Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, poet and prose writer, one of the great modern masters of Russian literature. Pasternak was the elder son of artist Leonid Pasternak and pianist Rozaliya Kaufman. He was born, brought up, and lived most of his life in Moscow. His early years were spent in a richly cultural artistic atmosphere. He showed early promise in both art and music, and under the impact of Scriabin studied musical composition for six years (1903-09). Pursued by vocational doubts, however, he read philosophy at Moscow University (1908-13), and an enthusiasm for Neo-Kantianism took him to Marburg University to study under Hermann Cohen in the summer semester of 1912.
Contacts with Moscow literary circles and his reading of Russian Symbolist literature (Blok, Bely and others) and of works by Hamsun, Ibsen, Przybyszewski, and Rilke probably first stimulated Pasternak's own literary endeavors, and around 1909 he wrote translations of Rilke and pieces of autobiographically based prose and verse. Pasternak's publishing debut was in 1913 with the Lirika poetic group, and in 1914 a first verse collection Twin in the Stormclouds (Bliznets v tuchakh) appeared. The same year he joined Sergei Bobrov's moderate Futurist group, Tsentrifuga, and until 1917 published polemical articles and verse in a variety of futurist miscellanies. Topical "urban", symbolist and ego-futurist elements did not obscure the original talent and personality in Pasternak's early poetry, which was characterized by alliterative orchestration, novelty of rhyme, rhythmic and lexical variety, and by virtuosic metaphor. Pasternak met Mayakovsky in spring of 1914, and some of his wartime verse registered Mayakovsky's influence. Two prose stories "The Mark of Apelles" (Apellesova cherta 1915, published 1918) and "Letters from Tula" (Pi'sma it Tuly 1918, published 1922) reflected Pasternak's attempt to purge himself of the alien "romantic manner," and an article called "Some Propositions" (Neskol'ko polozhenii 1918, published 1922) also dwelt on the aesthetic and ethical reasons for resisting the current vogue for poetic rhetoric and self-dramatization. Meanwhile some poems of Pasternak's second verse collection Over the Barriers (Poverkh bar'erov 1917) demonstrated how emotion and the poet's romantic self-image could be successfully absorbed and used to dynamize metaphoric landscapes.
Partially lamed by a childhood accident, Pasternak was rejected for military service and spent part of World War I engaged in clerical work in the Urals, only returning to Moscow after the February 1917 Revolution. An amorous affair of summer 1917, intensified by revolutionary exhilaration and experiences of a journey to the Saratov area, inspired the verses of My Sister Life (Sestra moya zhizn'). This important poetic cycle circulated widely before its publication in 1922 and earned Pasternak acclaim as a major modern poet. The cycle celebrates love and nature experience as the rapturous revelation of a creative life-force. In it luxurious and explosive imagery combines and sometimes contrasts with the disciplined quatrain form, occasional colloquial idiom and elliptical syntax. The same freshness of vision was also captured in the prose story "Zhenya Luvers' Childhood" (Detstvo Lyuvers, 1918, published 1922) in which a child's developing awareness of surrounding objects, human beings and moral concerns is evoked, transcending the arbitrariness of ordinary psychological description and subverting the orderly severity of the unpoetic adult world.
Pasternak's euphoria over the social liberation of February 1917 and his initial sympathy for the Bolshevik October coup rapidly cooled. He did not regard politics as a primary human or artistic concern, and as a member of the liberal intelligentsia he was disaffected by Bolshevik tyranny and doctrinaire excess. The prose story "Aerial Ways" (Vozdushnye puti, 1924) illustrated how the forces of history and revolution take no account of individual human concerns and wishes, and the incompatibility of the lyrical and the historical established already in a prerevolutionary article, "The Black Goblet" (Chernyi bokal, 1916), was reiterated in a revolutionary setting in the prose extract "Lovelessness" (Bezlyub'e, 1918).
But Pasternak's infection by the spectacular aspect of revolution, and his desire to believe, "belong," and respond to new realities brought changes in his writing. After a fourth volume of lyrics, Themes and Variations (Temy i variatsii, 1923), his poetry of the 1920s was mainly epic or narrative in design. "The Lofty Malady" (Vysokaya bolezn', 1923-28) contained reflections of the civil war and described idealistic intellectuals as "music in the ice," writing placards on the "joy of their own sunset" and contrasting with the figure of Lenin, fearful yet admirable in his relentless logic, willpower, and mastery of events. The Year 1905 (Devyat'sot pyatyi god, 1926) reconstructed the events and personal recollections of the 1905 Revolution in several chapters of galloping anapaestic verse. Lieutenant Schmidt (Leitenant Shmidt, 1927), also set in the 1905 Revolution, described the naval mutiny led by Schmidt and imbued the hero with some Christ-like, sacrificial qualities that also emerged in Pasternak's later prose and lyrics. Spektorsky (written 1924-30, published complete 1931) was a novel in verse, showing episodes of a young poet's life before and after the Revolution, in which the hero shared the author's own historical passivity and fatalism. The same qualities emerged in the central character of a prose companion-piece, "The Story" (Povest', 1929).
Pasternak's futurist experience and friendship with Mayakovsky led him in 1923 to join the latter's LEF (Left Front of Art) group, but the association was brief, for he disliked the "applied art" mentality and corporate artistic activities of the Left Art movement. In the laissez-faire conditions of the arts in the 1920s, Pasternak ranked as a literary Fellow Traveller (poputchik). Among cognoscenti he had enthusiastic followers, but he was hounded by orthodox proletarian critics for his persistently bourgeois, hermetic outlook, "subjective idealism," "individualism," and complexity. The autobiographical Safe Conduct (Okhrannaya gramota, 1931) attracted similar charges. The book was not a conventional autobiography, but a record of individuals (notably Scriabin, Rilke, and Mayakovsky), and of mainly pre-revolutionary incidents that helped shape the author's artistic personality. In the work Pasternak also represented creativity as a form of "energy" that displaced the whole of reality, releasing showers of random metaphor and imagery whose function was to speak symbolically, on the poet's behalf, and as though without his participation.
Pasternak's first marriage, to Evgeniya Lurie, broke up in 1931 after nine years, largely as a result of his new infatuation with Zinaida Neigauz, who eventually became his second wife. In summer 1931 Pasternak travelled with his new consort to the Caucasus, and new friendships blossomed with Georgian poets Iashvili, Tabidze, and Chikovani. Love lyrics and Georgian impressions loomed large in a further verse collection Second Birth (Vtoroe rozhdenie, 1932). The title evidently implied a form of renewal, and in the verses Pasternak spoke of and demonstrated his striving towards a new and "unprecedented simplicity." The poetry also hinted at a new-found optimism and reconciliation of lyrical and social elements, while still emphasising the seriousness and tragic potential of the poet's calling. But artistic rebirth was short-lived. When independent artistic groups were disbanded in 1932 and the new Union of Soviet Writers assumed control of literary affairs, one of its primary functions was to impose conformity and adherence to the principles of socialist realism. Pasternak was officially recognized as a major poetic talent, and for a time he perhaps naively showed willingness to participate in official literary life. He was a leading, though oblique and idiosyncratic speaker at the First Congress of Writers in 1934, and he was in the Soviet delegation to the Paris Conference of 1935 in Defense of Culture. But he recognized the dangers of being cast as an approved "court poet" and was privately revolted by the tyranny of Stalinism. After 1935 his flow of original writings virtually ceased, and his few recorded public statements were sharply critical of official interference with artistic freedoms. Earlier cajoling and muffled criticism of Pasternak now became openly hostile, and as colleagues and friends disappeared in the purges of the later 1930s, Pasternak resorted to poetic translation as a safer livelihood. His renderings of Georgian poets pleased Stalin and may have helped to preserve his liberty; they were followed by Russian renderings of Byron, Keats, Petofi, Verlaine, and Becher. In the years of World War II and the later 1940s he also translated the major tragedies of Shakespeare, and these remain the standard versions used for staging the dramas in Russia. Two further major translating achievements were Pasternak's versions of Goethe's Faust (1953) and Schiller's Maria Stuart (1958).
Within Russia, the war brought some ideological relaxation and concession, and a revival of morale. Some of Pasternak's earlier verse was reprinted and two new collections appeared. On Early Trains (Na rannikh poezdakh, 1943) and Breadth of Earth (Zemnoi prostor, 1945) handled patriotic themes while eschewing all hackneyed official rhetoric; in simple, unforced language Pasternak described everyday local scenes, evoking a sense of communion with common folk at work and at war. The postwar ideological clampdown of "Zhdanovism" in the arts again forced Pasternak into silence. Surrounded by terror and suspicion, he labored on with translations while working away in secret on the manuscript of a prose novel. He cherished long-standing ambitions to work in this genre, but its mastery had not come naturally. Several earlier prose writings, including "Lovelessness," "Zhenya Luvers' Childhood," and "The Story," appeared to be, and were conceived as preliminary fragments of larger works. Themes, characterizations, names, and situations from prose fragments published between 1918 and 1939 now re-emerged in the novel Doctor Zhivago which Pasternak completed in 1955. The central hero, Yury Zhivago, was the author's near-contemporary and partial alter ego, a Moscow doctor and poet who died in 1929, leaving a legacy of inspired poetry that formed the final chapter of the novel. For the account of Zhivago's early life, wartime and revolution experiences, and his eventual retreat to the Urals following the Bolshevik takeover, Pasternak drew generously on his own personal recollections. Zhivago was also used as a partial mouthpiece for the author's own philosophical and artistic beliefs. His apparent weakness and inability to shape and influence his own fate or that of his family caught up in the revolutionary storm had been adumbrated in Pasternak's earlier prose. But these qualities were presented not as faults, but as signs of Zhivago's awareness of his own inescapable, divinely ordained sacrificial mission as an artistic witness to the tragedy of his age. This was also reinforced in "Hamlet" and other items in the poetic appendix which closely identified the creative poet's predicament with that of the suffering Christ. Creativity and compassionate involvement in the fates of other men thus emerged as the foundations of immortality and of a new Christian existentialism that owed something to Berdayev and other 20th-century Russian religious philosophers. Lara Antipova, the central heroine, was a woman whose vital and natural, yet vulnerable femininity inspired Zhivago to poetic creation, while at the same time driving her husband Pasha to make political commitments that eventually reduced him to sterility and destroyed him. Doctor Zhivago owed much to the 19th-century social-historical novel, but countered the quasi-scientific determinism of that genre by the use of coincidence, subjective distortion of historical chronology and atmosphere, and by blurring the characterization of some central characters--features which some commentators have regarded as flaws in the novel.
was rejected for publication in the USSR, but its publication (1957) and
acclaim in the West, followed by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature
(1958) unleashed a bitter official campaign against Pasternak, forcing
him to reject the award. In the late 1950s Pasternak composed a further
book of transparent and reflective verse, When the Weather Clears
(Kogda razgulyaetsya, 1957), and a second "autobiographical essay,"
Avtobiograficheskii ocherk (1957); both books came out first in
the West, but were later printed in the USSR also. A historical drama,
The Blind Beauty (Slepaya krasavitsa), was left incomplete
at Pasternak's death; surviving extracts depict Russia's emergence from
tyranny to emancipation and enlightment in the late 19th and early 20th
century and suggest that the work was conceived as a form of aesopian
comment on Stalinist and post-Stalinist Russia. Despite official opprobrium,
Pasternak's funeral at Peredelkino writers' settlement near Moscow was
attended by thousands, and his villa and grave are still places of pilgrimage.