Wednesday Book; It happened one night

THE GUEST FROM THE FUTURE: ANNA AKHMATOVA AND ISAIAH BERLIN BY GYORGY DALOS, TRANSLATED BY ANTONY WOOD, JOHN MURRAY, pounds 17.99

THE MEETING in 1945 between the Oxford scholar Isaiah Berlin and the great poet Anna Akhmatova is already the stuff of legend. Berlin described their 14 hours conversation in St Petersburg as "the most memorable encounter of my life", while Akhmatova called Berlin her "Guest from the Future". All through one night, they talked about the literature they loved, especially the poetry of Pushkin. At some point, Randolph Churchill, a friend of Berlin, made a drunkenly noisy appearance in the courtyard beneath her window. Anyone without direct experience of the Soviet era would wonder how such an occasion could have disastrous consequences. What was all the fuss about?

This sharply written and elegantly translated little book establishes beyond doubt that there was nothing paranoid in Akhmatova's belief that this meeting led to a succession of new misfortunes. Dalos has access to hitherto secret files of both the KGB and the Politbureau. After Berlin's visit, he has discovered, Akhmatova's flat was bugged, and informers set to spy on her. Two of her books, ready for publication, were taken out of production. On 14 August 1946, Zhdanov condemned her in the Central Committee as both "nun and whore". All her privileges as a member of the Writers Union were removed, including her ration book. Worst of all, her son Lev was taken back into prison.

Akhmatova had been regarded with suspicion ever since her first husband Gumilyov's execution in 1922. Her poems had gone unpublished for two decades, and she had been tacitly written out of Soviet literary history. With obstinate courage, she remained friends with both Bulgakov and Shostakovich when they were in trouble, while Nadezhda, the wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, once wrote that Akhmatova was the only person in the whole of Russia she felt she could trust. Still, Akhmatova's broadcasts to the beleaguered people of Leningrad during the war had restored her briefly to government favour.

Dalos's new material shows that the KGB did indeed imagine she had been suborned by Isaiah Berlin to spy for England. Moreover, he quotes KGB informers reports in chilling detail. "She was ill for a long time with nervous exhaustion and cardiac arhythmia... Outwardly, she remains cheerful... people completely unknown to her have sent flowers and fruit." There are even minutes of the Leningrad Union of Writers in which Stalin's voice is directly recorded complaining that Akhmatova's good poems can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Yet why should Berlin have been regarded with such suspicion ? He was at that time working for the Foreign Office. In Soviet eyes, however, he was a likely British spy. He was said, for one thing, to be a close friend of Churchill. And his relatives who had remained in Russia were already Stalin's victims. A distant cousin of Isaiah Berlin's had already been sentenced to 25 years in a labour camp. Another relative, a Dr Pevsner who worked in a clinic in Moscow, was later to confess (under torture) to British secret service links at the time of the invented "Jewish Doctors" plot.

Akhmatova was one of the most glittering figures of St Petersburg before the First World War, and a woman of remarkable beauty. She was in her late fifties, however, when she met Isaiah Berlin. She fell so much in love with him then that she found herself "going around as if the sun were in my body". Berlin, though he describes receiving a poem inscribed to him as "one of the most thrilling experiences of his life", did not reciprocate her feelings.

When he returned to Russia briefly in 1956, he was mainly anxious that a second visit might bring more trouble on her. Boris Pasternak suggested that he should telephone from a public call box, and alerted Akhmatova meanwhile that Berlin was accompanied by his new wife. Akhmatova always referred with irony to the disappointment of this "non-meeting".

It was not her only unhappiness. In the camps, her son Lev's mind had been poisoned against her by guards who persuaded him that she was indifferent to his fate. Yet the "bitter glory" she had long ago predicted finally came to Akhmatova. Dalos's book reveals the manoeuvring, in the aftermath of Khrushchev's revelations, which allowed her to receive the Etna Taormina Prize, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. In 1966, a street in Odessa and a new planet were posthumously named for her. Russia knows how to honour its poets - once they are safely dead.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried