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 Her poems had gone unpublished for two decades, and she had been tacitly written out of Soviet literary history.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.

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