Books: Essay

Seeking Boris Pasternak in Putin Country

A Damodaran is a faculty member at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore
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The poet of patience


While at one level, Putin seeks to position himself as the new, non-punk pop icon of Russia, he has also successfully projected himself as the champion of Russia's heritage

IT WAS A sunny morning in the month of May in Peredelkino, a sleepy Stalin era writer’s colony in the suburbs of Moscow. The year was 1956. Boris Pasternak walked out of his dacha clutching a thick packet. “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world,” he said nervously, while handing over the packet to his guest Sergio D’Angelo, who was waiting for him at his garden.

Sergio D’Angelo, an Italian Communist was on a secondment with Radio Moscow when he came visiting Pasternak that day. He was hunting for promising manuscripts for a Milan- based publishing house run by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a senior member of the Italian Communist Party. The packet that Pasternak handed over to D’Angelo carried a touching revelation of the raw face of the Russia’s October Revolution. For the Soviet leaders, Dr Zhivago was an act of literary subversion. For D’Angelo, it was the catch of the century.

With his Communist Party card, D’Angelo slipped through the iron curtain and reached his treasure to Feltrinelli. Within a year of the Peredilkino rendezvous, Feltrinelli published Dr Zhivago in Italian. The English version followed in 1958. Later that year, the Swedish Academy announced Boris Pasternak as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature ‘for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.’

Pasternak was expelled from the Union of Soviet writers and given an ultimatum to decline the prize or leave the country. Pasternak opted to decline the prize. Two years later, the devastated, cancer-stricken writer was dead.

Boris Pasternak hailed from an aristocratic Jewish family. His mother Rozalia was a talented pianist. His father, Leonid Pasternak was a celebrated impressionist painter who tantalised Lev Tolstoy with his brilliant illustrations for the 1892 edition of War and Peace. Pasternak grew up seeing Leo Tolstoy, and composers Alexander Scriabin and Sergei Rachmaninoff visit his parents at their home in Moscow. In his youth he was drawn to Scriabin and tried his hand as a musician. After studying at the Moscow State University and at Marburg, he gave up his earlier plans and finally opted to be a poet.

Initially drawn to the romance of the Russian Revolution (the Kerensky version), Pasternak gradually got disillusioned with the Bolsheviks and spent agonising years under Stalin’s rule. He narrowly escaped the concentration camps as the Dictator had a soft corner for him. As a member of the Soviet Writer’s Union, the poet-turned-novelist wrote poems and lived through the Stalin era as a translator of Shakespeare and Goethe. However unnoticed by the state and its sleuths, he was silently working on his passion, Dr Zhivago.

The story of the novel revolved on Yuri Zhivago, a poet-turned doctor, his love for two women (Tonya his wife and Lara his muse), his initial enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution, his gradual disillusionment with life and finally his death on the streets of Moscow. Yuri Zhivago was Pasternak’s alter ego. During his lifetime Pasternak too was tormented by his relationship with two women (Zinaida , his wife and Olga Ivinskaya, his lover) and led an agonised life just like his protagonist.

David Lean’s epic movie Dr Zhivago (1965) opened the world to the Zhivago story. Thanks to Omar Sharif, the movie captured the imagination of cinema goers of North Africa and the Middle East. In the tea districts of Assam, the movie was immensely popular, as its heroine Julie Christie was born and brought up in Chabua in a tea garden by the name Singlijan.

Pasternak’s ability to endure and wait for the ultimate redemption casts him in the mould of a ‘Poet of Patience’

PEREDELKINO—A forested, exurban hermitage for writers that Stalin created in 1934 at the bidding of Maxim Gorky—was driven by a simple philosophy: provide creature comforts to a band of impactful writers and they would slave for you. The idea worked well as some of the renowned literary figures of the Soviet Union queued up to receive the largesse. Pasternak was one of the chosen few to be allotted a dacha in Peredelkino. Mikhail Baktin, the celebrated philosopher of language and Alexander Solzhenitsyn were the others to stay in this exclusive hermitage.

Last September, I took a break from my teaching schedule at Moscow State University to visit the Pasternak House which is now a museum. I was early to reach Peredelkino as the morning train from Moscow was faster than I thought it would be. From the train station, I walked down a small road, which had high walls on either side to finally reach the Pasternak Museum. I unlatched the gate and walked through a gravelled pathway that was drenched by the previous night’s rain. To my left was a thick stand of birch trees that had shed its leaves. The trees shrouded the sight of the dacha from the gate. As I walked along the path, the silhouette of the building became visible.

I crossed the tree stands and reached a small garden which had a wooden bench and a table. The garden faced the steps to the veranda of the dacha. I could see that the Museum was closed. I walked around the garden, waded through the birch trees, snapped a few photos and finally rested on the wooden bench, waiting for the museum staff to arrive. It took some time for me to realise I was resting on the same wooden bench where Sergio and Pasternak had sat and conversed 60 years ago before exchanging the Zhivago manuscript.

‘Autumn had already sharply marked the boundary between the coniferous and deciduous worlds in the forest. The first bristled in its depths like a gloomy, almost black wall; the second shone through the open spaces in fiery, wine- colored patches, like an ancient town with a fortress and gold-topped towers, built in the thick of the forest from its own timber.’

These lines from Dr Zhivago could have come only from the wilderness of Peredelkino, I thought as I waited impatiently for the museum staff.

When I entered the Pasternak Home, it had an air of frugal charm. Anna Koznova who holds a Doctorate in Linguistics from the Moscow State University led me through the dacha. We entered a spacious drawing room whose walls are layered with his father’s pencil sketches and paintings. My guide explained that it was in this room that Pasternak celebrated his Nobel Prize win with his close friends. Three smaller rooms adjoined the drawing room.

While at one level, Putin seeks to position himself as the new, non-punk pop icon of Russia, he has also successfully projected himself as the champion of Russia's heritage

Except for a century-old piano that Pasternak had inherited from his mother, the room was basic. We finally enter the famous study upstairs where Pasternak is supposed to have written Dr Zhivago. The study has a window that opens to the birch forests stand in front of the garden. It was an inspiring view. Koznova told me that during Pasternak’s time, the view was better as no compound walls obstructed the view of the chapel atop a small hill. The Pasternak study had a depleted book shelf with very few books— mostly different editions of Dr Zhivago in different languages. Also on display in the study was a letter of Jawaharlal Nehru congratulating the writer on his winning the Nobel Prize. I am surprised when Koznova tells me that Pasternak read little of contemporary writers. He was afraid that reading contemporary works would cramp his style. Pasternak is also said to have had another curious habit—a rare sense of tidiness which was unusual for a writer. He systematically cleared the clutter from his desk after he was through with his writing at the end of the day.

The real Boris Pasternak was thus far removed from the contrived extravagance that David Lean ascribed to his alter ego, Yuri Zhivago in his film. His writings were about suffering, romance, villainy, faithlessness, helplessness and broken promises and not the effete love story that Lean had painted.

PASTERNAK’S CLOSENESS TO nature , his ability to conjure the most colourful images of the natural phenomena, and over and above all , his ability to endure and wait for the ultimate redemption casts him in the mould of a ‘poet of patience’.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, popular tastes that were rooted in the classical tradition were recognised, with their religious elements purged. Soviet leaders like Khrushchev and Brezhnev read little and hence did not feel guilty about harassing writers who were dissidents. Andropov was a voracious reader, but read to detect non-conformity. It was only in the Gorbachev era, that the state freed popular culture from its grip. Soon the jarring decibels of heavy rock music drowned the symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky. Stas Namin, the grandson of the old Bolshevik and veteran Soviet statesman Anastas Mikoyan, emerged as the top pop rock icon in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union! Donald Trump was invited to build a state-of-the-art hotel in Moscow. Yoko Ono was surprised to see an excited Raisa Gorbachev abandoning her stately pretensions and awkwardly proclaim her mad attachment to the Beatles!

Yet, the glasnost phase was an equally good period for Russia’s post-classical writers. The younger intelligentsia and students of the Soviet Union read Dr Zhivago, Nabokov’s Lolita and the banned writings of Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, and Akhmatova. Those were the times when (as Russian journalist Solomon Volkov says) reading was more important than living. Pasternak, the poet of patience was a celebrity in the Gorbachev phase. But he was not by any stretch of imagination, an apostle of upheaval. Boris Yeltsin and his followers needed the compelling and angry prose of Alexander Solzhenitsyn to uproot the Soviet system in 1992.

Pasternak’s strength lies in his ability to endlessly linger in the Russian psyche. In his first decade as the ruler of post-Communist Russia, Vladimir Putin practiced a brand of narrow nationalism that had pronounced geopolitical overtones. Putin’s regimented rule provoked deep dissent among sections of his countrymen. Popular culture (mainly pop rock groups), sections of the intelligentsia and Russia’s nouveau rich form the bailiwick of the anti-Putin movement in Russia. Putin’s hard measures against these groups damaged his image in his earlier years of power. Putin’s real tragedy has been that he has inherited a Russia where people are restive since ‘living has become more important than reading’. He had to change his tack to keep his position intact.

In recent years, Putin has had a complete image makeover. The crude nationalist overtones are muted—and a different game is on. Putin’s declared 2017 to be the Year of Ecology, as he anticipated that his Communist rivals would celebrate the centenary of the October Revolution this year. These days the karate-black-belt Head of State uses his shooting skills to dart and rescue injured Serbian Tigers. He plunges into the depths of the Black Sea to discover the underwater heritage of Russia. The former KGB official proclaims his love for Omar Khayyam to create a new argument for his Iran policy and appoints Lev Tolstoy’s great grandson, Vladimir Tolstoy, as his cultural advisor, to prove his credentials as a patron of heritage and culture.

Thus, while at one level, Putin seeks to position himself as the new, non-punk pop icon of Russia, he has also successfully projected himself as the champion of Russia’s heritage. Now he is moving into an unexplored terrain. His recent statement, “Russia’s border doesn’t end anywhere,” is mystical and lyrical. It was made a few months before he was credited with Donald Trump’s victory. Russia’s most successful head of State is now on the fringes of Zhivago territory.