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Life Arts    H3'ed 3/26/19

Sergei Vasilievich Utechin's "You Tube" Reflections on Isaiah Berlin

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The S. V. Utechin "You Tube" Videos

In November 1996, I visited Sergei Vasilievich at his Menlo Park home. It was during that visit that I learned that he had suffered a few minor strokes (and would soon suffer from macular degeneration). These strokes leant some urgency to his attempt to complete his introduction of Isaiah Berlin to Russia and to establish a virtual university in Russia. When I asked why he was not writing his memoirs, he cited those two higher priorities. However, when I visited him again in June 1997, he agreed to allow me to conduct interviews designed to cover his remarkable life and record them for posterity.

Having obtained the approval that I feared he would not grant, I soon contacted his former colleague at Penn State, Professor George Enteen, and asked him if he would be willing to join me in my project. He eagerly accepted my invitation.

On 16 November 1997, George and I sat with Sergei Vasilievich and began the interviews, which I recorded on a Sony video camcorder. We began with his recollections of his encounters with renowned philosopher Isaiah Berlin. We interviewed Sergei Vasilievich for three consecutive days, and by the end of the third day we had completed Isaiah Berlin and began to question him about his family and early childhood. George and I also interviewed Sergei Vasilievich during July 7-10, 1998, and during August 12-13, 1999. Perhaps a decade ago, the 20-plus hours of video tape were transferred to DVDs and recorded on a hard drive, where they languished until these "You Tube" publications commenced in March 2019.

S. V. Utechin on Isaiah Berlin

To watch and listen to S. V. Utechin discuss his personal knowledge of the life and philosophy of Isaiah Berlin, simply go to You Tube and type in the words, S. V. Utechin. There you will find "S. V. Utechin on Isaiah Berlin 1." On that video, Sergei Vasilievich, often prompted by George, discusses his early encounters with Isaiah Berlin, the rapidity with which he spoke, his organized mind but disorganized life, his work habits, language capabilities, and personality.

"S. V. Utechin on Isaiah Berlin 2" continues these lines of discussion but also contains Sergei Vasilievich's appraisal of Berlin as a historian. In the course of this appraisal, Sergei Vasilievich reveals that it was Berlin's study of Karl Marx and his writings that prompted Berlin to begin thinking about "freedom." (On 31 October 1958, Berlin gave the Inaugural Lecture at Oxford titled, "Two Concepts of Liberty." This important essay was published that same year by Clarendon Press and was subsequently included in a later book from Oxford University Press: Isaiah Berlin: Four Essays on Liberty).

"S. V. Utechin on Isaiah Berlin 3" continues Sergei Vasilievich's elaboration of the thought process that informed Berlin's views about freedom. It's here that Sergei Vasilievich admits that it took him some five years to free himself of the last traces of "Marxist schemes," but even longer (and thanks to Berlin's influence), to free himself of all schemes.

"S. V. Utechin on Isaiah Berlin 4: finds Sergei Vasilievich critically appraising Berlin's classification of thinkers into "hedgehogs" and "foxes" (Berlin borrowed the following phrase from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing"). He admits that his view of history is much narrower than Berlin's and focuses largely on Russia and "the positive and valuable aspects of it." He then spends a few minutes discussing his relationship with another philosopher, Michael Oakeshott.

Mid-way through this video, Utechin finishes with Isaiah Berlin and begins to reminiscence about his fascinating family history -- largely about his grandparents, parents, their way of life, and places of birth in late 19th century Russia. These specific reminiscences constitute original source material that any scholar conducting research on late 19th century Russia would value.

Note: I am solely responsible for the production of Sergei Vasilievich Utechin's reminiscences. Thus, I'm solely responsible for the very poor video quality of these first four You Tube recordings of S. V. Utechin on Isaiah Berlin. Initial attempts to enhance the color of these gray, washed-out videos failed. Further attempts will be made in the future. (Subsequent You Tube videos are of better quality, thanks largely to the fact that a room lamp was switched on.)

Note as well: None of the tapes have been edited. The few breaks you might notice occurred because administrative matters needing attention from either George or me caused me to stop recording and then resume recording.

Finally: This article has profited from consultation with George Enteen.

Walter C. Uhler

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Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San (more...)
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