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Boris Pasternak


Boris Pasternak

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Moscow in 1890. His father was a well-known portrait painter and illustrator of Leo Tolstoy's works; his mother a concert pianist. Educated by private tutors until entering a German Gymnasium (high school) in Moscow in 1901, it was thought by most of his family that Boris would pursue a career in either art or music, both of which he showed interest in. And, in fact, he did study music at the Moscow Conservatory from 1904 to 1910, but chose not to go any further because he lacked confidence in his technical skill. He then spent a short time in the Law Faculty at Moscow University and as a student of philosophy at the University of Marburg (Germany). In 1912 he decided to give up his academic career in favor of his true passion -- poetry.

Pasternak published his first book of verse, Twin in the Clouds, soon after returning to Moscow in 1914, but the work went largely unnoticed by the Russian literary community.

Spared army service because of a childhood injury which left him with one leg shorter than the other, he spent World War I deep in the Ural Mountains, where he worked as a private tutor and at a chemical factory.

After the Revolution of 1917 effectively ended Russian participation in the war, Pasternak was able to return to Moscow, where he supported himself by translating German poetry and plays into Russian. His parents and siblings emigrated to Germany in 1921, but Boris chose to remain in Moscow. Aside from a brief visit in 1922, he would never see them again.

Meanwhile, Pasternak continued to write and publish his poetry, but he would not gain recognition until 1922, with My Sister, Life.

Pasternak's early work is distinguished by its alliteration, rhyme, rhythm, and use of metaphor, and his Russian contemporaries thought very highly of him. By the 1930's, however, the Soviet government had determined that the arts should glorify the ideals of Communism, a concept Pasternak refused to accept. Pasternak was by no means alone in refusing to adhere to Communist ideals in his work, but he was somehow able to escape the fates of many of his contemporaries, notably exile and/or suicide. He did, however, find it all but impossible to get his poetry published.

Unable to make a living as a poet without sacrificing his belief that art should exist for art's sake alone instead of for the sake of political and/or social reform, Pasternak resumed his previous work of translating foreign works into Russian. His translations of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Othello, and Romeo and Juliet, as well as numerous works of Georgian and Armenian poets, won him official approval and allowed him to live a fairly comfortable life in Peredelkino, a writers' colony near Moscow.

One of the rare poets to be popular during his lifetime, Pasternak received many letters from soldiers serving in World War II telling him how much his poetry meant to them. These accolades led him to put aside his translation work and focus his attention on the novel with which he is most closely associated.

Pasternak began working on Dr. Zhivago soon after the war ended. The chronicle of the title character's lifetime of hardships and the lost-and-found love of Lara took Pasternak several years to write, during which period he gave copies of the work-in-progress to friends and contemporaries to read and critique. Most of those friends and contemporaries believed that Pasternak was writing a truly great work and looked forward to reading the finished manuscript. Unfortunately, the Soviet government had other ideas. Believing that the book shone a bad light on the Revolution of 1917 and the Communist system, the government forbade its publication within the Soviet Union and had Pasternak expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers. Undaunted, Pasternak's friends managed to smuggle the manuscript out of the country. An Italian translation of the book was published in 1957, followed by an English translation soon after. Eventually translated into 18 languages, Dr. Zhivago was made into a film by David Lean in 1965, with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the lead roles.

Pasternak was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature for "achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition," but chose to decline the award in order to avoid reprisals from the Soviet government. Unfortunately, his refusal of the award did not make his life easier. Unable to get any of his works published in Russia, Pasternak sank into poverty, and by 1960 he was dying of lung cancer.

Boris Pasternak in his home after learning he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature
Boris Pasternak in 1958

Boris Pasternak died at his home in Peredelkino on May 30, 1960. Despite being officially "on the outs" within Russia, his funeral was attended by thousands of his readers and friends. Official Russian appreciation for Pasternak's work finally came in 1988, when he was posthumously reinstated into the Union of Soviet Writers and Dr. Zhivago was finally published in Russia. In 1989 Evgenii Pasternak was allowed to travel to Stockholm, Sweden, to accept the Nobel Prize his father had been forced to decline 31 years earlier.

Pasternak married Evgeniya Vladimirovna Lourie in 1922. The couple had one son, Evgenii, before divorcing in 1931. He married Zinaida Nikolaevna Neigauz in 1934, and stayed married to her even after falling in love with Olga Ivinskaya in 1946. Olga is assumed to have been his inspiration for Lara in Dr. Zhivago, and was with him when he died.

His Verse

BLIZNETS V TUCHAKN -- Twin in the Clouds (1914)
PVERH BAR'EROV -- Over the Barriers (1916)
SESTRA MOYA ZHIZN -- My Sister, Life (1922)
TEMY I VARIATSII -- Themes and Variations (1923)
DETSTVO LYUVERS -- The Childhood of Luvers (1925)
LEYTENANT SHMIDT -- Lieutenant Schmidt (1927)
DEVYATSOT PYATY GOD -- The Year 1905 (1927)
VYSOKAYA BOLEZN -- Sublime Malady (1928)
POVEST -- The Last Summer (1934)
NA RANNIKH PYEZDAKH -- On Early Trains (1943)
ZEMNYE PROSTORY -- Wide Spaces of the Earth (1945)
When the Weather Clears (1959)

His Prose

VOZDUSHNYE PUTI -- Aerial Ways (1925--collection of short stories)
(1926--"novel in verse")
OKHRANNAYA GRAMOTA -- Safe Conduct (1931--autobiography)
Vtoroye rozhdenie [Second Birth (1932)
BIOGRAFICHESKY OCHERK -- Essay in Autobiography (1956--autobiographical sketch)
DOKTOR ZHIVAGO -- Doctor Zhivago (1957--novel)

His Translations

IZBRANNIE PEREVODY (1940--translation)
GAMLET PRINTS DATSKII -- Hamlet (1940--translation)
ROMEO I DZHUL'ETTA -- Romeo and Juliet (1943--translation)
ANTONII I KLEOPATRA -- Antony and Cleopatra (1944--translation)
OTELLO, VENETSIIANSKII MAVR -- Othello (1945--translation)
STIKHOTVERENIIA (1948--translation of N.M. Baratsahvili's works)
FAUST I (1950--translation)
MAKBET -- Macbeth (1951--translation)


The Collected Prose Works (1945)
Selected Poems
Safe Conduct, An Early Autobiography, and Other Works
The Poetry of Boris Pasternak, 1917-1959 (1959)
Poems (1959)

Posthumous Works

AUTOBIOGRAFICHESKIY OCHERK -- I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography (1961)
In the Interlude: Poems 1945-1960
Fifty Poems
Letters to Georgian Friends
Boris Pasternak's Translations of Shakespeare

[the above list is not complete]


Academy of American Poets
Nobel Foundation
Masterpiece Theatre: Doctor Zhivago Essays

See Also

World War I
World War II
Nobel Prize in Literature

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The Robinson Library >> Russian Literature

This page was last updated on 02/10/2019.