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