Boris Pasternak, 1890 – 1960

February 10, 1890 – Birthdate of Boris Pasternak, Russian poet, novelist, and literary translator and Nobel Prize laureate.

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak‘s first book of poems, My Sister, Life(1917), is one of the most influential collections ever published in the Russian language. Pasternak’s translations of stage plays by Goethe, Schiller, Calderon and Shakespeare remain very popular with Russian audiences.

Outside Russia, Pasternak is best known as the author of Doctor Zhivago (1957), a novel which takes place between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the First World War. Due to the novel’s independent-minded stance on the socialist state, Doctor Zhivago was rejected for publication in the USSR. At the instigation of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, Doctor Zhivago was smuggled to Milan and published in 1957. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, an event which both humiliated and enraged the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which forced him to decline the prize, though his descendants were later to accept it in his name in 1988.

Pasternak was born in Moscow into a wealthy assimilated Russian Jewish family.  His father was the Post-Impressionist painter, Leonid Pasternak, professor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. His mother was Rosa Kaufman, a concert pianist and the daughter of Odessa industrialist Isadore Kaufman and his wife. Pasternak had a younger brother Alex and sisters Lydia and Josephine.

In a 1959 letter to Jacqueline de Proyart, Pasternak recalled,

I was baptized as a child by my nanny, but because of the restrictions imposed on Jews, particularly in the case of a family which was exempt from them and enjoyed a certain reputation in view of my father’s standing as an artist, there was something a little complicated about this, and it was always felt to be half-secret and intimate, a source of rare and exceptional inspiration rather than being calmly taken for granted. I believe that this is at the root of my distinctiveness. Most intensely of all my mind was occupied by Christianity in the years 1910–12, when the main foundations of this distinctiveness – my way of seeing things, the world, life – were taking shape…

In 1990, two years after Pasternak’s family posthumously accepted the Nobel Prize on his behalf, Russia issued a stamp honoring him.  Notably, this was 1 year before the Communist Party of Russia was dissolved under its General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.

boris pasternak - russia

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