Boris Pasternak

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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

(This entire section contains 2256 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

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 Shmidt” (1927; Lieutenant Schmidt). In his prose story “Vozdushnye puti” (1924; aerial ways) and in his novel-in-verse Spektorsky (1931), however, Pasternak’s problems in viewing the poet as a revolutionary became clear. Pasternak’s poet-heroes were prone to passivity in the buffetings of historical change. They martyred themselves to serve as witnesses to the personal consequences of global events. In this they presaged the character of Yuri, his hero in Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958).

In 1931, Pasternak left his wife and took a residence with Zinaïda Nikolaevna Neuhaus, the wife of an acquaintance. He published his unconventional autobiography Okhrannaya gramota (Safe Conduct, 1945) in the same year. Travel to the Caucasus and meetings with Georgian poets inspired the verse collection Vtoroye rozhdeniye (1932; Second Birth, 1959, 1964). Yet the increased strictures on literature after the formation of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1932 kept Pasternak from publishing original work throughout the remainder of the 1930’s. Although he did serve as a delegate of the Union of Soviet Writers to a Paris conference in 1935, he was privately dismayed at Stalinist tyranny in the arts. On one occasion detailed by the poet Osip Mandelstam’s widow, Joseph Stalin personally telephoned Pasternak to gain assurance that Mandelstam “was a great poet.” Inevitably Mandelstam perished in the labor camps. Pasternak was able to find a safer livelihood by translating into Russian the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, George Gordon, Lord Byron, John Keats, Paul Verlaine, and especially William Shakespeare, the major tragedies of whom he published during World War II.

Pasternak married Neuhaus in 1934, and a second son, Leonid, was born three years later. In 1937, he refused to sign a letter in Pravda denouncing the purged General Mikhail Tukhachevsky, but colleagues protectively signed his name anyway. In 1939, his mother died in London, and Tsvetayeva returned from emigration only to commit suicide in the Yelabuga labor camp two years later. The need to impress literature into the service of the country during World War II enabled the publication of Pasternak’s own patriotic collections Na rannikh poezdakh (1943; On Early Trains, 1959, 1964) and Zemnoy prostor (1945; The Vastness of Earth, 1959, 1964). The postwar clampdown, however, ceased for Pasternak all but the publication of translations until the death of Stalin in 1953.

In 1945, Pasternak’s father died in Oxford, England. The next year, Pasternak fell in love with Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya, a worker in the offices of the literary journal Novy mir (new world). In 1947, he excused himself from participating in the Union of Soviet Writers’ condemnation of Anna Akhmatova and Mikhail Zoshchenko. Soon after Ivinskaya’s arrest in 1949, Pasternak had a serious heart attack, and while convalescing he worked on the poems and the prose of his novel Doctor Zhivago. Ivinskaya refused to incriminate Pasternak in “activities against the state” and was transferred to a labor camp only to be released in 1953. The stress of Pasternak’s literary plight, combined with his being torn between his family and his lover, eroded his health and necessitated prolonged periods of rest.

The thaw that followed the death of Stalin and Nikita S. Khrushchev’s subsequent denunciation of the cult of Stalin in 1956 gave Pasternak hope that his novel Doctor Zhivago, which he had completed the previous year, would be accepted for publication. Indeed several of the poems that were to accompany it were accepted and published by Znamya (the banner) in 1954. Thus encouraged, he sent a complete manuscript to Feltrinelli Publishers in Italy. When Communist Party officials decided not to allow the publication of Doctor Zhivago in the Soviet Union, Pasternak tried to recall his manuscript from Italy, but Feltrinelli published it anyway in 1957. The novel, describing the harried life of Dr. Yuri Zhivago, a physician and poet caught up in the monumental events of Russia’s first third of the twentieth century—war, revolution, civil war, and the radical transformation of Russian society—was an international sensation. Translated into many languages, Doctor Zhivago was admired by all who appreciated the travail inflicted by the clash of political ideologies on sensitive and creative individuals of conscience. Abroad Pasternak was acclaimed. In Stockholm, the Nobel Prize Committee voted to award him the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature. Within a day of this announcement letters denouncing Pasternak as a “Judas who has shut his eyes to the transformation of his country by victorious socialism” appeared in the Soviet press. Not only was he expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers but also a petition of more than eight hundred Moscow writers requested that the government deprive him of his Soviet citizenship. Ill and harassed, Pasternak telegrammed to Stockholm his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize, and, a few days later, wrote a letter to Khrushchev asking that he not be separated from his native land.

In the year and a half left in Pasternak’s life, he tried to have his works Kogdá razguliayetsa (1959; When the Skies Clear, 1959, 1964), a collection of reflective verse, and Avtobiograficheskiy ocherk (1958; I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography, 1959) published in the Soviet Union as they had been abroad. His historical drama Slepaya krasavitsa (1969; The Blind Beauty, 1969) was left incomplete at his death. In his last days the Soviet authorities cut off his royalties from foreign publications and continued their personal harassment of his family and his loved ones. He died of a weakened heart and of lung cancer on May 30, 1960. At a sparsely attended funeral his poem “Hamlet” from the Doctor Zhivago cycle was read. His home in the writer’s colony at Peredelkino has become a kind of shrine for visiting literati, students, and tourists.


Boris Pasternak left a legacy of poetic achievement. Through his poetry he labored to create something profound and beautiful—a different way of appreciating reality given to the reader. He was unable to make his poetry adapt to the rigors of social utility and so he escaped into translation, the competence of which still enriches Russian-speaking peoples everywhere. The work for which he is best known is his novel Doctor Zhivago, the political impact of which stands in ironical juxtaposition to its content—a veritable paean to the apoliticality of artistic achievement. Banned from publication in its native land for almost a quarter century—only in 1989 was a Russian version printed in the Soviet Union—Doctor Zhivago’s characters and poems are nevertheless widely known and held in high esteem.


Barnes, Christopher. Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography. Vol. 1. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Barnes’s study may be termed a second-generation biography, building on others done soon after Pasternak’s death and having available more recently published memoirs (such as the memoirs of Ivinskaya, who was arrested and sent back to the camps after Pasternak’s death), and archival materials. Volume 1 of this work covers Pasternak’s life and works to 1928, and volume 2 will cover the rest. Detail is superb.

Dyck, J. W. Boris Pasternak. New York: Twayne, 1972. This is an important overall survey of Pasternak’s life and works that endeavors to explain Pasternak’s complexities of both philosophy and style to the layperson. A useful chronology of Pasternak’s life is included for ease of reference.

Gifford, Henry. Pasternak: A Critical Study. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1977. Gifford’s work frames the events of Pasternak’s life well within the literary context of his times. The chronological table, for example, lists the suicides or grim deaths of a dozen of Pasternak’s literary compatriots. The literary works are deeply and clearly analyzed, with citations given in both Russian and English.

Hingley, Ronald. Pasternak: A Biography. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1983. Hingley’s biography focuses on Pasternak’s personal motivations for his reactions to the forces that molded Soviet literature and, indeed, Soviet culture in this century.

Hughes, Olga R. The Poetic World of Boris Pasternak. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. An examination both thematic and structural of Pasternak’s peculiar perception as expressed in his poetry is the strength of this work by Hughes. The scholarly apparatus of this work is particularly useful, with the frequent Russian citations given insightful translations.

Mallac, Guy de. Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981. This is a very detailed narration of Pasternak’s life with included critical treatments of his works. The book is wonderfully illustrated as well and features the most complete capsulized chronology available.

Payne, Robert. The Three Worlds of Boris Pasternak. New York: Coward-McCann, 1961. This work, by a very experienced biographer, was produced soon after Pasternak’s death. It attempts to sketch Pasternak’s life as a poet, prose writer, and political figure for the lay audience, giving insightful explanations of Russian historical context.


Critical Essays