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Boris Pasternak


In the West, Boris Pasternak is known almost exclusively for his novel Dr. Zhivago, not only because it is the greatest novel to come out of Russia in the last century but also because it was one of the first novels to be published in the West by a Soviet citizen, because its author was given the Nobel Prize, which he first accepted and then, under Soviet pressure, rejected and, finally, because of the film.

Pasternak is not Dr. Zhivago. While Yuri Zhivago has some of Pasternak’s characteristics and some of his views, the outer details of their lives differ in many ways. Pasternak was the son of a distinguished painter, Leonid Pasternak, who painted Tolstoy, Rilke, Einstein and Lenin, and a distinguished pianist, Rozaliya Isidorovna. Not only did the young Pasternak meet Tolstoy (he and his father were also among the first to attend his death) and Rilke, he and his family were neighbours of the composer, Scriabin. Young Boris started off on a musical career, which he abandoned, and then a career in philosophy, which he also abandoned. Though he did write some shorter prose works, it was as a poet that he was known and respected in Russia.

Like his hero, Yuri Zhivago, he was not much involved in the Revolution. (Unlike his hero, he saw no action in the First World War, having a leg injury from childhood.) Like many Russians, he welcomed the overthrow of the oppression of Tsarism but was not a political activist. Gradually, however, like many Russians, he suffered as a result of the Civil War and then under Stalinism. Many writers, of course, were exiled, murdered or repressed under Stalin. Despite his increasing careless opposition to Stalin and his defense of many writers considered enemies of the State, he managed to survive. He managed to meet Stalin and, apparently, Stalin even telephoned him once when he publicly defended a disgraced writer. Indeed, it seems likely that he owes his survival to Stalin’s covert protection.

During this period, he survived by translating. His main translations were from English and German – his translations of Shakespeare and Goethe are considered masterpieces – but also from other languages. He wrote and occasionally published poetry, married twice and started a relationship with Olga Ivinskaya, the model for the Lara of Dr. Zhivago. At one time, it looked as though the Stalinist regime would finally come down on him; however, though Olga was sent to a labour camp for five years (she was freed after four years, after the death of Stalin), Pasternak was saved.

He had started writing Dr. Zhivago before this and tried to get it published in the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. It was considered for publication, in a somewhat bowdlerised form, but only after Feltrinelli in Milan had decided to publish it in the West. When it was published in the West and, shortly afterwards, he was awarded the Nobel prize, the Soviet system came crashing down on to him. He was forced to reject the Nobel Prize and was continually criticised in the Soviet press. He died in 1970, having written a few more poems and the start of a play, Blind Beauty. After his death, Ivinskaya was again sent to prison, this time on trumped-up currency charges.

Books about Boris Pasternak

Christopher Barnes: Boris Pasternak A Literary Biography (2 volumes) (the standard long biography)
Guy Demallac: Boris Pasternak, His Life and Art
J. W. Dyck: Boris Pasternak (Twayne series)
Ronald Hingley: Boris Pasternak (the standard short biography)
Olga Ivanskaya: A Captive of Time: My Years With Pasternak
Peter Levi: Boris Pasternak
Robert Payne: The Three Worlds of Boris Pasternak
Larissa Rudova: Understanding Boris Pasternak
Katherine Tiernan O’Connor: Boris Pasternak’s My Sister – Life : The Illusion of Narrative

Other links

Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak
Nobel Prize citation
After 50 Years, Passions Persist Over the Publication of ‘Doctor Zhivago’
Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (in Russian)


1921 Сестра моя жизнь (My Sister Life and Other Poems)
1926 Лейтенант Шмидт (Lieutenant Schmidt
1945 Collected Prose Works
1946 Selected Poems
1949 Selected writings
1957 Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago)
1958 Охранная грамота Safe Conduct (autobiography)
1958 Poems (translated by his sister)
1959 Люди и положения (An Essay in Autobiography; I Remember)
1959 Повесть (Last Summer) (autobiography)
1959 Poems (not the same as the 1958 edition)
1959 Prose & poems
1960 Poems (not the same as the previous editions)
1961 Детство Люверс (Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers)
1962 In the Interlude (poems)
1963 Fifty Poems
1964 Poems (not the same as the previous editions)
1968 Letters to Georgian Friends
1969 Seven Poems
1977 Collected Short Prose
1982 Zhenia’s Childhood and Other Stories
1986-1990 The Voice of Prose (prose selections; 2 volumes)
1989 The Year Nineteen-Five (verse)
1990 Second Nature: Forty-Six Poems
1990 Poems (not the same as the previous editions)
2006 Boris Pasternak Late Poems
2008 February: Boris Pasternak Selected Poetry 1912-1959