Boris Leonidovich Pasternak
1890 - 1960
The Russian poet, novelist, and translator Boris Leonidovich
Pasternak was the foremost writer of the Soviet period. He
constantly endeavoured to shape the means of artistic expression
to the ends of his integrity and concern for mankind.
Pasternak was born on Feb. 10, 1890, in Moscow. His parents and
their friends provided an artistic, musical, and literary
environment that nurtured Pasternak's creative aspirations. His
father, Leonid O. Pasternak, was a prominent painter of the
naturalist school, and his mother, Rosa F. Kaufman, was an
accomplished concert pianist. Music was Pasternak's first
inclination. Under the tutelage of Aleksandr Scriabin, he began
to study musical composition at the age of 13. Pasternak soon
abandoned music for philosophy. In 1909 he enrolled as a student
at the philosophy faculty of Moscow University. Inspired by the
thinking of the German philosopher Hermann Cohen of Marburg
University, Pasternak traveled to Marburg in 1912 for the summer
semester. He extended his travels to Italy before returning to
Moscow, where he completed his studies in 1913.
Pasternak's experience at Marburg turned him toward poetry, but
it would always be a poetry endowed with the inquisitive spirit
of philosophy. His first two books of poetry, A Twin in the
Clouds (1914) and Over the Barriers (1917), partake of the mixed
atmosphere of romanticism and experiment then current in the
futurist movement. Pasternak's acquaintance with the leading
futurist poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, proved formative. In his
next book of lyrics, My Sister, My Life (1922), Pasternak
attained complete independence and originality.
Pasternak's early stories explore prose as an alternative form
for essentially poetic themes. "The History of a Contraoctave"
(1913) deals with the conflicting duties an artist owes to his
art and to his family. "Apelles' Figure" (1918) shows
Pasternak's versatility at its best.
The events of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the subsequent
civil war (1917-1921) caused Pasternak to re-examine the
substance of his art. This re-examination culminated in the
novel Doctor Zhivago (1957). The Revolution unleashed forces of
chaos long dormant in Russian civilization. Primarily in his
prose, Pasternak struggled to reassert the humanism that he had
known in the person of Leo Tolstoy ("The Letters from Tula,"
1922) and to make a place for the individual in the mass society
("Aerial Ways," 1924).
The most significant characteristic of Pasternak's life in the
1920s is his striving to address his art to social problems. To
this end, he wrote epic poems on contemporary themes. "A Lofty
Malady" (1923) portrays episodes from Lenin's life; "The Year
1905" (1926) is based on the 1905 revolt; and "Lieutenant
Schmidt" (1927) is based on the life of a real revolutionary. In
his novel in verse, Spektorsky (1929), and its prose segment,
The Tale (1929), Pasternak used events from his own life as the
foundation for a narrative encompassing the years 1914 to 1924.
Role of Autobiography
Pasternak showed an unmistakable reticence about the events of
his personal life. Little is known of his life in the 1920s. He
married in the early 1920s and a son, Evgeny, was born. In the
late 1920s his failing marriage combined with a sense of failure
in his prose endeavors lead to a deep creative and psychological
crisis in his life. The resolution of this crisis initiated
Pasternak's later period, which saw the full development of his
The crisis in Pasternak's life involved his love for Zinaida N.
Neuhaus, whom he later married; his concern for his fellow poet
Mayakovsky; and his growing pessimism about the future of
Russian letters. Pasternak's divorce and remarriage severely
strained his mental balance. At the same time, the poet
Mayakovsky was undergoing a strain of another sort: he was
feeling the full humiliation of the artist who has bartered his
art for a political cause.
Pasternak's impressionistic, semiphilosophical autobiography
Safe Conduct (1931) presents the problems of his crisis and
proposes a solution. He resolves to put his individual creative
talent in the service not of the state but of history. His book
of poems A Second Birth (1931) concentrates on themes relating
the past to the present.
Pasternak lived quietly through the 1930s in Moscow and
Peredelkino, the writers' village in the suburbs of Moscow. He
reassessed and redirected his artistic talent. His lifelong
indifference to immediate political events probably spared him
the tragic fate of many writers during Stalin's purges. During
the 1930s Pasternak's resolution led him to experiments in prose
(the first drafts of Doctor Zhivago), further poetic inspiration
(On Early Trains, 1941), and translations.
Pasternak's translations span his career. They are expert and
professional, full of the spirit and inspiration of their
originals. In the 1920s Pasternak translated such diverse
writers as Heinrich von Kleist and Ben Jonson. In the 1930s
Pasternak translated the Georgian poets of the southern former
U.S.S.R. In their mastery of German, French, and English,
Pasternak's translations of the 1940s and 1950s illustrate the
startling breadth of his undertaking. He translated F. von
Schiller, J. W. von Goethe's Faust, R. M. Rilke, P. Verlaine, J.
Keats, P. B. Shelley, eight of Shakespeare's plays, and several
of Shakespeare's sonnets.
Pasternak's participation in World War II was minimal. He served
for a time as an aerial spotter in Moscow, made one trip to the
front, and was evacuated from Moscow in the face of the German
invasion. He continued his translations during the war and,
immediately thereafter, renewed his work on Doctor Zhivago.
The culmination of his artistic career, Doctor Zhivago is
Pasternak's attempt to bring both prose and poetry to bear on
the problems of the individual artist and his life in history.
It combines an epic novel in prose of the scope of Tolstoy's War
and Peace with a selection of poetry attributed to the hero of
the novel, Yury Zhivago. The subject of the novel is an
individual poet's life in conflict with his times. The novel
spans the years 1902 to 1953.
In 1956 Soviet authorities refused to publish Doctor Zhivago.
Publication of the novel in the West in 1957 led to a series of
consequences unforeseen by Pasternak. He was awarded the 1958
Nobel Prize for his achievement, but critical reaction within
the Soviet Union forced him to decline the award. Having
suffered a heart attack in 1953, Pasternak was in poor health.
He lived in isolation with his family at Peredelkino. He was the
focus of worldwide acclaim, yet an object of official scorn in
his own country. His book of poems When the Storm Breaks (1959)
shows not a trace of dismay in its lively pursuit of the poet's
lifelong twin interests - man's life in nature and his life in
history. Pasternak died on May 30, 1960.
Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was the most prominent figure of his
literary generation, a great poet deeply connected with his age.
His work unfolded during a period of fundamental changes in
Russian cultural, social, and political history. It is therefore
no wonder that many of his works, and most notably his novel,
Doctor Zhivago, are imbued with the spirit of history and relate
its effect on the lives, thoughts, and preoccupations of his
contemporaries. In 1958 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his
achievements in lyrical poetry and the great Russian epic
Pasternak was born in Moscow into a highly cultured Jewish
family. His father, Leonid Pasternak, was a well-known
impressionist painter and professor at the Moscow School of
Painting; his mother was an accomplished pianist. During his
formative years, Pasternak studied music and philosophy but
abandoned them for literature. At the beginning of his literary
career, he was associated with the artistic avant-garde, and his
modern sensibility was strongly expressed in his first two
volumes of poetry, Twin in the Clouds (1914) and Above the
Barriers (1916), and in his early experiments in fiction (1911 -
1913). Most of Pasternak's works written between 1911 and 1931
explore possibilities far beyond realism and are characterized
by dazzling metaphorical imagery and complex syntax reminiscent
of Cubo-Futurist poetry, associated especially with Vladimir
Mayakovsky. Pasternak's cycle, My Sister-Life, published in
1922, is recognized as his most outstanding poetic achievement.
Pasternak's initial support of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917
vanished when the new regime revealed its authoritarian and
ruthless features. Like many other Soviet writers during the
1920s, Pasternak felt pressured by the authorities, who were in
the process of establishing control over literature, to portray
the revolutionary age in epic form. Despite his contempt for the
party's promotion of the epic, and his disappointment over the
decline of lyrical poetry, Pasternak realized that, in order to
survive as a poet, he had to adjust to the new
cultural-political climate and try the epic genre. During the
course of the 1920s, therefore, Pasternak wrote four epics:
Sublime Malady (1924), The Year Nineteen Five (1927), Lieutenant
Schmidt (1926), and Spektorsky (published in installments
between 1924 and 1930). There is a perceptible stylistic and
thematic difference between Pasternak's previous works and his
During the early 1930s, Pasternak was lifted into the first rank
of Soviet writers. He was the only poet of his generation who
was allowed to publish. Osip Mandelstam was out of favour with
the government, Anna Akhmatova was not publishing, Mayakovsky
and Sergei Yesenin committed suicide, and Marina Tsvetaeva was
living abroad. Pasternak was the sole poet whom the government
was initially willing to tolerate. During this period, he
completed only one cycle of poetry, Second Birth (1932), a book
whose optimistic title and tone Pasternak himself soon came to
dislike as a collection for which he had compromised his poetic
standards, and in which he had simplified the language for the
sake of a mass readership.
Starting in 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party
abolished all literary schools and associations and moved
decisively toward consolidating its control over all writers'
activities and their artistic production. In 1934 the Party
established the Union of Soviet Writers and implemented the
official new artistic method of "socialist realism" that
demanded from the artist "truthfulness" and "an historically
concrete portrayal of reality in its revolutionary development."
Writers were now treated as builders of a new life and
"engineers of human souls." Pasternak's modernist autobiography
Safe Conduct was banned in 1933 and not published again until
The most oppressive period in Soviet history began in 1936, and
a reign of terror marked the next few years. Many of Pasternak's
friends became victims of the Great Terror. The poet himself
fell from grace and survived by mere chance. He nearly abandoned
creative writing, devoting himself almost exclusively to
translations. While this relieved him from the pressure of
having to write pro-Stalinist poetry during the worst years of
the Great Terror, it also pushed him into an increasingly
peripheral position. Translating became a means of material
survival for him during the darkest years of Soviet history, and
his translations from this period alone would assure Pasternak a
notable place in the history of Russian literature.
During World War II Pasternak published only two collections of
poetry, On Early Trains (1943), and Earth's Vastness (1945).
Both collections were written in the vein of socialist realism,
with all traces of Pasternak's early avant-garde poetics
obliterated. The official critical reception of On Early Trains
was warm, but Pasternak himself found it embarrassing and
repeatedly apologized for the small number and eclectic
selection of poems.
After the war, Stalin launched a campaign against antipatriotic
and cosmopolitan elements in Soviet society. This campaign came
to be known as zhdanovshchina, after Andrei Zhdanov, the
secretary of the Central Committee, who obligingly unleashed a
slanderous campaign against some major cultural figures.
Zhdanov's scapegoats in literature became the satirist Mikhail
Zoshchenko and the poet Akhmatova. Pasternak's work came under
attack too, and he ended up writing almost nothing during
zhdanovshchina. Translations provided his major creative outlet.
After Stalin's death in 1953, Soviet culture experienced a
period of liberalization known as the Thaw. It was precipitated
by the so-called Secret Speech delivered by the new first
secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, at the
Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. In this speech, Khrushchev
exposed Stalin's crimes and denounced his personality cult. It
was at that time that Pasternak attempted to publish his novel
Doctor Zhivago (written between 1945 and 1955). No Soviet
publisher, however, was willing to publish this work, because of
its controversial portrayal of the Revolution. Pasternak sent
the manuscript to an Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli,
who offered to publish it. Doctor Zhivago thus first appeared in
Italian, without official Soviet approval, in November 1957 and
became an overwhelming success. Over the next two years the
novel was translated into twenty-four languages.
In 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
This honour played a double role in Pasternak's literary career:
on the one hand, it established his international literary
stature, while on the other it made him the target of a vicious
ideological campaign unleashed against him by the Soviet
authorities. The fact that the poet had been nominated
previously for the Nobel Prize for his poetry - specifically in
1947 and again in 1953 - did not seem to bear any significance
for the cultural bureaucrats. Pasternak was expelled from the
Union of Soviet Writers and accused of betraying his country and
negatively portraying the Socialist revolution and Soviet
society - by people who, for the most part, never even read
Doctor Zhivago. Under enormous psychological pressure and the
threat of deportation to the West, Pasternak was forced to
decline the Nobel Prize. But the attacks against him never
stopped. Doctor Zhivago was published in the Soviet Union only
posthumously, in 1988. During the last decade of his life,
Pasternak's most distinct poetic achievement was When the
Weather Clears, a collection of poetry from 1959. It shows him
moving toward an increasingly contemplative mood and linguistic
simplicity. Pasternak died in his dacha in Peredelkino in 1960.
Pasternak was the only great literary figure of his generation
whose works continued to be published throughout his career.
Although he had to pay a price, both artistic and personal, for
his poetic freedom, he generally managed to preserve his moral
and artistic integrity. Pasternak's work continues the best
traditions of Russian literature and is permeated with devotion
to individual freedom, moral and spiritual values, intolerance
of oppressive governments, and a concern with the present and
future of Russia. What distinguishes Pasternak's contribution to
Russian literature is the life-affirming and resilient nature of
his work and its remarkable power to present everyday reality in
a unique and vibrant vision.
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This web page was last updated on:
23 December, 2008