It did not take me long to learn that Anna Akhmatova stayed at the Randolph Hotel when she received her honorary doctorate at Oxford University in 1965, but in the two days I had last weekend in Oxford I could never have done it without the aid of friends and strangers. I was rather pushy about it, just unloading the question on anyone and everyone I could grab by the sleeve and hold long enough to talk to. In the end, the answer came by way of my old friend Oliver Ready, the distinguished translator of Russian prose, and his colleague Henry Hardy, the distinguished editor of the works of Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and historian whose idea it was to invite Akhmatova to Oxford and confer upon her the honorary doctorate.
Henry Hardy also sent along the link to a recent publication in the Russian press. In June of this year the Zvezda (Star) thick journal published the travel notes of Anna Kaminskaya, Akhmatova’s companion on the eight day sojourn to London, Oxford and Stratford. I pull most of what follows from that account.
Kaminskaya and Akuma, as the companion calls the poet, had a long day of travel and hospitality on June 4, 1965. They traveled by car from London to Oxford with Sir Isaiah Berlin, but upon arrival in Oxford he took them directly to his own home for dinner and conversation. They did not arrive at the Randolph until sometime after 11 p.m. that night. The next morning at 10:30 a.m. Kaminskaya and Berlin went to “rehearse” everything Akhmatova would do in the course of the day’s ceremony on June 5. Akhmatova presumably stayed behind in the hotel room to rest up for the day’s festivities. The room, according to Kaminskaya, was “spacious and very light. Elegant, almost transparent curtains decorated with tiny flowers hung on the windows looking out into a garden. Beyond the windows there was greenery and sunlight.”
I will post an account of that ceremony soon. For now, we cling closely to the Randolph.
Following the ceremony “a crowd of fans awaited Akhmatova” in the foyer of the Randolph, writes Kaminskaya. “People came from various countries and cities – students and Russianist professors, and there were many emigrants. They all wanted to congratulate Anna Andreyevna. Unfortunately, it was necessary to cut the visitations short because in the second half of the day a whole series of events had been planned. Anna Andreyevna received: Salisbury with his wife, the Annenkovs, Eliane Moch-Bickert, Gleb Struve, N.A. Daddington and several other people. While Akuma rested, I and Count [Dmitry] Obolensky went out into the city and on one of the streets happened upon Arkady Raikin and his wife. They were in England on tour and had come especially to Oxford for the honorary ceremony, but were too timid to bother Akhmatova with a visit. I virtually cajoled them to come to the hotel, assuring them that Anna Andreyevna would be very glad to see them. In Moscow Raikin often visited the Ardovs in connection with his work and when Akuma would spend time at the Ardovs’, they would occasionally meet there. Anna Andreyevna, who had a fine feel for humor, loved these meetings.”
“That evening Sir Isaiah arranged a ceremonial dinner at our hotel in honor of Anna Andreyevna and the Pasternak sisters Lidia and Josephine, who lived in Oxford. Anna Andreyevna was lively and cheerful. We talked much about her verses and those of Pasternak. Lidia Leonidovna Slater was a professional translator; she had translated many of Boris Leonidovich’s poems into English and he thought very highly of these translations. She also translated Akhmatova’s poems but Anna Andreyevna was not inspired by her translations. A slight shadow rose up between them.”
It was apparently at this evening that Akhmatova asked Berlin if he was the one to have arranged her honorary doctorate and visit to England with all of the events that it entailed. “No,” Kaminskaya reports Berlin as replying, “I was only the pioneer.”
Berlin was a longtime friend, admirer and one-time suitor of Akhmatova, which made her trip to Oxford somewhat complex emotionally. According to an excellent article on the Poetry Foundation site: “Akhmatova always cherished the memories of her nightlong conversations with Berlin, a brilliant scholar in his own right. Inspired by their meetings, she composed the love cycle Cinque (first published in the journal Leningrad in 1946; translated, 1990), which was included in Beg vremeni [Race of Time]; it reads in part:
Sounds die away in the ether,
And darkness overtakes the dusk.
In a world become mute for all time,
There are only two voices: yours and mine.
On the morning of June 7 at 11 a.m., the artist Yury Annenkov and Eliane Moch-Bichert, the wife of the prominent, retired French politician Jules Moch, stopped by the Randolph to see Akhmatova. After that a radio journalist came by to record Akhmatova reading poems that she published in 1964 and then the travelers got into a car and headed for Stratford. The three days in Oxford were behind them.
To fill out the picture for the moment, however, allow me to quote a paragraph from Michael Ignatieff’s book, A Life of Isaiah Berlin. It is drawn from the Spartacus Educational website entry on Akhmatova:
“The last of Isaiah’s encounters with the great figures of the Russian intelligentsia occurred in 1965, when he and Maurice Bowra managed to persuade their university to grant Anna Akhmatova an honorary degree. He had telephoned her in Moscow in 1956, and she had received the news of his marriage in icy silence. They had both decided it was not safe to meet. When she duly appeared in Oxford in June 1965, Isaiah was shocked to see how she had aged. She had gained weight and he thought, a little unkindly, that she resembled Catherine the Great. But she carried herself like an empress and delivered herself of her opinions with imperial force. When she arrived outside Headington House and surveyed the splendid garden, the three-storey Georgian house and Isaiah’s new wife, she observed caustically: ‘So the bird is now in its golden cage.’ The spark that had leaped between them twenty years before was now extinguished. He could only secure her the recognition in the West that was her due; she could only acknowledge it with regal hauteur. He accompanied her as she stood in the Sheldonian and heard herself acclaimed in Latin as ‘an embodiment of the past, who can console the present and provide hope for the future.’ Afterwards he was in attendance at the Randolph Hotel when she received Russian visitors who had come from all over the world to pay court to her. He was there too when she read from her verse, intoning the deep and sonorous rhythms into a tape recorder. She departed for Paris and home, and Isaiah never saw her again. She died the following year. His anti-communism had always been a declaration of allegiance to the intelligentsia of whom she was the last surviving heroine. After her death, he exclaimed to a friend that he would always think of her as an ‘uncontaminated,’ ‘unbroken’ and ‘morally impeccable’ reproach to all the Marxist fellow-travellers who believed that individuals could never stand up to the march of history.”