Boris Pasternak died on this day in 1960, aged seventy. Pasternak’s last years were dominated by the publicity and persecution that attended the publication of Doctor Zhivago (1958 in the U.S., 1988 in the Soviet Union) and the announcement that he had won the 1958 Nobel Prize. The Soviet line, communicated by quiet threat and noisy rhetoric, was that Pasternak and his novel were anti-communist; that by accepting the Nobel, Pasternak was agreeing to “play the part of a bait on the rusty hook of anti-Soviet propaganda”; that he was worse than a pig for having “fouled the spot where he ate and cast filth on those by whose labor he lives and breathes.”
Pasternak was un-Soviet but passionately Russian, and he had severe medical problems: in response to calls that he be “allowed” to go to his “capitalist paradise,” he not only did a turnaround on the Nobel, becoming the first ever to refuse it, but more or less apologized to the authorities. This would in turn bring contempt from some of Pasternak’s peers, Solzhenitsyn and others, who believed that he acted like a coward in choosing contrition over exile or the Gulag. Other dissidents, however, not only supported Pasternak but dared to recite at his funeral his banned poem “Hamlet” (from Doctor Zhivago), describing a reluctant hero’s agony over a corrupt nation.
Letters revealed after Pasternak’s death show that he was more persecuted throughout his last eighteen months than previously thought. It also became clear that one of the major reasons he was desperate to stay in Russia was his mistress and collaborator, Olga Ivinskaya. She had already spent five years in a labor camp for her association with Pasternak, and he felt that his presence in Russia was her only protection from further attack. This proved to be true: within six months of Pasternak’s death Ivinskaya was sentenced to eight years in Siberia. She had been Pasternak’s model for Lara in Doctor Zhivago,and all this seemed to echo Lara’s fate: “One day Lara went out and did not come back. She must have been arrested in the street, as so often happened in those days, and she died or vanished somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list which was afterwards mislaid….”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.