[St. Pachomius Library]

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak

XX Century
The son of a painter and a pianist, Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) was born in Moscow to a family of Sephardic heritage and grew up near a Russian Orthodox seminary. His family's circle included writers, notably Tolstoi and Rilke, and musicians, notably Scriabin. After studying drawing, music, law, and philosophy, Pasternak began to write poetry. His first significant book, My Sister Life, tells of a frustrated love in the summer between the February and October Revolutions of 1917; the arrangement of the poems has complicated narrative and cyclical structures reminiscent of the Eastern Orthodox liturgical cycles in their complexity. From the 1930's until his death, he had a difficult relationship with the official Soviet literary establishment: his poetry was too individual for Socialist Realism, yet he was able in some works, such as The Year 1905 and Spectorovsky, to combine the personal and the social. He admired Georgian poetry and published translations of it. Translating provided him and his families income during times when he was not able to publish. (He was married twice and had several affairs; he supported his two sons, his two stepsons, and the children of his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, from her previous marriages.) He loved Russia and chose to live there even after his family had settled in Berlin, but he missed the European culture in which he also felt at home. Unable to publish in the USSR, not only because of his emphasis on the personal but also because of his increasingly religious concerns, he arranged to have his overtly Christian poetry published in a Berlin-based &eacte;migré journal and to have his much rejected novel Dr. Zhivago published in Italy. The acclaim that followed its publication and translation outside the USSR seems to spurred the Nobel Committee to award him the 1958 prize for literature. Fearing he would not be allowed to return from Stockholm to Peredelkino, his home in Russia, he declined the award. He was expelled from the Writers' Union and lived in poverty. His fame seems to have kept him from prison. He continued to write poetry, and some scholars consider his last collection, When the Weather Clears, his highest artistic achievement. This final work and The Poems of Yuri Zhivago have religious imagery and themes; in particular, both verse collections show suffering as both inevitable and chosen.

Although his family did not observe Jewish rituals, Pasternak was aware of Jewish culture and religious practice, but he felt they excluded people who were not Jewish. He claims that when he was three, a nurse took him to be baptized. His sister Josephine could not corroborate this statement, and biographers doubt he was received into the Russian Orthodox church that early in his life. They think it more likely that he converted as an adult, possibly in the late 1930's or in the 1940's. He received an Orthodox burial three days after his death.

Karen Rae Keck