Henry Hardy: ‘My Name Is Isaiah Berlin, and I Come from Riga’

Dr Henry Hardy

A talk by Dr Henry Hardy at the Maza Gilde in Riga on 6th June 2011.

(Click on thumbnail images in the text to enlarge them)


MY IGNORANCE of the history and sociology of Latvia is profound. Indeed, my ignorance of all history and sociology is profound. Nevertheless, in the course of my work as Isaiah Berlin’s editor I have come across some clues that help to answer a question that has often puzzled me, and sometimes embarrassed me – and I think may have puzzled, or perhaps worried, some of you.

Plaque at Alberta 2a

And the question is this: Why did Isaiah Berlin, who was born in Riga and lived here until he was six-and-a-half years old, show little or no sense of Latvian identity? Why did Riga in particular, and Latvia more generally, apparently mean so little to him?

My embarrassment at this question is a response to the generosity of Latvia’s attitude to its unappreciative son.

Bust in the Latvian National Library

I don’t need to tell this audience of all that has been done here to honour Berlin’s memory, to celebrate him as a Latvian luminary. I am embarrassed because he seems not to return the compliment.

But the more I look into it, the more my puzzlement has been replaced by a sense of surprise – and, yes, embarrassment – that the puzzlement should ever have existed in the first place.

There are several reasons for my change of heart. I am not sure what their relative importance is: you will be able to help me with this afterwards, I hope. I shall mention a few of them now, in no particular order, so that you can see what you think.

In Oxford

First of all, Berlin did not enjoy the company of small children, and used to say that they did not become human beings until they reached the age of 7.

On the back of The Book of Isaiah, a book about him published in his centenary year, there is a photograph of him looking down at a young boy squatting at his feet, as if he were a beetle. As you see, there is no human engagement.

In Italy

Another photograph shows him outside his house in Italy, with two older boys (you can perhaps just see the second one in the porch at the back): the one beside him is 8 years old, and perhaps we can sense a little more rapport here, at any rate on the boy’s part, unless the smile is for the photographer – who is his mother. Berlin and the boy are setting out on a walk together.

With stepsons Peter and Philippe Halban

And here is Berlin with his two younger stepchildren, Peter and Philippe Halban, who have evidently reached the age of humanity. When Berlin was President of Wolfson College in Oxford, he made a strong personal request that children should not be allowed in the communal areas of the College except at weekends, when he would not be there. This request was reasonable enough in an academic institution, but it was also personally motivated.

IB as an infant

To be consistent, we must assume that he took the same view of his own case. He left Riga before he was 7, and so he was not a human being while he was here, and cannot be expected to have experienced any human sentiments during his sojourn in the city.

This may sound exaggerated and ridiculous – is the child in this photograph not a human being? – but I’m not sure that he would have thought it so.

IB as a boy

At any rate, by the time he reached the age of 7, he was in Petrograd, ready to receive his first and deepest recorded human impression on seeing a tsarist policeman being dragged to his death by a lynch-mob during the February Revolution.

Petrograd he remembered in detail; the Riga of his early years, he claimed, he remembered hardly at all, though a number of memories did survive.


For example, he told a story of threatening to jump out of an upstairs window, which inspired a painting by one of his Oxford pupils.

The house in the picture is imaginary. As you probably know, Berlin’s father, Mendel, could afford to live

Mendel Berlin

‘in a large, broad street called Albertstraße, Albertovskaya, in a large building […] with two sphinxes on either side, on the fourth floor, containing about twelve rooms. […] A proper apartment in the smart part of Riga.’

This, like many of the quotations in my remarks, comes from his interviews with his biographer, Michael Ignatieff, which are recorded on tape.

Alberta 2a: facade

I’ve had some discussions with experts on the numbering of floors in Rigan houses, and I think the consensus is that the fourth floor in this house is the top floor; although if you start with 1 at the bottom, 1 2 3 4 5, I make it the fifth floor, so I think the jury is out on this, unless anybody has any knowledge which can determine the issue.

I’ve heard a story, for example, that the Riga authorities are thinking of turning the relevant flat into a Berlin museum, but I wonder how they will decide which one to – I suppose the directories of the time will show, perhaps. We must find out – one for Andris, Soros Foundation Research Department.

Alberta 2a: entrance

Anyway, it’s clear that Berlin did remember the house and the sphinxes: here are the sphinxes a bit closer to. He wrote later to a correspondent:

‘I was brought up […] in the most conventionally middle-class, bourgeois fashion imaginable – in a hideous stone house in the very German city of Riga.’

In the holidays they went to Jūrmala:

‘Every summer one goes to the seaside in Riga, and one bathes, one rides a bicycle [still the case, as we saw in Jūrmala yesterday]; but the ghetto Jews don’t go there. The Jewish bourgeoisie does.’

I should pause to digress a moment here, to examine the word ‘ghetto’, which Berlin uses frequently to refer to the area where the Jews lived. As he says himself later, you’ll see, it wasn’t a real ghetto: he just means the area where the poorer Jews lived. And he generally uses it to refer to the Red Dvina district – not to the district south of the railway station. But of course, more properly it’s the southern area, which became a Nazi ghetto, so one mustn’t confuse the two uses, although he seems to use them indiscriminately, which is a bit confusing.

Anyway, his memories of the seaside suggest that there are some more memories there in his mind, and perhaps sub-humans can remember things after all.

Volshonok family group, Dubulti

This photograph is taken from the Berlin family album, and it says on the back that it was taken in Dubulti in 1911, and it looks like a wedding, and I can recognise several of the people in the photograph as coming from Berlin’s mother’s family, the Volshonoks. But no one yet, despite obsessive researches by me, and others bullied by me, have been able to identify this building. So if anybody can tell me where it is, or was, or tell me about somebody who can tell me where it is or was, I should be enormously grateful.

Berlin did spend four months in Riga, which was then the capital of a newly independent Latvia, in 1920 to 1921, between the family’s departure from the Soviet Union and their emigration to England, but this brief visit left little impression on him. He speaks of Riga at this time in very detached terms:

‘Riga is a perfectly decent little provincial town, the capital of a small democratic republic, containing relations of ours. […] I had no sense of Riga, […] none at all. […] It meant nothing to me.’

He said something similar in an interview with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska:

‘Riga used to be a perfectly nice little town. I last saw it in 1928. It was a republic, a little bourgeois democratic republic, provincial, not very interesting, nobody very distinguished, as far as I know, but a perfectly decent place in which people could be free and happy. It was time that the Latvians had a State of their own.’

Terbatas (Dorpat) 86

Anyway, in 1920/21 his family naturally didn’t live in Albert Street again, but in a room at 86 Dórpat Street (now Térbatas iela), which was then the home of a man called Uriah Berkhin (or Berchin); so memories of his first home were not stirred in him by his house at this stage.

Berlin remembers no nostalgia for Riga when he reached England, although his mother told him that he would come home from school in tears, day after day. He believed that the tears would have been tears of frustration at not being able to speak English. Here Berlin is talking to Michael Ignatieff in 1995 for a BBC documentary programme which was screened after his death:

Ignatieff   Many people who go through the experience of exile and expatriation experience a tremendous sense of loss and disorientation. Was that the case with you, coming to England?

Berlin   No, no, in no degree. I realised that my life had changed. Riga was already different from Petersburg, in that sense: it was a little bourgeois republic. I got Hebrew lessons in Riga, from a very nice old gentleman. That went on; didn’t go on in England much, after that. No, but you asked me another question. No, I did not get a sense of disorientation. My mother said that I used to come home from school in tears, for days. I’ve no recollection of that. None.

Ignatieff   Tears why?

Berlin   Because I couldn’t speak the language.

We now come to the next thing, and this is where I can’t tell you anything you don’t already know much better than me. So I’m going to express it in a way which makes sense to me, and I hope that you will correct me if I’m wrong. Although I may be OK, because most of the information comes from Daunis Auers of the University of Latvia – is he present? yes – who was very kind and helpful; and, as one says on these occasions, he is of course solely responsible for any errors in what I am about to say.

Well, as somebody said to me this morning when I said what question I was asking today – I said: Why did Berlin not feel like a Latvian? – the reply was, ‘Because he wasn’t a Latvian.’ That’s fair enough in a way, but it needs expanding.

When he was a child, Latvia didn’t exist as a separate nation-State, but had been part of the Russian Empire for 200 years; nor was Riga a capital city, therefore.

Although Latvian national identity had started developing in the mid-nineteenth century, and by the time of Berlin’s birth was already taking shape around a common language and a common culture – largely based on peasant traditions such as the forthcoming Midsummer Eve festival, songs and dance, etc. – Riga was far more cosmopolitan than the rest of the Latvian territories.

For example, as you know, between 1901 and 1912 the Mayor of Riga was an English flax merchant called George Armitstead.

German was the language of higher-education instruction, and Russian was also widely spoken. Latvian was not an elite language, and the concept of a Latvian nation was not widespread in the upper echelons of society. This is why the modern Latvian State had to undertake significant nation‑building activities after the declaration of independence in 1918.

Latvia’s territory had previously been part of Livonia, but this was an administrative district shared with the Estonians that did little or nothing to shape regional identity. Rather, people living in the Latvian territories tended to identify with their villages or towns rather than with a wider Latvian community. In Riga, Latvians were just one of many ethnic groups that enjoyed a great deal of cultural autonomy.

Moreover, Berlin’s own family did not come from Riga. As he put it to his biographer:

‘My family doesn’t come from Riga as far as the centuries are concerned’.

Most of the Jews who lived in Riga, he pointed out:

‘come from Russia, and they moved for business reasons’.

Shaya Berlin

Berlin’s father Mendel was born, not in Riga, but in Lúblin. He moved to Vítebsk at the age of 4, and did not come to Riga until he was 15 or 16, in about 1900, to live with his great-uncle, who was also his adoptive grandfather, the Riga timber magnate Shaya Berlin, because, so Mendel tells us, the school exams were thought to be easier in Riga. Mendel stayed in the city from then until he left with his family in 1915.

Marie Berlin

Berlin’s mother, Marie, however – that’s her pass for the Riga Music Academy – was born in Riga, in what Berlin calls ‘the ghetto’ – and once again this means the Red Dvina district. Berlin said:

‘Her roots were in the ghetto […] it wasn’t a real ghetto […], it was just where the poor Jews lived. Her roots were there, that’s the world she understood, that’s the world she liked, that’s the world in terms of which she used to talk […], described characters and personalities in it with great vividness and great humour.’

But her family too came from outside Latvia: she was Mendel’s first cousin on her mother’s side, and so she shared half her forebears with him; and her father’s family, the Volshonoks (the ones who were in the photograph from Dubulti), I am not sure about, and perhaps someone can tell me where they came from; but my guess is that they too were living outside Latvia not far back in time. Anyway, Marie lived here from the beginning, and was married in this building in 1906.

Berlin described the social hierarchy of Riga in his day as consisting principally of six levels: first, the so-called Baltic barons, fanatical German tsarists who spoke Russian as well as German; second, the rich German merchants who created the German opera and the German theatre; third, the Scandinavian merchants and the poorer German merchants; fourth, the richer, Germanised, Jews; fifth, the poorer, pious, Yiddish-speaking Jews of the ‘ghetto’, the Red Dvina district; and sixth and last, the Letts, the majority of the population. I’m not quite clear where he thought he belonged in this hierarchy, if anywhere. But I suppose it would have to be number four, most nearly, although it doesn’t really fit. Perhaps he was more of an outsider.

Well, by this point I began to realise that it is not Baltic geography that determines the loyalties and affiliations of the inhabitants of Riga. There were several distinct cultural streams running through the city, and the ones in which Berlin found himself were Russian and Jewish, not Latvian.

When he was asked about his identity later in life he always said that he was a Russian Jew – an Anglophile, certainly, but not an Englishman, still less a Latvian. And Riga, he said,

‘was not a Russian town […] Russians did not feel at home in Riga’.

And, he added, most of the Jews

‘lived in the ghetto, and they were Hasídim; that meant that the centre of their spiritual life was Lubávich, a small town in western Russia where the saintly leaders had held court’.

Berlin’s separation from the Latvian cultural stream can be vividly illustrated by his somewhat harsh remarks about it to his biographer. He told him that

‘underneath [the] poor Jews came the vast bulk of the population of that country; they were Letts, they spoke Lettish, they were helots, they didn’t exist, humanly, nobody had relations with them. […] The Germans despised them and oppressed them. They were serfs working for the Baltic Barons. In town, they were servants. They were very lower-class, they spoke their own language, which nobody understood. […] One saw them in the streets, the tram conductors were, some shopkeepers were.’

One of them was his first nurse, Anna Porteous, who spoke German to him.

So I now come to the last factor that I want to mention in answering my question, and this one was suggested by Berlin’s stepson Peter Halban – one of the boys in the earlier photograph, the elder of the two – in his interview for Gints Grūbe’s film “Born in Riga”, which I hope you’ve all watched.

All the members of Berlin’s family who had not by then left Riga, for whatever reason, and no doubt many friends and acquaintances too, were murdered there by the Nazis in 1941.

Although Berlin rarely referred to this fact, the hypothesis is that he could not think of the city without a shudder, for this reason. I don’t know whether this is true, but it is not implausible.

Berlin never visited Rumbula, the last resting-place of his relatives, but when I go there I think of them, and of him, and of this silent void in his family. Who can say what the 1941 dead might have been and done had they lived?

In conclusion, though, let us not be too hard on Berlin. He had no wish to deny his origins in this city. When he was addressed by a new graduate student at Wolfson College in Oxford who did not know who he was with these words, ‘My name is Stephen Grounds, and I come from Birmingham’, Berlin replied, quick as a shot,

‘My name is Isaiah Berlin, and I come from Riga.’

And he did.

Thank you.


RC   Henry, let me thank you for a beautiful speech – brilliant, funny, enormously informative and educative. I have one question, and it’s a tough one: Who is the child in the first picture?

HH Who is the child in the first picture?

RC Yes — the poor little two-year-old.

HH Oh yes, the one on the ground. That is eighteen-month-old Christopher Utechin, who was the grandson of Isaiah Berlin’s personal secretary, Patricia Utechin, a very, very English lady called Utechin because she married a Russian émigré called Sergei Utechin, who wrote a celebrated Encyclopedia of Soviet Russia. And Christopher is now a man of twenty-two and is doing an MA in politics at Sussex University in the political philosophy of Isaiah Berlin. [RC Didn’t have a long-term effect.] So obviously that meeting was deeply influential.

I am very willing to answer questions about anything whether or not it’s connected with the talk. Yes?

Q1 My question realted to your last remarks about 1941 and the Holocaust here. I wonder: Did Berlin — was he so Anglicised? — what was his allegiance? Did he maintain relations with his uncles, aunts, cousins in this part of the world, or did he not?

HH Yes, there are lots of — well, about direct relationships I’m not sure. There are a number of letters which survive from his relatives in Riga to the family in London, which you can see; and they always contain enquiries about Shaya, as they all called him; and I’m assuming in the letters that were written back, he would have written a little piece at the bottom, because I have got some of his letters to relations in other parts of the world, and he tended to write a PS after his parents had written, giving his news. So I’m assuming that that went on; and when he says he last came here in 1928, I’m sure that was a visit to his family here. So yes: not closely or frequently, but yes, certainly.

Andrew Soper Thank you very much, Henry. Andrew Soper, British Ambassador. I have an answer rather than a question. [HH Good!] I visited this morning the building on Albert Street, with Madam Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, former President of Latvia, and we were very generously invited in by the current inhabitants [HH Oh, why wasn’t I there?!] of Isaiah Berlin’s birthplace. I think I can confirm that it is indeed on the fourth floor, if you count Latvian style — in other words, counting the ground floor as the first floor — I think, from memory, it was the fourth floor. The apartment is not as big as it was in Isaiah Berlin’s day; it certainly didn’t have twelve rooms — I think it had about four or five, and the inhabitants explained that it had been occupied by, I think, Soviet officers during the occupation, and at that time the apartment was sort of cut in half. [HH Subdivided.] Yes. But anyway I think the sort of subtext for inviting myself and others there this afternoon is that there is a campaign afoot to renovate the façade of the building. Albert Street, as I’m sure many of your audience will know today, is one of those beautiful streets in Latvia with some of the finest art nouveau architecture, including this building, but it hasn’t been renovated as some of the other buildings have; and so there is a campaign to raise money to finance the renovation. So if anybody is interested in that project, please see me afterwards.

HH So are you saying that the flat was on the top floor, or the next …?

AS No, it wasn’t on the top floor, it was the next to top floor …

HH Oh, so the penultimate floor. [AS Exactly.] OK. Very good. Thank you, I’ve learnt something.

Q3 Thank you. My name is [Yanis? ?]. I have translated some Berlin’s works into Latvian, and there is a question that puzzles me every since the first conference that took place some years ago here — that is about the citizenship of Berlin, Berlin’s family, when he went to England, when they went to England. What I mean — the fact is that I corresponded, not with Berlin himself, but with, oh, Secretary of the British Academy, Mr Brown [HH Mr Brown, yes, Peter Brown, yes] — ya, and Sir Isaiah was ex-President of the Academy at that time. And Mr Brown got in contact with him for the permission to translate it into Latvian, at the beginning of the ’90s. And so he answered — the answer of Mr Brown to me was that he had spoken to Sir Isaiah, and Sir Isaiah had given his kind permission to translate a small piece of one of his essays; and then he said he had mentioned that he had been called ‘a Latvian philosopher’ in — of course it was jokingly — he had been called a Latvian philosopher in a conference in Italy, and so I surmised that it may be, after going to England, the family for some time kept their Latvian citizenship, which — for otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to come from Petrograd to Russia, so they would have obtained that. Can you illuminate, please, on that?

HH Yes, I believe so. Yes, I remember that occasion when in the newspaper Isaiah was described as ‘the greatest living Latvian philosopher’, and he was simultaneously touched and amused by this description. But, of course, which nationality you possess is a different question from which cultural identity you possess. But nevertheless you asked about nationality, so I think I can answer that. He was a Russian citizen when born, like his parents; remained a Russian citizen when he moved to Andreápol´ in 1915, and Petrograd in 1916; and then it was under a treaty between Latvia and Russia in 1920 that people who had been born, or lived under certain conditions, in Latvia earlier could transfer their citizenship to Latvia; and I believe that this is what the Berlin family did in 1920 when they came here. And then they moved to England in 1921, still as Latvian citizens, and in 1928 Mendel applied for naturalisation in England as a British Citizen and was successful. So I think the answer to your question is that they were Latvian citizens for eight years. So he was a Latvian; so the answer I was given this morning, which is that he wasn’t a Latvian, is not strictly speaking correct.

Q4 Thank you very much for that really interesting talk. My name is [?], and I’m from Riga. And what I wanted to ask was — perhaps you could tell us how representative you think that Isaiah Berlin was of the Jewish community at the time, in terms of its non-identification with Latvians, because I think that there’s quite a lot of information to suggest that a lot of doctors were Jewish and a lot of dentists were Jewish [HH Yes], and it’s virtually impossible to be a medical professional without some degree of identification with the people that you’re treating, um …

HH I don’t honestly know the answer to that question, but my suspicion is that that was managed by having a dual identity, that they preserved their Jewish identity and their membership of the Jewish cultural group, but that they also had another face which enabled them to relate to the non-Jewish people. That would be the obvious way. But I’m sure that, as always, there would be some who identified more, some less. So I think that Isaiah’s attitude to non-Jews in Riga is likely to have been more typical than not — that’s just a surmise, though.

Q5 What was the language used in letters to his family in Riga, or what language did they use in letters to the family in London?

HH Their language — their letters to him are in Yiddish at one point, and then they are in English, because one of Berlin’s aunts, who remained in Riga, called Berta, spoke English; and so what happened was that her father, who was Berlin’s grandfather, dictated — he was blind towards the end of his life, and he dictated letters in Yiddish, and she translated them into English, and wrote them in English because Berlin didn’t read Yiddish at all well, and even Berlin’s parents were very poor at Yiddish, so it was thought to be easier for them to have the letters in English. So it’s a mixture of Yiddish and English. And he would have written back in English, I’m sure.

RC Dr Henry Hardy, thank you.

Riga, 6 June 2011
© Henry Hardy 2011