Controversy around ‘Dr. Zhivago’
In the history of Russian literature, perhaps no literary work and its author became more controversial than Boris Leonidovich Pasternak and his novel Dr Zhivago.
Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for 1958 “for outstanding achievement in modern lyrical poetry and in the field of great Russian prose.” Pasternak had to reject this highest honour and his novel could not be published in Soviet Union till 1987. During those stormy days when Pasternak was subjected to total humiliation, he had said, “ – remember – several years hence you will have to reinstate me – there are no two ways about it. This will not be the first such case.”
How rightly did Pasternak say these words! Perhaps every great poet always felt the gap between the age he lived in and eternity, towards which he strives. Boris Pasternak felt this gap even more tragically. He always thought that he was a ‘captive of his times’. But he was sure that as the time passes, his poetry will come out of this captivity and sound in future. Fragments of this captivity are preserved in history and knowledge of them unfolds a whole chain of tragic events which surrounded his immortal novel since its conception.
Boris Pasternak began writing Dr Zhivago a little after the Second World War and he completed it in 1955. Novyi Mir and Znamya had earlier shown interest in publishing Pasternak’s novel.
But as Pasternak became famous in the West and his name started being considered for the Nobel Prize since 1947, authorities started paying attention to him. It was the time when the intelligentsia was facing rough weather in the Soviet Union. Many famous writers were either sent to concentration camps, or killed or tortured. Since Pasternak was already known in the west, he could not be liquidated so easily. So they started writing against him in newspapers and literary journals. The conclusion of all such articles was that Pasternak was an agent of the capitalist world, he was writing against Soviet society and hence Soviet literature cannot tolerate him anymore.
In 1949 Pasternak’s companion and faithful friend Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaya was arrested and she was asked to give a brief summary of the ‘anti Soviet’ novel that Pasternak was writing. Ivinskaya wrote that Dr. Zhivago was the life story of a doctor (and also a poet) who suffered a lot in the span between the two revolutions. Ivinskaya was sent to a concentration camp for five years and when she came back in 1955 the novel was complete.
During those years Pasternak developed close contacts with those people who were constantly being ‘watched’, he would openly call Stalin a murderer. He realized that if during that time he escaped untouched, it was because ‘they’ could not force Ivinskaya to write anything against Pasternak. He remained indebted to her.
After the novel was complete it was sent to Novyi Mir as per earlier agreement. But Novyi Mir refused to publish the novel in its present form. They said they would publish only a few chapters. Pasternak understood that the novel won’t be published in the Soviet Union. He decided to give it to people for reading.
As long as Pasternak was busy writing the novel, he aimed only at depiction of reality. He wanted to be honest to himself. But when he read those two beautifully bound brown volumes, he realized that Revolution is not described in them as a ‘cream coated cake’, which has been the practice in the Soviet literature. So it was obvious that the novel won’t be published in the Soviet Union.
Soon approached the year 1956. Novyi Mir neither published the novel nor expressed any adverse comments about it. Even then Pasternak, by then, had not thought of publishing it in the West. But suddenly a few things happened with lightning speed and the novel reached Italy.
It so happened, that in May 1956, the Italian Service of Moscow Radio broadcast the news that publication of the new novel of Boris Pasternak is expected. The novel is based on the events of past 70-75 years. This announcement was the beginning of a whole sequence of tragic events.
On hearing the news, famous Italian publisher Feltrinelli sends his representative Sergei D’Angelo to Pasternak with a proposal to publish the Italian version of Dr. Zhivago. Pasternak agreed to this and gave them the novel. Later on when Ivinskaya explained to him that this action might lead to a stormy scandal, Pasternak requested her to get back the manuscript from D’Angelo.
But D’Angelo had already sent it to the publisher and Feltrinelli, after having managed to read it, was bent upon publishing it.
When the literary world came to know about it there were mixed reactions. While some people laughed out the matter, others got wild. Pasternak was asked to get back the manuscript from Feltrinelli or at least request him to stay the publication till the novel was published in Soviet Union. But Feltrinelli did not yield to any pressure, and the novel came out in 1957 – first the Italian version, then Russian and then in other 23 languages.
Soon after Dr. Zhivago was published once again Soviet newspapers and journals sharply criticised Pasternak.
On 23 October 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel prize for his outstanding achievements in the field of Russian literature. Pasternak responded with the words, “…grateful, glad, proud, embarrassed.”
But next morning Konstantin Fedin visited him and threatened that Pasternak should immediately refuse the prize, otherwise the newspapers would start a campaign against him the next day. Pasternak replied that no one can force him to reject this highest honour bestowed upon him, though he is ready to donate the money to the state exchequer.
This happened on 24 October and on 25 October media unleashed a planned conspiracy to torture him psychologically, to pin him down, and to demolish his image. Pasternak was termed as a “venomous citizen”, who openly hates the Soviet people…his novel is “mean, nonsensical, substandard…”
On 27 October the Writers’ Union met to discuss ‘Pasternak affair’. He was also called, but he, instead of attending the meeting send a letter consisting of 22 points. Boris Leonidovich wrote that:
– It is possible to write Dr. Zhivago and still remain a Soviet citizen. The novel was completed at a time when Dudintsev’s Not by Bread Alone was already published which created the impression of a ‘Thaw’;
– I gave the novel to an Italian Communist publisher and awaited the censored version of the same. I was prepared to revise the passages that would be suggested by the censor;
– I thought that Dr. Zhivago would be met with healthy criticism;
– No one can deprive me of the honour of receiving the Nobel prize, though I am ready to hand over the prize money to the Government Exchequer;
– I don’t expect any justice from you. You can shoot me, exile me, do whatever you like. I forgive you in advance…I would simply suggest that you don’t act in haste. This will give you neither happiness nor fame.
On 28 October Literaturnaya Gazeta published a letter signed by almost all famous writers of that time. The letter concluded that Pasternak was a puppet in the hands of capitalists and that he got Nobel prize as a reward for his anti soviet activities. It declared that the Writers’ Union expels him from the Union.
Though the western press was supporting Pasternak, it no longer interested him. On 29 October he wired to Stockholm: ‘In view of the importance which has been attached to the prize by the society to which I belong, I must decline it, and beg you not to be insulted by my voluntary refusal.’
But this did not help to ease out the tension. It was clear that their intention was not only to force him to refuse the Nobel Prize. They wanted to condemn him totally, humiliate him publicly, wanted him to confess all his ‘mistakes and sins’ and apologise publicly. They wanted to conquer this sensitive soul by devilish means. Moscow writers requested the government to deprive Pasternak of citizenship and deport him from the country. But for Pt Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention, it would have been exile.
To diffuse the explosive situation, Pasternak was made to sign a letter, prepared by the authorities from the various views he had expressed on different occasions. These were put together, distorted, twisted, cut to suit their purpose. Pasternak was too exhausted to protest any more and he wanted to stop all this humiliation, hence he signed the letter, which had the following gist:
Pasternak was forced to declare that the novel was anti-revolutionary and that it was conceived out of his ignorance of the significance of the October Revolution. Further he stated that the award of the Nobel Prize was the result of an anti-Soviet conspiracy by the West to misguide the Soviet people and consequently of his own accord he was rejecting the award. He also assured the Soviet government and the Russians that he would never forsake his beloved country. He concluded with the words: ‘I believe that I shall be able to regain my old fame.’
This letter was published by Pravda on 5 November 1958. But the attacks against Pasternak continued for some more time and then slowly things became normal.
In 1989, during the centenary year of Boris Pasternak, the Nobel Prize Committee decided to recognise Pasternak’s refusal of the Nobel Prize as taken under pressure and therefore invalid, and to hand over the same to the family of the deceased prize winner. It was received by his son Evgeni Pasternak on 9 December 1989.
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