”6 Each integral culture or age generates its own unique mode of expressing its response to the world which is intelligible only to those who understand its own internal rules and style. Historical change is a sequence of births and deaths of forms of life, with valuable modes of expression lost irretrievably along the way, with others cropping up continually, not necessarily more valuable than their predecessors: there is no sense, on this view, in speaking of “progress” in history. There is no need to compare and grade on some single scale of merit each cultural phase and its creations and forms of life and action; indeed, it is not possible to do so, for they are evidently incommensurable” (“Vico and the Ideal of the Enlightenment”).

These pluralist views were remarkably original, as Berlin convincingly shows us by comparing them to those of the reigning arbiter of intellectual taste in Vico’s time, Voltaire. But Vico also boldly challenged the claim that scientific method as it was conceived in his time could dominate the entire sphere of human’knowledge, by asserting it was not applicable to history and humane studies. As Berlin puts it, Vico thinks that

to understand history is to understand what men made of the world in which they found themselves, what they demanded of it, what their felt needs, aims, ideals, were: he seeks to discover their vision of it, he asks what wants, what questions, what aspirations determined a society’s view of reality; and he thinks that he has created a new method which will reveal to him the categories in terms of which men thought and acted and changed themselves and their worlds. (“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”)

The “understanding” yielded by Vico’s new method is entirely different from that offered by the natural sciences: the new method is not just a matter of raising hypotheses and testing them by simple observation or the use of refined experimental techniques, as geographers or microbiologists or mineralogists do. We have, Vico and Berlin claim, a special relation to the objects of our investigation in the humane studies—in history, literary criticism, political theory, in much of anthropology and sociology, and indeed in much of what passes under the name of “social science.” We are, like our subject matter, human; we can claim the understanding that participants in an activity possess, as observers cannot.

If we are to understand a text, an instance of behavior, a historical event (such as Xerxes’ conduct at the Hellespont); if we wish to know why a financial panic took place, why bureaucracy diminishes productivity, why a people rebelled against their authorities; in short, if we wish to understand anything human, we need to do more than exercise our simple perceptions—discriminating differences of pitch and color; we need to do more than examine the physical states of our subjects—their weight, or blood pressure. As Berlin has written, we need also

the capacity for conceiving more than one way of categorizing reality, like the ability to understand what it is to be an artist, a revolutionary, a traitor, to know what it is to be poor, to wield authority, to be a child, a prisoner, a barbarian. [“The Divorce between the Sciences and the Humanities”]

This capacity, Berlin claims, is distinct from, and more complex than, that exercised by a physicist in gathering observational evidence, or testing a theory, in registering points of light, or tracing the tracks of invisible particles. Unlike “simple” perception grasping empirical facts, this capacity is part imagination, part memory, part intuition, always governed by the rich conceptual patterns in which we think of other human beings, and never reducible to inductive or deductive rules of scientific research.

In the humane studies, Berlin claims, the understanding of subject matter (and possibly some ways of testing—as against discovering—of hypotheses concerning this subject matter) consists to a large degree in the exercise by investigators of distinctive, imaginative capacities of this kind, capacities—or, as Berlin sometimes calls them, “knacks”—which allow these investigators to enter into the lives and outlook of other human beings and cultures, past and present, to acquire the sense of what “fits” and what does not in an interconnected body of human activities, to acquire the sense of anachronism they employ when, upon reading Shakespeare, they know straight off the passage could not have been composed by a Manchu or a Sumerian.

The investigator using this “new method” is able to obtain an “inner,” direct grasp of events akin to self-knowledge because he, like his subjects, is a thinking, planning, acting being. The “knowledge” that results from his efforts

is quite different from that in which I know that this tree is taller than that…. In other words, it is not a form of “knowing that.” Nor is it like knowing how to ride a bicycle or to win a battle, or what to do in case of fire, or knowing a man’s name, or a poem by heart. That is to say, it is not a form of “knowing how.” It is more like the knowledge we claim of a friend, of his character, of his ways of thought and action, a species of its own, based on prior personal experience, memory, imagination, and communication with other human beings.

In Against the Current and in the more abstract writings collected in Concepts and Categories Berlin claims that the discovery by Vico of this special “mode of perception”—he admits that “knowledge” might be too strong a word for an activity “so obviously fallible” and in need of “empirical research to justify its findings”—marks the discovery of a central difference between the natural sciences (which need not employ it) and the humanities (which inescapably do), and confutes the possibility of a “scientific history.”

Berlin is, of course, entitled to claim that there may exist particular modes or capacities of cognition unique to the humanities. If the historian must understand what it is to be poor, the physicist is not concerned with what it is to be an electron. Still his account may be contested, and not only because he has not, as he acknowledges, explained exactly how people with radically different categories of thought “enter into” and “inwardly grasp” each other’s views. (Nor did Vico.) It may be that Berlin is tacitly assuming too superficial a conception of the natural sciences when he draws a sharp distinction between scientific “experience” and that brought into play in humane studies. If recent researches in the philosophy of science by T.S. Kuhn and others are correct, even ordinary experimental interpretations in science are laden with preconceptions, with concepts and categories, that may undergo radical change in the course of scientific development. To understand different comprehensive scientific theories or deal with new data, natural scientists might also have to use “the capacity for conceiving more than one way of categorizing reality” and perform efforts of “resurrection” and reconstruction similar to those cited by Berlin as distinctive of humane studies.

If even natural scientists can, and indeed may have to, grasp radically different ways of interpreting the natural world, and if even their observations are “theory laden,” the objectivity of science in some of the senses described by Berlin is open to question. Berlin himself in his earlier writings attacked the oversimplified accounts of historical knowledge as objective that were in vogue between the 1930s and the 1950s. It seems ironic that some philosophers would argue that his earlier account could in part be transposed to scientific knowledge as well and thereby challenge some of the distinctions he draws between the natural sciences and the humanities.

The issues are far from settled and often not even clearly understood. Berlin might claim that whatever difficulties there may be in the understanding of new scientific theories they can, once understood, be objectively tested; not so for all theories and hypotheses in the social sciences and humanities. There is much current debate about the kinds of cognitive skills and commitments that are involved in the understanding, testing, and accepting of scientific theories and hypotheses. The old empiricist claim that essentially the same methods can be used to test hypotheses in both the natural and social sciences is far from dead.

It should in any case be clear why the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, taken together, are of such importance to Berlin. As he says in these essays, they, more than any other group of thinkers, saw how intellectual confusion can result from the deliberate or unconscious application of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) methods and doctrines where they do not apply; and, despite their obvious shortcomings, they clearly saw that scientific methods could not adequately answer fundamental questions about human values. But perhaps even more important, they first set in motion ideas which provided the philosophical underpinning—the reasoned justification—for the facts Berlin claims were pointed out by Machiavelli: if men can choose, by their own lights, among incompatible alternatives, then their behavior could not be explained by appeal to a set of general laws—as some Enlightenment thinkers believed. They could not be the “mechanical” systems Condillac and perhaps in our own day B.F. Skinner take them to be; they could not be like computers or calculators. Their history must be an open process of self-creation, without a large strategy or inevitable trend.

This idea, half-expressed by the Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, lies at the heart of Berlin’s work, and he has often expressed it with eloquence—the idea, as he once put it, that man is

incapable of self-completion, and therefore never wholly predictable: a fallible, a complex combination of opposites, some reconcilable, others incapable of being resolved or harmonized; unable to cease from his search for truth, happiness, novelty, freedom, but with no guarantee, theological or logical or scientific, of being able to attain them: a free, imperfect being, capable of determining his own destiny in circumstances favorable to the development of his reason and his gifts.7

But if human beings are, as the combined insights of Machiavelli and Vico suggest, free, spontaneous, choosing beings, with widely diverse values and cultural embodiments of these values, what political arrangements are best suited to their nature? How ought they to live in political association? We shall examine Isaiah Berlin’s views on these questions in a second article.

V.S. Pritchett: Semi-Heroes


Personal Impressions

by Isaiah Berlin
Viking, 219 pp., $13.95

Among men of learning in history and philosophy Isaiah Berlin is probably the most captivating expositor of ideas in the English-speaking world. The subject of Personal Impressions is men and women inhabited by intellects that blend with or distort their characters and become important personal visions. Berlin is an impressionist only in the sense that his impressions are argued and cut deep. He entices us to keep up with his fast conversation. As Noel Annan says in his long and searching introduction to this collection of Berlin’s memoirs of such figures as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Chaim Weizmann, L.B. Namier, Felix Frankfurter, Maurice Bowra, Einstein, Aldous Huxley, the Oxford philosophers, and, in Russia, of Pasternak and Akhmatova:

Nobody in our time has invested ideas with such personality, given them a corporeal shape and breathed life into them more than Isaiah Berlin; and he succeeds in doing so because ideas for him are not mere abstractions. They live—how else could they live?—in the minds of men and women, inspiring them, shaping their lives, influencing their actions and changing the course of history. But it is men and women who create these ideas and embody them.

“Life,” Berlin has said, “may be seen through many windows, none of them necessarily clear or opaque, less or more distorting than any of the others.” He makes his stand on pluralism—a word which has been debased by those of us who cannot make up our minds and find everything “relative.” For him, as Noel Annan says, pluralism means “acceptance of a multitude of ideals appropriate in different circumstances and for men of different callings.” And later on he adds, “for unless society acknowledges that men both do and should live according to different ideals, the men and women within it will not be free.” Berlin is indeed a man of passion—as the essay on Chaim Weizmann shows—and indeed of something approaching compassion in dealing with the disposition of a cantankerous and distinguished historian like Namier. The portrait studies in this book are critical impressions: they seek to separate the praiseworthy impulse from what is dubious, but not in the bland conventions of the Memorial Service.

Berlin’s sense of humor—sometimes extravagantly Russian—preserves a frank delight in human contradiction. He is really concerned with the essences or forces that formed outstanding people, and though he is a man of praise he is sharply aware of the difference between the awful, the bad, or the downright evil. All this is conveyed in a conversational style famous for its long, caravanning sentences, “clause upon clause” (as Noel Annan says), “the predicate lengthening out into a profusion of participles.” Or perhaps he should be compared to Seurat peppering his canvases with

a fusillade of adjectives, epithets, phrases, analogies, examples, elucidations and explanations so that at last a particular idea, a principle of action, a vision of life, emerges before our eyes in all its complexity; and no sooner have we comprehended it than he begins using the same methods to create a conflicting or, it may be, a complementary vision of life, so that by contrast we may understand the first conception better. He will always use two words where one will not do.

His writing has all the élan of conversation.

Style is a major key. Prose style and, above all, style of character, play a complementary part in his examinations of his people. Herbert Read once attacked Churchill’s prose, saying his eloquence was false and artificial, the images “stale, the metaphors violent…a volley of rhetorical imperatives…and an aggrandisement of the self.”

But Berlin understands that the manner of the 1914 generation had greatly changed. He understands Read’s hostility but disagrees. Churchill’s style, he says, was a deliberate return to a “formal mode…which extends from Gibbon and Dr. Johnson to Peacock and Macaulay, a composite weapon created by Churchill in order to convey his particular vision.” There was no “escapism” in it. It was the vehicle of a romantic vision of history that reflected the formation of his own vision. He saw history and life as a pageant; the moments of comedy were necessarily uttered in the formal mock-heroic manner, for example in phrases when he says he views this or that aberration “with stern or tranquil gaze,” or that any “chortling” over the failure of a chosen scheme “will be viewed with great disfavor by me.” Watch Berlin’s own remarkable and sinuous style examining Churchill’s:

[Churchill’s] eye is never that of the neatly classifying sociologist, the careful psychological analyst, the plodding antiquary, the patient historical scholar. His poetry has not that anatomical vision which sees the naked bone beneath the flesh, skulls and skeletons and the omnipresence of decay and death beneath the flow of life. The units out of which his world is constructed are simpler and larger than life, the patterns vivid and repetitive like those of an epic poet, or at times like those of a dramatist who sees persons and situations as timeless symbols and embodiments of eternal, shining principles. The whole is a series of symmetrically formed and somewhat stylised compositions, either suffused with bright light or cast in darkest shadow, like a legend by Carpaccio, with scarcely any nuance, painted in primary colours, with no half tones, nothing intangible, nothing impalpable, nothing half spoken or hinted or whispered: the voice does not alter in pitch or timbre.

The long essay proceeds to an elaborate comparison of the temperaments of Churchill and Roosevelt. Both were romantics; Churchill’s imagination was formed by the nineteenth century, Roosevelt’s by the twentieth. He was “optimistic, episcopalian, self-confident, cheerful, empirical, fearless, steeped in the ideas of social progress,” and he believed in improvisation. Churchill “believed in institutions, and the permanent character of races and classes and types of individuals.” And Churchill’s private office was run in a sharply disciplined manner but—splendid under-statement—“his habits, though unusual, were regular,” whereas Roosevelt was all for flexibility. His bureaucracy was “somewhat chaotic.” He maddened institutional authority “but it is doubtful whether he could have achieved his ends in any other way.” And a fundamental pluralist judgment concludes these two éloges: it is possible to reject the strait-jacket of doctrine and “to reconcile individual liberty” in the end “with the indispensable minimum of organizing and authority.”

Isaiah Berlin’s habit of qualification and re-qualification does not leave him afloat in impartiality. He feels and illuminates the passions he admires and nowhere so strongly as in the portrait of Chaim Weizmann. As a historian Berlin knows why the isolating situation of the Eastern European Jews was a potent source of Zionism and, with some irony, he puts aside the view of Marx and Tolstoy who believed that the impersonal forces of history are more decisive than “great men.” Weizmann had the distinguishing mark of greatness: “active intervention makes what seemed highly improbable in fact happen”—in his case the creation of the state of Israel. I have never read so full and lucid a study of the rise of Zionism and its social and psychological ironies and conflicts, though I am certainly not equipped to offer an opinion on the cold-shouldering of Weizmann’s cause by post-Churchillian British governments. The almost tragic irony of this hero’s case is that Weizmann, both as a scientist and as a man, quite simply adored England and, as Berlin says, invested “far more of his emotional capital in his friendship for England than, I think, he realised.” He was a great charmer.

He valued especially the tendency toward instinctive compromise, whereby sharp edges are not indeed planed away, but largely ignored by both sides in a dispute if they threaten to disrupt the social structure too widely, and break down the minimum conditions for common life.

And when Britain disappointed him, he wondered whether British imagination and appetite for life were dying: his followers began to look on his Anglophile policy as bankrupt and he became a tragic figure. Western statesmen often saw him as an inexorable ancient prophet, a man who craved virtue, and they often feared that an interview with him might “prove altogether too much of a moral experience.” He admired courage, dependability, and practical judgment; the stock subject of mocking skeptical Jewish humor distressed him. The settlement was to be the cure of the neuroses of the ghetto. But Weizmann was without pathos and for Berlin he was the first totally free Jew of the modern world—an eloquent conclusion that reveals a strain of romanticism or, at any rate, a response to the visionary which is aroused in many of Berlin’s subjects.

The most edgy of Berlin’s semi-heroes is the historian L.B. Namier, who worshiped Weizmann until the inevitable quarrel. With whom did Namier not quarrel! A hypnotic dazzling non-stop talker, Namier drew breath by making a “mooing sound” which blocked the gaps between his sentences and so prevented interruption. He loathed historians who invoked the influence of ideas—Marx above all, whom he described as “a typical Jewish half-charlatan”—put his faith in Freud and psychological influences, and spoke with the controlled ferocity of one who hated doctrine with the tenacity of the doctrinaire. He worshiped the English aristocracy, whom he regarded as above all the resistance to Zionism, but pursued British officials with relentless personal contempt. Berlin suspects Namier of having daydreams of being the D’Annunzio of the movement. Like Marx, he “fascinated and oppressed his interlocutors.” This most distinguished man was a bore from whom people fled and it was really not surprising that he was never given a Chair at Oxford, although he was greatly honored elsewhere. Yet—and this is the heart of Berlin’s alert sympathy for this ponderous man—Berlin was not bored by him. He saw that Namier had the Romantic pride and yet as a historian was a deflater; that for years he had lived in bitter personal unhappiness; he was unworldly and innocent, easily deceived, though he mellowed after his happy second marriage. The conclusion is that Namier was an amateur: a “man who thinks more of himself than about his subject.” His conversion to Christianity of course ended his friendship with Weizmann.

The portraits of the Oxford philosophers which follow are of distinguished men who may be only names to the general reader, but there is a similar mixture of personality and debate in Berlin’s studies of them. The most impressive narratives in this book are of Berlin’s visits to the Soviet Union in 1945 and 1956. He had not seen Russia since he left as a boy of ten in 1919. The spell of his boyhood language reawakened his love of Russian literature, especially of its poetry, and brought him an intimacy with Pasternak and Akhmatova, the two survivors of what he calls the “second Renaissance” in Russian literature which had begun in the Nineties.

Their vivid portraits are the high moments of this essay. Both were tormented, alone, and suffered from the persecution, ostracism, and suspicion of Stalin and the Party. Pasternak had once been described as looking like an Arab on his horse:

…he had a dark, melancholy, expressive, very racé face…. He spoke slowly, in a low tenor monotone, with a continuous, even sound, something between a humming and a drone, which those who met him almost always remarked; each vowel was elongated as if in some plaintive, lyrical aria in an opera by Tchaikovsky, but with more concentrated force and tension.

Tension is the key word, for he was often defensive or prickly in the course of his many meetings with Berlin, who admired one of his early books, The Childhood of Lüvers. Pasternak said that he was sure Berlin’s real opinion was that it was modernist and selfconscious.

“No, no, don’t deny it, you do think this and you are absolutely right. I am ashamed of them—not of any of my poetry, but of my prose…. But now I am writing something entirely different, something new, quite new, luminous, elegant, well-proportioned, classically pure and simple…and this will be my last word, and most important word, to the world.”

He was drafting what was later to become Dr. Zhivago. The droning talk would often overflow, the lucid passages would become wild. It reminded Berlin of the talk of Virginia Woolf who, too, “made one’s mind race and obliterated one’s normal vision of reality in the same exhilarating and, at times, terrifying way.” Pasternak was deep in Proust, Ulysses, and Rilke, and talked of a host of others in these literary conversations, which always took place before a polished desk without a book or a scrap of paper on it. From time to time he became ecstatic and prophetic: he told the now well known story of Stalin’s telephone call asking whether Pasternak was present on the occasion when Mandelstam had recited his lampoon on the tyrant. Pasternak ignored the question and replied that Stalin and he must meet at once, for everything depended on it, “they must speak of ultimate issues about life and death.” Stalin wanted a plain Yes or No to his question and rang off.

Pasternak was very sensitive to the charge of accommodating himself to the Party and was afraid that his survival was thought to be due to this. He taunted Berlin for being bemused and not seeing that everything in Russia was disgusting and an “abominable pigsty.” Pasternak was an insistent Russian patriot, to the extent of feeling himself in the “true tradition” which culminated with Slavophils—“not to the liberal intelligentsia, which, as Tolstoy maintained, did not know what men lived by.” Pasternak’s desire to be thought of as a writer with deep Russian roots was even obsessive. He described himself as an idiosyncratic Christian and his attitude to his Jewish origins was negative. Berlin’s earlier discussions of the tensions between the Zionists and the assimilated Jews in the essays on Weizmann, Namier, and Einstein come to mind here, but Pasternak avoided the subject: “he was not embarrassed by it, but he disliked it: he wished the Jews to assimilate, to disappear as a people.”

Akhmatova, who lived in Leningrad, and he were devoted friends, often in dispute, especially about Chekhov. For Pasternak, Chekhov was unlike all other Russian writers, who preached too much. He was “a pure artist…he is our answer to Flaubert.” Akhmatova said that Chekhov’s universe was “drab; the sun never shone, no swords flashed, everything was covered by a horrible grey mist…a sea of mud…a travesty.”

The meetings with Akhmatova are the most emotional and moving in this book. The first meeting was interrupted by the grotesque appearance of Randolph Churchill on the scene, a farce that was to turn, as is only too familiar in Soviet life, into a disastrous occasion. There was further persecution of the poet by the secret police. (Randolph Churchill had been followed to her house when he was trying to get in touch with Berlin, and was drunk as usual; Berlin, being a temporary employee of the British embassy, was assumed, as all people in foreign embassies were, to be a spy.)

Akhmatova was living in the upper room of the palace that had belonged to the Sheremetev family, but most of the furniture had been sold or looted during the siege and the severe looking gray-haired poet rose to meet him and talk, as he says, like a “princess in exile.” On the second visit she recited some of her poems, saying, “Poems like these, but far better than mine, were the cause of the death of the best poet of our time, whom I loved and who loved me”—and broke down in tears, but whether she spoke of Gumilev or Mandelstam Berlin could not say. Then she read Requiem and spoke of the awful years 1937-1938 when her husband and son were sent to prison camps. (She was later to be denounced by Zhdanov as “half nun, half harlot,” in the course of his condemnation of the “formalists” and decadents. Very soon she was denouncing Chekhov’s “mud-coloured world”—as Pasternak had said she would—and attacked Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

Why should Anna Karenina have to be killed? As soon as she leaves Karenin,…she suddenly becomes a fallen woman in Tolstoy’s eyes, a traviata, a prostitute. Of course there are pages of genius, but the basic morality is disgusting…. Tolstoy is lying: he knew better than that. The morality of Anna Karenina is the morality of Tolstoy’s wife, of his Moscow aunts.

The visit lasted long into the night and went on late into the morning of the following day. She spoke of Leningrad as the graveyard of her friends and of the unrelieved tragedy of her life; but there was no talk of flight or emigration; whatever happened to her she would stay in Russia. The day Berlin left Leningrad uniformed men were placed outside the entrance to her staircase and a microphone was screwed into the ceiling of her room to frighten her. In 1965 when she was allowed to go to Oxford to receive an honorary degree she told him of the consequences of his visit.

She blamed her disgrace on Stalin’s paranoia and said that the fact of Berlin’s visit “had started the cold war, quite literally, and changed the history of mankind.” Was paranoia feeding on paranoia? It was present in Dostoevsky, one remembers, and she worshiped Dostoevsky. Was she a visionary or a fantasist? Berlin makes an important distinction. Her suspicions of poisonings, her belief that her meeting with him had been decisive for the cosmos, had no apparent justification in fact, but they were not senseless. They were intuitive:

They were elements in a coherent conception of her own and her nation’s life and fate, of the central issues which Pasternak had wanted to discuss with Stalin, the vision which sustained and shaped her imagination and her art.

Yet on the literary and social scene in St. Petersburg before the First World War she spoke sharply and with realism. She did not speak publicly—or to Berlin himself—a single word against the Soviet regime. It is characteristic of Berlin that here he thinks of Herzen, who had said that almost all Russian literature was one “uninterrupted indictment of Russian reality.” There was no self-pity in her. Hatred, insults, contempt, misunderstanding, persecution she could stand, she told her friends, but not interest mingled with compassion. She was proud. A minor but not irrelevant matter: she changed her mind about Chekhov when she read Ward No. 6.


Sir Isaiah Berlin: Notes on Prejudice

Notes on Prejudice

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

Isaiah Berlin liked to allude to a passage in Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy where Russell says that, if we are to understand a philosopher’s views, we must “apprehend their imaginative background,”1 or the philosopher’s “inner citadel,” as Berlin calls it.2 The character of one of the main rooms in Berlin’s own citadel is vividly expressed in some hurried notes Berlin wrote for a friend (who does not wish to be identified) in 1981. His friend was due to give a lecture, and wrote to Berlin to ask for suggestions about how he might treat his theme. Berlin had to go abroad early on the day after he received the request, and wrote the notes quickly, in his own hand, without time for revision or expansion. The result is somewhat breathless and telegraphic, no doubt, but it conveys with great immediacy Berlin’s opposition to intolerance and prejudice, especially fanatical monism, stereotypes, and aggressive nationalism. Its relevance to the events of September 11, 2001, hardly needs stressing.

Berlin’s manuscript is reproduced here in a direct transcript, with only a few adjustments to make it easier to read. I have omitted material relevant only to the specific occasion.

—Henry Hardy


Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth: especially about how to live, what to be & do—& that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad: & need restraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right: have a magical eye which sees the truth: & that others cannot be right if they disagree.

This makes one certain that there is one goal & one only for one’s nation or church or the whole of humanity, & that it is worth any amount of suffering (particularly on the part of other people) if only the goal is attained—“through an ocean of blood to the Kingdom of Love” (or something like this) said Robespierre3: & Hitler, Lenin, Stalin, & I daresay leaders in the religious wars of Christian v. Moslem or Catholics v. Protestants sincerely believed this: the belief that there is one & only one true answer to the central questions which have agonized mankind & that one has it oneself—or one’s leader has it—was responsible for the oceans of blood: but no Kingdom of Love sprang from it—or could: there are many ways of living, believing, behaving: mere knowledge provided by history, anthropology, literature, art, law makes clear that the differences of cultures & characters are as deep as the similarities (which make men human) & that we are none the poorer for this rich variety: knowledge of it opens the windows of the mind (and soul) and makes people wiser, nicer, & more civilized: absence of it breeds irrational prejudice, hatreds, ghastly extermination of heretics and those who are different: if the two great wars plus Hitler’s genocides haven’t taught us that, we are incurable.

The most valuable—or one of the most valuable—elements in the British tradition is precisely the relative freedom from political, racial, religious fanaticism & monomania. Compromising with people with whom you don’t sympathize or altogether understand is indispensable to any decent soci-ety: nothing is more destructive than a happy sense of one’s own—or one’s nation’s—infallibility, which lets you destroy others with a quiet conscience because you are doing God’s (e.g. the Spanish Inquisition or the Ayatollas) or the superior race’s (e.g. Hitler) or History’s (e.g. Lenin–Stalin) work.

The only cure is understanding how other societies—in space or time—live: and that it is possible to lead lives different from one’s own, & yet to be fully human, worthy of love, respect or at least curiosity. Jesus, Socrates, John Hus of Bohemia, the great chemist Lavoisier, socialists and liberals (as well as conservatives) in Russia, Jews in Germany, all perished at the hands of “infallible” ideologues: intuitive certainty is no substitute for carefully tested empirical knowledge based on observation and experiment and free discussion between men: the first people totalitarians destroy or silence are men of ideas & free minds.


Another source of avoidable conflict is stereotypes. Tribes hate neighbouring tribes by whom they feel threatened, & then rationalize their fears by representing them as wicked or inferior, or absurd or despicable in some way. Yet these stereotypes alter sometimes quite rapidly. Take the nineteenth century alone: in, say, 1840 the French are thought of as swashbuckling, gallant, immoral, militarized, men with curly moustachios, dangerous to women, likely to invade England in revenge for Waterloo; & the Germans are beer drinking, rather ludicrous provincials, musical, full of misty metaphysics, harmless but somewhat absurd. By 1871 the Germans are Uhlans storming through France, invited by the terrible Bismarck—terrifying Prussian militarists filled with national pride etc. France is a poor, crushed, civilized land, in need of protection from all good men, lest its art & literature are crushed underheel by the terrible invaders.

The Russians in the nineteenth century are crushed serfs, darkly brooding semi-religious Slav mystics who write deep novels, a huge horde of cossacks loyal to the Tsar, who sing beautifully. In our times all this has dramatically altered: crushed population, yes, but technology, tanks, godless materialism, crusade against capitalism, etc. The English are ruthless imperialists lording it over fuzzy wuzzies, looking down their long noses at the rest of the world—& then impoverished, liberal, decent welfare state beneficiaries in need of allies. And so on. All these stereotypes are substitutes for real knowledge—which is never of anything so simple or permanent as a particular generalized image of foreigners—and are stimuli to national self satisfaction & disdain of other nations. It is a prop to nationalism.


Nationalism—which everybody in the nineteenth century thought was ebbing—is the strongest & most dangerous force at large to-day. It is usually the product of a wound inflicted by one nation on the pride or territory of another: if Louis XIV had not attacked & devastated the Germans, & humiliated them for years—the Sun King whose state gave laws to everybody, in politics, warfare, art, philosophy, science—then the Germans would not, perhaps, have become quite so aggressive by, say, the early nineteenth century when they became fiercely nationalistic against Napoleon. If the Russians, similarly, had not been treated as a barbarous mass by the West in the nineteenth century, or the Chinese had not been humiliated by opium wars or general exploitation, neither would have fallen so easily to a doctrine which promised they would inherit the earth after they had, with the help of historic forces which none may stop, crushed all the capitalist unbelievers. If the Indians had not been patronized, etc., etc.

Conquest, enslavement of peoples, imperialism etc are not fed just by greed or desire for glory, but have to justify themselves to themselves by some central idea: French as the only true culture; the white man’s burden; communism: & the stereotypes of others as inferior or wicked. Only knowledge, carefully acquired & not by short cuts, can dispel this: even that won’t dispel human aggressiveness or dislike for the dissimilar (in skin, culture, religion) by itself: still, education in history, anthropology, law (especially if they are “comparative” & not just of one’s own country as they usually are) helps.

  1. 1History of Western Philosophy (Simon and Schuster, 1945), Chapter 23, para. 2. 
  2. 2 For example, in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford University Press, 1969), p. 135. 
  3. 3 Berlin may be referring to the passage where Robespierre writes that “en scellant notre ouvrage de notre sang, nous puissions voir au moins briller l’aurore de la félicité universelle” (“by sealing our work with our blood, we may see at least the bright dawn of universal happiness”). Rapport sur les principes de morale politique qui doivent guider la Convention nationale dans l’administration intérieure de la République [Paris, 1794], p. 4. 



Sir Isaiah Berlin: The Arts in Russia Under Stalin

The Arts in Russia Under Stalin

For more information about Isaiah Berlin, see the Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library. For permission to reprint any material by Isaiah Berlin, contact Curtis Brown Group Ltd.

In the autumn of 1945 Isaiah Berlin, then an official of the British Foreign Office, visited Russia 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.1 At the end of his period of duty Berlin wrote a remarkable long memorandum, to which he gave the characteristically unassuming title “A Note on Literature and the Arts in the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic in the Closing Months of 1945.”2

He was modest, too, about the content of his report. He enclosed a copy of it with a letter dated March 23, 1946, to Averell Harriman, US ambassador to the USSR. 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 [British Minister in Moscow]. I doubt whether there is anything in it that is either new or arresting—here only Jock Balfour [British Minister in Washington] 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.”‘

Berlin’s self-effacing account of his dispatch 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

—Henry Hardy

The Soviet literary scene is a peculiar one, and in order to understand it few analogies from the West are of use. For a variety of causes Russia has in historical times led a life to some degree isolated from the rest of the world, and never formed a genuine part of the Western tradition; indeed her literature has at all times provided evidence of a peculiarly ambivalent attitude to the uneasy relationship between herself and the West, taking the form now of a violent and unsatisfied longing to enter and become part of the mainstream of European life, now of a resentful (“Scythian”) contempt for Western values, not by any means confined to professing Slavophiles; but most often of an unresolved, self-conscious combination of these mutually opposed currents of feeling. This mingled emotion of love and of hate permeates the writing of virtually every well-known Russian author, sometimes rising to great vehemence in the protest against foreign influence which, in one form or another, colors the masterpieces of Griboedov, Pushkin, Gogol, Nekrasov, Dostoevsky, Herzen, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Blok.

The October Revolution insulated Russia even more completely, and her development became perforce still more self-regarding, self-conscious, and incommensurable with that of its neighbors. It is not my purpose to trace the situation historically, but the present [autumn 1945] is particularly unintelligible without at least a glance at previous events, and it would perhaps be convenient, and not too misleading, to divide its recent growth into three main stages—(a) 1900-1928; (b) 1928- 1937; (c) 1937 to the present—artificial and oversimple though this can easily be shown to be.

First Period: 1900-1928

The first quarter of the present century was a time of storm and stress during which Russian literature, particularly poetry (as well as the theater and the ballet), principally (although one is not allowed to say so today) under French and, to some degree, German influence, attained its greatest height since its classical age of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol. Upon this the October Revolution made a violent impact, but it did not dam the swelling tide. Absorbed and inexhaustible preoccupation with social and moral questions is perhaps the most arresting single characteristic of Russian art and thought as a whole; and this largely shaped the great Revolution, and after its triumph led to a long, fierce battle between, on one side, those primarily artistic rebels who looked to the Revolution to realize their own most violent “anti-bourgeois” attitudes (and attitudinizing) and, on the other, those primarily political men of action who wished to bend all artistic and intellectual activity directly to the social and economic ends of the Revolution.

The rigid censorship which shut out all but carefully selected authors and ideas, and the prohibition or discouragement of many nonpolitical forms of art (particularly trivial genres such as popular love, mystery, and detective stories, as well as all varieties of novelettes and general trash), automatically focused the attention of the reading public on new and experimental work, filled, as often before in Russian literary history, with strongly felt and often quaint and fanciful social notions. Perhaps because conflicts in the more obviously dangerous waters of politics and economics might easily be thought too alarming, literary and artistic wars became (as they did in German countries a century earlier under Metternich’s police) the only genuine battlefield of ideas; even now the literary periodicals, tame as they necessarily are, for this very reason make livelier reading than the monotonously conformist daily, and purely political, press.

The main engagement of the early and middle 1920s was fought between the free and somewhat anarchist literary experimenters and the Bolshevik zealots, with unsuccessful attempts at a truce by such figures as Lunacharsky and Bubnov.4 This culminated, by 1927-1928, first in the victory, and then, when it seemed to the authorities too revolutionary and even Trotskyist, in the collapse and purge (during the 1930s), of the notorious RAPP (the Revolutionary Association of Proletarian Writers), led by the most uncompromising fanatic of a strictly collectivist proletarian culture, the critic Averbakh. There followed, during the period of “pacification” and stabilization organized by Stalin and his practical-minded collaborators, a new orthodoxy, directed principally against the emergence of any ideas likely to disturb and so divert attention from the economic tasks ahead. This led to a universal dead level, to which the only surviving classical author of the great days, Maxim Gorky, finally and, according to some of his friends, with reluctant despair, gave his blessing.

Second Period: 1928-1937

The new orthodoxy, which became finally established after Trotsky’s fall in 1928, put a firm end to the period of incubation during which the best Soviet poets, novelists, and dramatists, and, indeed, composers and film producers too, produced their most original and memorable works. It marked the end of the turbulent middle and late 1920s, when Western visitors were astonished and sometimes outraged by Vakhtangov’s stage5 ; when Eisenstein, not yet a film producer, directed his amusing futuristic experiments on stages discovered in the disused palaces of Moscow merchants, and the great producer Meyerhold, whose artistic life is a kind of microcosm of the artistic life of his country, and whose genius is still only secretly acknowledged, conducted his most audacious and memorable theatrical experiments. There occurred, before 1928, a vast ferment in Soviet thought, which during those early years was genuinely animated by the spirit of revolt against, and challenge to, the arts of the West, conceived as the last desperate struggle of capitalism, presently to be overthrown on the artistic as well as every other front by the strong, young, materialist, earthbound, proletarian culture, proud of its brutal simplicity and its crude and violent new vision of the world, which the Soviet Union, agonized but triumphant, was bringing to birth.

The herald and chief inspiring force of this new Jacobinism was the poet Mayakovsky, who, with his disciples, formed the famous LEF6 association. While there may have been a great deal that was pretentious, counterfeit, coarse, exhibitionist, childish, and merely silly during this period, there was also much that was brimming with life. It was not, as a rule, didactically Communist so much as anti-liberal, and had in that respect points of resemblance with pre-1914 Italian futurism. This was the period of the best work of such poets as the popular “tribune” Mayakovsky, who, if he was not a great poet, was a radical literary innovator and emancipator of prodigious energy, force, and, above all, influence; the age of Pasternak, Akh-matova (until her silence in 1923), Selvinsky, Aseev, Bagritsky, Mandelshtam; of such novelists as Aleksey Tolstoy (who returned from Paris in the 1920s), Prishvin, Kataev, Zoshchenko, Pilnyak, Babel, Ilf and Petrov; of the dramatist Bulgakov; of established literary critics and scholars like Tynyanov, Eichenbaum, Tomashevsky, Shklovsky, Lerner, Chukovsky, Zhirmunsky, Leonid Grossman. The voices of such émigré writers as Bunin, Tsvetaeva, Khodasevich, Nabokov were heard only faintly. The emigration and return of Gorky is another story.

State control was absolute throughout. The only period of freedom during which no censorship existed in modern Russian history was from February to October 1917. In 1934 the Bolshevik regime tightened old methods by imposing several stages of supervision—first by the Writers’ Union, then by the appropriate state-appointed commissar, finally by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. A literary “line” was laid down by the Party: at first the notorious Proletkult, which demanded collective work on Soviet themes by squads of proletarian writers; then the worship of Soviet or pre-Soviet heroes. Nevertheless, arresting and original artists were not, until 1937, always brought to heel by the omnipotent state; sometimes, if they were prepared to take sufficient risks, they might manage to convert the authorities to the value of an unorthodox approach (as the dramatist Bulgakov did); sometimes unorthodoxy, provided that it was not positively directed against the Soviet faith, was given some latitude of expression, as a not unwelcome seasoning, at times exceedingly sharp, of the flat daily fare of normal Soviet life (for example, the early, gay, malicious satires of Tynyanov, Kataev, and, above all, Zoshchenko). This was not, of course, permitted to go far or occur too often, but the possibility of it was always present, and the genius of writers was to a certain extent stimulated by the very degree of ingenuity which they had to exercise in order to express unconventional ideas without breaking the framework of orthodoxy or incurring outright condemnation and punishment.

This continued for some time after Stalin’s rise to power and the imposition of the new orthodoxy. Gorky died only in 1935; and as long as he was alive, some distinguished and interesting writers were to a certain degree shielded from excessive regimentation and persecution by his immense personal authority and prestige; he consciously played the role of “the conscience of the Russian people” and continued the tradition of Lunacharsky (and even Trotsky) in protecting promising artists from the dead hand of official bureaucracy. In the field of official Marxism an intolerant and narrow “dialectical materialism” did indeed hold sway, but it was a doctrine concerning which internal disputes were permitted, between, for example, the followers of Bukharin and the followers of the more pedantic Ryazanov or Deborin; between various brands of philosophical materialism; between those “Menshevizers” who saw Lenin as a direct disciple of Plekhanov, and those who stressed their differences.

Witch hunts occurred; heresy, both on the right and the left, was continually being “unmasked” with grisly consequences to the convicted heretics; but the very ferocity of such ideological disputes, the uncertainty as to which side would be condemned to liquidation, communicated a certain grim life to the intellectual atmosphere, with the result that both creative and critical work during this period, while suffering from one-sidedness and exaggeration, was seldom dull, and indicated a state of continuing ferment in all spheres of thought and art. Well might the sympathetic observer of the Soviet scene compare such activity favorably with the slow decline of such of the older generation of émigré Russian writers in France as Vyacheslav Ivanov, Balmont, Merezhkovsky, Zinaida Gippius, Kuprin, and others, though their literary technique was, at times, admitted, even in Moscow, to be often superior to that of a good many of the Soviet pioneers.

Third Period: 1937 to the Present Day

Then came the great debacle which to every Soviet writer and artist is a kind of St. Bartholomew’s Eve—a dark night which few of them seem ever completely to forget, and which is scarcely ever today spoken of otherwise than in a nervous whisper. The government, which evidently felt its foundations insecure, or feared a major war in, and possibly with, the West, struck at all supposedly “doubtful” elements, and innumerable innocent and harmless persons besides, with a violence and a thoroughness to which the Spanish Inquisition and the Counter-Reformation alone offer remote parallels.

The great purges and trials of the years 1937 and 1938 altered the literary and artistic scene beyond all recognition. The number of writers and artists exiled or exterminated during this time—particularly during the Ezhov terror7—was such that Russian literature and thought emerged in 1939 like an area devastated by war, with some splendid buildings still relatively intact, but standing solitary amid stretches of ruined and deserted country. Men of genius like Meyerhold the producer and Mandelshtam the poet, and of talent like Babel, Pilnyak, Yashvili, Tabidze, the then recently returned London émigré Prince D.S. Mirsky, the critic Averbakh (to take the best-known names alone) were “repressed,” that is, killed or done away with in one way or another. What occurred after that no one today seems to know. Not a trace of any of these writers and artists has been sighted by the outside world. There are rumors that some of them are still alive, like Dora Kaplan, who shot and wounded Lenin in 1918, or Meyerhold, who is said to be producing plays in the Kazakhstan capital Alma-Ata; but these seem to be circulated by the Soviet government and are, almost certainly, quite false.8 One of the British correspondents, whose sympathies were all too clear, tried to persuade me that Mirsky was alive and writing in Moscow incognito. It was obvious that he did not really believe this. Nor did I.

The poetess Marina Tsvetaeva, who returned from Paris in 1939 and fell into official disfavor, committed suicide, probably early in 1942.9 The rising young composer Shostakovich was criticized in 1937 so harshly, from a quarter so high, for “formalism” and “bourgeois decadence,” that for two years he was neither performed nor mentioned, and then, having slowly and painfully repented, adopted a new style in closer accord with present-day official Soviet demands. He has on two occasions since then had to be called to order and to repent; so has Prokofiev. A handful of young writers unknown in the West, who are said to have showed promise during this period, have, so one was told, not been heard of since; they are unlikely to have survived, although one cannot always tell. Before this the poets Esenin and Mayakovsky had committed suicide. Their disillusionment with the regime is still officially denied. So it goes on.

The death of Gorky had removed the intellectuals’ only powerful protector, and the last link with the earlier tradition of the relative freedom of revolutionary art. The most eminent survivors of this period today sit silent and nervous for fear of committing some fatal sin against the Party line, which anyhow was none too clear during the critical years before the war, nor thereafter. Those to fare worst were the writers and authors in closest contact with Western Europe, that is, France and England, since the turning of Soviet foreign policy away from Litvinov’s policy of collective security, and toward the isolationism symbolized by the Russo-German Pact, involved individuals regarded as links with Western countries in the general discredit of pro-Western policy.

Bending before authority exceeded all previously known bounds. Sometimes it came too late to save the heretic marked for destruction; in any case it left behind it painful and humiliating memories from which the survivors of this terror are never likely completely to recover. Ezhov’s proscriptions, which sent many tens of thousands of intellectuals to their doom, had clearly, by 1938, gone too far even for internal security. A halt was finally called when Stalin made a speech in which he declared that the process of purification had been overdone. A breathing space followed. The old national tradition reacquired respectability; the classics were once again treated with respect, and some old street names replaced the revolutionary nomenclature. The final formulation of faith, beginning with the constitution of 1936, was completed by the Short History of the Communist Party of 1938. The years 1938 to 1940, during which the Communist Party made even greater strides in the strengthening and centralization of its power and authority—tight enough before this—remained, during the slow convalescence from the wounds of 1938, blank so far as the creative and critical arts were concerned.

The Patriotic War

Then war broke out and the picture altered again. Everything was mobilized for war. Such authors of distinction as survived the Great Purge, and managed to preserve their liberty without bowing too low before the state, seemed to react to the great wave of genuine patriotic feeling if anything even more profoundly than the orthodox Soviet writers, but evidently had gone through too much to be capable of making their art the vehicle of direct expression of the national emotion. The best war poems of Pasternak and Akhmatova sprang from the most profound feeling, but were too pure artistically to be considered as possessing adequate direct propaganda value, and were consequently mildly frowned upon by the literary mandarins of the Communist Party, who guide the fortunes of the official Writers’ Union.

This disapproval, with undertones of doubt about his fundamental loyalty, did finally get under Pasternak’s skin to so effective a degree that this most incorruptible of artists did produce a handful of pieces, close to direct war propaganda, which had been too obviously wrung out of him, sounded lame and unconvincing, and were criticized as weak and inadequate by the Party reviewers. Such pièces d’occasion as the Pulkov Meridian by Vera Inber, and her war diary of the Leningrad blockade, and the more gifted work by Olga Bergholz, were better received.

But what did emerge, possibly somewhat to the surprise of both the authorities and the authors, was an uncommon rise in popularity with the soldiers at the fighting fronts of the least political and most purely personal lyrical verse by Pasternak (whose poetic genius no one has yet ventured to deny); of such wonderful poets as Akhmatova among the living, and Blok, Bely, and even Bryusov, Sologub, Tsvetaeva, and Mayakovsky among the (post-revolutionary) dead. Unpublished works by the best of the living poets, circulated privately in manuscript to a few friends, and copied by hand, were passed to one another by soldiers at the front with the same touching zeal and deep feeling as Ehrenburg’s eloquent leading articles in the Soviet daily press, or the favorite conformist patriotic novels of this period. Distinguished but hitherto somewhat suspect and lonely writers, especially Pasternak and Akhmatova, began to receive a flood of letters from the front quoting their published and unpublished works, and begging for autographs and confirmation of the authenticity of texts, some of which existed only in manuscript, and for the expression of their authors’ attitudes to this or that problem.

This eventually could not fail to impress itself upon responsible Party leaders, and the official attitude toward such writers grew somewhat softer. It was as if their value as institutions of which the state might one day be proud began to be realized by the bureaucrats of literature, and their status and personal security became improved in consequence. This is not likely to last, however: Akhmatova and Pasternak are not loved by the Party and its literary commissars. To be nonpropagandist and survive you must be inconspicuous: Akhmatova and Pasternak are too obviously popular to escape suspicion.

The Present

The more benevolent, if no less watchful, attitude of the official state censors has enabled the better thought of among the established writers to adjust themselves in what they plainly hope is a series of relatively secure niches; some have avowedly harnessed themselves, with varying degrees of conviction, into the service of the state, and declare that they conform as faithfully as they do, not because they must, but because they are true believers (as Aleksey Tolstoy did with his radical revision of his famous early novel The Road to Golgotha, which originally contained an English hero, and his play about Ivan the Terrible, which, in effect, is a justification of the purges). Others apply themselves to nice calculation of how much they can afford to give up to the demands of state propaganda, how much being left to personal integrity; yet others attempt to develop a friendly neutrality toward the state, not impinging, and hoping not to be impinged upon, careful to do nothing to offend, satisfied if they are suffered to live and work without reward or recognition.

The Party line has suffered a good many changes since its inception, and the writers and artists learn of its latest exigencies from the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which is ultimately responsible for its formulation, through various channels. The final directive is today officially produced by a member of the Politburo, Mikhail Suslov, who for this purpose replaced Georgy Aleksandrov. Aleksandrov was removed, so one is told, for writing a book in which Karl Marx was represented only as the greatest of philosophers, instead of someone different from and greater in kind than any philosopher—an insult, I suppose, rather similar to describing Galileo as the greatest of astrologers. Suslov is responsible to the Party for propaganda and publicity; the members of the Writers’ Union who adapt this to the needs of their colleagues are the Chairman and in particular the secretary, a direct nominee of the Central Executive Committee of the Party, and often not a writer at all (thus the late Shcherbakov, a purely political figure, a powerful member of the Politburo at the time of his death in 1945, was at one time secretary of the Writers’ Union).

When, as occasionally happens, reviewers of books or plays or other “cultural phenomena” make mistakes, that is, stray from the Party’s path in some particular, this is put right not merely by bringing the possible consequences of his errors home to the individual reviewer, but by publishing a kind of counter-review of the original review, pointing out its errors and laying down the authoritative “line” about the original work under review. In some cases stronger action occurs. The last chairman was the old-fashioned but none too enterprising poet Nikolay Tikhonov. He was ousted for permitting so-called pure literature to appear: and the politically totally committed Fadeev succeeded him.

Writers are generally considered as persons who need a good deal of watching, since they deal in the dangerous commodity of ideas, and are therefore fended off from private, individual contact with foreigners with greater care than the less intellectual professionals, such as actors, dancers, and musicians, who are regarded as less susceptible to the power of ideas, and to that extent better insulated against disturbing influences from abroad. This distinction drawn by the security authorities seems fundamentally correct, since it is only by talking with writers and their friends that foreign visitors (for example, the author of this memorandum) have been able to obtain any degree of coherent insight, as opposed to brief and fitful glimpses, into the working of the Soviet system in the spheres of private and artistic life—other artists have largely been conditioned into automatic avoidance of interest in, let alone discussion of, such perilous topics. Known contact with foreigners does not in all cases lead to disgrace or persecution (although it is usually followed by sharp interrogation by the NKVD), but the more timorous among the writers, and particularly those who have not thoroughly secured their position and become mouthpieces of the Party line, avoid discoverable individual meetings with foreigners—even with the Communists and fellow travelers of proven loyalty who arrive on official Soviet-sponsored visits.

Having protected himself adequately against suspicion of any desire to follow after alien gods, the Soviet writer, whether imaginative or critical, must also make certain of the correct literary targets at any given moment. The Soviet government cannot be accused of leaving him in any uncertainty in this matter. Western “values,” which, unless avowedly anti-Soviet or considered reactionary, used at one time not to be thought too disreputable and were left alone, largely glossed over in silence, are once again under attack. The classical authors alone seem to be beyond political criticism. The heyday of earlier Marxist criticism, when Shakespeare or Dante—as well as Pushkin and Gogol and, of course, Dostoevsky—were condemned as enemies of popular culture or of the fight for freedom, is today regarded with distaste as a childish aberration. The great Russian writers, including such political reactionaries as Dostoevsky and Leskov, were, at any rate by 1945, back on their pedestals and once more objects of admiration and study. This applies to a large degree to foreign classics, even though such authors as Jack London, Upton Sinclair, and J.B. Priestley (as well as such, to me, little-known figures as James Aldridge and Walter Greenwood10 ) enter the pantheon on political rather than literary merit.

The main burden of Russian critical writing is at present directed to the rehabilitation of everything Russian, particularly in the region of abstract thought, which is represented as owing as little as possible to the West; and to the glorification of Russian (and occasionally non-Russian) scientific and artistic pioneers active within the historic limits of the Russian empire. This is modified by the fact that lately there have occurred signs of awareness that the Marxist approach was in danger of being abandoned too far in favor of excessive wartime Russian nationalism, which, if it spread, as it showed signs of doing, into regional nationalism, would act as a disruptive force. Consequently historians like Tarlé and others—and particularly Tartar, Bashkir, Kazakh, and other ethnic minority historians—have been officially reproved for a non-Marxist deviation toward nationalism and regionalism.

The greatest binding force of the Union, apart from historic association, is still Marxist, or rather “Leninist-Stalinist,” orthodoxy, but above all the Communist Party—the healer of the wounds inflicted by Russia on her non-Russian subjects in Tsarist days. Hence the paramount need for reemphasizing the central egalitarian Marxist doctrine, and the fight against any tendency to fall into easy nationalism. The greatest attack of all was launched on everything German; the origins of Marx and Engels could hardly be denied, but Hegel, whom earlier Marxists, including Lenin, naturally enough regarded with the piety due to a direct ancestor, is today, with other German thinkers and historians of the Romantic period, subjected to violent assaults as a Fascist in embryo and pan-German, from whom little if anything is to be learned, and whose influence in Russian thought, which can scarcely be altogether concealed, has been either superfluous or deleterious.

By comparison, French and English thinkers get off more favorably, and the Soviet author, both historian and littérateur, may still continue to permit himself to offer a little cautious homage to the anticlerical and “anti-mystical” empiricists, materialists, and rationalists of the Anglo-French philosophical and scientific tradition.

After every care has been exercised, every step taken to avert official disapproval, the most distinguished among the older authors still find themselves in a peculiar condition of being at once objects of adulation to their readers, and half-admiring, half-suspicious toleration to the authorities; looked up to, but imperfectly understood by, the younger generation of writers; a small and decimated but still distinguished Parnassus, oddly insulated, living on memories of Europe, particularly of France and Germany, proud of the defeat of Fascism by the victorious armies of their country, and comforted by the growing admiration and absorbed attention of the young. Thus the poet Boris Pasternak told me that when he reads his poetry in public, and occasionally halts for a word, there are always at least a dozen listeners present who prompt him at once and from memory, and could clearly carry on for as long as may be required.

Indeed there is no doubt that, for whatever reason—whether from innate purity of taste, or from the absence of cheap or trivial writing to corrupt it—there probably exists no country today where poetry, old and new, good and indifferent, is sold in such quantities and read so avidly as it is in the Soviet Union. This naturally cannot fail to act as a powerful stimulus to critics and poets alike. In Russia alone does poetry literally pay; a successful poet is endowed by the state, and is relatively better off than, for example, an average Soviet civil servant. Playwrights are often exceedingly prosperous. If a rise in quantity, as Hegel taught, leads to a change in quality, the literary future of the Soviet Union ought to be brighter than that of any other country; and indeed there is perhaps evidence for this proposition better and more solid than a priori reasoning by a German metaphysician, discredited even in the Russia whose thought he affected for so long and so disastrously.

The work of the older writers, with roots in the past, is naturally affected by the political uncertainties by which they are surrounded. Some break a total silence very occasionally to write a late lyric, or a critical article, and otherwise subsist in timid silence on pensions, in houses in town or coun-try with which the state, in cases of real eminence, provides them. Some have taken to a politically inoffensive medium, such as children’s or nonsense verse; Chukovsky’s children’s rhymes, for example, are nonsense verse of genius, and bear comparison with Edward Lear. Prishvin continues to write what seem to me excellent animal stories. Another avenue of escape is the art of translation, into which much splendid Russian talent at present flows, as, indeed, it always has. It is a slightly odd thought that in no country are these innocent and unpolitical arts practiced with greater perfection. Lately there has been a drive against them too.

The high standard of translation is, of course, due not merely to its attraction as a distinguished vehicle of escape from politically dangerous views, but also to the tradition of highly artistic rendering from foreign tongues, which Russia, a country intellectually long dependent on foreign literature in the past, developed in the nineteenth century. The result is that persons of exceptional sensibility and literary merit have translated the great classical works of the West, and hack translations (which the majority of English versions of Russian literature still are) are virtually unknown in Russia. In part, such concentration on translation is due also to the emphasis at present laid on the life of outlying regions of the Soviet Union, and the consequent political premium put upon translations from such fashionable languages as Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, Uzbek, Tadjik, at which some of the most gifted Russian authors have tried their hand with brilliant effect and much resultant interregional good will. Indeed, this will probably turn out to be the most valuable single contribution which Stalin’s personal influence will have made to the development of Russian letters.

As for fiction, the commonest path is that taken by such steady, irretrievably second-rate novelists as Fedin, Kataev, Gladkov, Leonov, Sergeev-Tsensky, Fadeev, and such playwrights as Pogodin and (the recently deceased) Trenev, some of whom look back on variegated personal revolutionary pasts.11 All of them today make their bow in the manner prescribed by their political directors, and in general produce work of high mediocrity modeled on late-nineteenth-century archetypes, written with professional craftsmanship, long, compe-tent, politically bien pensant, earnest, at times readable, but on the whole undistinguished. The purges of 1937 and 1938 appear to have stamped out that blazing fire of modern Russian art to which the revolution of 1918 had added fuel and which the recent war could scarcely have extinguished so swiftly if political causes had not begun to do so earlier.

Over the entire scene of Russian literature there broods a curious air of total stillness, with not a breath of wind to ruffle the waters. It may be that this is the calm before the next great tidal wave, but there are few visible signs as yet of anything new or original about to be born in the Soviet Union. There is no satiety with the old and no demand for new experience to stimulate a jaded palate. The Russian public is less blasé than any other in Europe, and the cognoscenti, so far as there are any, are only too well pleased if there are no worrying political clouds on the horizon, and they are left in peace. The climate is not propitious to intellectual or artistic enterprise; and the authorities, who would eagerly welcome invention and discovery in the technological field, do not seem aware of the indivisibility of the freedom of inquiry, which cannot be kept within prescribed frontiers. Invention seems for the present to have been sacrificed to security; unless and until this changes, Russia is scarcely likely to make a crucial contribution, at any rate in the field of humane arts and studies.

And, it may be asked, the younger writers? No foreign observer of the Russian literary scene can fail to be struck by the gap between the older writers, loyal but melancholy figures of no possible danger to the stability of this, to all appearance, thoroughly stable regime, and the immensely prolific younger writers, who appear to write faster than thought itself (perhaps because so many of them are free from it), and rehearse the same patterns and formulae so tirelessly and with such apparent sincerity and vigor that it is scarcely thinkable that they can ever have been assailed by any real doubts, either as artists or as human beings.

Perhaps the immediate past explains this. The purges cleared the literary ground, and the war provided the new subject and the mood; there sprang into being a brood of writers, facile, naive, and copious, varying from crude and wooden orthodoxy to considerable technical skill, capable at times of moving, at others of genuinely gay, and often vivid, journalistic reportage. This applies to prose and verse, novels and plays. The most successful and most representative figure of this type is the journalist, playwright, and poet Konstantin Simonov, who has poured out a flood of work of inferior quality but impeccably orthodox sentiment, acclaiming the right type of Soviet hero, brave, puritanical, simple, noble, altruistic, entirely devoted to the service of his country.

Behind Simonov there are other authors of the same genre; authors of novels dealing with exploits in kolkhozes, factories, or at the front; writers of patriotic doggerel or of plays which guy the capitalist world or the old and discredited liberal culture of Russia itself, in contrast with the simple, now wholly standardized, type of tough, hearty, capable, resolute, single-minded young engineers or political commissars (“engineers of human souls”), or army commanders, shy and manly lovers, sparing of words, doers of mighty deeds, “Stalin’s eagles,” flanked by passionately patriotic, utterly fearless, morally pure, heroic young women, upon whom the success of all five-year plans ultimately depends.

The older authors do not conceal their opinion of the value of this kind of conscientious but commonplace literary mass production, related to literature much as posters are to serious art. Nor would they be as critical as they are if, side by side with the inevitable mushroom growth of such work, inspired by, and directly ancillary to, the needs of the state, there were also something profounder and more original to be found among the younger writers—among those, let us say, who are under forty. They point out that there is intrinsically no reason why contemporary Soviet life should not generate genuine and serious “socialist realism”—after all, Sholokhov’s Quiet Don, dealing as it did with Cossacks and peasants during the civil war, was on all sides recognized as a genuine, if sometimes dull, lumbering, and overweighted, work of imagination.

The obvious criticism which these older writers urge—and such “self-criticism” is allowed to appear in print—is that out of shallow facility and the easy orthodoxy of standardized hero worship no genuine work of art can ever be born; that the war heroes themselves have won the right to subtler and less hackneyed analysis; that the experience of the war is a profound national experience which only a more intense, sensitive, and scrupulous art can adequately express, and that the majority of the war novels now published are crude travesties and a hideous insult to the soldiers and civilians whose ordeal they purport to describe; finally (this is never said in print) that the inner conflict which alone makes an artist has been too easily resolved by the oversimple rules of an artificially flattened political schema, which allows no doubts about ultimate purpose, and not much disagreement about means, and which has, perhaps as a result of the purges and their physical and moral consequences, so far failed to create its own artistic canons, standards in the light of which something no less strictly conformist but also no less devout and profound than the religious art of the Middle Ages could evolve in Russia today. Nor do I see much hope of that at the present time. The cry by the poet Selvinsky for socialist Romanticism12—if socialist realism, then why not socialist Romanticism?—was ruthlessly suppressed.

Meanwhile the financial rewards of these fashionable younger authors, unaffected as they are by the strictures of the critics, entitle them to be considered the equivalent of best sellers in Western countries; no literal equivalent exists since fiction and poetry, good or bad, is sold and distributed immediately on publication—such is the hunger of the public and the inadequacy of the supply. The subjects of historical novels, since romans de moeurs are scarcely safe, tend, apart from war and postwar propaganda themes, to be the lives of such officially approved heroes from the Russian past as Tsars Ivan IV and Peter I, soldiers and sailors like Suvorov, Kutuzov, Nakhimov, and Makarov, honest patriots and true Russians, too often plagued and frustrated by the intrigues of sycophantic courtiers and disloyal noblemen. Their character and exploits offer opportunities of combining a pleasantly romantic and patriotic historical background with political or social sermons only too clearly applicable to contemporary needs.

This fashion was not indeed begun, but was given its strongest fillip, by the late Aleksey Tolstoy (he died this year), who alone, perhaps, had the makings of, and the ambition to be, the Virgil of the new empire which had excited his rich imagination and brought his remarkable literary gift into play.

The same gap between the young and old is perceptible in the other arts, in the theater, in music, in the ballet. Whatever has grown without a definite break from a rich past and leans on a pre-revolutionary tradition has, by firmly clinging to such old and tried supports, managed to preserve its standards into the present. Thus the Moscow Arts Theater, while universally acknowledged to have declined from the extraordinary level of its golden age, when Chekhov and Gorky wrote for it, nevertheless preserves a remarkable standard of individual acting and of inspired ensemble playing which rightly continues to make it the envy of the world. Its repertoire, since the post-1937 era, is confined either to old plays or to such tame new conformist pieces as have relatively little character of their own, and simply act as vehicles in which gifted naturalistic actors can exhibit their superb, old-fashioned skills; what the public remembers is for the most part the acting and not the play. Similarly the Maly (Little) Theater continues to give admirable performances of Ostrovskyå?s comedies, which were its mainstay in the nineteenth century; the acting of plays attempted since the Revolution, whether classical or modern, at the Maly tends too often to sink to the level of the repertory companies directed by Ben Greet or Frank Benson. One or two of the smaller Moscow theaters perform classical plays with verve and imagination, for example Ermolovaå?s theater and the Transport Theater in Moscow, and one or two of the little theaters in Leningrad. The best performances given even in these theaters are of classical pieces; for example, Goldoni, Sheridan, Scribe; modern plays go less well, not so much because of old-fashioned methods of acting, as because of the inevitable tameness of the material itself.

As for opera and ballet, wherever past tradition exists to guide it, it acquits itself honorably, if dully. When something new is put on, for example the new ballet Gayaneh by the Armenian composer Khachaturyan, playing in Leningrad this year, it is capable of displaying exuberance and temperament, which disarm the spectator by the gusto and delight in the art of the dancers. But it is also, particularly in Moscow, capable of sinking to depths of vulgarity of dècor and production (and of music too) which can scarcely ever have been surpassed even in Paris under the Second Empire; the inspiration of the scenes of clumsily heaped-up opulence with which the Bolshoy Theater in Moscow is so lavish derives at least as much from the tawdry splendors of the early Hollywood of ten and even twenty years ago, as from anything conceived in Offenbachå?s day; and such crude display is made to seem all the more grotesque and inappropriate by the individual genius of a truly great lyrical and dramatic dancer like Ulanova, or of such impeccable new virtuosi as Dudinskaya, Lepeshinskaya, and the aging Semenova, Preobrazhensky, Sergeev, and Ermolaev. In either case it lacks the fusion of undeviatingly precise, inexorable discipline with imaginative originality and wide range, and that combination of intensity, lyricism, and elegance which had raised the Russian ballet to its former unattainable height.

There are still fewer signs of new life in the two great opera houses of Moscow and Leningrad, which confine themselves to a highly stereotyped repertory of the best-known Russian and Italian works, varied by occasional performances of, for example, Carmen. Minor theaters, in search of politically innocent amusement, offer their clients operettas by Offenbach, Lecocq, and Hervè, performed with more gusto than finish, but vastly welcomed as a contrast with the drab monotony of daily Soviet life. The contrast between age and youth is again noticeably present, not so much in the ballet (which could not exist without a perpetual recruitment of young dancers), as on the dramatic stage where few, if any, outstanding actors or actresses have come forward during the last ten years. The audiences seem clearly aware of this, and whenever I hinted at this to my anonymous neighbors in the Moscow theaters, it was invariably assented to so rapidly that it must be a very obvious commonplace. Such casual neighbors in the theater almost invariably expand dolefully on the regrettable absence among the younger people of dramatic talent, and even more of the right sensibility—with which the older actors, still on the stage (some whose careers go back to the early years of the century), are so richly endowed—and one or two have wondered whether the theaters of the West do not produce better young actors than the Soviet Union. Perhaps “the tradition is not so rigid and oppressive there.” Even the Arts Theater seems to have stopped dead in technique and feeling—or else has been forced to go back to the days before the First World War.

This combination of discouragement of all innovation—the name of the purged producer Meyerhold is scarcely spoken aloud—together with considerable encouragement of the stage as such is bound, unless something occurs to interrupt the process, to lead in the relatively near future to a widening chasm between accomplished but unreal, and contemporary but commonplace and provincial, styles of acting. On the other side it must be said that the childlike eagerness and enthusiasm of Soviet readers and Soviet theatrical audiences is probably without parallel in the world. The existence of state-subsidized theaters and opera, as well as of regional publishing houses, throughout the Soviet Union is not merely a part of a bureaucratic plan, but responds to a very genuine and insufficiently satisfied popular demand.

The vast increase in literacy under the stimulus provided by the earlier period when Marxism was in ferment, as well as the immense circulation of Russian and to some degree of foreign classics, particularly in translation into the various languages of the “nationalities” of the USSR, has created a public the responsiveness of which should be the envy of Western writers and dramatists. The crowded bookshops with their understocked shelves, the eager interest displayed by the government employees who run them, the fact that even such newspapers as Pravda and Izvestia are sold out within a few minutes of their rare appearance in the kiosks, is further evidence of this hunger.

If, therefore, political control were to alter at the top, and greater freedom of artistic expression were permitted, there is no reason why, in a society so hungry for productive activity, and in a nation still so eager for experience, still so young and so enchanted by everything that seems to be new or even true, and above all endowed with a prodigious vitality which can carry off absurdities fatal to a thinner culture, a magnificent creative art should not one day once again spring into life.

To Western observers the reaction of Soviet audiences to classical plays may seem curiously naive; when, for example, a play by Shakespeare or by Griboedov is performed, the audience is apt to react to the action on the stage as if the play was drawn from contemporary life; lines spoken by the actors meet with murmurs of approval or disapproval, and the excitement generated is wonderfully direct and spontaneous. These are perhaps not far removed from the kind of popular audiences for which Euripides and Shakespeare wrote, and the fact that soldiers at the front have so often compared their leaders with the stock heroes of patriotic Soviet novels, that fiction is to them, as often as not, part of the general pattern of daily life, seems to show that they still look on the world with the shrewd imagination and unspoiled eye of intelligent children, the ideal public of the novelist, the dramatist, and the poet. This fertile soil, still so little plowed, in which even the poorest seed seems to sprout so quickly and so generously, can scarcely fail to inspire the artist, and it is probable that it is the absence of precisely this popular response that has made the art of England and France often seem mannered, anemic, and artificial.

As things are, the contrast between the extraordinary freshness and receptivity, critical and uncritical, of the Soviet appetite, and the inferiority of the pabulum provided, is the most striking phenomenon of Soviet culture today.

Soviet writers in articles and feuilletons love to emphasize the extraordinary enthusiasm with which the public has received this or that book, this or that film or play, and, indeed, what they say is largely true; but two aspects of the case are, not unnaturally, never mentioned. The first is that, despite all official propaganda, strongly felt and perhaps almost instinctive discrimination between good and bad art—for example, between nineteenth-century classics and the very few surviving literary masters on the one hand, and routine patriotic literature on the other—has not been wholly obliterated, and standardization of taste does not, so far at least, seem to have occurred on the scale which might have been expected, and which the best members of the Soviet intelligentsia (such as survive) still fear.

The second qualification is the continued existence, although under difficult conditions and in dwindling numbers, of a real nucleus of aging but articulate intellectuals, deeply civilized, sensitive, fastidious, and not to be deceived, who have preserved unimpaired the high critical standards, in certain respects the purest and most exacting in the world, of the pre-revolutionary Russian intelligentsia. These people, now to be found in politically unimportant government posts, universities, publishing houses, if not positively catered for by the state, are not vastly harried either; they tend to be gloomy or sardonic because they see few successors to themselves in the succeeding generation, and this is said to be mainly due to the fact that such young men or women as show any signs of independence and originality are ruthlessly uprooted and dispersed in the north or central Asiatic regions, as an element disturbing to society.

A good many of the young who showed signs of talent as independent artists and critics are said to have been swept away in 1937-1938 (“as with a broom,” as a young Russian said to me at a railway station, where he felt unobserved). Nevertheless, a few such are still to be found in universities or among translators from foreign languages or ballet librettists (for whom there is great demand), but it is difficult to estimate whether by themselves they are sufficient to carry on the vigorous intellectual life upon which, for example, Trotsky and Lunacharsky used to lay such stress, and for which their successors seem to care so little. The older intellectuals, when they speak with candor, make no bones about the atmosphere in which they live; most of them still belong to the class of what are known as “the scared,” that is, those who have not fully recovered from the nightmare of the great purges—but a few are showing signs of emerging once again into the light of day. They point out that official control, while no longer as fiercely devoted to heresy hunts as before, is so complete in all spheres of art and life, and the caution exercised by the timid and largely ignorant bureaucrats in control of art and literature so extreme, that whatever is new and original among the ambitious young naturally tends to flow into nonartistic channels—the natural sciences or the technological disciplines—where more encouragement to progress and less fear of the unusual obtains.

As for other arts, there was never much to be said for or about Russian painting—today that which is exhibited seems to have fallen below the lowest standards of nineteenth-century Russian naturalism or impressionism, which did at least possess the merit of illustrating, with a great deal of life, social and political conflicts and the general ideals of the time. As for pre- and post-revolutionary modernism, which continued and flowered during the early Soviet period—of that not a whisper, so far as I could tell.

The condition of music is not very different. Apart from the complicated cases of Prokofiev and Shostakovich (political pressure upon the latter seems scarcely to have improved the style of his work, although there may well be vigorous disagreement about this—and he is still young), either it is again largely a dull academic re-production of the traditional “Slav” or “sweet” Tchaikovsky-Rachmaninov pattern, now worn very thin (as in the case of the endlessly fertile Miaskovsky and the academic Glière), or it has taken to lively, shallow, and occasionally skillful, at times even brilliantly entertaining, exploitation of the folk song of the constituent republics of the USSR, along the simplest possible lines—perhaps, to put it at its lowest, with an ultimate view to possible performances by balalaika orchestras. Even such moderately competent composers as Shebalin and Kabalevsky have taken this line of least resistance, and have, with their imitators, become monotonous and tirelessly productive purveyors of routine music of remorseless mediocrity.

Architecture in its turn is engaged either in the admirably done restoration of old buildings and occasional supplementation of these by competently executed pastiche, or in the erection of vast, dark, bleak buildings, repulsive even by the worst Western standards. The cinema alone shows signs of genuine life, although the golden age of the Soviet film, when it was genuinely revolutionary in inspiration and encouraged experiment, seems, with some notable exceptions (for example Eisenstein and his disciples, still active), to have yielded to something cruder and more commonplace.

In general, intellectuals still seem haunted by too many fresh memories of the period of purges succeeded by rumors of war, succeeded by war and famine and devastation; regret as they might the flatness of the scene, the prospect of a new “revolutionary situation,” however stimulating to art, could scarcely be welcome to human beings who have lived through more than even the normal Russian share of moral and physical suffering. Consequently there is a kind of placid and somewhat defeatist acceptance of the present situation among most of the intellectuals. There is little fight left even in the most rebellious and individualistic; Soviet reality is too recalcitrant, political obligation too oppressive, moral issues too uncertain, and the compensations, material and moral, for conformity too irresistible.

The intellectual of recognized merit is materially secure; he or she enjoys the admiration and fidelity of a vast public; his or her status is dignified; and if the majority long, with an intensity not to be described, to visit Western countries (of whose mental and spiritual life they often entertain the most exaggerated notions), and complain that “things are screwed up too tight in this country,” some, and by no means the least distinguished, tend to say that state control has its positive aspects as well. While it hems in creative artists to an extent unparalleled even in Russian history, it does, a distinguished children’s writer said to me, give the artist the feeling that the state and the community in general are, at any rate, greatly interested in his work, that the artist is regarded as an important person whose behavior matters a very great deal, that his development on the right lines is a crucial responsibility both of himself and of his ideological directors, and that this is, despite all the terror and slavery and humiliation, a far greater stimulus to him than the relative neglect of his brother artists in bourgeois countries.

Doubtless there is something in that, and certainly art has, historically, flourished under despotism. It may be a particularly unrealistic moral fallacy, so long as glory and high position are the rewards of success, that no form of intellectual or artistic genius can flourish in confinement. But facts, in this case, speak more loudly than theory. Contemporary Soviet culture is not marching with its old firm, confident, or even hopeful step; there is a sense of emptiness, a total absence of winds or currents, and one of the symptoms of this is the fact that creative talent is so easily diverted into such media as the popularization and the study, sometimes both scholarly and imaginative, of the “national” cultures of the constituent republics, particularly those in Central Asia. It may be that this is merely a trough between high crests, a temporary period of weariness and mechanical behavior after too much effort spent on crushing the internal and external enemies of the regime. Perhaps. Certainly there is today not a ripple on the ideological surface. There are appeals to cease reading the Germans, to cultivate national Soviet (and not local or regional) pride, above all to cease to uncover non-Russian origins of Russian institutions or alien sources of Russian thought; to return to orthodox Leninism-Stalinism, and to abstain from the vagaries of non-Marxist patriotism, which luxuriated during the war; but there is nothing remotely resembling the fierce, often crude, but still sometimes profoundly and passionately felt ideo-logical Marxist controversies of, say, Bukharin’s lifetime.

Yet this account would be misleading if it did not include the fact that, despite the difficult and even desperate situation in which persons of in-dependent temper and education at times find themselves in Russia, they are capable of a degree of gaiety, intellectual as well as social, and of enthusiastic interest in their internal and external affairs, combined with an extravagant and often delicate sense of the ridiculous, which makes life not merely bearable to them but worthwhile; and makes their bearing and their conversation both dignified and delightful to the foreign visitor.

Certainly the present aspect of the Soviet artistic and intellectual scene suggests that the initial great impulse is over, and that it may be a considerable time before anything new or arresting in the realm of ideas, as opposed to steady competence and solid achievement firmly set by authority within the framework of established tradition, is likely to emerge from the USSR. The old Russia, the condition of which preoccupied and indeed obsessed her writers, was, in a certain obvious sense, an Athenian society in which a small elite, endowed with a combination of remarkable intellectual and moral qualities, rare taste and an unparalleled sweep of imagination, was supported by a dark mass of idle, feckless, semi-barbarous helots, about whom much was said, but, as Marxists and other dissidents justly observed, exceedingly little was known, least of all by the men of good will who talked most about them and, as they supposed, to them and for their benefit.

If there is one single continuing strain in the Leninist policy it is the desire to make of these dark people full human beings, capable of standing on their own feet, recognized as equals and perhaps even superiors by their still disdainful Western neighbors. No cost is too high for this; organized material progress is still regarded as the foundation on which all else rests; and if intellectual and indeed civil liberty is considered to hamper or retard the process of transforming the Soviet peoples into the nation best equipped to understand and cope with the technologically new post-liberal world, then these “luxuries” must be sacrificed; or at least temporarily shelved.

Every citizen in the Soviet Union has had this brought home to him with varying degrees of force, and if some perform an inward act of protest, it remains inarticulate and ineffective. Nevertheless it is doubtful whether this remorseless course can be kept up quite so rigorously beyond the life of the fanatical and single-minded generation which knew the Revolution. The principal hope of a new flowering of the liberated Russian genius lies in the still unexhausted vitality, the omnivorous curiosity, the astonishingly undiminished moral and intellectual appetite of this most imaginative and least narrow of peoples, which in the long—perhaps very long—run, and despite the appalling damage done to it by the chains which bind it at present, still shows greater promise of gigantic achievement in the use of its vast material resources, and, by the same token, pari passu, in the arts and sciences, than any other contemporary society.

  1. 1See Isaiah Berlin, “Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak,” The New York Review, November 20, 1980, pp. 23-35, reprinted in an anthology of Berlin’s work, The Proper Study of Mankind (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998). 
  2. 2The original text is to be found in the British Public Record Office file FO 371/56725. The version published here incorporates two sets of revisions made by the author—one probably not many years later (including a few references to post-1945 developments), apparently in preparation for a talk; the other in 1992, in response to a request that the memorandum should be published in Russian. A partial Russian translation appeared as “Literatura i iskusstvo v RSFSR” (“Literature and Art in the RSFSR”), Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 16, 1997, in the supplement Kulisa NG, No. 2, December 1997, pp. 4-5. Until now no version of this document has been published in English. The present title and the notes (which incorporate information supplied by Helen Rappaport, to whom I am duly grateful) are mine. 
  3. 3Michael Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: A Life (Metropolitan Books, 1998), p. 161. 
  4. 4The first two holders of the post of People’s Commissar for Education. Anatoly Vasilevich Lunacharsky (1875-1933), dramatist and literary critic, notable for educational reforms under Lenin’s New Economic Policy, was commissar from 1917 until 1929, when Stalin removed him from office. Andrey Sergeevich Bubnov (1883-1938), a left-wing Bolshevist (Trotskyist), later changed sides to support Stalin, and succeeded to the post, which he held until 1937. 
  5. 5Evgeny Bagrationovich Vakhtangov (1883-1923), actor, director, and drama teacher, pupil of Stanislavsky, was famous for his innovative work in the Moscow Arts Theater in the early 1920s. 
  6. 6Left Front of Art. 
  7. 7The Ezhov Terror, the most frenzied phase of the purges here described, refers to the arbitrary repression orchestrated by Nikolay Ivanovich Ezhov, head of the NKVD (the precursor of the KGB) 1936-1938. 
  8. 8Dora (her given name was Fanya) Kaplan was indeed shot four days after her arrest, on September 4, 1918. Meyerhold was shot on February 2, 1940. 
  9. 9In fact on August 31, 1941. 
  10. 10Aldridge, an Australian Communist novelist, had published Signed with their Honour (1942) and The Sea Eagle (1944). The first and best-known novel by the working-class writer Greenwood was Love on the Dole (1933). 
  11. 11These writers, now largely forgotten and unread, were among the most successful and widely read exponents of socialist realism. Their then best-known works include Kataev’s Five-Year Plan novel Time, Forward! (1932), Gladkov’s Cement (1925), Leonov’s The Badgers (1924), Sergeev-Tsensky’s The Ordeal of Sevastopol (1937-1939), Fadeev’s The Rout (1925-1926), and Trenev’s Lyubov Yarovaya (1926). The ruthless apparatchik Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Fadeev (1901-1956) was general secretary and chairman of the Soviet Writers’ Union 1946-1954. 
  12. 12More accurately “socialist symbolism,” which would have allowed writers to treat a wider range of subject matter—beyond tractors and blast furnaces—without compromising their political loyalty.