Best known for the novel Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak’s work is both popular and influential in his native Russia. Ironically, the book that led to worldwide fame was banned in his homeland for its commentary on the Communist state and was only published after being smuggled out to Milan.
Pasternak was born in Moscow on 10th February 1890 into a wealthy Jewish family. At first he studied music, before leaving for the University of Marburg in Germany and dabbling in philosophy before deciding to pursue a career in literature. There, he fell in love with Ida Wissotzkaya, the daughter of a successful Russian tea merchant. Returning to Moscow, he proposed, but she turned him down, his prospects too poor to impress her parents. She became the subject of one of his poems, and that same emotion following another failed love affair led to the successful poetry anthology “My Sister, Life” which propelled Pasternak into the spotlight. Poetry was his passion, but Pasternak was also a translator of foreign classics, bringing the Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Othello and Hamlet to a Russian audience as well as plays by Goethe, Schiller and Calderon.
But it was Doctor Zhivago that would draw attention to Pasternak’s work, leading to the award in 1958 of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, the son of a rich industrialist at first welcomes the Russian Revolution with its promise of equality and universal justice. But he soon becomes disillusioned, rebelling against a state that tells him how to live and what to think. Leaving Moscow for a small village east of the Urals, Zhivago falls in love, but when his girl is exiled to Manchuria, he returns to the city and dies of a broken heart.
Even as Pasternak was showered in praise from the international community, Soviet writers and commentators hit out, labelling him a traitor and a low-grade hack. To accept the Nobel Prize would have meant leaving his beloved Russia and Pasternak couldn’t countenance such an idea. He wrote to President Khrushchev declining the award. In the letter he wrote:
“Leaving the motherland will equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work.”
And so he didn’t. Pasternak died in his sleep at the age of 70, and ill man but one who never could bring himself to stray far from the country he loved.