A Safe-Conduct Essay - Critical Context

Boris Pasternak

Critical Context

Safe Conduct gained resonance from Pasternak’s second look at the same years. Toward the end of his life, he published an additional autobiographical essay: Avtobiograficheskiy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959). This work reevaluates the people so crucial to the author’s development, this time in the light of their meaning for his central work, the novel Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). Leo Tolstoy therefore figures as the underlying inspiration as Rilke does in the earlier work, which focused on poetry. In the later work, Pasternak shows that Scriabin’s emphasis on tradition nevertheless allowed the renewal of an art “from its very foundation.” He deemphasizes his relation to Mayakovsky and clearly condemns suicide; his own survival when others gave up he attributes to strength drawn from memory. The importance of autobiography to Pasternak is emphatic, both in assessing the values of the poets close to him and in understanding the shape of his own artistic development.

The reputation of Safe Conduct is very different in the Soviet Union from its reputation in the West. Immediately attacked as subversive when it was published as a book in Pasternak’s homeland, it was banned and withdrawn from libraries as not appropriate to the Soviet literary policy of Socialist Realism just emerging into official definition in 1931. Nevertheless, Pasternak’s continuing commitment to the Revolution and some curious respect on Stalin’s part for the poet kept him alive and free when many artists of the 1930’s were arrested and imprisoned or exiled. The rejection of his work by the Soviet literary establishment grew; Pasternak was required to refuse the Nobel Prize in 1958, and he was officially isolated for the rest of his life.

Safe Conduct became known in English translation in the West, where the political context did not impinge, only after 1945. It has been considered all during the growth of Pasternak’s international reputation as a major source of the poet’s literary biography, valued for its slender biographical data and its insight into his aesthetic.