Blog Post

Akhmadulina Remembered, Again

Post Script II. A few days ago I received a request to review an advance copy of An Invisible Rope: A Portrait of Czeslaw Milosz, edited by my friend and Stanford colleague Cynthia L. Haven (Ohio University Press, to be released shortly). Among other recollections of Milosz (he left an indelible mark in those who knew him), there was “Spring in Berkeley,” by Tomas Venclova. It contains Venclova's account of the same evening that he and I spent with Bella Akhmadulina and her husband, as it turns out, at Cheshire Cat, a Berkeley pub that is no longer in existence. Having read Tomas' recollections, I now realize that I must have left the party shortly after Milosz joined it and, fool that I am, missed the rest of the conversation that, unbeknownst to me,  continued well into the small hours of the morning. 

I shall not attempt to retell Venclova's story here and preempt the publications (it is a great piece about Milosz and a fine snapshot of Berkeley, as seen by one who has just landed from Mars!), except to note that among the subjects discussed by these three poets was one dear to Milosz’s heart and at the core of his The Captive Mind: the compromising position of intellectuals who publicly cooperate with a communist regime while limiting their criticism to private consumption (what Milosz referred to as ketman). Tomas, who had freed himself from any ambiguity vis-à-vis the Soviet regime by joining the Helsinki Group, which led to his de facto expulsion, was the one to raise the subject. Akhmadulina, still on the leash, took the subject personally, assuming that ketman had something to do with the ambiguity of her position in the Soviet Union. Milosz, it seems, did too. Akhmadulina was about to go to pieces and would have there and then had Milosz not intervened and absolved her of any such sins after she declared her admiration for Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.


Those were the days! Or as Osip Mandelstam put it in his 1916 poem about a Petrograd performance of Racine's Phaedre, "if only the Greeks could see our games!" Когда бы грек увидел наши игры!


Gregory Freidin's picture
Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990. Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.