A Poet, a Dictator and the Fragility of Human Memory

Ismail Kadare's 'A Dictator Calls' brings out the fraught and often dangerous relationship between poets/writers and tyrants.

A Dictator Calls – a book by Albania’s leading novelist and poet Ismail Kadare – is difficult to pigeonhole into a genre. It navigates the treacherous territory that demarcates fact and fiction. It is about the precarious nature of historical truth. It is also about the fraught and often dangerous relationship between poets/writers and tyrants. In Kadare’s words, “History is usually reticent regarding what happens between poets and tyrants. The truth gives way to inventions, some memorable, others forgettable.” This is a book about the fragility of human memory.

In the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Osip Mandelstam in May 1934, Stalin, Moscow lore has it, had telephoned Boris Pasternak, probably in June 1934. The tyrant was in his lair in the Kremlin and the poet in his apartment in Moscow. The conversation lasted around three minutes and then Stalin hung up. When Pasternak tried to call back, he found that the number no longer existed. It had apparently been created in the Kremlin for that one phone call. The phone call created a stir in the literary circles of Soviet Russia.

If one were prepared to believe what circulated in the literary circles and in the samizdat, then Stalin asked Pasternak, “A little time ago the poet Mandelstam was arrested. What have you to say to that, comrade Pasternak?” A flabbergasted and probably frightened, Pasternak replied, “Mandelstam and I, we are very different.” Or words to that effect. Why did Stalin call when he could easily have summoned Pasternak? Why the need to know what Pasternak thought? Was there in the phone call an implied (or not so implicit) threat or warning? Such questions continue to persist not the least because, according to Kadare, there are at least 12 versions of this three-minute phone conversation. These versions come from various sources – from Isaiah Berlin (the famous Oxford don who was viewed with great suspicion by the Soviet secret police and who reputedly smuggled the typescript of Doctor Zhivago out of Soviet Russia), the poet Anna Akhmatova and other reporters, witnesses and so on. The evidence is mostly second/third hand and hearsay.

The Soviet regime, as has now been discovered, was scrupulous in keeping records. The archives do say that such a conversation between Stalin and Pasternak did take place on June 23, 1934; it lasted between three and four minutes. “All the words said by each participant are clearly evidenced and preserved,” Kadare tells us. Can we trust the archived version? Historians tend to, since archival evidence is the staple of the historian. But archives can be biased, be one-sided and even be manufactured.

Ismail Kadare
A Dictator Calls
Harvill Secker, 2023

Kadare begins with the archival version according to which Stalin’s secretary made the call and announced, “Comrade Stalin will speak with you now.” Stalin then came on the line and asked Pasternak the question quoted above. The latter replied, “I know him only slightly. He is an Acmeist, but I belong to a different group. So I can’t say anything about Mandelstam.” Stalin’s retort was, “Whereas I can say you’re a very poor comrade, comrade Pasternak.” And abruptly terminated the call.

This record announces an arrest even though it was already the talk of Moscow but gives no indication why Stalin wanted to talk to Pasternak. But most mystifying of all is Stalin’s comment before he disconnected the line. What did he mean? We get a clue from the second version that Kadare narrates. It comes from the memoirs of Galina von Meck, who was Tchaikovsky’s great-niece and probably Mandelstam’s lover. She recalled that at a gathering of poets where she was the only outsider, a very upset Pasternak had appeared and had blurted out, “Something awful has happened to me. Awful! And I behaved like a coward.” He went on to tell the gathering about Stalin’s phone call to him. According to Pasternak, as reported by von Meck, he had given the following fumbling reply, “You know best, comrade Stalin, it is up to you.” In answer to this, Stalin said “with a definite sneer” (the words are von Meck’s), “Is that all you can say – when our comrades were in tight spots we knew better how to fight for them” and then put the receiver down. Was Stalin, through a seemingly innocent question, trying to implicate Pasternak? What would have happened to the latter if he had spoken in  solidarity with Mandelstam and had condemned the arrest? Historians could also ask – Kadare doesn’t – did Stalin fight for his comrades? He fought against them – think of Trotsky in exile from the late 1920s and of Zinoviev, Kamenev, Bukharin, Preobrazensky, Radek and others already in disgrace when he is being holier-than-thou with Pasternak. Stalin, Kadare notes, if one goes by the second version, is actually humiliating Pasternak. But why? Kadare is justified in saying that the second version deepens the fog.

There is nothing new in the third version which is a tape recorded conversation between two literary personalities, one of whom, S.P. Bobrov, was known for his malice towards Pasternak. However, when the issue of Pasternak’s fear is broached one of them said, “He shouldn’t have been. However brutal Stalin may be…still…Stalin was the sort of person…of course brutal, but still…” Kadare comments, “This accursed `but still’ was usually a prelude to a tentatively prettified portrait of the dictator, and a corresponding denigration of the poet.”

The fourth version comes from Victor Shklovsky, another distinguished man of letters, who wrote, Pasternak “had correspondence with Stalin, talked to him on the phone, and didn’t defend Mandelstam”. The words “had correspondence with Stalin” inevitably raises the question: was there something more than a brief phone call? This version adds that Pasternak told Stalin, “Yosif Visarionovich, since you have phoned me, let’s talk about history and poetry.” Stalin replied, “I am asking you what they’re saying about Mandelstam’s arrest.” So Stalin was not seeking Pasternak’s reaction but to find out what “they’re saying”. This version goes on, “He said something else. Then Stalin said, “If they arrested friend of mine, I would bend over backwards to help him.” Pasternak replied, “if that is what you’re phoning about, I have already bent over backwards.” Stalin’s parting shot was, “I thought you were a great poet, but you’re just a big fraud.”” The conversation ended and Pasternak, according to this version, wept.

The fifth take is from Nikolai Vilmont, a person very close to Pasternak in 1934 but was no longer close to him when he recalled the incident. Vilmont claimed he was having lunch with Pasternak when the phone call came at around 4 pm. The latter refused to believe that the great man actually wanted to speak to him so he was given a number to call back. When he dialled the number, Stalin spoke to him directly and said, “You’re upset about your friend Mandelstam.” Pasternak replied, “We’ve never been real friends. More the opposite. We have different opinions. But I’ve always dreamt of talking to you.” Stalin replied, “We old Bolsheviks never turned our backs on our friends. And I don’t intend to talk to you about nothing.” Vilmont could, of course, hear only hear Pasternak’s side of the conversation but he said that he had put down what Pasternak had told him. Once Stalin disconnected, Pasternak grabbed the phone to assure the former that Mandelstam really wasn’t his friend and that he hadn’t denied the friendship out of fear. But there was no reply from the number.

Ismail Kadare.

All the five versions do not show Pasternak in a good light. In the sixth version which comes from Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida Nikolayevna, a different light emerges. Zinaida relates that she was ill and in bed when the call from the Kremlin came through. According to her, when she heard her husband say, “Hello Yosif Visarionovich”, “the blood went to my head” but her husband remained calm and “spoke to Stalin in the same way as he would talk to me or you.” Zinaida went on to say, “I realized from the first exchange that it was about Mandelstam. Borya said he was surprised at his arrest, and although there had been no great friendship between them, he valued his work writing as the work of a first-rate poet, and always recognized his merits. He asked Stalin to help Mandelstam, and if possible to release him. Borya spoke to Stalin plainly and directly without fine words or going into politics. I asked Borya how Stalin replied to his suggestion of talking about life and death. It turned out that Stalin said that he would talk with pleasure, but didn’t know how to arrange it.” In this telling, Pasternak had thus spoken to help a fellow poet; he hadn’t been flustered or frightened; the line hadn’t been abruptly cut; and there had been no attempt on Pasternak’s part to call back.

The seventh version comes from the diary of the poet, Anna Akhmatova, who recorded that Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda (Nadya), following the arrest of her husband had sent a telegram to the Central Committee. Following this, Stalin gave orders to have the matter looked into. Then he called Pasternak. Akhmatova added, “What followed after is very well known…Stalin reported that instructions had been given for everything to be straight regarding Mandelstam. He asked Pasternak why he hadn’t intervened.” It would appear from this that the reason for Stalin’s phone call was to assure Pasternak that matters were being set right and this could have happened earlier if Pasternak had intervened. Three years before her death (she died in 1966), Akhmatova somewhat altered her version. According to the later version, Stalin said, “If a poet friend of mine were to go to prison, I would move heaven and earth to save him.” Pasternak replied that if he’d intervened, Stalin wouldn’t have agreed. Stalin then said, “But he’s your friend?” At this, according to Akhmatova, who wasn’t present during the conversation,  Pasternak “shrivelled”. Stalin continued, “But he’s a great poet, isn’t he?” Pasternak replied, “That isn’t so important…I’ve wanted for so long to talk with you.” “What about?” “About life, about death.” At this, Stalin put down the phone. Akhmatova believed that Pasternak had been deliberately evasive. It should be noted that there were rumours in Russia that Anna and Pasternak had been lovers, even may have been husband and wife.

The eighth version from Mandelstam’s wife is “the most sparse, not to say bleakest, account of the events”. She wrote, “Stalin began by telling Pasternak that Mandelstam’s case had been reviewed, and everything would be all right. This was followed by a strange reproach: why hadn’t Pasternak approached the writers’ organizations or `him personally’ and why hadn’t he tried to do something for Mandelstam?” According to Nadezhda, similar to Akhmatova’s diary record, Stalin did not call to seek Pasternak’s advice but to convey hopeful news.

The ninth version comes from the wife of the futurist poet, Sergey Bobrov who had himself recorded his version of the events (see the third version above). Bobrov’s wife, Maria Pavlovna Bogolovskaya, wrote she had gone to Pasternak to seek help for her husband to gain permission for a publication. On hearing the request, Pasternak’s face had “clouded” and he had said he was unable to do anything. He had asked her if she knew about his conversation with Stalin. When she had said no, Pasternak had said it had been difficult for him to talk as there had been people in the house. When Stalin had asked him what he thought of Mandelstam, Pasternak told her, “I can’t talk about something I don’t feel. It would be foreign to me. That’s what I said to him, that I couldn’t say anything about Mandelstam.” By this account, Pasternak felt nothing for a fellow poet and therefore saw no need to stand up for him.

The tenth version is from Pasternak’s lover, Olga Ivinskaya. She recorded that “the leader” had spoken in a “rough voice using ti as he usually did”. He had asked what the gossip was about Mandelstam in “your literary circles”. Pasternak had replied, “There was no gossip, because to have gossip you have to have literary circles. But there are no literary circles because everyone is scared.” At the other end there was a long silence and then Stalin had asked Pasternak what he thought of “this poet”. Pasternak had replied that “he and Mandelstam were poets going in totally different directions”. Stalin replied in “a tone of contempt”, “So you don’t know how to stand up for your friend.” And put the phone down. At that moment, Pasternak confessed to Olga Ivinskaya “he froze completely”. The interesting detail here, as Kadare underlines, is Stalin’s use of ti – was it a sign of intimacy or of contempt? It is the only testimony that mentions this detail. The other detail is Pasternak’s comment that fear had obliterated literary circles.

The penultimate version comes from Isaiah Berlin who claimed that Pasternak had spoken to him twice about the conversation with Stalin. Berlin wrote that Pasternak had initially thought someone was playing a prank on him but was convinced only when Stalin came on the line and explained that it was indeed Stalin. The latter asked Pasternak if he had been present when Mandelstam had read his “squib in verse”. Pasternak said that this was of no consequence but he was happy to be talking to Stalin, he had always known this would happen and that they should meet “to discuss some matters of extraordinary importance”. Stalin asked whether Mandelstam was a fine poet. Pasternak replied as poets they were entirely different, he felt to inner rapport with Mandelstam but he valued Mandelstam’s poems. According to Berlin, “As he related this episode, Pasternak plunged into metaphysical views about turning points in history, about which he wanted to talk to Stalin in a deep conversation of historic significance.” Stalin ignored all this and repeated his original question. Pasternak too reiterated his desire to meet Stalin to talk about life and death and that such a meeting should not be put off. Stalin retorted with, “If I were Mandelstam’s friend, I would know how to defend him better.” Berlin added, “This entire story seemed to cause him great pain.” Pasternak also told Berlin that when the phone call came only he, his wife and his son were in the apartment. This casts a serious doubt on the veracity of what Nikolai Vilmont (fifth version above) claimed. According to Vilmont the call had come at 4 pm when he was having lunch with Pasternak.

The 12th retelling (if retelling it is) says, “The tyrant was having fun…” The author of this was the writer Vladimir Solovyev who was suspected of being a KGB agent and admitted to being one in 1992.

What is one to make of all this? It is too convenient to dismiss the episode and its many versions as a needless brouhaha. As students of history and of literature one cannot take such an evasive attitude. And Kadare doesn’t. He presents it as a riddle and interweaves it with many aspects of Russian and Soviet history and literature and his own dreams and nightmares about living under a communist dictatorship in Albania.

The overwhelming question is: why did Stalin call Pasternak? There are two different answers that emerge. One, Stalin was probing – gossip in literary circles and Pasternak’s own position regarding Mandelstam’s arrest. And second, Stalin was passing on the information that he was setting things all right in the Mandelstam affair. There is one thing common to both: Stalin’s chiding of Pasternak or sneering at him for not standing up for a fellow poet/friend and for not interceding on Mandelstam’s behalf directly with Stalin. Only in the version given by Pasternak’s wife is it said, that Pasternak asked Stalin to help Mandelstam. A related question refuses to go away, what was the reason for Pasternak’s remorse – he wept, he froze, felt pain, “I have behaved like a coward” and so on. Was it because he felt he had failed to help Mandelstam (then Pasternak’s wife’s version goes through the trapdoor) or because he felt he had been humiliated by Stalin?

The issue of humiliation raises the question of Pasternak’s relationship with Stalin. Did they personally know each other? Hence the phone call? Why did Stalin use the familiar ti? Recall also Pasternak’s wife’s testimony that Pasternak spoke to Stalin as an equal. One version states that Pasternak had some correspondence with Stalin. This question acquires some importance because as Kadare informs us that in 1935, Pasternak had actually written to Stalin to release Anna Akhmatova’s husband and her son. This would suggest that he had some kind of access to Stalin. This also adds credibility to Stalin’s reproach about Pasternak’s failure to intercede on behalf of Mandelstam in 1934. When Pasternak did intervene in 1935, on behalf of Akhmatova, Stalin responded positively. It also should be noted, as Kadare does, that Stalin was true to his word and he did release Mandelstam in 1934 and the latter went and met Pasternak. But Pasternak said and did nothing when Mandelstam was arrested a second time in 1938 and sent to the Gulag where he died.

The question of a personal equation between the poet and the dictator gets a different dimension with Pasternak’s plea to discuss philosophical issues – life and death, turning points in history – with Stalin. This request is odd because it was well known in Bolshevik/communist circles that philosophy was not Koba’s (as Stalin was fondly called by his comrades) strong suit.

In the context of the relationship between Pasternak and Stalin it is worth recalling an anecdote that Kadare does not include. It was said that Pasternak had translated some well-known Georgian poets. Stalin had approved of those translations. And later, when Stalin found Pasternak’s name on a death list – it was Stalin’s practice to personally go through death lists and sign them – he put his pen through Pasternak’s name. His instructions were, “Don’t touch the cloud gatherer.” He did not do the same for writers like Isaac Babel or even for the Georgian poet, Titzian Tabidze. It is not unreasonable to assume that there must have been some affinity between the dictator and the poet.

There are no easy answers. In Kadare’s words, “the incident impresses upon us its impossibility. It strikes an alarm bell that will not let any human conscience rest easy.”

Tyrants will always have their perverse fun playing in “the zone of death” (Kadare’s telling phrase) but poets even when they perish in the Gulag or reach for the phone hoping to call the tyrant have immortality thrust on them. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoir is called Hope Against Hope. Poets kindle hope. Tyrants breed despair. Thus, poets, Kadare’s writes, are “without end”. In the words of Ecclesiasticus (44:15), “The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.”

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of History at Ashoka University.