Karen Matlaw Steinberg
Important issues are debated by characters throughout ["The Nobel Prize"]. These include the dichotomy between freedom in the West and the crushing power of money, the notion that technology enslaves the individual, the pros and cons of capitalism vs. collectivism, the implications of the old generation giving way to the new, and, most important, the idea that in Soviet society, the individual is forced to compromise his or her integrity and beliefs to survive.
But "The Nobel Prize" is not simply a series of two-dimensional characters arguing pat ideological questions. Perhaps the most laudable quality in this excellent novel is Krotkov's ability to make his literary and historical figures human. Fedin, often portrayed as a literary mouthpiece for the party, is shown as having doubts about his convictions….
Similarly, Nikita Khrushchev, party head, is depicted as a thinking man, a leader with a conscience. Obsessed with dissociating himself from Stalin and a legacy of terror, Khrushchev discovers he is enslaved by his very position. Pasternak's award forces Khrushchev to face crucial issues, and the final picture of the leader is of a man helplessly trapped by his own human frailties and weaknesses.
Pasternak himself, labeled a "salon poet" and a "Narcissus" by the Soviet press because of his "coldness to social issues" and philosophy of individualism, emerges as a heroic figure, yet completely human—a man continually grappling with "unanswerable questions," struggling to express his feelings about life in his art, while never ceasing to condemn himself for his "irredeemable sins."
"The Nobel Prize" is, finally, about a very human Russia—"Russia,… incomparable mother, famed far and wide, martyred, stubborn, extravagant, crazy, irresponsible, adored, Russia with her eternally splendid, disastrous and unpredictable gestures." For however much the political realities of the Soviet Union may oppress (Pasternak tells his son, Lyonya, "I am against the Soviet system because it is inhuman"), the tie to the rodina, or motherland, ultimately emerges in this novel as stronger than all else.
Yuri Krotkov, through his masterful characterizations of Boris Pasternak and the other figures in the novel, Soviet officials and citizens alike, leaves us with an irreconcilable vision of two worlds, both flawed.
Karen Matlaw Steinberg, "Luminous Novel Based on Pasternak," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1980 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), September 8, 1980, p. 14.