Isaiah Berlin born 110 years ago today in Rīga

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Today marks 110 years since the birth of Isaiah Berlin, a Latvian-born British philosopher and historian of ideas who is regarded as one of the foremost minds of the 20th century.

Born on 6 June 1909 into a wealthy Russian-Jewish household, Berlin lived on the fourth floor of a building at Alberta street 2a in Rīga until the age of six, when he and his family emigrated to Russia. He claimed to have little memories of his childhood up until the move to Petrograd (present day St. Petersburg), where he received the impressions that would decide his future political convictions.

From the tall windows of his apartment on Vasileyvsky Island, the young Berlin gazed down at the progress of both the Social Democratic and the Bolshevik revolutions. Once, when taking a walk with his governess, he witnessed a Tsarist policeman being dragged by a group of lynchers. This sight, as he later recalled, gave him “a permanent horror of violence which has remained with [him] for the rest of his life”.

With the Bolsheviks' ascent to power, the Berlin family left Petrograd due to increasing pressures on them as a 'bourgeois' household. They returned to Rīga in 1920, this time taking residence at Tērbata street 86, before the growing antisemitism impelled them to leave for Britain in 1921.

Berlin, eleven at the time, and speaking little English, attended an independent school in London, where he found it surprisingly easy to assimilate, and attained a good command of English in the course of a year. He then went up to the University of Oxford, studying first Classics and then Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

After graduation, he took up a fellowship at Oxford, where he lectured to the end of his life and published numerous books, among them a biography of Karl Marx, the histories and analyses of both the Enlightenment and Romanticism, and philosophical studies of liberty and pluralism.

In an interview with Beata Polanowska-Sygulska, Berlin reminisced about his third and last visit to Rīga, which occurred in the year of his graduation: “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.”

In a lecture delivered at the 9th annual Isaiah Berlin Day in Rīga, the editor of Berlin's work Henry Hardy suggested numerous reasons for the philosopher's slight aloofness from his native land. Not only were his parents not Latvian, the country itself was part of the Russian Empire at Berlin's birth, and even though the Latvian identity had already begun forming in the middle of the 19thcentury, Rīga was still very much a cosmopolitan city where German and Russian prevailed as the elite languages. Apart from this, there was also the horrifying fact of the Nazi invasion in 1941, in which all of Berlin's relatives who had remained in Rīga were exterminated.

Still, even though Berlin never confessed to any nostalgic feeling for his birthplace, he disliked being described as a British philosopher. “I am a Russian Jew from Riga,” he insisted, “and all my years in England cannot change this."

Interestingly, some of his most penetrating analysis considers other thinkers who spent time in Rīga such as the German Enlightenment philosophers Herder and Hamann.

In recent times, Latvia has embraced Berlin as one of its own, at the same time as there has been renewed interest in much of his work. The Foundation for an Open Society DOTS runs the annual Isaiah Berlin Lecture in Rīga to promote “the ideas and values expressed and defended by Sir Isaiah Berlin – pluralism, tolerance and individual liberty”. The 10th annual Isaiah Berlin Dayin Riga took place on December 13, 2018 at the historic “Splendid Palace” cinema. The date and program of this year's Isaiah Berlin Day is yet to be announced.

To get a taste of the man and his manner, enjoy the interview below from 1976.


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