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.)