The Last Wise Man

An introduction to the diaries of George F. Kennan

Berlin again, fifteen years after the war.

JUNE 16–22, 1960

Now, for the first time, one had the impression of a wholly new Berlin, with a quite different arrangement of functions, arising—or, better, superimposed—on the skeleton of the old one, the street pattern being largely unchanged. It was a shock to reflect how much of the old city, particularly the parts of it that had once been so central and so imposing, so seemingly timeless and indestructible—the great teeming business center between Potsdamer Platz and the Friedrichstrasse, and the old residential Tiergartenviertel—had passed utterly into history, so that coming generations, in fact even today's young people, would not even know that these quarters had ever been there, and would be unable to picture them even if told. Five years ago the old Berlin, if only in the form of its ruins and rubble, had still prevailed: the new life had only camped, tentatively and almost apologetically, on what was left of it. Today the new Berlin has taken over. The old one, the scene of such vitality, such pretentions, such horrors and such hopes, is being thrust down into the oblivion of history, before the eyes of those of us who knew it.

On Monday evening I went to the theater, over in the Communist eastern sector of the city, with M. It was the former Theater am Schiffbauerdamm—the theater where, until his recent death, Brecht had directed. The area around the theater, once the very teeming center of this entire city, was now empty, silent, almost deserted. Across the parking plaza and the river loomed the huge corpus of the Friedrichstrasse railway station, once the main station of Berlin, now dark and empty, witness only to the passage of an occasional half-empty elevated train.

The play was a dramatization of Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don -translated, obviously, from the Russian. The acting was good. The house was not full. In the corridors people whispered and glanced furtively at one another. One had suddenly the feeling that we—the actors and the little band of spectators—were the only living people in the great, ruined, and deserted area that stretched for miles around, that we were going through a ceremony of sorts in the midst of this great void, as in a dream, as though some menacing spirit were mocking us, putting us through our paces. Fear-guarded, concealed, nameless fear-presided over the whole performance, and we, the hushed, defensive, haunted audience, were as much a part of the strange spectacle as were the actors.

M. and I sat, in stony silence, in the second row, behind two silent figures in some sort of Communist officer's uniform. Even when the curtain was down, there was not a sound among the audience. A whisper would have been heard all over the hall. It was clear: I was back in Russia—not the Russia of today but Stalin's Russia. The dreadful, furtive spirit that Khrushchev had largely exorcized among his own people had found refuge here in this distant Russian protectorate, and it now presided, like a posthumous curse of the dead Stalin on the "faithless" Germans, over the ruins of the "eastern sector."

The first of the two parts of the play—one and three-quarters hours of the wretchedly primitive ideology of the early Stalin period—was all I could take. We left during the intermission. The square in front of the theater lay empty and barren as we emerged. On the nearby railway station there was a moving band of electric writing: the words of a Tass news program fleeing out of the darkness to the right and disappearing into the darkness at the left; but there was no one but ourselves to read those words, and we had no interest. A street running off the square, narrow like a chasm, between two rows of undestroyed apartment houses, was brilliantly lighted yet utterly empty like the corridor of a prison. One wondered whether the houses behind these frowning façades were real, or whether they were only papier-mâché and the whole thing some evil, mocking trap.

We drove across the bridge and turned left along the river, behind the university, heading toward one of the great squares that fronted on the onetime (now destroyed) Imperial Palace. Suddenly we emerged onto this vast open area from the little park in front of the ruins of the old Zeughaus. We got out of the car, walked out onto the deserted square, and were suddenly overwhelmed—but utterly, profoundly, as I have not been in many years—by what we saw and felt around us.

It was now late twilight—the long-drawn twilight of the northern night. Under the trees it was dark, but the sky was still partly bright. There was a touch of gold in the air. Before us there was only the great square confronting the ruins of the enormous Wilhelminian Romanesque cathedral. The entire area was unbelievably silent and empty. Only one pair of lovers, standing under the trees by the Zeughaus, moved uneasily away at our approach. All about us were the ruins of the great old buildings, semi-silhouetted against the bright sky. And what ruins! In their original state they had seemed slightly imitative and pretentious. Now they suddenly had a grandeur I had never seen even in Rome. We both became aware that this was, somehow, a moment like no other. There was a stillness, a beauty, a sense of infinite, elegiac sadness and timelessness such as I have never experienced. Death, obviously, was near, and in the air: hushed, august, brooding Death—nothing else. Here all the measureless tragedy of the Second World War—the millions of dead, the endless seas of bereavement and sorrow, the extinction of a whole great complex of life and belief and hope—had its perpetuation. So overpowering was the impression that we spoke only in whispers, as though we were in a cathedral, instead of standing in the open, before the ruins of one. Not a soul was now in sight. But no, far up, at the top of the enormous flight of steps leading up to what was left of the cathedral, on the pedestal of one of the huge marble columns, we saw, half-hidden in the shadows, three adolescent boys: motionless, themselves like statues, themselves silent, endlessly alone and abandoned; and their lost, defiant figures burned themselves into my vision to the point where I see them still today—elbows on the knees, chins resting on the palms of hands—the embodiment of man's lost and purposeless state, his loneliness, his helplessness, his wistfulness, and his inability to understand.

We drove back, in silence, down the dead space of what was once the great Unter den Linden, to the Brandenburger Tor and through the Tiergarten; and when we got back into the bright lights and the busy normality of West Berlin, it all seemed toylike and trivial: an officious little busybody of a civilization, fussy and impermanent. None of it seemed to matter. Neither of us could forget the great awesome ruins, standing so patiently and majestically and sorrowfully, under the night sky, four miles away.

In the summer of 1960 I traveled from Norway to Venice for an international conference marking the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Leo Tolstoy.

The Tolstoy conference took place on the Island of St. George, just across the channel from the Piazza, off the mouth of the Grand Canal. The island is taken up mostly by the monastery of the same name, now owned by an Italian foundation, which has restored the whole place. The monastery, built partly by Palladio, is Italian Renaissance at its best: severe, spacious, rigidly symmetrical, very serene.

We were a motley band who assembled in the old refectory, under the great Tintoretto, to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Tolstoy's death by giving voice to reflections about his life and work: Italian professors and the writer Silone; several Indians, wearing the homespun cloth that Gandhi taught them to wear; the Spaniard Madariaga; Madame de Proyart, the translator of Pasternak; an old French beekeeper who in his youth had known Tolstoy, who was a "follower," and who looked like Maxim Gorky; from England, Lord David Cecil and Sir Isaiah Berlin, and also a very brilliant lady don from Cambridge and her don husband; three Soviet Russians, accompanied by an interpreter whom everybody took for the police escort; several members of the Tolstoy family, from Paris (all grandchildren); my friend Nicholas Nabokov (Vladimir's cousin) with his eighty-four-year-old uncle, also from Paris; a young Polish Jew who had been for six years in Soviet prisons and concentration camps; and from the American side John Dos Passos; Professor Ernest Simmons, Tolstoy's biographer; Marc Slonim, a left-wing émigré and literary critic, from New York; and myself.

The Russians were an interesting group: aside from the soft-eyed little interpreter, there were Professor Ermilov, of the University of Moscow, a Party-line critic and the veteran of innumerable literary-political intrigues, a man whose owl-like head was sunk down between his shoulders, as though for protection, giving him also something of the air of a turtle; Markov, the new secretary of the Writers' Union, reserved and suave; and old Professor Gudziya, editor of the new, complete ninety-volume edition of Tolstoy's works that the Soviet government is now publishing, and an unregenerated representative of the old regime, untouched by the forty-year episode of communism that he has so miraculously survived, a man full of sardonic humor and natural human feeling.

For three and a half days we chewed over Tolstoy: hailing his artistic greatness; deploring or defending, according to our respective temperaments, his philosophic and religious speculations. In general, we kept off East-West differences. On the last day we were all happily and miraculously united by the presentation made by one of the Tolstoy grandsons, a youngish doctor from Paris, a man of such gentleness and innocence of character that he reminded me of Dostoevski's "prince" in The Idiot. For nearly an hour he talked, quite simply, about the family, and did it in so disarming a manner that he held us all, Soviet Russians and foreigners alike, in a state of sympathetic and respectful attention. It was at this moment that I realized that the figure of the old Tolstoy himself, with his enormous literary and moral authority, was one of the few images imposing enough to bridge even the overriding ideological conflict of our day. Neither side could afford to disown him; both of us had to do our obeisance to him and claim him for our own-a sure sign that there were things in life more fundamental than the differences between communism and capitalism.

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