Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak, the son of Jewish parents, was born in Moscow, Russia, on 10th February, 1890. His father was a painter and his mother a talented pianist.

Pasternak studied music and philosophy at Moscow University and the University of Marburg in Germany. He began writing poetry and his first volume, A Twin in the Clouds (1914).

During the First World War Pasternak worked in a chemical factory in the Urals. He continued writing and the publication of My Sister Life (1922), Spektorski (1926), 1905 (1925), Lieutenant Schmidt (1926) and The Second Birth (1932) established him as the Soviet Union's most important poet.

Pasternak's poetry did not reflect the dominant ideology of Socialist Realism and during the purges in the 1930s he stayed out of prison by concentrating on translating the work of other European writers.

Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak

In 1956 Pasternak submitted a novel, Doctor Zhivago, for publication. It was rejected because the publisher disapproved of its treatment of the October Revolution. The manuscript was smuggled out of the country and over the next two years was published in 18 different languages. The Soviet government threatened to deport Pasternak and he was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers.

Boris Pasternak died in Peredelkino, on 30th May, 1960.

Primary Sources

(1) Isaiah Berlin, Personal Impressions (1980)

It was a warm, sunlit afternoon in early autumn. Pasternak, his wife and his son Leonid were seated round a rough wooden table in the tiny garden at the back of the dacha. The poet greeted us warmly. He was once described by his friend the poetess Marina Tsvetaeva as looking like an Arab and his horse: he had a dark, melancholy, expressive, very race face, now familiar from many photographs and his father's paintings; he spoke slowly, in a low tenor monotone, with a continuous, even sound, something between a humming and a drone, which those who met him almost always remarked; each vowel was elongated as if in some plaintive, lyrical aria in an opera by Tchaikovsky, but with more concentrated force and tension...

He spoke in magnificent, slow-moving periods, with occasional intense rushes of words; his talk often overflowed the banks of grammatical structure - lucid passages were succeeded by wild but always marvelously vivid and concrete images - and these might be followed by dark words when it was difficult to follow him - and then he would suddenly come into the clear again; his speech was at all times that of a poet, as were his writings. Someone once said that there are poets who are poets when they write poetry and prose-writers when they write prose; others are poets in everything that they write. Pasternak was a poet of genius in all that he did and was; his ordinary conversation displayed it as his writings do...

Here, in recounting the episode to me, Pasternak again embarked oil one of his great metaphysical flights about cosmic turning-points in the world's history, which he wished to discuss with Stalin - it was of supreme importance that he should do so - I can easily imagine that he spoke in this vein to Stalin too. At any rate, Stalin asked him again whether he was or was not present when Mandel'shtam read the lampoon. Pasternak answered again that what mattered most was his indispensable meeting with Stalin, that it must happen Soon, that everything depended on it, that they must speak about ultimate issues, about life and death. "If I were Mandel'shtam's friend I should have known better how to defend him," said Stalin, and put down the receiver. Pasternak tried to ring back but, not surprisingly, failed to get through to the leader. The episode evidently preyed deeply upon him: he repeated to me the version I have just recounted on at least two later occasions, and told the story to other visitors, although, apparently, in somewhat different forms. His efforts to rescue Mandel'shtam, in particular his appeal to Bukharin, probably helped to preserve him at least for a time - Mandel'shtam was finally destroyed some years later - but Pasternak clearly felt, perhaps without good reason, but as anyone not blinded by self-satisfaction or stupidity might feel, that perhaps another response might have done more for the condemned poet.

He followed this story with accounts of other victims: Pil'nyak, who anxiously waited ("was constantly looking out of the window") for an emissary to ask him to sign a denunciation of one of the men accused of treason in 1936, and because none came, realised that he too was doomed. He spoke of the circumstances of Tsvetaeva's suicide in 1941, which he thought might have been prevented if the literary bureaucrats had not behaved with such appalling heartlessness to her. He told the story of a man who asked him to sign an open letter condemning Marshal Tukhachevsky; when Pasternak refused and explained the reasons for his refusal, the man burst into tears, said that the poet was the noblest and most saintly human being that he had ever met, embraced him fervently, and then went straight to the secret police and denounced him.

(2) Isaiah Berlin, Personal Impressions (1980)

Pasternak was acutely sensitive to the charge of accommodating himself to the demands of the Party or the State - he seemed afraid that his mere survival might be attributed to some unworthy effort to placate the authorities, some squalid compromise of his integrity to escape persecution. He kept returning to this point, and went to absurd lengths to deny that he was capable of conduct of which no one who knew him could begin to conceive him to be guilty. One day he asked me whether I had read his wartime volume of poems On Early Trains; had I heard anyone speak of it as a gesture of conformity with the prevailing orthodoxy? I said truthfully that I had never heard this, that it seemed to me a ludicrous suggestion.

Anna Akhmatova, who was bound to him by the deepest friendship and admiration, told me that when she was returning to Leningrad from Tashkent, where in 1941 she had been evacuated from Leningrad, she stopped in Moscow and visited Pcredelkino. Within a few hours of arriving she received a message from Pasternak that he could not see her - he had a fever - he was in bed - it was impossible. On the next day the message was repeated. Oil the third day he appeared before her looking unusually well, with no trace of any ailment. The first thing he did was to ask her whether she had read his latest book of poems: he put the question with so painful an expression on his face that she tactfully said that she had not read them yet; at which his face cleared, he looked vastly relieved and they talked happily. He evidently felt needlessly ashamed of these poems, which, in fact, were not well received by the official critics. It evidently seemed to him a kind of half-hearted effort to write civic poetry - there was nothing he disliked more intensely than this genre.