The decisive moment in human evolution is perpetual.

Franz Kafka

Boris Pasternak - biography

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (Russian: Бори́с Леони́дович Пастерна́к) (10 February 1890 – 30 May 1960) was a Nobel Prize-winning Russian and Soviet poet of Jewish descent, novelist and translator of Goethe and Shakespeare. In Russia, Pasternak is most celebrated as a poet. My Sister Life, written in 1917, is one of the most influential collections of poetry published in the Russian language in the 20th century. In the West he is best known for his epic novel Doctor Zhivago, a tragedy whose events span the last period of the Russian Empire and the early days of the Soviet Union. It was first translated and published in Italy in 1957. He helped give birth to the dissident movement with the publication of Doctor Zhivago.


Early life

Pasternak was born in Moscow on 10 February, (Gregorian), 1890 (Julian 29 January) into a wealthy and assimilated Russian-Jewish family. His father was the famous artist, Leonid Pasternak, professor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture, and his mother was Rosa (Raitza) Kaufman, a concert pianist. Pasternak was brought up in a highly cosmopolitan and intellectual atmosphere: family friends and regular visitors to his childhood home included pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, composer and mystic Alexander Scriabin, existentialist Lev Shestov, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and writer Leo Tolstoy. Pasternak aspired first to be a composer, turned next to philosophy and then eventually to writing as his vocation.

Inspired by his neighbour Alexander Scriabin, Pasternak resolved to become a composer and entered the Moscow Conservatory. In 1910 he abruptly left the conservatory for the University of Marburg, where he studied under Neo-Kantian philosophers Hermann Cohen and Nicolai Hartmann. Although invited to become a scholar, he decided against making philosophy a profession and returned to Moscow in 1914. His first poetry collection, influenced by Alexander Blok and the Russian Futurists, was published later the same year.

Pasternak's early verse cleverly dissimulates his preoccupation with Kant's ideas. Its fabric includes striking alliterations, wild rhythmic combinations, day-to-day vocabulary, and hidden allusions to his favourite poets like Rilke, Lermontov and German Romantic poets.

During World War I, he taught and worked at a chemical factory in Vsevolodovo-Vilve near Perm, which undoubtedly provided him with material for Dr. Zhivago many years later. Unlike many of his relatives and friends, Pasternak did not leave Russia after the revolution. Instead, he was fascinated with the new ideas and possibilities that revolution brought to life.

My Sister Life

Pasternak spent the summer of 1917 living in the steppe country near Saratov, where he fell in love. This passion resulted in the collection My Sister Life, which he wrote over a period of three months, but was too embarrassed to publish for four years because of its novel style. When it finally was published in 1921, the book revolutionised Russian poetry. It made Pasternak the model for younger poets, and decisively changed the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetayeva and others. Following My Sister Life, Pasternak produced some hermetic pieces of uneven quality, including his masterpiece, the lyric cycle Rupture (1921). Authors such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Andrey Bely, Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Nabokov applauded Pasternak's poems as works of pure, unbridled inspiration. In the late 1920s, he also participated in the much celebrated tripartite correspondence with Rilke and Tsvetayeva.

After the ascension of Joseph Stalin in 1929, Pasternak increasingly felt that his colourful style was at odds with the dictator's demand for Socialist Realism. He attempted to make his poetry more comprehensible to the censors by reworking his earlier pieces and starting two lengthy poems on the Revolution. He also turned to prose and wrote several autobiographical stories, notably The Childhood of Luvers and Safe Conduct.

Second Birth

By 1932, Pasternak had strikingly reshaped his style to make it acceptable to the Soviet public and printed the new collection of poems aptly titled The Second Birth. Although its Caucasian pieces were as brilliant as the earlier efforts, the book alienated the core of Pasternak's refined audience abroad, which was largely composed of anti-communist White emigres. He simplified his style and language even further for his next collection of verse, Early Trains (1943), which prompted his former patron, Vladimir Nabokov, to mock Pasternak as a "weeping Bolshevik" and "Emily Dickinson in trousers."

During the great purges of the later 1930s, Pasternak became increasingly disillusioned with Marxist ideals. He remained a close friend of Anna Akhmatova, as well as Osip Mandelstam. Reluctant to conform to Socialist Realism, Pasternak turned to translation. His work soon included William Shakespeare (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear), Goethe (Faust), Rilke (Requiem für eine Freundin), Paul Verlaine, and Georgian poets. Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare remain very popular with the Russian public because of their colloquial, modernised dialogues, but critics accused him of "pasternakizing" the English playwright.

Although Pasternak was widely panned for excessive subjectivism, Joseph Stalin is said to have crossed Pasternak's name off an execution list during the 1930s Purges. According to Stalin's biographer, Simon Sebag Montefiore, "He recognized that Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Bulgakov were geniuses, but their work was suppressed. Yet he could tolerate whimsical maestros: Bulgakov and Pasternak were never arrested. But woe betide anyone, genius or hack, who insulted the person or policy of Stalin -- for the two were synonymous."

Doctor Zhivago

Several years before the start of the Second World War, Pasternak and his wife settled in Peredelkino, a village for writers several miles from Moscow. He was filled with a love of life that gave his poetry a hopeful tone. This is reflected in the name of his autobiographical hero Zhivago, derived from the Russian word for live. The character of Zhivago's mistress, Lara Antipova, has long been rumored to have been modeled on his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya. However the elder of his sisters stated that on a visit to her in Germany in the late 1930s, Pasternak told her of the nascent character of Lara, years before he met Ivinskaya in 1946.

As the novel was denied publication by the Soviet State, Doctor Zhivago was smuggled abroad by Pasternak's friend Isaiah Berlin. In 1957, the novel was printed by the multi-billionaire Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. To the outrage of the Kremlin, the novel became an instant sensation throughout the non-Communist world. As retaliation for his role in Doctor Zhivago's publication, Feltrinelli was expelled in disgrace from the Italian Communist Party.

Between 1958 and 1959, the English language edition spent 26 weeks at the top of The New York Times' bestseller list. Although none of his Soviet critics had the chance to read the proscribed novel, several officials of the Writer's Union publicly demanded, "kick the pig out of our kitchen-garden," i.e., expel Pasternak from the USSR. This led to a humorous Russian saying, "I did not read Pasternak, but I condemn him".

Nobel Prize

Pasternak was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. Boris Pasternak first accepted the award, but was later caused by the authorities of his country to decline the prize. On 25 October, two days after hearing that he had won, Pasternak sent the following telegram to the Swedish Academy: Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.

However, four days later came another telegram: Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offense at my voluntary rejection.

The Swedish Academy announced: This refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award. There remains only for the Academy, however, to announce with regret that the presentation of the Prize cannot take place.

Pasternak had declined under intense pressure from Soviet authorities. Despite turning down the award, Soviet officials soured on Pasternak, and he was threatened at the very least with expulsion. In response, Pasternak wrote to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev,

"Leaving the motherland will equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work."

In addition, the Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, may also have spoken with Khrushchev about this, and Pasternak was not exiled or imprisoned. Despite this, a famous Bill Mauldin cartoon at the time showed Pasternak and another prisoner in the GULAG, splitting trees in the snow. In the caption, Pasternak says, "I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?" The cartoon won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1959.

Death and legacy

Pasternak's post-Zhivago poetry probes the universal questions of love, immortality, and reconciliation with God.

Pasternak died of lung cancer on 30 May 1960. Despite only a small notice appearing in the Literary Gazette, thousands of people traveled from Moscow to his funeral in Peredelkino. "Volunteers carried his open coffin to his burial place and those who were present (including the poet Andrey Voznesensky) recited from memory the banned poem 'Hamlet'."


His father's Nobel medal was ultimately presented to Yevgeny Pasternak in Stockholm during the Nobel week of December 1989. At the ceremony, acclaimed cellist Mstislav Rostropovich performed a Bach serenade in honor of his deceased countryman. In 1988, after decades of circulating in Samizdat, Doctor Zhivago was finally published in the author's homeland.

In 2007, The Times revealed that the British intelligence service, or MI6, and the American CIA had collaborated to ensure that Pasternak's novel was submitted in accordance with the Nobel Committee's regulations. This was done because it was known that a Nobel Prize for Pasternak would seriously harm the international credibility of the Soviet Union. In the fall of 1958, British and American operatives intercepted and photographed a manuscript of the novel and secretly printed a small number of books in the Russian language. These were submitted to the Nobel Committee's surprised judges just ahead of the deadline.

According to Yevgeny Pasternak, however, his father was completely unaware of the involvement of Western intelligence services in ensuring his Nobel victory. Yevgeny further declared that the Nobel Prize caused his father nothing but severe grief and harassment at the hands of the Soviet State.

The Pasternak family papers are stored at the Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University. They contain correspondence, drafts of Doctor Zhivago and other writings, photographs, and other material, of Boris Pasternak and other family members. Several of Pasternak's relations moved to Lithuania after the October Revolution and there are 4 direct descendants left there. A cousin's family is buried in Antakalnis cemetery, in Vilnius. Yet another cousin, the poet Leon Pasternak moved to Poland. As a result of work for the Socialist Revolutionary movement, he was interned at the Bereza Kartuska detention camp in 1934.

Cultural influence

A minor planet 3508 Pasternak, discovered by Soviet astronomer Lyudmila Georgievna Karachkina in 1980 is named after him.

Russian-American singer and songwriter Regina Spektor recited a verse from a 1912 poem by Pasternak in her song "Apres Moi" from her album Begin to Hope.


The first screen adaptation of Doctor Zhivago, adapted by Robert Bolt and directed by David Lean, appeared in 1965. The film, which toured in the roadshow tradition, starred Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin, and Julie Christie. Concentrating on the love triangle aspects of the novel, it quickly became a worldwide blockbuster, but was unavailable in Russia until Perestroika.

In 2002, the novel was adapted as a television miniseries. Directed by Giacomo Campiotti, the serial starred Hans Matheson, Alexandra Maria Lara and Keira Knightley.

The Russian TV version of 2006, directed by Alexander Proshkin and starring Oleg Menshikov as Zhivago, is considered more faithful to Pasternak's novel than David Lean's 1965 film.

Article author: Zipora Galitski
Article tags: biography
The article is about these people:   Boris Pasternak

This information is published under GNU Free Document License (GFDL).
You should be logged in, in order to edit this article.


Please log in / register, to leave a comment

Welcome to JewAge!
Learn about the origins of your family