This Day in Jewish History

1890: Man Who Won Nobel for 'Dr. Zhivago' and Irked Moscow Is Born

The novel by Boris Pasternak consternated others too: 'One of the most despicable books about Jews ever written by a man of Jewish origin'

Boris Pasternak book cover by Yves Berger.
Screenshot.

February 10, 1890, is the birthdate of Boris Pasternak, the Russian poet, novelist and translator who won the Nobel Prize – and infuriated the Soviet regime – for his 1957 novel “Dr. Zhivago.” The book, although not concerned with Jewish themes in a major way, angered many Jews, including Israel’s prime minister, who described it as “one of the most despicable books about Jews ever written by a man of Jewish origin.”

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born in Moscow. His father, Leonid Pasternak, who claimed descent from the 15th-century Portuguese-Jewish banker and philosopher Isaac Abarbanel, was a successful painter and art professor. Boris’ mother, the former Rosa Kaufman, the daughter of an Odessa industrialist, was herself a concert pianist.

Boris grew up in a home that was constantly being visited by artists and intellectuals – the poet Rilke, the composers Rachmaninoff and Scriabin – and his father had illustrated some of Leo Tolstoy’s books. As Jews, the family was assimilated, and an adolescent Boris was even baptized by a nanny, something that he described as an adult as “a source of rare and exceptional inspiration.”

A loyal Bolshevik

Boris was gifted musically: By age 13, he was composing music. He began piano studies at the Moscow Conservatory, but left abruptly in 1910 to enroll in philosophy studies at the University of Marburg, in Germany. It was there that he began writing poetry seriously. 

During World War I, Pasternak lived in Vsevolodovo Vilve, in the Ural mountains, where he worked as a private tutor and as a laborer in a chemical factory. When the Bolsheviks took power toward the end of the war, the rest of Pasternak’s family left Russia, but he supported the revolution, and remained behind.

In Russia, Pasternak was known principally as a poet. His first collection, “My Sister, Life” (1921), was innovative and influential enough to have been said to have revolutionized Russian poetry. But in the decades that followed, Pasternak made an ongoing effort to simplify his poems to make them more accessible to a larger public. This in turn angered his early admirers, many of whom were by then living in exile outside the Soviet Union.

'Leave that holy fool alone'

Like other Russian artists, Pasternak’s life and career were played out on thin ice. They were always in danger of offending the Communist regime, often for unpredictable reasons. This was especially true during the reign of Joseph Stalin.

Omar Sharif, in the movie based on Boris Pasternak' s Doctor Zhivago, November, 1965
AP

Although Pasternak was a profoundly patriotic Russian, he was preoccupied with doing the honorable thing, even when that meant standing up to the authorities. Amazingly, he survived the worst years of oppression, even when friends and colleagues were arrested and deported, and worse, for far lesser acts of defiance than Pasternak’s. In her memoir about him, Pasternak’s longtime lover and companion Olga Ivinskaya said that he concluded that Stalin had crossed his name off a list of people to execute, instructing his men to, “Leave that holy fool alone.”

The plot of “Dr. Zhivago” (which served as the basis for a lavish 1965 film, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie) does not parallel Pasternak’s life story, but thematically, it is concerned with the themes that preoccupied Pasternak.

Doctor Zhivago Trailer 1965 YouTube

Its title character is a young physician caught up in the chaos and violence of World War I and the Russian Civil War that followed, as well as torn between several women and between his belief in both love and loyalty.

Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion was reportedly irritated by the character Misha Gordon, a Jew who converts to Christianity and wonders why other Jews don’t do the same. Gordon asks Yuri Zhivago rhetorically, why “the intellectual leaders of the Jewish people [don’t] dismiss this army which is forever fighting and being massacred [and] say to them: ‘That’s enough. Stop now. Don’t hold on to your identity. Disperse. Be with all the rest.’”

Pasternak himself, who was denounced and repudiated in his homeland after sending “Dr. Zhivago” abroad for publication, died from lung cancer on May 30, 1960. Only in 1988 did the regime permit the book’s publication in the USSR, and only the following year could his son Yevgenii journey to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, which his father had been forced to turn down three decades earlier.