Today's Birthdays: February 10

February 10

Boris Pasternak

1890–1960, Russian Author.

Russian poet and translator. Pasternak became an international symbol of the incorruptible moral courage of an artist in conflict with his political environment.

Early Life and Works

The son of the celebrated painter Leonid Pasternak and the concert pianist Rosa Kaufman, both of Jewish descent, Pasternak was greatly influenced by the composer Scriabin and by Leo Tolstoy, both family friends. He turned from music to philosophy, which he studied in Germany (1912–14). Pasternak published his first book of poems, The Twin in the Clouds, in 1914. Over the Barriers (1916) and My Sister, Life (1917, pub. 1922) established his reputation as a major poet. His poetic style, lyrical, sensual, and passionate, is imbued with fresh imagery and brilliant metaphor. His early work fused elements from futurist and symbolist techniques with his own dynamic innovations.

Under Communist Rule

Pasternak at first embraced the promise of the Revolution of 1917, but he came to abhor the ensuing Bolshevik restrictions on artistic freedom. He wrote two long narrative poems, Spektorsky (1926) and The Year 1905 (1927). His collection of five short stories includes “The Childhood of Lovers” (1924), a complex and perceptive portrayal of a young girl. The brief autobiographical work Safe Conduct (1931) and the collection of poetry Second Birth (1932) were his last original works for many years. During the purges of the 1930s, Pasternak came under severe critical attack and, unable to publish his own poetry, devoted himself to making superb translations of classic works by Goethe, Shakespeare, and others. His survival of the purges is attributed to his translations of Georgian poets admired by Stalin. In his silence Pasternak became the hero of Russian intellectuals. His very rare public appearances were greeted with wild rejoicing.

During World War II he published two new collections, On Early Trains (1942) and The Terrestrial Expanse (1945), simpler in style, which brought him fresh censure. After Stalin's death Pasternak began work on the novel Doctor Zhivago (Eng. tr. 1958; Rus. text pub. in the United States, 1959), his masterpiece in the great tradition of the Russian epic. The life of the physician and poet Yuri Zhivago, like Pasternak's own, is closely identified with the exalted and tragic upheavals of 20th-century Russia. Expressing the celebration of life characteristic of its author, the novel offended Soviet authorities by its insights into Communist society and its strain of Christian idealism.

Denied publication in the USSR, it was first published in Italy in 1957 despite serious efforts to repress it. The novel soon became the object of unrestrained international acclaim. Pasternak was awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature, which he joyfully accepted. However, government pressure, including the threat of continued persecution of his intimate friend and collaborator, Olga Ivinskaya, led him to retract his acceptance, and he pleaded to be allowed to remain in his beloved motherland. Expelled from the Soviet Writers Union, Pasternak lived in virtual exile in an artists' community near Moscow.


See his Collected Prose Works (tr. 1945); Selected Writings (tr. 1958), which includes the autobiographical Safe Conduct (1931); I Remember: Sketch for an Autobiography (tr. 1959); translations of his poetry by Eugene Kayden (1959) and George Reavey (1959); his Letters to Georgian Friends (tr. 1965); studies by Robert Conquest (1962), M. F. and Paul Rowland (1967), and J. W. Dyck (1972).

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