Boris Pasternak

1890 –

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, the oldest child of painter Leonid Pasternak and pianist Roza Kaufman, was born in Moscow on February 10, 1890. His father taught art at the school which essentially served as Pasternak’s childhood home. His parents received constant visits from prominent Moscow writers, artists, and intellectuals, including, the yet unknown Rainer Maria Rilke in 1899, whose writing greatly influenced Pasternak. In addition to his parents, Pasternak’s teachers were private tutors until he entered high school in 1901, where he received a classical education. While he drew well, to the delight of his father, his first love was botany and second, music. Inspired by the composer Alexander Scriabin, who was a friend of the family, Pasternak devoted six years to the study of composition. Three finished piano pieces composed by the young poet have survived from these years.

Although everyone assumed that Pasternak would become a professional musician, he was wary of his lack of technical skill. In 1909 he gave up his musical career for good when he entered the law faculty at Moscow University. He soon turned to philosophy, and, although he appeared to be heading toward an academic career, he ultimately gave it up in 1912 to pursue his true calling—poetry. Yet Pasternak’s poetry and prose would always bear the mark of his youthful enthusiasms for music and philosophy.

The years preceding the Bolshevik Revolution were a time of great intellectual and artistic richness in Russia. Since the turn of the century, the country had been enjoying a philosophical and religious revival in which the Russian Symbolist poets played a leading part. In the arts, the Russian avant-garde was closely linked to new movements in Western Europe; it was the age of Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall, of Scriabin and Igor Stravinsky. The great poet of the age was Alexander Blok, a Symbolist who came of age prior to the flourishing of the great generation of Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Pasternak.

The outbreak of the war found Pasternak on the Oka, a river eighty miles south of Moscow, and in his letters of this time his descriptions of the people's grief foreshadow his later prose and verse. Pasternak was unable to serve in the army, a childhood fall from a horse having left him with one leg shorter than the other. Much of the time between 1914 and 1917 he spent as a clerk at a chemical works to the far east of Moscow. His prolonged period away from the city was a productive one for him. Pasternak composed two volumes of verse in the war years. One was destroyed by fire in 1915. The other was published in 1917 as Over the Barriers.

At the time of the February Revolution of 1917, Pasternak left for Moscow. During the period between his arrival in Moscow and the October Revolution, Pasternak wrote two books, My Sister Life and Themes and Variations, although the circumstances of the war didn’t allow for either volume to be published for five years. My Sister Life, published in 1922, immediately won Pasternak a place among the leading writers of the time. In the years before its publication, he worked hard as a translator, producing versions of plays by Heinrich von Kleist and Ben Jonson, poems by Hans Sachs, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, George Harwegh, and the German Expressionists.

After the revolution, all Russians had to choose between emigrating and living with the new Bolshevik order. Pasternak, who held no enthusiasm for the Revolution, stayed in Russia, living in an overcrowded communal flat in Moscow. Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam also remained. But most of Pasternak’s family left Russia for Germany, never to return. In 1922 Pasternak married Yevgeniya Lurye, an Art Institute student. The couple spend the second half of that year in Berlin with his parents; this was the last time Pasternak would ever see his family, in spite of applications for permission to visit them nearly every year after. The couple had a son, Evgeny, in 1923. Pasternak continued to write short poems at this time, but like many of his contemporaries, he felt a sense of tragedy. The peaceful order in which a poet could work with security and confidence had been replaced by a world of destruction and antagonism. Pasternak gradually came to believe that poets and artists had no assured place in society and could only live as outsiders. He soon turned to historical subjects, such as the first Russian revolution.

In the late twenties came a new wave of intolerance and terror. Lenin died in 1924, and Stalin eventually emerged victorious from the struggle for succession in 1928. Trotsky was driven into exile, and one after another of Stalin's potential rivals were eliminated. A clamp-down occurred in all fields, including the literary world; eventually, in 1932, the doctrine of Socialist Realism was proclaimed and the Writers’ Union became the sole guardian of orthodoxy. The years around 1930 were the years of the forced collectivization of Soviet agriculture, which involved the removal of entire populations, a considerable increase in the flow of labor to the camps, and a renewed wave of food shortages. It was a time of crisis, as Pasternak was well aware. Many writers and artists felt the temptation to commit suicide. Pasternak believed that, for the poet, it was was essential to overcome this temptation and the fear of the future, and to continue working when art and even spiritual existence were no longer secure, a theory Pasternak expressed through the metaphor of “second birth.”

After Pasternak’s mother-in-law died, Yevgeniya Pasternak was left in bad health. In May 1930, her husband tried to get permission for a long visit abroad with his family, but was unsuccessful. That winter, with the help of a friend, Yevgeniya was granted permission to go abroad for medical treatment, and soon left for Germany. Pasternak hoped that she would then go on to study in Paris and pursue her artistic career, but she soon returned to Moscow. In the meantime, Pasternak had fallen in love Zinaida Neuhaus, the wife of Genrikh Neuhaus who Pasternak had met on a summer holiday. It is to her that the love poems of Second Birth are addressed, and eventually, in 1934, she became his second wife.

Unlike Mandelstam, Pasternak was capable of hope. While in the 1930s a purely apolitical position was seen as a dangerous manifestation of independence, in poems and speeches Pasternak continually defended the autonomy of the artist. He made a clear statement of his apolitical position in a proposed second edition of Safe Conduct, but it was suppressed. The authorities were still willing to publish his poems, but not his prose. Pasternak began to fear that the Soviet regime would force him to act as their official bard, which drove him to take considerable risks. Finally, after two controversial speeches in a public forum and the publication of a cycle of poems called “The Artist,” the head of the Writers’ Union referred to him as a traitor in a speech to the Congress of Soviets. At that point onward, Pasternak was no longer called upon to play an active part in public affairs. Yet he was still recognized by the public as one of the outstanding poets of the age.

Until 1958 Pasternak escaped the persecution which had been the lot of so many Russian writers, and in 1934 he was even consulted by Stalin about the poetic gifts of Mandelstam, who had just been arrested. Pasternak did his best to use his position to intercede on behalf of people who had been arrested. During the monstrous show trials he refused to sign petitions and open letters against the defendants, putting himself at great risk.

After Second Birth, Pasternak wrote no poetry for ten years. In the latter part of the 1930s, he attempted unsuccessfully to write the novel which later became Doctor Zhivago. He worked hardest as a translator, working with Georgian poetry in particular. He was both successful and well compensated, and was able to buy a house in a writers’ village just outside Moscow in 1936, his principal home for the remainder of his life. In 1938, after translating Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he was finally able to write poetry again.

In June 1941, Hitler’s troops marched into Russia. Pasternak worked hard during this time, writing poems on war subjects and translating Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, and Henry IV. In the aftermath of victory Pasternak felt the urge to write a large prose work, one both rich and popular, which would contain his abiding thoughts about life, the beauty which gives light to everyday existence, art and biography, Pushkin, Tolstoy, and the Bible. During the war he had received letters from the front line which had shown him that his voice was heard by far-off unknown people, and in poetry readings in Moscow the audience would prompt him if he forgot a line. He did not want to lose this contact with the mass of enthusiastic readers and he wanted to be able to tell them what seemed to him to matter most. As a result, he cut himself off from official literary life and concentrated on Doctor Zhivago. He was well aware that his focus on a novel that glorified a former freedom and independence and a return to the Christian religion could have dire consequences for him.

In 1946 a new ideological pogrom began and many of Pasternak’s friends were arrested. The terror continued and increased through the period when he was working on Doctor Zhivago. His father died in 1945, and his wife’s first son, Adrian, also passed away after five years of suffering. It left her, by her own account, a stern and joyless woman. In 1946, Pasternak met and fell in love with Olga Ivinskaya, some twenty-two years his junior. She inspired many of his later love poems, and was in many ways the prototype for Lara in Doctor Zhivago. After her release from a forced labor camp in 1953, she was close to Pasternak until the time of his death.

To support himself in the post-war period, Pasternak continued to take on major translations. During this period, four parts of Doctor Zhivago, which made up the first book, existed in typescript, which Pasternak shared freely with people. In 1950 came the fifth and sixth parts, and in the autumn of 1952, Pasternak completed the chapters about the partisans. In the same year, a severe heart attack brought him close to death. He accepted the pain with a feeling of liberation and happiness, knowing that he had done the right thing with his life, and that his family would be provided for.

In 1956 he made plans to publish Doctor Zhivago only to be delayed time and time again. In November 1957, it was published in Russian by Feltrinelli of Milan, Italy. In October 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. This was taken as a recognition of the value and importance of Doctor Zhivago, and it immediately started an official witch-hunt against him in the Soviet Union. While he was not sent into exile or arrested, all publication of his translations came to a halt and he was deprived of his livelihood. He was poor and uncertain of being able to support his dependents. Yet the strain did not disturb the rhythm of his work. He wrote his last complete book, When the Weather Clears, and in the summer of 1959 he began The Blind Beauty, a play about an enslaved artist during the period of serfdom in Russia.

At the beginning of 1960, Pasternak was diagnosed with lung cancer. His condition worsened and he was forced to take to his bed, leaving The Blind Beauty unfinished. He survived for a month and a half without losing consciousness, attempting to console his family and friends and the doctors and nurses who looked after him. Boris Pasternak died on the evening of May 30. While the authorities did their best to play down his death, many thousands of people traveled out from Moscow to his funeral in the small village where he lived.