Tag Archives: Isaiah Berlin

Anna Akhmatova, Ivan Turgenev et alii at the Sheldonian, Oxford UK


The Oxford connection to Russia and Russians runs deep. Suffice it to say that the university purchased a Russian font for its press in 1696. This and many other fascinating tidbits of Oxford-Russia history may be gleaned from Victoria Bentata’s article, “Oxford’s Early Russian Connections,” for the Oxford Today website.
Surely one of the most important buildings in this relationship is the roundish Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street. This is the location where Oxford presents its honorary doctorate degrees and a surprisingly large number of Russians have received them. The first figure of Russian culture and art to be so honored was the novelist Ivan Turgenev. In fact, according to an article by J.S.G. Simmons on the Oxoniensia.org website, he was the first novelist of any nationality to receive that high honor. The event occurred on June 18, 1879, somewhat more than four years before the great novelist’s death, and just 75 years, to the day, before I was born.
Simmons writes: “At this period the undergraduate members of the audience at the University’s annual Encaenia still exercised their traditional privilege of voicing their opinion of the University’s notabilities and honorands – and though Turgenev was perhaps at the peak of his literary fame in England at the time,  he feared that recent memories of the Russo-Turkish War and the bitter divisions which it had engendered in English political life, might lead to embarrassing demonstrations against a Russian Honorary Doctor. But in the event all went well…”
Reportedly, Turgenev wrote to a friend a few days later to point out that he had received louder applause than any of the seven other recipients that day.
Some other Russian honorary doctors include the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the poet, translator and children’s author Kornei Chukovsky, the great literary scholar and humanist Dmitry Likhachev, the poet Joseph Brodsky, and, of course, the poet Anna Akhmatova. Some of these individuals might have passed through the gates leading to the theatre, as seen directly below, as well as passing a guard or greeter, perhaps similar to the one who was overseeing foot traffic the day I made these photos last week. As it happens, degrees were being bestowed on the fortunate and fastidious that day as well.

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Anna Akhmatova received her honorary doctorate here at the Sheldonian on June 5, 1965. It was a Saturday and the ceremony began at 2:30 in the afternoon. Readers of my last post may recall that I drew my account of Akhmatova’s visit to Oxford from the memoirs of the poet’s companion Anna Kaminskaya. I do so again here. Kaminskaya, it should be pointed out, sometimes refers to Akhmatova affectionately as Akuma.
“We found ourselves almost at the head of the procession on the street. A man of small stature lead us all. He was dressed in a medieval, black suit with a mace in hand. He was followed by two ceremony masters carrying staffs, also in black. Next in line were Vice Counsellor Doctor Kenneth Wheare and Mr. Brian Brown [I have not been able to verify this individual. My thank you to Hugh Macmillan for identifying the first, see comments below – JF], followed by Anna Andreyevna who leaned on my arm in a red gown with gray cuffs and sleeves. Behind us were three other laureates also dressed in red and gray gowns. Further on were professors in black gowns. The procession, which has not changed its outward appearance since medieval times, made its way through the tiny old streets of Oxford to the Sheldonian Theatre and stopped alongside the two-story, 18th-century Clarendon building with its central porte-cochere. We passed into a small room on the first floor where a book lay on a table. Four of the year’s laureates left their signatures in it and received sheets printed with the salutatory speeches. The room was lit only by the light entering through a window made of small panes of glass. As such it seemed as though we were plunged into a medieval gloom. When we passed further through a portico, the procession entered a large cobblestone yard before the Sheldonian, where the ceremony was to begin at 14:30.
“(When we walked through the yard where the public was waiting, eager to greet the laureates, Akuma was extremely tense. In order to calm her I surreptitiously gave her a validolum tablet which helped her cope with her nerves. A few seconds later she said to me, ‘I’m moving. I’m moving. I’m fine.’)
“The heavy doors of the theatre opened; spectators had filled the amphitheatre. Anna Andreyevna was the first to be honored. She entered slowly, leaning on my arm, her head slightly bowed, looking at no one, attempting to conserve her energy for the event that was to come. We sat in our designated seats. During the speech Anna Andreyevna was supposed to stand in the center of the hall, but, violating tradition, an exception was made for her.
“…After the triumphant reception of Anna Andreyevna, we went out onto the square. A crowd of admirers of Akhmatova’s poetry was waiting on the street, and it was joined by professors, students and guests who had come out of the ceremony. A living corridor of applause was formed and the victory parade continued. Anna Andreyevna did not expect such a triumph.
“Sir Isaiah [Berlin] approached us and led us to the car belonging to the family of Prince Obolensky. Akuma was uncommonly pleased and happy, primarily because everything was now over with. On the road to the hotel she said that it all reminded her of “An Easter Procession in Kursk Province” (a painting by Ilya Repin), lacking only the horsemen and holy banners. Otherwise it was just like any large church holiday in Russia.”
Kaminskaya’s Russian-language memoirs may be accessed on the website of Zvezda (Star) journal.
In a recent short piece called “A Sheldonian Experience” by Sagar Gubbi,  we hear a bit about Akhmatova’s receiving her doctorate from another source. “The final speaker of the evening,” writes Gubbi about an event in 2009, “was Sundance Institute’s Kenneth Brecher, who did an outstanding job of describing the history behind the evening’s venue, Sheldonian Theatre. He narrated a particularly moving and inspiring story of Anna Akhmatova, an incredibly talented Russian poet who, after many years of struggle under the Soviet rule, was finally recognised by the University of Oxford for an honorary degree. It was here at the Sheldonian that the University’s Head broke its age-old tradition by climbing down from the stage to confer the degree to a physically frail Akhmatova.”

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Anna Akhmatova hotel, Oxford UK


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.

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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.”

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