"Anyone desiring a quiet [non-public] life has done badly to be born in the twentieth century."
Leon Trotsky

"Good fortune will elevate even petty minds, and give them the appearance of a certain greatness and stateliness, as from their high place they look down upon the world; but the truly noble and resolved spirit raises itself, and becomes more conspicuous in times of disaster and ill fortune."

Boris Pasternak

"Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand condemned?
I made the whole world weep at the beauty of my land."

      Like many Russian intellectuals of his time, Boris Pasternak lived a life of fear and insecurity. As a poet in post-revolutionary Soviet Russia, he had to walk a very delicate line between obeying the dictates of the all-encompassing State and those of his own artistic conscience. Pasternak, and the other artists of the day, did their best to make art serve life as they saw it in a world where art was to exist only to serve the Revolution. They published their articles, compositions, symphonies and poems dreading that even a hint of disloyalty to the Revolution in their work might bring about the feared knock at the door in the middle of the night heralding arrest or worse. Dmitri Shostakovich, the famous composer, slept fitfully every night with a "prison suitcase" packed and ready. "Of course I am prepared for anything. Why should it happen to everyone else and not to me?" wrote Pasternak in one letter. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for gentle men of letters and music such as Pasternak and Shostakovich terrorized by the towering malevolent figure of Josef Stalin.

      That Pasternak was fated to live in such a time is ironic. Pasternak never saw the world primarily in political or social terms. He portrays life as shaped less by man and his actions than by the deeper currents of love, faith and destiny. His erudite and often complex writing speaks to nothing less than the meaning of life and the mystery of death; both in his prose and in his verse, Pasternak treats social issues as important only in so far as they influence individual human destinies. Of course, this went directly against the prevailing credo of Lenin and the Bolsheviks which saw human life and lives in totally socialist terms of world revolution. "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you," explained Red Army commander Leon Trostky; and like so many other Russians of the age, Pasternak was not afforded the luxury of remaining neutral in the cataclysm of the Russian Civil War and ensuing Bolshevik regime. To put it more simply, Pasternak was not a man of his time and he suffered for it. The authorities did not allow his works to be published for many years because of his failure to "fully embrace" social issues. Pasternak was never by nature going to be good at writing poems that would inspire ordinary people to sweat for the Communist cause.

      Yet still he managed to make a living translating into Russian the work of Goethe, Shakespeare, and the Soviet Georgian poets. After the end of WWII, he finally began writing his masterpiece Doctor Zhivago. He finished the novel by 1956, and it was published in the West after being smuggled out of the Soviet Union. Doctor Zhivago is one of the most beautiful and moving books that I have ever read. It is the story of one man and his mistress who together try to insulate their private lives from the chaos and violence of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed. The book is wistfully sad and full of powerful metaphors lyrically accentuating the breathtaking beauty of life even amidst the most bitter tragedy. It is for me a vastly fascinating novel which weaves philosophy and art together into the complex matrix of fate and destiny which make up our human lives. It is one of the few books I am drawn to read again and again.

The embodiment of life's sweetness and joy;
the tender beauty in the midst of impending disaster.
a short selection from Doctor Zhivago

      As a consequence of the worldwide success of Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak lived the rest of his days in Russia in an especially precarious position - especially after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958 (most embarrassing for the Soviet government). "Writers have always occupied a special position in Russia," explains Vitaly Shentalinsky, "because for lack of democratic institutions, the Russian writer has never been just an artist, but a spokesmen for the truth and a public conscience as well." Perhaps this is why the Soviets sought so thoroughly to gain a stranglehold on all cultural expression. Fearing the independent voice, they made it a capital crime to be independent. But the poet Osip Mandelstam -- himself sent off to die in a Soviet Gulag in the Far East for writing a sarcastic ditty about Stalin -- remarked that Russia is the only country where poets die for and through their art. How true! But how ironic it is that the voice of Josef Stalin -- absolute dictator who sent millions and millions to their deaths! -- speaks less loudly to us today than the voices of the poets Mandelstam, Ahmatova, Tsvetaeva, Gumilyov, and Pasternak! Even as these poets had little or no power or influence in their lives! As they almost without exception died young and unnaturally! They were put against a wall and shot by the secret police, found themselves exiled to die in the Gulag, despaired and died of suicide, etc. Zhivago himself did better than most, as he lived out the rest of his days peacefully if vilified and isolated by the authorities until his death in 1960. Thousands braved official disapproval or worse to attend Pasternak's funeral at the Peredelkino writers' settlement near Moscow; and his villa and grave are still places of pilgrimage for Russians today. In contrast, Stalin died peacefully in his sleep and never wanted for anything in life, but few Russians will eulogize him or his legacy in death.

      Doctor Zhivago was not published in Russia until 1988. One can take solace in the fact that this brave novel lived a longer life than did Bolshevism in that country, but Pasternak had no way of knowing this or making it a comfort for an isolated, vilified old age. Cicero and Petrarch have famously pronounced it, and Pasternak himself is living proof: ars longa, vita brevis. (Life is short, but art is lasting!) But he and the other poets -- "children of Russia's terrible years" in the words of poet Alexandr Blok -- could but only have found this a miserably thin meal on which to subsist amidst the violent upheaval and widespread police terror of their time.

      Hard, unremitting lives often produce brilliant, immortal poetry; let Boris Pasternak shine thusly as an example! Ars longa, vita brevis! There is a genius extant in all ages and in all countries that can neither be extinguished by hardship nor crushed by tyranny. Long live Yuri Zhivago! Long live his creator, Boris Pasternak! Illumining the darkness of his own age, Pasternak lights a beacon for the future as well! He who has eyes with which to read and a mind with which to think, let him take note!


Like a beast in a pen, I'm cut off
From my friends, freedom, the sun,
But the hunters are gaining ground.
I've nowhere else to run.

Dark wood and the bank of a pond,
Trunk of a fallen tree.
There's no way forward, no way back.
It's all up with me.

Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.

Even so, one step from my grave,
I believe that cruelty, spite,
The powers of darkness will in time
Be crushed by the spirit of light.

The beaters in a ring close in
With the wrong prey in view,
I've nobody at my right hand,
Nobody faithful and true.

And with such a noose on my throat
I should like for one second
My tears to be wiped away
By someone at my right hand.

Boris Pasternak