The Correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg, 1910-1954
The Correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg: 1910-1954 (Perepiska, 1981; English translation, 1982) is Olga Mikhailovna Freidenberg’s letter to the world. It is a powerful letter, indeed. Freidenberg preserved correspondence with her noted cousin—Russian poet, novelist, and translator, Boris Leonidovich Pasternak—through more than four decades of war, social upheaval, and political repression. Extracts from Freidenberg’s unpublished diary fill in gaps in the correspondence. Elliott Mossman has organized the letters into ten chapters and provided each with an introduction, which is followed by excerpts from Freidenberg’s retrospective diary and the letters themselves, arranged chronologically.
Both born in 1890, the cousins were members of a talented and aristocratic family. Leonid Osipovich Pasternak, Boris’ father, was an Impressionist painter who also held a degree in law; Rosa Kaufman Pasternak, Boris’ mother, was a concert pianist. Olga Freidenberg was born to another musician, Anna Osipovna Freidenberg (née Pasternak), and Mikhail Fedorovich Freidenberg, an inventor and publisher. As children, the young cousins saw each other only occasionally, but in the summer of 1910, when the two families vacationed together at a Baltic resort, a new relationship began, one which precipitated their correspondence and influenced the intellectual development of both of these romantic, gifted young people. Pasternak, whose inclinations toward philosophy, music, and poetry were strongly asserting themselves, believed himself in love with his cousin. At the time, Freidenberg claimed only filial affection for her cousin and rejected him as a lover. Over the years, the memory of that summer continued to be a source of poetic inspiration for the two, who recognized a bond closer than blood in their mutual love of art. Long after the halcyon days by the Baltic, ill and near death, Freidenberg wrote to Pasternak about her deep affection for him and about “what it means for a person to experience the singular joy of recognizing his kinship (literally that) to art.”
The hiatus in correspondence of almost a decade after 1913 is filled to a certain extent by editorial comments and by illustrations such as that of Freidenberg as a nurse during World War I. After the chaos of war and revolution, the correspondence resumed in the early 1920’s. At about the same time, Pasternak dedicated one of his early volumes of poetry, Sestra moya zhian (1922; My Sister, Life: The Summer of 1917), to Freidenberg.
By this time, women were allowed to attend Russian universities, and against her father’s wishes, Freidenberg seized an opportunity to study the classics, folklore, and philology at Petersberg University. Developing into a passionate scholar, she defended her first dissertation in 1924 and her second in 1928. Despite suffering extreme financial hardship following her father’s death, Freidenberg continued with original scholarly research for several years as an ostracized scholar. Unexpectedly, in 1932, she was selected to organize a new department of classical philology at the Leningrad Institute. Without benefit of prior teaching experience, she rose to the challenge of planning courses and selecting a staff. Among the political pressures she faced was a request that she raise grades for children of blue-collar workers and lower them for those of white-collar people. Freidenberg made herself politically vulnerable by refusing to do so. Despite her always precarious political status, she successfully defended her doctoral dissertation in 1935 to become the first Soviet woman to earn the doctorate degree. The dissertation was published as Procris (1936; The Poetics of Plot and Genre: Classical Period), only to be confiscated by the Soviet authorities after three weeks and critically attacked in Izvestia.
Letters written while Freidenberg was trying desperately to establish a career express her occasional resentment that Pasternak had not been able to keep his promises to help her secure a position. Exempted from military service because of a childhood leg injury, Pasternak had become well-known in Russia as a poet and translator in the 1920’s. His letters to Freidenberg from Moscow do not give the detailed accounts of events that her diary and letters provide, and, indeed, she may have been unaware of the extent to which he was under both personal and political stress in the decade between the wars. When Pasternak’s first marriage ended in the early 1930’s, his half-grown son, Evgeny Borisovich (Zhenya) stayed with his mother. Pasternak remarried and fathered another son. He was concerned about his parents and sisters, who had gone to Germany for his mother’s health in the early 1920’s, but the Pasternaks in Germany escaped the Holocaust of World War II by moving to Oxford, England. Despite Stalin’s capricious favor, which saved him from the fate of many of his contemporaries, Pasternak himself suffered persecution about such matters as the interpretation of his poetry and for acts such as his refusal to sign a death warrant. In 1935, Pasternak’s mental and physical exhaustion led to a prolonged illness.
At that time, Pasternak was more thoroughly acquainted with political harassment than was his cousin, but the next year, the furor over the confiscation of her book...
(The entire section is 2214 words.)