Join Our Mailing List

Sponsor Us!

Boris Pasternak

(1890-1960)


Print Friendly and PDF

Russian poet, whose novel, Doctor Zhivago, brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. Pasternak had to decline the honour because of protests in his home country. The novel was banned in the Soviet Union and Pasternak was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. After Doctor Zhivago had reached the West, it was soon translated into 18 languages. Pasternak was rehabilitated posthumously in 1987, which made possible the publication of his major work.

"Yura enjoyed being with his uncle. He reminded him of his mother. Like hers, his mind moved with freedom and welcomed the unfamiliar. He had the same aristocratic sense of equality with all living creatures and the same gift of taking in everything at a glance and of expressing his thoughts as they first came to him and before they had lost their meaning and vitality." (from Doctor Zhivago)

Boris Pasternak was born into a prominent Jewish family in Moscow, where his father, Leonid Osipovich Pasternak, was a professor at the Moscow School of Painting. His mother, Rosa Kaufman, was an acclaimed concert pianist. Their home was open to such guests as Sergei Rachmaninoff, Aleksandr Scriabin, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Tolstoy. Inspired by Scriabin, Palsternak entered the Moscow Conservatory, but gave up suddenly his musical ambitions in 1910. He then studied philosophy under Prof. Herman Cohen at the Marburg University in Germany, and returned to Moscow in the winter of 1913-14.

As a poet Pasternak made his debut with the collection BLIZNETS V TUCHAKN (1914). During World War I, Pasternak worked as a private tutor and at a chemical factory in the Ural Mountains. Due to a leg injury he did not serve in the army. The journey to the Ural gave him material for Doctor Zhivago. Although Pasternak was horrified by the brutality of the new government, he supported the Revolution. His parents and sisters migrated to Germany in 1921, when travel abroad was legalized. Leonid Pasternak died in Oxford in 1945.

After the Revolution of 1917, Pasternak worked as a librarian. With the books Over the Barriers (1917) and My Sister - Life (1922) he gained fame as a prominent new poet. Pasternak's father proudly mentioned this in a letter he wrote in German to Rilke: "If only you knew how my children cherish your every line - especially my elder son, Boris, who is a young poet already acclaimed in Russia. He is your most ardent admirer, one who thoroughly appreciates you, who, I may even say, calls himself your pupil; he was one of the first to spread your fame in our country, where you were as yet unknown." In the early 1920s Pasternak wrote autobiographical and political poetry, and some short stories, which were collected in The Childhood of Luvers (1922). His memoir 'Safe Conduct' (1930) was continued in 'I Remember' (1959). Pasternak married in 1922 Evgeniia Vladimirovna Lourie. They had one son, but the marriage dissolved in 1931. In 1934 he married Zinaida Nikolaevna Neigauz.

From the mid-1920s, Pasternak moved away from personal themes and focused his attention to the meaning the Revolution. He began to study historical and moral problems in such works as VOZHUSHNYE PUTI, a prose piece, and in the poem The Year Nineteen Five. When the Writer's Union increasingly imposed on the doctrine of socialist realism, he gradually ceased to produce original work. Socialist themes did not attract Pasternak who was interested in ethical-philosophical issues. His concept of realism was not the same as the official doctrine. "We cease to recognize reality," Pasternak wrote in 'Safe Conduct'. "It manifests itself in some new category. And this category appears to be its own inherent condition and not our own. Apart from this condition everything in the world has a name. Only it is new and is not yet named. We try to name it - and the result is art."

In the 1930s and 1940s, Pasternak's works didn't gain authorities favour and they were not printed. The Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, RAPP, campaigned against the older literary types and criticized Osip Mandel'shtam, Pasternak, and Vladimir Mayakovsky. Pasternak was accused of subjectivism and aestheticism, but Stalin's respect of Pasternak, who did not die in the Gulag Archipelago, remains one of the mysteries of the Soviet dictator's behavior, who even took time to correct L.M. Leonov's Russian Forest with a red pencil. According to a famous story, he had once a telephone conversation with Stalin, who asked whether he was present when a lampoon about himself, Stalin, was recited by Mandel'shtam. Unable to publish his own poetry, Pasternak became a translator, selecting works from such authors as William Shakespeare (Hamlet), J.W. von Goethe (Faust), Heinrich Kleist (Prinz Friedrich von Homburg), Paul Verlaine and Rainer Maria Rilke - in the late 1920s he translated Rilke's 'Requiem für eine Freundin.' In his translation of Hamlet, Pasternak intepreted the play as a tragedy of duty and self denial. With Rilke he had a brief correspondence, which was cut short by the poet's death. In 1935 he travelled to Paris to participate in the Anti-Fascist Congress. André Malraux, the organizer of the congress, had made the journey possible with his persistence.

During World War II, Pasternak wrote patriotic verses, and published a collection of poems, NA RANNIKH POYEZDAKH in 1943. From the elliptical expression of his earlier work he moved toward disciplined simplicity. At the same time he had lost a number of his old readers, intellectuals, who had been sent to prison camps, the gulag archipelago. Like Anna Akhmatova, he received letters from soldiers quoting from both published and unpublished poems. Another collection appeared in 1945, followed by a selection of earlier poetry in 1947. In 1954, the Soviet literary journal Znamya published his lyrics under the title 'Poems from a Novel', where the novel referred to Doktor Zhivago. His last book of poetry was When the Weather Clears (1960), written through the 1950s. As in his earlier verse, he used religious motifs and drew parallels with art and death. "With secret trembling, to the end, / I will thy long and moving service / In tears of happiness attend".

Doktor Zhivago was rejected by the Soviet journal Novye Mir - it was published first in Russian and in Italian translation by the publisher Feltrinelli in Milan in 1957, English translation appeared in 1958. Pasternak probably completed the manuscript in 1954, the work had started in 1945, after the death of his father. During the writing process, only some poetical excerpts were published in Moscow.
The title of the novel refers to the Russian word "zizn", which means "life". In the Soviet Union the book was banned for three decades - Novye Mir considered its spirit that of "nonacceptance of the socialist revolution" - and did not appear until 1988 in Novye Mir. Doctor Zhivago has been recognized by many as the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century. It is partly autobiography and partly epic novel, a many-layered story starting from the year 1903, when Iurii Zhivago's mother died. His father, a rich industrialist, commits suicide through the malign influence of his lawyer, Komarovskii. The boy is brought up in the Gromenko family. Durig this time Zhivago finds his call to poetry and decides to become a doctor. Simultaneously Lara Guishar is seduced in her teens by Komarovskii, and she marries Pasha Antipov. Zhivago qualifies as a doctor, marries, and has a child. He meets Lara during World War I, they fall in love. Throughout the story Zhivago and Lara are repeatedly separated. He moves with his family to Urals after the 1917 Revolution to escape the famine, and the Communists. There he meets Lara. Zhivago chooses a life with her, but is captured by local Boslhevik partisans. Zhivago spends a long time in their forest camps. Eventually he escapes and makes his way back to Lara. Meanwhile his family has returned to Moscow. Komorovskii discovers Lara and Zhivago. They are promised a safe conduct to the east. Lara follows with Komorowskii expecting that Zhivago will follow shortly. He meets Lara's husband Pasha, who commits suicide disillusioned with the Revolution. Zhivago, a broken man, returns to Moscow in 1922, on foot, and attempts to start a new life. He dies in the street years later of a weak heart, in 1929. Lara reappears before his burial. Zhivago's friends collect his poetry. The story ends with a short episode, occurring "five or ten years" after WW II, in which Zhivago's old friends contemplate the fate of their country. - Zhivago was partly modelled on Pasternak and Lara on his companion, Olga Ivanskaya, who was arrested when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Pasternak's disagreement with Soviet Communism was not political but rather based on his aesthetic views - he couldn't fully accept official literary doctrines developed from a theory of class struggle but followed his own principles. Already in 1923 he wrote in a poem: "I was not born to look three times / Into the eyes of men. / Even more senseless than song / Is the dull word ''foe." He thought little of Hemingway, found Sartre's La Nausée unreadable, and did not consider Mayakovsky a major poet. In a personal letter to the premier Nikita Khrushchev he expressed the hope that he would be allowed to remain in his home country after continuing attacks against his work. "Leaving the motherland will equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work." It is possible that Premier Khrushchev used his influence to calm down attack on Pasternak.

Pasternak remained at Peredelkino, a writers's colony about twenty miles outside of Moscow. His last projects included a play about Aleksander II and the emancipation of the serfs. He also planned to write another novel. Pasternak died from lung cancer on May 30, 1960. In one poem he had written: "And keep on grinding / Everything that happened to me / For almost forty years, / Into a churchyard compost". Pasternak's son accepted his father's Nobel Prize medal at a ceremony in Stockholm in 1989. "Pasternak loved Russia," said Isaiah Berlin in The Proper Study of Mankind (1998). "He was prepared to forgive his country all its shortcomings, all, save the barbarism of Stalin's reign; but even that, in 1945, he regarded as the darkness before the dawn which he was straining his eyes to detect - the hope expressed in the last chapters of Doctor Zhivago."

Doctor Zhivago was made into a film by David Lean in 1965, together with the screenwriter Robert Bolt. Omar Sharif played the title role as Yuri, and Julie Christie was Lara. The film focused on the love story and used Yuri's stepbrother Yevgraf as a narrator. A number of scenes and characters, important for Pasternak's philosophical vision of the fate of his generation, were omitted. "... the biggest disappointment of 1965... There is nothing holding the effects together, not an idea, or a feeling, or a mood, or even much of a plot, and a relatively capable cast struggles helplessly with Robert Bolt's disconnected, uninspired dialogue as the film bumbles along to boredom." (Andrew Sarris in Village Voice, December 30, 1965)


Sources: Pegasos, Photo courtesy of Hoover Institution Archives

Back to Top