Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich

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Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich

(păs`tərnăk', Rus. bərēs` lyā'ənyē`dəvĭch pəstyĭrnäk`), 1890–1960, 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 E. Kayden (1959) and G. Reavey (1959); his Letters to Georgian Friends (tr. 1965); studies by R. Conquest (1962), M. F. and P. Rowland (1967), J. W. Dyck (1972), and A. Pasternak (his niece, 2017).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich


Born Jan. 29 (Feb. 10), 1890, in Moscow; died May 30, 1960, in Peredelkino, Leninskii Raion, Moscow Oblast. Soviet Russian author.

Boris Pasternak was the son of the artist L. O. Pasternak. In 1912 he studied the philosophers of the Marburg school in Germany. His poems were first published in 1913, and his first collection of poems, Twin in the Clouds, appeared in 1914. His next collections, Above the Barriers and My Sister, Life, appeared in 1917 and 1922, respectively, although the latter was mainly written during the summer of 1917. Pasternak joined the literary group Centrifuge, whose membership included N. Aseev and S. Bobrov and which occupied an intermediate position between the symbolists and the futurists.

Pasternak’s poem “The Lofty Malady,” which was written in 1924 and revised in 1928, represented a departure from lyric poetry in favor of the epic genre. In this poem he created an image of V. I. Lenin: “He could direct the course of thought, and hence, the country.” Pasternak devoted two narrative poems to the first Russian revolution: Nineteen Hundred Five, written in the period 1925–26, and Lieutenant Shmidt, written in the period 1926–27. About the latter M. Gorky wrote, “The book is excellent; it is one of those books that are destined to live long” (Literaturnoe nasledstvo, vol. 70, 1963, p. 300). Moreover, of Pasternak’s lyric verse Gorky wrote, “I can only wish that it were still simpler. It often strikes me as being too refined, and the connection between impression and image is often barely perceptible” (ibid., p. 308). Pasternak’s lyric verse is noted for its high degree of poetic sophistication. It is imbued with a sense of the coexistence of nature, poetry, and love in the world— age-old elements that must be discovered and re-created by the author in their pristine, natural state. Pasternak’s poetic career was marked by an insistent striving to reach “the very essence” of his subject and to achieve a simplicity of style that would accurately reflect the profundity and clarity of his vision.

As evidenced in Pasternak’s books of the early 1930’s, contradictions in the poet’s world view arose as he was finding his way in a new reality. In his autobiographical sketch Safe Conduct and in his unfinished novel in verse Spektorskii, both of which were published in 1931, Pasternak expressed his conviction that the revolution was morally correct and that it developed from highly moral sources and goals. However, when opposing proletarian humanism, Pasternak rejected violence as a means of attaining revolutionary goals. At the same time, his book of verses Second Birth, which appeared in 1932, essentially tried to examine the life of the country “without blinders” and to understand what lay ahead: “You are near, distant day of socialism.”

In the early 1930’s, Pasternak translated the verses of the Georgian poets N. Baratashvili, A. Tsereteli, G. Leonidze, T. Tabidze, S. Chikovani, and P. Iashvili. A polyglot, he provided new translations of Shakespeare’s plays, J. W. von Goethe’s Faust, and the poems of H. Sachs, P. Shelley, J. Keats, and P. Verlaine. During the Great Patriotic War (1941–45) he wrote poems about the military heroes and other supporters of the war effort, for example, “Death of a Sapper.” His collection of poems On Early Trains appeared in 1943; this was followed in 1945 by another collection, Terrestrial Expanse. In both books the author abandons his earlier poetics and strives for a classical, clear style.

In the 1950’s, Pasternak underwent a profound crisis. His novel Doctor Zhivago expressed a negative attitude toward the Revolution and a lack of faith in social transformation. In 1955, Pasternak admitted that while working on the novel his “own sense of alienation … began to lead [him] more and more astray” (see Istoriia Russkoi sovetskoi literatury, vol. 3, 1968, p. 377). The publication of this novel abroad in 1957 and the decision to award Pasternak a Nobel Prize in 1958 aroused sharp criticism in the Soviet press: Pasternak was expelled from the Writers’ Union and subsequently declined to accept the Nobel Prize.

His last cycle of verses, When the Skies Clear, appeared between 1956 and 1959; here, we sense a new surge of the poet’s creative powers and his striving to overcome tragic loneliness.


Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, 2nd ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965.
Stikhi. [Introductory article by K. Chukovskii, afterword by N. Bannikov.] Moscow, 1966.
”Liudi i polozheniia.” Novyi mir, 1967, no. 1.
[Letters of B. Pasternak.] Voprosy literatury, 1972, no. 9.
Vil’iam Shekspir v perevode Borisa Pasternaka, 2nd ed., vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1950.
Stikhi o Gruzii; Gruzinskie poety. Tbilisi, 1958.
Zvezdnoe nebo: Stikhi zarubezhnykh poetov. [Introductory article by N. Liubimov.] Moscow, 1966.


”Gor’kii i sovetskie pisateli. Neizdannaia perepiska.” In Literaturnoe nasledstvo, vol. 70. Moscow, 1963.
Tager, E. “‘Izbrannoe’ B. Pasternaka.” Literaturnaia gazeta, Aug. 11, 1966.
Papernyi, Z. “B. L. Pasternak.” In Istoriia russkoi sovetskoi literatury, vol. 3. Moscow, 1968. Pages 350–89.
Naumov, E. “O vremeni i o sebe. Maiakovskii i Pasternak.” In his O spornom i besspornom. Leningrad, 1973.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.