The “Silent Duel” Between Stalin and Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak, author of Doctor Zhivago. Source: Wikipedia.

The author of the famed novel-turned-film has a colorful and complex history with his home country. For all of his frequent brushes with the NKVD (Russian police, precursor to the KGB, and in charge of the USSR’s infamous labor camps), he was never once sent to the Gulag or even put on trial. His mistress once wrote: “I believe that between Stalin and Pasternak there was an incredible, silent duel.”* But in the beginning of his writing career, Pasternak wrote poems lauding the 1905 Revolution and party leaders. So how did he become a Soviet enemy, and why was he never “punished” by the government that disowned him?

Painting by Boris’ father of his children, with Boris on the left, 1914. Source: Wikipedia.

Pasternak’s upbringing almost certainly set him up for an uneasy relationship with communism. His father was an acclaimed artist and a professor, and his mother a pianist. Surrounded by creative individuals like composer Sergei Rachmaninoff and writer Rainer Maria Rilke throughout his youth, individualism–as opposed to collectivism or communitarianism–was at the core of his relationships with others. The artist is perhaps the greatest example of individual power, as artists create and shape their own worlds, hence their perceived danger to an authoritarian state. Individualism was more or less a crime in both the Soviet Union, as well as the preceding Czarist Russia.

Leonid Pasternak, Boris Beside the Baltic at Merekule, 1910. Source: Wikipedia.

Pasternak’s parents also followed the Tolstoyan movement, based on the views of author of Anna Karenina and War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy. A pacifist, Christian movement with anarchist views, it was unpopular with both sides of the Russian political spectrum, much like individualism. Neither the Bolsheviks nor the “White Russians” supported nearly unconditional non-violence, and both disdained the Christian roots of the movement but for radically different reasons. On the one side, it was a radical break from the church of the Russian Empire–the church of the Czar and Czarina. On the other, because it was Christian, it still represented the religion of the elite (Tolstoy was a count, after all)–seen as oppressive, inaccessible, and oblivious to the needs of the people.

Painting of Leo Tolstoy by Leonid Pasternak. Source: Wikipedia.
Bloody Sunday during the Revolution of 1905. Source: Wikipedia.

On the fence between both sides, Pasternak suffered an internal conflict with these beliefs for most of his life, feeling a deep loyalty to the movement in which his parents raised him. A promising pianist, he studied music at the Moscow Conservatory but left Russia in 1910 to study philosophy in Germany. When war broke out, he worked in a chemical factory back in his home country, giving him some serious inspiration for Doctor Zhivago. Many of his friends and family fled after the October Revolution, but Pasternak decided to stay, intrigued by the new government’s power and promises. His early poetry met but a few obstacles, as it was largely apolitical and romantic in style.


Riot in Saint Petersburg during the Russian Revolution, 1917. Source: Wikipedia.


Out of concern that his lofty prose did not reach the larger populace, he simplified his language in the 20s, writing poems on the 1905 Revolution and a poem on the occasion of an admired party leader’s death. On his journey to change his writing, connect with the people, and survive in a regime rife with hunger and arguing factions, Pasternak felt more and more that the Soviet Union had failed to accomplish its idealistic goals. So began his estrangement from the government he once supported. In 1927, he broke with the party.

Pasternak, standing, third from left. With other Soviet writers, 1924. Source: Wikipedia.

Though uncomfortable with the USSR and its leaders, Pasternak was by no means a radical–yet. A fellow writer, who was becoming openly anti-Stalin, recited the famous “Stalin Epigram” to Pasternak. Afraid of the consequences, Pasternak told writer Mandelstam:

“I didn’t hear this, you didn’t recite it to me, because, you know, very strange and terrible things are happening now: they’ve begun to pick people up. I’m afraid the walls have ears and perhaps even these benches on the boulevard here may be able to listen and tell tales. So let’s make out that I heard nothing.”**

After Mandelstam’s arrest, Stalin himself called Pasternak and when Pasternak denied any support of Mandelstam’s views, Stalin said accusingly, “I see, you just aren’t able to stick up for a comrade,” and hung up. Most likely a case of damned if he did, damned if he didn’t.

Mandelstam (far left) with fellow poets in 1914. Source: Wikipedia.
Stalin at his desk, with his visible “cucaracha’s moustaches,” as described in the Stalin Epigram. Source: Wikipedia.

After this run-in with Stalin, Pasternak became more openly opposed to the Soviet regime. He refused to sign the Soviet Writers’ Union petition for the execution of military officials caught up in the “Great Purge” of claimed anti-Soviets. Though questioned and spied upon by the NKVD, Pasternak was, strangely, never arrested. Pasternak did write Stalin that he and his family be spared, and in his letter he cited his Tolstoyan convictions. Supposedly, when Stalin reached Pasternak’s name on an execution list, he said, “Leave this holy fool alone!” and his name was crossed out.*

Photos of some of the individuals killed during the Great Purge. Source: Wikipedia.

When the USSR entered into World War II, Pasternak, like many Soviet citizens, hoped this would spell the end of Stalin’s executions and the beginning of a life free of fear. But, unfortunately, the dictator continued to ship political dissidents, ethnic minorities, and anyone suspected of anti-Stalinist views to Siberia. This included Pasternak’s lover, who was sent to the Gulag on account of her relationship with him. It seems ironic, as he, himself, was never sent. During her first imprisonment, she suffered a miscarriage of her and Pasternak’s child. This particular situation draws distinct parallels to the relationships in Doctor Zhivago.

Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s lover and inspiration for “Lara” in Doctor Zhivago. Source: Wikipedia.
Gulag laborers working on the White Sea – Baltic Canal, c.1931-33. Source: Wikipedia.

Pasternak’s translations of “western” works and his writings in the 50s increased his unpopularity among the Soviet party leadership. When Stalin died in 1953, he famously said of the ensuing widespread public grief: “Men who are not free…always idealize their bondage.”** Three years later, the world met Boris Pasternak through Doctor Zhivago. He tried to publish in the USSR, where it was summarily rejected for its anti-Soviet themes. He gave up on ever publishing the work until a journalist for the Italian Communist party learned of the novel when visiting the USSR. He tracked Pasternak down, and Pasternak handed him the manuscript, saying with a laugh, “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad.”

By Source, Fair Use, Wikipedia.

The Soviet party discovered the novel had made it out of the country, and forced Pasternak to send a telegram to the Italians telling them not to publish the work. Pasternak clandestinely sent other telegrams telling the publishing company to disregard that letter. Once published, the novel received critical acclaim and Pasternak, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of the USSR, was awarded the Nobel prize in literature. But he never went to the ceremony to receive it, because the government told him that if he left, he would never be allowed back. Out of love for his home and its people, Pasternak declined his ceremony invitation. Years later, his son accepted the award in his stead.

Boris Pasternak.
Plaque in memory of Boris Pasternak, Ukraine. Pasternak’s parents were born in the Ukraine. Source: Wikipedia.

Pasternak continued to write Christian-themed and anti-Soviet works until his death in 1960. His funeral was a final act of political opposition; thousands attended, despite state threats against showing Pasternak any support in life or death, and many a mind was spoken. Perhaps greatest of all, one attendee recited lines from Hamlet (banned in the USSR) that Pasternak had translated into Russian:

“The murmurs ebb; onto the stage I enter.
I am trying, standing at the door,
To discover in the distant echoes
What the coming years may hold in store.

The nocturnal darkness with a thousand
Binoculars is focused onto me.
Take away this cup, O Abba, Father,
Everything is possible to Thee.

I am fond of this Thy stubborn project,
And to play my part I am content.
But another drama is in progress,
And, this once, O let me be exempt.

But the plan of action is determined,
And the end irrevocably sealed.
I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:
Life is not a walk across a field.”

And so the real Doctor Zhivago had the last word. That is until it was discovered in 2014 through declassified documents that the CIA had influenced the Nobel committee’s decision to award Pasternak the prize in literature as an anti-Communist propaganda tactic. Cold War politics aside, here’s to the real Doctor Zhivago and all he represented as an individual to his nation.


Sources: Largely derivative of Wikipedia.
*Ivinskaya, Olga (1978). A Captive of Time: My Years with Pasternak. Collins and Harvill Press. p. 135.
**Ivinskaya, p. 61-63.
† Ivinskaya, p. 61-63.
*† Ivinskaya, p. 133.
**† Ivinskaya, p. 144.
†† Lazar Fleishman, Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics, p 275.

One thought on “The “Silent Duel” Between Stalin and Doctor Zhivago

  1. Pingback: On the Radar: Soviet X-Ray Records – Bria Historica

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