Boris Pasternak Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Pasternak was a leading Russian poet, a particularly gifted translator, and a writer of prose, most notably the novel Doctor Zhivago, for which he was offered the Nobel Prize in 1958. His highly cultured talent managed to find both expression and influence despite severe adversity in the Soviet literary climate.

Early Life

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born on February 10, 1890, in Moscow, the first child of Leonid Osipovich Pasternak, an artist renowned for his portraiture, and Rosa Isidorovna Pasternak (née Kaufman), a talented pianist. In their youth, Boris, his brother Alexander, and his two sisters, Josephine and Lydia, were exposed to a richly cultured environment of art, music, and literature. The famous author, Leo Tolstoy, was an admirer of Leonid’s work and sat for one of his most prominent portraits. The Pasternaks were, as a result, visitors on several occasions to Tolstoy’s Moscow residence and to his estate near Tula. The effect of this contact was to be felt in Pasternak’s later religious and philosophical views. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who twice visited the Pasternaks, influenced young Boris to appreciate the role of the poet in society—a role he later assumed. It was the eccentric composer Aleksandr Scriabin who most determined Pasternak’s youthful endeavors. Under his influence, Pasternak studied music composition while attending Moscow’s German Classical Grammar School. At school, Pasternak enjoyed foreign languages, especially German, and philosophy. He took an interest in the poetry of the Russian Symbolists Innokenty Annensky and Aleksandr Blok. Through his father he met the founder of the Soviet literary doctrine of Socialist Realism, Maxim Gorky, both in Moscow and in Berlin, to which the Pasternaks traveled in 1905 after the failed Russian revolution attempt of that year. In 1907, the family returned to Moscow, and in 1908 Pasternak was graduated from school with a gold medal for excellence.

In 1909, Pasternak entered Moscow State University as a law student, but he soon transferred to philosophy. He began to participate in a literary circle called “Serdarda,” which was devoted to poetic innovation. Other members of this group, notably Sergei Makovsky and Sergei Bobrov, recognized Pasternak’s talent for poetry and urged him to give up his work in music composition to focus on poetry. In 1912, Pasternak traveled to Germany to study philosophy under the Neo-Kantian leader Hermann Cohen at the University of Marburg. He was unhappy over his relationship with Ida Davidovna Vysofskaya, the daughter of wealthy family friends. He had fallen in love with her while tutoring her. She visited him in Marburg and there rejected his proposal of marriage. He then withdrew from the university and returned to Moscow, intent on devoting himself more exclusively to literary pursuits.

Life’s Work

In 1913, Pasternak had five of his poems published in a Moscow almanac called Lirika. The group that sponsored this almanac soon merged with a Futurist group, Centrifuge, through which Pasternak came under the influence of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the revolutionary poet who had been a passing acquaintance of Pasternak in school. In 1914, Russia’s participation in World War I began, and Pasternak was drafted for service; he was soon exempted, however, because of his leg, which had improperly healed after a fracture sustained in a fall from a horse in 1903. In 1914, his first collection of verse, Bliznets v tuchakh (twin in the clouds), was published, and, while staying on the estate of the Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrushaitis, he translated Heinrich von Kleist’s Der zerbrochene Krug (1808; The Broken Jug, 1930) into Russian. By the time his translation was published with Gorky’s personal editorship in Sovremennik (the contemporary) in 1922, Pasternak was roundly acclaimed as an author and a poet. Early prose writings such as “Apellesova cherta” (1918; the mark of Apelles) and especially “Detstvo Liuvers” (1922; the childhood of Liuvers), with its depiction of a child’s growing awareness of an adult world, established Pasternak as a leading stylist. His collections of verse, Poverkh bari erov (1917; Above the Barriers, 1959) and Sestra moia zhizn’: Leto 1917 goda (1922; My Sister, Life, 1964), demonstrated his transcendence of Mayakovsky’s revolutionary Futurism and his coming into his own as a major modern poet.

Like many of the leading artistic intellectuals with whom he was acquainted, Pasternak’s initial enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution of 1917 was short-lived. In 1921, his parents and his sisters emigrated to Germany, never to return. He remained in the family house in Moscow with his brother Aleksandr, and, in 1922, married a talented painter, Evgenia Vladimirovna Lourié. Together they traveled several times to Germany and to France, where he met with prominent émigré poets such as Andrei Biely, Vladislav Khodasevich, and especially the ill-fated Marina Tsvetayeva, with whom he was to maintain a long mutual admiration by correspondence. Pasternak’s son Evgeny was born in 1923.

After a successful collection of lyric verse published in 1923, Temy i variatsii (Themes and Variations, 1959, 1964), Pasternak attempted to explore the revolutionary ethic in the narrative poems “Devyatsot pyaty god” (1926; the year 1905) and “Lyutenant...

(The entire section is 2256 words.)

Boris Pasternak Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Pasternak was a significant Russian poet, translator, and novelist. Although he lived through the decades of totalitarian rule under V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, his literary work did not create controversy until he submitted his manuscript for Doctor Zhivago to a Soviet publisher in the 1950’s. The editors concluded the novel was unsuitable for Soviet readers because its story about an idealistic young physician contained philosophical values and other descriptions that directly or indirectly ran counter to communist ideology. Events in the novel were accused of being unhistorical, as dictated by the communist literary theory of Socialist Realism.

Pasternak had not personally participated in political events during or after the 1917 Russian Revolution. He had been more of an observer than an activist, and his literary portrayal of the fictional Zhivago’s ethical and moral standards was not intended as a political manifesto. However, the novel did express Zhivago’s humane outlook that eventually was overwhelmed by the power and intellectual narrowness of a totalitarian ideology. This perspective constituted Zhivago’s—and Pasternak’s—crime against the state.

A short-lived period of greater cultural openness in the Soviet Union that had followed Stalin’s death in 1953 ended by late 1956—the moment when Pasternak’s manuscript was being considered for publication. After the Soviet publishers rejected it, it was...

(The entire section is 445 words.)

Boris Pasternak Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The eldest son of the celebrated Russian Jewish painter Leonid Pasternak and his wife, the musician Rosa Kaufman, Boris Leonidovich Pasternak abandoned an early interest in music for the study of philosophy at the Universities of Moscow and later Marburg, where he remained until returning to Russia at the outbreak of World War I, at which time he began to write seriously. From his literary debut in 1913 to 1914 with “The Story of a Contraoctave” and a collection of lyrics, “A Twin in the Clouds,” Pasternak devoted the whole of his creative life to literature. Most of his short fiction and both long epic poetry and shorter lyrics, headed by the collection Sestra moia zhizn’: Leto 1917 goda (1922; My Sister, Life, 1964), occupied him for the next fifteen years. His first autobiography, Okhrannaya gramota (1931; A Safe-Conduct, 1945) foreshadowed his personal and artistic survival through the Stalinist purges of the 1930’s, when a new moral direction became evident in his work, demonstrated in fragments of a novel he never finished. Although he again wrote lyric poetry during World War II, Pasternak answered Soviet postwar restrictions on creativity by mainly supporting himself with his translations, producing versions of works by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and William Shakespeare. He also began the novel that he eventually considered his finest achievement, Doctor Zhivago, in which he discussed and analyzed the disintegrative reality of Russia’s conversion to Communism. At the end of 1946 he met his great love, Olga Ivinskaya, the model for the heroine of the novel, and although the Soviet authorities imprisoned her in an attempt to silence Pasternak’s apolitical praise of Christian values, he nevertheless completed the novel and allowed it to be published in 1957 in Italy. The Soviet regime retaliated by forcing Pasternak to refuse the Nobel Prize awarded him in 1958, the year his 1957 autobiography, Avtobiograficheskiy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959), appeared in the West. Crushed by depression and fear for those he loved, Pasternak died of leukemia in early 1960, and two months later, as he had dreaded, Ivinskaya was rearrested and sentenced again to prison.

Boris Pasternak Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak’s life was shaped by Russia’s twentieth century agony. Pasternak’s father, the artist Leonid Pasternak, and his mother, the pianist Rosa Kaufman, assured him easy familiarity with the artistry of the West in their warm and affluent home in Moscow, which remained Pasternak’s “holy city” throughout his life. With Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetayeva, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Sergei Esenin, the constellation of Russian twentieth century poets, Pasternak grew up in the nervous splendor of prerevolutionary Russia. In his father’s house, Pasternak, at the age of ten, first met the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose work profoundly affected Pasternak’s concept of the spiritual value of...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)

Boris Pasternak Biography

(World Poets and Poetry)

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born in Moscow on February 10, 1890 (January 29, Old Style). He was the first and most illustrious of four children born to the painter Leonid Osipovich Pasternak and the pianist Rosa Isidorovna Kaufman. A close family relationship and a deeply cultured atmosphere marked his childhood. The influence of the Russian Orthodox religion came to this child of predominantly Jewish roots through his nurse Akulina Gavrilovna and was to reappear during his later years. Leonid Pasternak’s literary associations, particularly with Leo Tolstoy and Rainer Maria Rilke, were to prove very important to Pasternak’s development, although perhaps the most powerful influence on him was exerted by the composer...

(The entire section is 631 words.)

Boris Pasternak Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (PAS-tur-nak) was born in Russia in the city of Moscow on February 10, 1890 (January 29 by the Julian calendar used in Russia until the Bolshevik Revolution of October, 1917). His family was well known and comfortable, his father, Leonid Pasternak, a famous artist and his mother, Rozaliya Kaufmann, a professional pianist. Young Boris grew up in a house frequently visited by writers, composers such as Aleksandr Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff, painters, and scholars.

The young Pasternak studied philosophy and literature at Moscow University and took courses in musical composition at the famous Moscow Conservatory, hoping to become a professional musician. In 1912, he traveled to Marburg,...

(The entire section is 776 words.)

Boris Pasternak Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Boris Pasternak asks his reader to make a radical reevaluation of what passes for everyday reality. He insisted that all poetry, in which he included both verse and prose, tends to the realistic because the poet “does not invent metaphors, rather they are found in nature ready to be reproduced.” A poet’s originality is to be prized, but not as if it were creation itself. It is precisely when poets, like his idol Vladimir Mayakovsky, turn to helping earthly powers create facts that they lose their poetic vision, crush their talent, and neutralize their moral sense.

(The entire section is 97 words.)

Boris Pasternak Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (PAS-tur-nak) is considered by many to be the most significant post-Revolution poet of the Soviet Union. He was born to Leonid Pasternak, an accomplished painter, and Rosa Kaufman, a concert pianist, and in their home he became acquainted with some of the foremost authors and composers of the times, among them Leo Tolstoy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anton Rubinstein, and Aleksandr Scriabin. Under the influence of Scriabin, Pasternak first planned to become a composer, but in 1912, after interrupting his studies at Moscow University to spend the summer studying under the eminent neo-Kantian philosopher, Hermann Cohen, at the University of Marburg, his interest shifted to philosophy. While in Marburg he also...

(The entire section is 929 words.)

Boris Pasternak Biography

(Novels for Students)

Boris Pasternak was born in 1890 in Moscow to professional artists. His father was a painter who illustrated the works of famed Russian...

(The entire section is 515 words.)