The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library

The Guest from the Future

Wolfson College, Oxford

 A poem by Jon Stallworthy, recalling a momentous meeting between Isaiah Berlin
and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, and its consequences.

Wolfson College is greatly indebted to Professor Jon Stallworthy for permission to use his poem
The Guest from the Future
in its website tribute to the late Sir Isaiah Berlin.
The poem is the copyright of Professor Stallworthy, and enquiries about that copyright should be addressed to him at Wolfson College.

 The Guest from the Future
a triptych


In November 1945, Isaiah Berlin, then First Secretary at the
British Embassy in Moscow, was visiting Leningrad and learnt
from a conversation in a bookshop that Anna Akhmatova was
living nearby.  Telephoned, she invited him to call at her flat in the
old Fontanny Palace on the Fontanka.

Their meeting that afternoon was interrupted, as he describes in his Personal Impressions:
‘Suddenly I heard what sounded like my first name being shouted somewhere outside.
I ignored this for a while - it was plainly an illusion - but the shouting became louder
and the word "Isaiah" could be clearly heard.  I went to the window and looked out,
and saw a man whom I recognized as Randolph Churchill.  He was standing in the
middle of the great court, looking like a tipsy undergraduate, and screaming my name.'
Berlin hurriedly led him away, but himself returned that evening to continue his
conversation with the poet.

They talked all night of their respective Russian childhoods, of such of her early
friends as Modigliani and Salomé Andronikova, of the war, of Tolstoy,
of what she had written - and read him - of ‘Poem without a Hero'.
In the small hours of the morning they were joined by her son, Lev Gumilev,
bringing the only food they had in the flat.

This meeting, because of Churchill's interruption, came to Stalin's attention
(‘So our nun is receiving visits from foreign spies'), altering the course of
Akhmatova's life and, she believed, the course of history.  She became
convinced that, fuelling Stalin's paranoia, they had caused the
first move in the Cold War.

 Berlin came to say goodbye to her, before leaving the Soviet
Union, on 5 January 1946.  The next day, uniformed men screwed
a microphone into her ceiling.  That summer she was denounced
by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and expelled
from the Writers' Union.

On 6 November 1949, her son Lev was arrested for the third time and
the following day Akhmatova committed her poems finally to memory
before burning their manuscripts; among them, the completed
‘Poem without a Hero' in which Berlin appears as ‘The Guest from the Future'.

Guest from the Future - 2

The Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library