Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (Бори́с Леони́дович Пастерна́к) (February 10, 1890 — May 30, 1960) was a Nobel Prize-winning Soviet Russian poet and writer. In the West he is best known for the epic novel Doctor Zhivago, a tragedy, whose events span through the last period of Tsarist Russia and early days of Soviet Union. It was first translated and published in Italy in 1957. In Russia, however, Boris Pasternak is most celebrated as a poet. My Sister Life, written in 1917, is arguably the most influential collection of poetry published in Russian language in the 20th century.
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 the World War I, he taught and worked at a chemical factory in Vsevolodovo-Vilve, 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.
Following My Sister Life, Pasternak produced some hermetic pieces of uneven quality, including his masterpiece - the lyric cycle entitled Rupture (1921). Authors such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Andrey Bely, 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.
By the end of the 1920s, Pasternak increasingly felt that his colourful modernist style was at odds with the doctrine of Socialist Realism approved by the Communist party. He attempted to make his poetry more comprehensible to the masses by reworking his earlier pieces and starting two lengthy poems on the Russian Revolution. He also turned to prose and wrote several autobiographical stories, notably The Childhood of Lovers and Safe Conduct.
By 1932, Pasternak had strikingly reshaped his style to make it acceptable to the Soviet public and printed the new collection of poems aptly entitled 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. He simplified his style even further for his next collection of patriotic verse, Early Trains (1943), which prompted Nabokov to describe Pasternak as a "weeping Bolshevik" and "Emily Dickinson in trousers."
During the great purges of the later 1930s, Pasternak became progressively disillusioned with Communist ideals. Reluctant to publish his own poetry, he turned to translating Shakespeare (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear), Goethe (Faust), Rilke (Requiem für eine Freundin), Paul Verlaine, and Georgian poets. Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare have proved popular with the Russian public because of their colloquial, modernised dialogues, but critics accused him of "pasternakizing" the English playwright. Although he was widely panned for excessive subjectivism, Stalin is said to have crossed Pasternak's name off an arrest list during the purges, saying "Don't touch this cloud dweller."Another version of Stalin's remark, possibly on a separate occasion, is "Leave that Holy Fool alone!"
His cousin, Polish poet Leon Pasternak, was not so lucky. As a result of his political activities in Poland — writing satirical verses for socialist revolutionary periodicals - he was imprisoned in 1934 in the Bereza Kartuska detention camp.
As the book was frowned upon by the Soviet authorities, Doctor Zhivago was smuggled abroad by his friend Isaiah Berlin and published in an Italian translation by the Italian publishing house Feltrinelli in 1957. The novel became an instant sensation, and was subsequently translated and published in many non-Soviet bloc countries. In 1958 and 1959, the American 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, some of them publicly demanded, "kick the pig out of our kitchen-garden," i.e., expel Pasternak from the USSR. This led to a jocular Russian saying used to poke fun at illiterate criticism, "I did not read Pasternak, but I condemn him". Doctor Zhivago was eventually published in the USSR in 1988.
The screen adaptation, directed by David Lean, was of epic proportions, being toured in the roadshow tradition, and starred Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Concentrating on the romantic aspects of the tale, it quickly became a worldwide blockbuster, but wasn't released in Russia until near the time of the fall of the Soviet Union.
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.
Reading between the lines of Pasternak's second telegram, it is clear he declined the award out of fear that he would be stripped of his citizenship were he to travel to Stockholm to accept it. After struggling a lifetime to avoid leaving Russia, this was not a prospect he welcomed.
Despite turning down the Nobel Prize, Soviet officials soured on Pasternak, and he was threatened at the very least with expulsion. However, it appears that the Prime Minister of India, Pandit 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 Siberia, 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.
The Nobel medal was finally presented to Pasternak's son, Yevgeny, at a ceremony in Stockholm during the Nobel week of December 1989. At the ceremony, the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich played a Bach serenade to honor his deceased countryman.
Pasternak died of lung cancer on May 30, 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'." The poet and bard Alexander Galich wrote a politically charged song dedicated to his memory.