Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich

Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich (1890-1960)

Russian poet, novelist, and translator

In a modern epic, Boris Pasternak dramatized the fall of Czar Nicholas II and the rise of corruption of the Soviet empire. A Jewish Muscovite, he was the son of a professional pianist, Rosa Kaufman, and a postimpressionist art scholar, Leonid Pasternak. As members of the intelligentsia, his parents encouraged innovation and debate among visitors, including the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and the Russian composers Sergey Rachmaninoff and Aleksandr Scriabin. Of the influence of the novelist LEO TOLSTOY, a family friend, at the residence in Odessa, Pasternak stated, “His spirit pervaded our whole house” (quoted in Shapiro et al. 1994, 326). The author attended a German-run high school in Moscow. At age 15, he sustained an attack by a mounted Cossack during a period of revolution brought on by a workers' strike. He studied musical composition at the Moscow Conservatory, but in 1910 he enrolled in philosophy studies at the University of Marburg, Germany.

At age 24, Pasternak began a career as a poet. His poetry reflected the political ferment of anarchy, Bolshevism, and Menshevism. During World War I, a draft board rejected him for conscription because of a broken leg. In the Ural Mountains at Vsevolodovo- Vilve (outside present-day Perm in southwestern Russia), he clerked in a factory making acetic acid, acetone, and chloroform. Soon after the collapse of the Russian Empire, his sisters Josephine and Klara and parents fled to Berlin. Pasternak settled farther south at Saratov, an arts center and port on the Volga River, and ran a library while developing his talent for alliteration, dialect, and startling, surreal conceits. During the soul-numbing years of Stalinist fervor, Pasternak compared the reign of terror to the pre-Christian Roman Empire and the 16th-century reign of Ivan the Terrible. The author's creative endeavors forced him to maintain secrecy about his works and his association with other artists and freethinkers, with whom he exchanged drafts and critiques. He predicted that his persistence would survive shifting political conditions. In his words, “Time will preserve my handwriting from the historians’ curry-combs” (quoted Barnes in 2004, ix).

Pasternak revitalized native verse with his first anthologies, Sestra moya zhizn (My Sister—Life, 1921) and Temy i variatsii (Themes and variations, 1923). His devotion to art and individualism swells in “The Image” (1921), which exults, “Although life wears out all ties / and pride warps the mind, / we will die with the pressure / of what we strive for in our blood” (Pasternak 2002, 29). Against the tide of communism, he demands in “Diseases of Earth” (1921), “Are these poems fermented/enough to stun the thunder?” (43). His collection Vysokaya bolezn (A Sublime Malady, 1925), a polemical series on the rebellion of Sevastopol in 1905, preceded two long poems on the event, Leytenant Shmidt (Lieutenant Schmidt, 1927) and Devyatsot pyaty god (The Year 1905, 1927). To make his poetry more acceptable to his Russian readers, Pasternak experimented with populist themes and styles in Vtoroye rozhdenie (The second birth, 1932). After a trip to Paris in 1935 to attend the Anti-Fascist Congress, he completed a nationalistic collection of poetry, Na rannikh poyezdakh (On early trains, 1943). He also made a living translating foreign drama and verse—William Shakespeare’s tragedies Cleopatra, Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet and JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE’S Faust—but he bore guilt that his peers faced the confiscation of their works, gulags, and execution.

At the end of World War II, Pasternak began his autobiographical saga, Doctor Zhivago (1956), a tragic love triangle derived from experiences during his residency in Peredelkino, a writers’ colony outside Moscow. Because Soviet censors branded as traitorous a story of the author’s wife Evgenia and mistress, Olga Ivanskaya, and vilified Pasternak as an anti-Marxist, editors of Novy Mir (New world) refused to serialize the novel. The Italian journalist Sergio D’Angelo smuggled the manuscript out of Russia in 1957 for publication in Italy, and subsequent translation into 18 languages. Authorities expelled the author from the Writer’s Union, which monitored manuscripts that might slander the Soviet Union or violate communist precepts. Subservient colleagues followed the government’s lead by denouncing Pasternak’s libertarian ideals. However, worldwide acclaim for the novel resulted in Pasternak being awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature. Pressures from the Communist hierarchy and the exigencies of cardiac disease forced him to decline the honor, which his son Yevgeny accepted 29 years after his father’s death from lung cancer.

In his last months, Pasternak wrote “Nobel Prize” (1958), a confessional verse comparing his life under communism to that of a criminal with a noose around his neck. He died on May 30, 1960, at his home in Peredelkino. Some 2,000 mourners attended his funeral and heard readings of his verse. His home later became a museum.

Conscience of a Nation

During an epoch of police terrorism and on- the-spot executions, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago became an allegorical conscience for the Russian people living in what the author called “the time of Pharisees” (Pasternak 1962, 3). The protagonist, Yuri Andreievich Zhivago, a Muscovite physician and poet, lives for love, work, and country. During a world war, the Bolshevik Revolution, and civil war, his passions sustain him and invigorate his organic verse. In the lyric “Winter Night,” he symbolizes the humanistic quest as a single candle flame melting a spot in an ice-covered window pane, an image of Russia’s frozen soul that the director David Lean developed in his 1965 film starring Omar Sharif as Zhivago. The author summarizes the agony of survival: “His own ideas and notes also brought him joy, a tragic joy, a joy full of tears that exhausted him and made his head ache” (28).

Pasternak depicts his tragic hero with Christ- like pathos. At an emotional nadir recorded in Zhivago’s poem “Hamlet,” he prays, “Abba Father, / I beg you, take this cup from me,” a restatement of Mark 14:36 (3). In an atmosphere of tyranny, fanaticism, and carnage, the physician clings to his humanity by traveling to northern Siberia, away from the urban fray and paranoia of Moscow. Such personal neutrality comes at a cost—isolation from his wife and family and the temptation of adultery with Lara Guishar Antipova, a married combat nurse who assists him during World War I. He compensates for a disjointed existence with the belief that a divine power, “the movement of universal thought and poetry in its present historical stage and the one to come” used him as a fulcrum (364). Zhivago's ideals are a testament to the author's determination to remain true to his native land and to withstand threats of exile and annihilation. Of the soul of Mother Russia, Pasternak predicted a resurgence: “By midnight denizens and dreamers / Moscow most of all is cherished. / Here is their home, the fount of all / With which this century will flourish” (quoted in Figes 2003, 216).


Barnes, Christopher. Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Figes, Orlando. Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of

Russia. London: Macmillan, 2003.

Pasternak, Boris. Dr. Zhivago. New York: Pantheon, 1958. . In the Interlude: Poems, 1945-1960. London:

Oxford University Press, 1962.

----- . My Sister—Life. Translated by Mark Rudman and Bohdan Boychuk. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2002.

Shapiro, Michael, Daniel Shapiro, and Nancy Hartman. The Jewish 100. New York: Citadel, 1994.