Bicycle Diaries: On Isaiah Berlin, Part II

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On Isaiah Berlin, Part II

Continuing with Clive James
In The Soviet Mind, the latest posthumous collection of Berlin 's dispersed papers, it's Stalin who gets the whole column in the index. Maurice Bowra gets a single mention, and there is nothing frivolous even about that. Bowra, an early translator of some of Akhmatova's poems, had spoken of her as someone not heard of since World War I. When Berlin found her still alive at the end of World War II, he made a lot of it. Her beleaguered career under the Soviet Union is at the heart of the book. There is reason to believe that her survival led Berlin to a false conclusion, but there are plenty of true conclusions to consider first. In 1957 he wrote that Stalin's repression of “ideas as such” had had a destructive effect even on the sciences, whether pure or applied. He could have taken this line further, and certainly much further back: Solzhenitsyn took it as a far back as the fate of the engineers when Stalin first came to power. But at least the point takes care of what happened to Russian genetics under Stalin's pet crackpot Lysenko, a triumph for charlatanry which ensured that anything left of Soviet agricultural expertise after the ravages of collectivisation was reduced to a terminal impotence. Berlin was capable of assessing the effects of Stalin's dead hand in fields other than the arts, so when it comes to the arts it is no surprise to find him being acutely sensitive to the desperate position that the serious Russian writers were in, at a time when prominent Western writers still felt no shame about accepting invitations to Moscow so that they could spend the blocked roubles of their royalties. Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak emerge from these pages as giants harried by swarming pygmies. It turns out, from Berlin 's text and the editor's notes to it, that when Zhdanov, in 1946, infamously characterised Akhmatova as “half whore, half nun”, he was lifting a tag that had already appeared in the Soviet Literary Encyclopedia in 1930, and was not new even then. The party apparatchiks had always had boundless powers to suffocate the creativity of their intellectual betters. The ability to pick which head merited the application of a pillow was a kind of intellectual qualification in itself. (Solzhenitsyn said it was called “the Moscow talent”: the talent to frustrate talent in others.) There was never any danger that Berlin would regard such persecution as a mere cultural quirk. He clearly loathed it. But what he says about the Mandelstams makes you wonder if he really took in all the implications.

In her two great books Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda Mandelstam was talking about a lot more than personal losses among the intelligentsia. She was talking about an impersonal bloodbath: in that regard, her writings rank her with Evgenia Ginzburg and Shalamov, and join her with Solzhenitsyn and Robert Conquest in tracing the whole catastrophe all the way back to Lenin. For her, the death of her husband was at the centre of a far bigger story. Berlin, too, was appalled by Osip Mandelstam's fate. But one of the points Berlin made about him in the 1965 essay “A Great Russian Writer” is oddly conciliatory towards the regime that murdered him. “No socialist society has (or at any rate, should have) anything to fear from unfettered powers of creation.... Perhaps like other maitres caches he too will be allowed to emerge into the light of day.” It could have been that Berlin , with Stalin safely out of the picture, was tempering his opinions in the hope of the essay being read in the Soviet Union and having a helpful effect. It even might have done so. Mandelstam's poetry, like Akhmatova's, was indeed officially republished while the regime was still running. But again like hers, it was in a censored edition. Pretty in its blue binding but devoid of an historical context, the Mandelstam volume was a Potemkin Village in printed form, with no hint in its supposedly scholarly introduction that the poet had fallen victim to much more than an unfortunate accident. Compared with the three-volume collected works that had already been published in the West, it was an insult added to an injury. Certainly it did nothing to contest Josef Brodsky's resonant opinion that true lyricism, which embodies the ethics of a language, is always intolerable to a tyranny. Strangely enough, Berlin elsewhere seemed to be of the same mind: he traced Stalin's repression of the independent intellect back to Napoleon's belief that all critics, of anything, should be silenced, lest they start criticising him. But Osip Mandelstam wasn't just silenced: he was murdered. Berlin talked about him as if he had lived on in spirit — which was true — but made much less out of the recalcitrant fact that he was dead. And in general Berlin preferred to talk about the Russian writers who had stayed alive, almost as if they had done so by will power. Nowhere in this book can he be heard going quite go so far as the opinion attributed to him by Ignatieff, who says that Berlin learned from Akhmatova that “history could be made to bow before the sheer stubbornness of human conscience.” (According to Ignatieff's footnote, Berlin said something like this in a letter to his friend Jean Floud, which we will probably be getting in the next volume.) But he did seem to believe, or want to believe, that the hounded artists could somehow choose to resist. The facts, however, say that the only choosing was done by Stalin, who chose whether they would live or die.

As Berlin learned later to his horror, his meeting with Akhmatova put her in danger. Her few remaining privileges were revoked and she even ended up losing her union card, which meant that she was no longer, from the official viewpoint, a writer at all. But there had been scores of moments since the Revolution when she might have lost her life, like her husband, or been locked away, like her son. She stayed alive because of Stalin's arbitrary decision, which could just as easily have gone the other way. Among the artists, it had gone the other way many times. Frantic to get her son out of the Gulag, Akhmatova eventually wrote poems in praise of the regime. Her subservience was obtained in the same way that Bukharin's confession had been obtained in 1938. (They didn't have to torture him. All they had to do was threaten his children.) And there had never been any time when, if her existence had been thought useless, it would not have been ended. After the regime fell, Isaac Babel's confession was found in a filing cabinet in the Lubyanka. There was dried blood on it. That was the extent to which history bowed before his stubborn conscience: no extent. Babel 's fate gets precisely one mention in this book. Meyerhold's gets two. But even had Berlin talked at length about them and about many other artists and intellectuals equally unfortunate, he would still have been a prisoner of his illusion that the regime's powers of repression were actuated by some variety of rational logic, however ruthless. Yet there was plenty of evidence that the whole thing had been irrational from the beginning. The evidence had been pouring out of the Soviet Union since before Stalin even came to power. After he did, his arbitrary decision went the other way millions of times. Berlin should have seen the sufferings of his living artists in the context of a multitude of less important people — more than all the people alive in Australia when I was a boy — who were dead for no good reason, or even for a bad one. Some of his living artists tried hard enough to tell him, but somehow he didn't get it. It's the somehow that should concern us.

The anomaly may well have arisen from Berlin 's fondness for seeing history always in the context of ideas. For him, political propensities, up to and including the propensity for mass murder, arose out of the ideas leading up to them. He rarely considered that the ideas might have been preserved, and given lip service, only to serve the propensity. In “Soviet Russian Culture” (1957) he correctly noted that under the Soviet Union the Russian intelligentsia had been reduced to “silence and total submission”, but he added a revealing sentence. “Mere intimidation, torture and murder should not have proved sufficient in a country which, we are always told, was not unused to just such methods and had nevertheless preserved a revolutionary underground alive for the better part of a century.” Even at the time, when Khrushchev himself, who had been an energetic participant in the slaughter, has just finished pointing out that there had been nothing “mere” about it, Berlin's proposed continuity between the relatively selective barbarities of Tsarist absolutism and the Soviet Union's unrestricted warfare against its own population should have struck him as a touch glib. There was, however, an even more revealing sentence to follow. “It is here that one must acknowledge that Stain achieved this by his own original contributions to the art of government.”

Alas, Berlin was being only half ironic. One of the original contributions he specified was the Artificial Dialectic, a term he attributed to O. Utis. For security reasons, Berlin was as yet unable to reveal that “O. Utis” had been a code-name for himself, when he was sending reports back from Moscow to London at about the same time that George Kennan, code-named “X”, was telling Washington why Containment was the only feasible policy. The notion of Containment had many fathers: nobody who had witnessed the Soviet Union's homicidal activities in Poland could doubt its necessity. The notion of the Artificial Dialectic was all Berlin 's, and in retrospect it looks too sophisticated to be true. According to Berlin , Stalin's rhythm of purge and relaxation had always been precisely calculated to maintain the system. One's first objection would have to be that Stalin's purge of Red Army officers on the very eve of Operation Barbarossa might have been calculated to bring the system to an end. But there is a wider objection: the theory makes Stalin a Soviet Mind, a thinker — and therefore a student of history, like Isaiah Berlin.

It seems doubtful. The mark of intellectuals is, or should be, their ability to reach conclusions that don't suit their prejudices. However much Stalin read, he took nothing in that didn't suit his disposition. Dossiers were brought in bundles to his desk that proved Hitler was about to invade him. Those who brought them ran the risk of getting shot. His mind was made up that there would be no invasion. When it happened, he collapsed into bed, giving his colleagues a chance to bump him off that they unforgivably let slip. His debacle convinced even him that he would have to listen to other voices if he wanted to win the war. Listening only to his own, as he usually preferred to do, he would have lost it in the first six months. In the use of his unlimited powers, Stalin was too irrational even to defend the most pressing interests of the regime he ruled. Just as Hitler, with Nazi Germany fighting for its life late in the war, went on diverting manpower and precious rolling stock into the self-imposed task of wiping out Jews, gypsies and homosexuals, so did Stalin, earlier in the war, when the Soviet Union was fighting for its life, go on diverting manpower and precious Studebaker trucks — sent to him by the Americans on convoys which he mentioned only when they were late — into the self-imposed task of resettling his own populations, with all the usual obscenities attendant on that pointless activity. The Soviet Union was an asylum with the most violent patient in charge. Berlin advised London that it was best dealt with by making no threats, and that it would probably last for as long as it liked. Kennan was closer to the mark when he advised Washington that its belligerence could be contained only with armed strength, but that its irrationality would set a term to its life. The terminus proved to be another 45 years in coming, but it came. Berlin was not the only student who thought that the vast mechanism might go on maintaining itself indefinitely. I.F. Stone, with the credentials of an ex-Communist, argued persuasively that the security services were geared to keep their omnipotence in perpetuity. With even better credentials, the expelled sociologist Alexander Zinoviev wrote a series of closely reasoned essays — much more impressive, in retrospect, than his gigantic satirical novels— showing how the control mechanisms worked, and how the upsurge of dissident literature might even be one of them. Not just on the bien pensant Left, a considerable intellectual investment went into crediting the Soviet Union with unearthly powers of reasoning.

To do him credit, Berlin rejoiced when the expectation finally proved false. His essay “The Survival of the Russian Intelligentsia”, written in 1990, is practically a chorus from Fidelio: the prisoners emerge blinking from their cells into the light of day. But here again, there is a false note. “My impression was that what remained of the true intelligentsia was dying. In the course of the last two years I have discovered, to my great surprise and delight, that I was mistaken.” Mistaken, he might have said, mainly in neglecting to note that what did not remain of the true intelligentsia was already dead ten times over. Going on to celebrate the vindication of his friend Andrei Sakharov, he sings this kaddish above his grave: “Nor was he alone. The survival of the entire culture to which he belonged, underneath the ashes and rubble of dreadful historical experience, appears to me a miraculous fact.” More than miraculous, one would have thought: illusory. The entire culture survived? Tell it to Babel.

But impatience is out of place. Berlin was right enough about the Soviet Union to help ensure that, in Britain at any rate, those who were entirely wrong could not have it all their own way. It could have been, however, that Britain was simply better prepared to take a realistic view than, say, France. It was Berlin 's French equivalent, Raymond Aron, who published, in 1955, the single most penetrating analysis of Communist ideology, The Opium of the Intellectuals. But Aron's message was lost on the gauchiste intelligentsia, which continues to this day to behave as if all the atrocities added up to something respectable. Le livre noir du communisme, a new Book of the Dead which counts the innocent victims in their many millions, was reviewed in France as if it had been written by the Plans division at Langley, Virginia . Another philosopher who, like Berlin, graduated to political history, Jean-Francois Revel, in his L'obsession anti-americaine , has done a convincing job of tracing fashionable anti-Americanism to this long-lingering reluctance to accept the facts about the new world order that was supposed to replace the depredations of capitalism with something beneficial. (The more chic Bernard-Henri Levy, recently in the news for taking the same line on this point, is really piggybacking on an effort that Revel has been putting in for decades.) But is it really a reluctance? Following the rule that we should put the best possible construction on the motives of our opponents, perhaps we should consider the possibility that the facts have been accepted, but can't be fully faced, because the cost of reconstructing a world view would be too painful. Berlin 's own — much lesser, but still striking —shyness on the matter suggests this might be so. His view of history depended on the assumption that large-scale events, however terrible, came about as a result of minds deliberating. He would have had to rethink his position altogether if he were to admit the possibility that there could be large-scale events into which minds didn't enter. So there might have been inertia to go with the revulsion. But there can be no doubt about the revulsion. Berlin was a man of feeling. Those giant totals of dead on the page — lines of zeroes like strings of bubbles — might look meaningless to the insensitive. But to the sensitive they can be devastating. They mean too much.

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