When Dr Zhivago was smuggled out of Russia
In reality, the book was Berlin's critique of Tolstoy and his view of history.
Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) was of Jewish origin and born in Riga in Latvia. He migrated to England in 1921 and taught at the University of Oxford. He was one of the founders of Wolfson College, perhaps the only undergraduate college in Oxford.
The Jindal Global University (JGU) organised a one-day seminar on the seminal thinker and philosopher at the India International Centre last week to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty. It also coincided with JGU's own 10 years of excellence in institution building. As the vice-chancellor, Professor Raj Kumar, remarked in his opening address, the role of a university is crucial in raising critical issues that affect our society and polity, and cited the continued relevance of Berlin's ideas in this regard. Both Kathleen Modrowski, the dean of JGU's liberal arts and humanities school, and the British High Commissioner, Sir Dominic Scott (in a separate communication), cited Berlin's The Hedgehog and the Fox.
This book was central to Berlin's own credo. The title is derived from a line by Aricholocus, an obscure Greek poet. "The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing," Aricholocus had said. In very simple terms, faced with a variety of and multiple threats from the fox, the hedgehog has one standard response, it simply rolls up into a ball. It has a standard response to a variety of issues; it was thus a single-issue fanatic.
In reality, the book was Berlin's critique of Tolstoy and his view of history. Hedgehogs pursue a single vision of history and have a unilinear outlook forcing the pluralism inherent in history into a single monistic model. The foxes, on the other hand, embody pluralism and a variety of ideas and approaches. Berlin felt that all writers could be divided into hedgehogs and foxes and felt that though Tolstoy was actually a fox, he was compelled to seek one universal, causal, reason for all of history, thereby becoming a hedgehog. In part, Berlin's criticism of Tolstoy was derived from the way Tolstoy had portrayed Anna Karenina in his novel and Berlin had been most unhappy with Karenina's end.
The keynote address at the seminar was by Ramin Jahanbegloo, the vice-dean of the law school at JGU. He spoke about his own travel to Oxford from Paris to interview Berlin. Ramin had published a book on his conversations with Berlin and had been struck by Berlin's simplicity and frankness. The OUP in Oxford had given Ramin Berlin's personal number and not only did Berlin take the call himself and opened both the door and his home to Ramin. "He even made me a cup of tea," Ramin said.
I was reminded of a colleague who had visited Sir Keith Thomas in his rooms at Oxford. Thomas, more known for his work, The Rise of Religion and the Decline of Magic, was then a delegate to the OUP and chairman of its Finance Committee. He too had offered tea except that he did not know how to make it as his secretary had always done the honours and that day was her off-day. My colleague knew the drill, tea was duly prepared and all was well!
Though I was in a scholarly milieu and had forsaken that world after a stint at university teaching in favour of publishing, I had a vested interest in attending the seminar. At the ensuing discussion that followed, I made a couple of observations. I said that apart from Berlin's innate democratic and liberal nature, he was very generous with his time. I could testify to this personally. I had carried to the seminar a copy of a personal seven-page communication by Berlin closely typed and with corrections in his own hand. This was datelined September 22, 1982, by Berlin and had been sent from Headington House at Oxford. It was a lengthy and comprehensive response to a manuscript on political thought sent by its author, Om Bakshi, who was then teaching at Delhi University. The revised manuscript was subsequently submitted to me at OUP India for publishing. I had taught this very subject to university students and it was felt I would be in the best position to assess it.
Bakshi met me in my room at OUP in 1986 and knowing of my interest in the subject, he had prudently thought it fit to include Berlin's exhaustive comments which he had carefully preserved from 1982 for it's not everyday that you get an enthusiastic response from a scholar of the stature of Isaiah Berlin for your work. Those comments have been preserved by me for the same reasons with one proviso, I am not the author of the work. The comments were historic. Not only did they give an insight into Berlin's own pluralism and variety of ideas, they dealt with concepts and thinkers with whom I was familiar. Above all, they established Berlin as a philosopher of ideas very much in the lines of Socrates, Aristotle and Plato. Berlin concluded his letter to Bakshi in his usual self-effacing manner for erudition and scholarship sat lightly on him. "I am so sorry that this is so long (and illegible in part), and I hope that you have not abandoned this letter half-way through, as well you might. I say again that I think your essay is one of the most lucid, best-documented, interesting and intellectually stimulating piece of writing that I have met with in recent years, and I hope that you will publish it - and if there is anything I can do in that direction, please let me know." Bakshi's work was published by us in the OUP in 1987 as The Crisis of Political Theory - An Inquiry into Political Thought. I had occasion to discuss this letter again with my friend Dileep Padgaonkar in 1990. Dileep had just returned from Oxford after interviewing Berlin and published an op-ed article, Against the Current. Dileep quoted Berlin to say that one area where philosophers of the Enlightenment went wrong was in trying to discover certain fixed and common laws which govern human behaviour and which transcend time and space. Berlin believed that men are not merely objects in nature governed by discoverable causal laws but human behaviour was in a constant and dynamic flux depending on how men perceived themselves, their relationship to their fellows and, above all, to the world around them. The sheer volume of criticism of his writings, from the Left, the Right, Marxist and Catholic, convinced Berlin that he was living in an age of great intellectual ferment with some very talented people. The seminar on Berlin concluded with closing remarks by Ashok Vajpeyi, poet and literary critic.
He spoke of Berlin's abiding friendships with Anna Akhmatova, a poet, and leading intellectual writer, Boris Pasternak. Under Stalin's Russia this friendship was to prove detrimental to Akhmatova, resulting in her losing the privileges of being a member of the Writers Union, and forcing Akhmatova to compromise and write poems praising Stalin. Stalin's death in 1953 did not ease her condition. Berlin, in atonement and in conjunction with Maurice Bowra, did persuade Oxford to grant Akhmatova an honorary degree in 1956 but her health had broken down and she died the following year.
That same year, Berlin visited Russia and met the writer, Boris Pasternak. The writer persuaded Berlin to smuggle a copy of the Dr Zhivago manuscript to England. Pasternak's wife had grave objections but the writer stood his ground. He had already managed to send a copy to his Italian publishers. Berlin had read the manuscript of Dr Zhivago in his hotel room and realised he had a masterpiece in his hand but was filled with misgivings keeping Akhmatova's fate in mind. Knowing Pasternak's defiant and intractable nature, Berlin carried Dr Zhivago to England where it was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1958. The Italian edition had been published in 1957. The film version by David Lean was to immortalise Dr Zhivago. Pasternak was conferred the Nobel Prize in 1958.
The fame of Dr Zhivago did have repercussions for Pasternak. He was not permitted to go to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize in person though Khrushchev had succeeded Stalin. His privileges in the Writers Union were initially withdrawn and then restored due to international pressure. He died in 1960 and, though the authorities wanted a quiet burial, his funeral was attended by thousands. The Nobel Prize was finally claimed by his descendants in 1988 a good 30 years after it had been conferred.
The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books