Title page of Sestra moia zhizn’ (My Sister, Life), by Boris Pasternak (Berlin, Petersburg, Moscow: Z. I. Grzebina, 1923). Portrait of the author by Iurii Annenkov. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Pasternak, Boris Leonidovich

(1890–1960), poet, prose writer, and translator. Boris Pasternak was raised in a highly cultured Moscow family. His mother Rozaliia (née Kaufman) was a pianist; his father, Leonid Osipovich, was a prominent artist and art professor. As a child, Pasternak first studied art and then music (Alexander Scriabin considered him a talented composer); he went on to study philosophy in Moscow and Marburg.

Settling on poetry, Pasternak underwent a long and complex evolution. His early verse, such as the collection Bliznets v tuchakh (A Twin in Storm Clouds; 1914), was close to futurism in style. The young Pasternak fell under the influence of Mayakovsky and was even a member of Levyi Front Iskusstv (Left Front of the Arts; LEF). Beginning with the collection Sestra moia zhizn’ (My Sister Life; 1922), which some critics see as his masterpiece, never superceded, Pasternak found his voice. It typically combines “spluttering” emotional intensity with bold imagery, a highly complex system of metaphors, and outstanding poetic technique. Its features, characteristic of European modernist poetry, are reflected in Pasternak’s early prose as well (Okhrannaia gramota [Safe Passage; 1931]). Aligning himself with the revolution, Pasternak used it as material for the long poems “Deviat’sot piatyi god” (The Year 1905; written 1926) and “Leitenant Shmidt” (1927).

The Stalinist purges broke Pasternak’s allegiance to the Soviet regime. Beginning in the second half of the 1930s, he fell silent. Excluded from official literary life, he began translating: first the poetry of Soviet Georgia, then European classics. Pasternak published, for example, distinguished Russian translations of Goethe’s Faust and of Shakespeare’s major plays. In 1940, following an inner crisis, Pasternak rejected his early poetry, which he called “mannered,” and began writing in a new way, falling “as though into heresy, to an unheard-of simplicity” (from the poem “Zdes’ budet vse perezhitoe,” in Vtoroe Rozhenie [The Second Birth; 1934]). His collections “Na rannikh poezdakh” (On Early Trains; 1943), “Zemnoi prostor” (The Terrestrial Expanse; 1945), and “Kogda razguliaetsia” (When the Weather Clears; 1956–1959) embody the lucid and profound verse of this period.

During World War II, Pasternak worked intensively on Doktor Zhivago, in which he partly revived the nineteenth-century tradition of the Russian sociopsychological novel. This book about the tragic fates of the Russian intelligentsia was banned in the USSR. First published in Italy in 1957, it quickly became an international bestseller. In 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize, which the Soviet authorities forced him to renounce. Expelled from the Writers Union and subjected to abusive official criticism, Pasternak died in 1960 in Peredelkino, the writers’ settlement outside Moscow where he had spent most of his life. His funeral, attended by many thousands of people, turned into a display of love for the fallen poet.

Pasternak had complex feelings about his Jewish origins. He grew up in an assimilated family. His father, however, began participating actively in Jewish life even before his emigration from Russia to Germany and England. Pasternak himself was drawn primarily to Christian imagery and gospel themes, but both Jews and Judaism are addressed in Doktor Zhivago. The complexity of Pasternak’s attitudes to Jewishness is also reflected in his correspondence with his cousin Ol’ga Freidenberg. This topic awaits thoroughgoing scholarly attention.

Suggested Reading

Christopher Barnes, Pasternak: A Literary Biography, 2 vols. (Cambridge and New York, 1989–1998); Dmitrii Bykov, Boris Pasternak (Moscow, 2005); Mikhail Epshtein, “Tsadik i talmudist: Sravnitel’nyi opyt o Pasternake i Mandel’shtame,” in Vera i obraz, pp. 117–140 (Tenafly, N.J., 1994); Lazar’ Fleishman, Boris Pasternak v 20-e gody (Moscow, 2003); Ol’ga Ivinskaya, Captive of Time: My Years with Pasternak, trans. Max Hayward (Garden City, N.Y., 1978); Elliott Mosman, comp. and ed., The Correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg 1910–1954, trans. Eliott Mosman and Margaret Wettlin (New York, 1982); Andrei Siniavskii, “Poeziia Pasternaka,” in Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, by Boris Pasternak, Biblioteka poeta, Bol’shaia seriia (Leningrad, 1965), pp. 9–62.



Translated from Russian by Alice Nakhimovsky