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Boris Leonidovich Pasternak ( ) (10 February 1890 – 30 May 1960) was a Nobel Prize-winning Russianmarker poet, novelist and translator of Goethe and Shakespeare. In Russia, Pasternak is most celebrated as a poet. My Sister Life, written in 1917, is arguably the most influential collection 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 Empiremarker and the early days of the Soviet Unionmarker. It was first translated and published in Italymarker 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, (Julian), 1890 (Gregorian 29 January) into a wealthy 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 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 Conservatorymarker. In 1910 he abruptly left the conservatory for the University of Marburgmarker, 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 Permmarker, 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 Saratovmarker, 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 entitled 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.

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 Revolution. He also turned to prose and wrote several autobiographical stories, notably The Childhood of Lovers 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 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 Georgiamarker 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.

Doctor Zhivago

Several years before the start of the Second World War, Pasternak and his wife settled in Peredelkinomarker, 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. Another famous character, Lara, is said to have been modeled on his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya.

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-Communist 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.

The Russian TV version of 2006, directed by Alexander Proshkin, is considered more faithful to Pasternak's novel than Lean's 1965 film adaptation.

Nobel Prize

Boris Pasternak, Nobel stamp, USSR
Pasternak was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. It has emerged that British intelligence and the CIA secretly facilitated the accolade to embarrass the Kremlin. On 25 October, two days after hearing that he had won, Pasternak sent the following telegram to the Swedish Academymarker:

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.

(Via )

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. 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, where he said: "My father played no role in the publication of a Russian edition, nor had he any idea of the CIA’s interest. My father never expected to receive the prize. Sadly it brought him a lot of sorrow and suffering." At the ceremony, the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich played a Bach serenade to honor his deceased countryman.

Death and legacy

Boris Pasternak's grave in Peredelkino in October 1983.

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'."


The poet and bard Alexander Galich wrote a politically charged song dedicated to his memory.

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

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

Pasternak is the Russian word for parsnip.

Several of Pasternak's relatives moved to Lithuaniamarker during the early 1920s and there are 4 direct descendants left there. Pasternak cousin's family is buried in Antakalnismarker cemetery, in Vilniusmarker.

The Pasternak family papers at the Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, contain correspondence, drafts of Doctor Zhivago and other writings, photographs, and other material, of Boris Pasternak and other family members.


  1. Yevtushenko; The story of a superstar poet. Judith Colp. The Washington Times. Part E; LIFE; Pg. E1. 3 January 1991.
  2. Boris Leonidovich Pasternak
  3. "Sister My Life" Boris Pasternak. Translated by C. Flayderman. Introduction by Robert Payne. Washington Square Press, 1967.
  4. Contents of Novy Mir magazines
  5. How the CIA won Zhivago a Nobel
  6. Bill Mauldin Beyond Willie and Joe (Library of Congress)
  7. Boris Pasternak: The Nobel Prize. Son's memoirs. (Pravda, 18 December 2003)
  8. Hostage of Eternity: Boris Pasternak (Hoover Institution)
  9. Conference set on Doctor Zhivago writer (Stanford Report, 28 April 2004)

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