In the meanwhile, at another festivity in honor of Priestley (for whose presence I am still grateful, since it helped to open doors for me), I met Mme Afinogenova, a Hungarian-American dancer, the widow of a playwright 'honorably' killed--in an air-raid on Moscow in 1941--who was evidently authorized, and perhaps instructed, to organize a salon for foreign visitors with cultural interests. At any rate, she invited me to it, and there I met a number of writers. The best known among them was the poet Ilya Sel'vinsky …'I know,' said Sel'vinsky, speaking loudly, with great rhetorical force, as if he were addressing a much larger audience, 'I know that we are called conformists in the west. We are. We conform because we find that whenever we deviate from the Party's directives it always turns out that the Party was right and we were wrong. It has always been so. It is not only that they say they know better: they do; they see further: their eyes are sharper, their horizons are wider, than ours.' The rest of the company looked uncomfortable: these words were plainly intended for the concealed microphones without which we could scarcely have met as we did. Under dictatorships public and private expressions of opinion may differ; but Sel'vinsky's outburst was, perhaps because of the insecurity of his own position, too clumsy and overdone: hence the embarrassed silence which followed. I realized none of this at the time, and argued that free discussion, even of political issues, was no danger to political institutions ... I had learnt my lesson. To argue about ideas while Stalin was still in power was to invite predictable answers from some, and to put those who remained silent in some jeopardy. I never saw Mme Afinogenova or any of her guests again.
- Isaiah Berlin, "Meetings with Russian Writers," from Personal Impressions
I do not quote this passage only because it happens to mention my great-grandparents (although that is one reason). The encounter is important, I think, because it mirrors another episode narrated a few pages later: Boris Pasternak's telephone conversation with Stalin after the imprisonment of Mandelstam. Stalin calls Pasternak; Pasternak does not believe he is really speaking to Stalin. Stalin calls back. Pasternak is overjoyed and decides that here, at last, is his opportunity to speak to the Great Leader about the Great Issues. Stalin only cares about whether he was present at the reading of Mandelstam's fatal epigram, but Pasternak gives vague and evasive answers to his questions. At last Stalin says, "If I were Mandelstam's friend I should have known better how to defend him," and hangs up. The great conversation never takes place.
Two conversations, each torn by a certain kind of chasm. On one side, there is the interlocutor who takes the whole thing in good faith, who believes that it is right and proper for the true and beautiful to be sincerely discussed; on the other, there is the strictly businesslike other party, for whom words can have only a utilitarian purpose. The archetypal ancestor of this conversation is the story of Hodja Nasreddin and the foreign scholar. It gets at the comic aspect quite well, although it ends before the tragicomic comes fully into view; if there were a continuation, it would no doubt have the foreign scholar questioning the purpose and value of scholarly talk itself.
Berlin does not question it, either in this essay or in the other entries in the volume. In general, he never appears to doubt that stringing together positive epithets and heart-warming examples of good-natured donnishness does not make for a compelling biographical style. Inevitably, in an apparent attempt to proselytize, he projects his own antipathy to abstraction and authoritarianism upon his voiceless subjects. (Half of the essays in Personal Impressions are elegies for dead Oxonians, all of whom come out looking more or less the same.) But this problem is fundamentally of a piece with his faux pas in Moscow: he assumes the command of the soapbox without considering his audience in the least. If he wants to discuss ideas, it is always on his own terms.
In a way, then, it is Stalin and Selvinsky who are the better conversationalists. By minimizing the idea-rich content of what is said, they focus on how and why it is said, how it is constrained by the confines of the situation. They must understand the other person--that Pasternak's insistence on Great Ideas is nothing but an ineffective distraction from the matter of Mandelstam; that Berlin's talk of democracy is nothing but an empty gesture with no genuine opposition. Berlin, in contrast, does not even need anyone to talk to. He could argue as sincerely with a wall. In the same way, Pasternak's fantasy of the Poet confronting the Tyrant in some alternate-universe version of the Hiero does not require the tyrant to be anything more than a cardboard projection of his own anxieties. (And the real tyrant would no doubt prove unsatisfying.)
This applies, in fact, to the entire book. The style in the Personal Impressions is sprinkled with the trappings of the Persuasive Essay, and the reader does have a constant feeling of being convinced of something. But, like Selvinsky, he is in no position to disagree. Both Berlin and his reader are hemmed in by the limits of genre: the éloge, praised in the introduction, permits no critical engagement or contradiction. It is the quintessential monologic text, as Bakhtin would put it--and that is almost certainly why the book is so tedious. To write something like this, or to blather about freedom as an Englishman in Stalinist Russia, requires a unique and toxic compound of vanity and naivety.