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The Power of Words

Boris Pasternak: The Writer and Translator in Stalinist Russia

By Barbara McClintock, Certified Translator

“A candle burned on the table, a candle burned. . .” — Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak’s most famous novel, Dr. Zhivago, always conjures up images of vast snowy landscapes, horse-drawn carriages, ladies dressed in furs and gentlemen dressed in greatcoats and fur hats, and of Dr. Yuri Zhivago writing romantic poetry by the light of a burning candle. A classic Russian epic, Doctor Zhivago is a complex book with hundreds of characters from different walks of life and even a book of poems attributed to the main character. A translator’s nightmare! But that is not all – more importantly, Dr. Zhivago also takes a stand against the socialist state. Pasternak was the first writer during the Soviet regime who dared to point a finger at Russia’s history of wars, revolutions, famine and purges under the Communists. The opposite of utopia is dystopia, which means a nightmare vision of a totalitarian state. Although mostly remembered for its love story, memorialized in music by Lara’s Theme, Dr. Zhivago is considered a dystopian novel.

Ordered to Refuse the Nobel Prize

In 1958, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his novel after it had been smuggled out of Russia and published in Milan. Despite its international acclaim, the book was banned in totalitarian Russia. Joseph Stalin ruled with an iron fist and any talk against his regime was extremely dangerous. Joseph Stalin famously said, “You cannot make a revolution with silk gloves” and “I trust no one, not even myself.” The Kremlin ordered Pasternak to refuse the Nobel Prize and he acquiesced mainly because he wished to stay in Russia. Had he accepted the award, he would have been exiled from his beloved country and never allowed to see his family again. In the West, it was widely thought at the time that Pasternak was a coward because he bent to Stalin’s will.

Max Hayward, a Secretary in the British Embassy in Moscow and a co-translator of Dr. Zhivago, with Manya Harari (1958), knew that Pasternak was no coward. He described Pasternak’s style of resistance in an eloquent article published in The Milwaukee Sentinel on December 28, 1958.

Defying Censorship

In Moscow in 1948, Hayward attended “a big poetry recital at the Polytechnic Museum, a huge auditorium.” The audience was packed, and people excitedly stomped their feet and cheered when Pasternak stepped forward to recite his poetry. Although it was dangerous to do so in that atmosphere of Stalinist terror, Pasternak recited some of his pre-war poems. His translations of Shakespeare's plays into Russian were very popular. Soon people started yelling for the sixty-sixth sonnet, which Pasternak had translated and which contains the words “And art made tongue-tied by authority.” The audience went wild and shouted out all the words, which they knew by heart.

Russians of that era loved poetry and would flock to poetry readings the way we go to a rock concert today. Finally, the flustered organizer, unable to control the enthusiastic crowd, called for an intermission. The audience, suffering under the yoke of tyranny, felt inspired and uplifted by Pasternak's poetry. According to Hayward, many people left during the intermission after hearing him speak. They had heard what they had come for and, for one evening, they felt that they were not alone.

A Strong Legacy

According to Hayward, in Russia, Pasternak was revered as an inspirational artist who did not compromise his integrity and who was a symbol of the “possibilities of resistance to tyranny.” After Boris Pasternak’s death, his son was allowed to accept the Nobel Prize on his father’s behalf in 1989. Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear published a fascinating new translation of Dr. Zhivago in 2011.

1. “We Salute Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, The Year’s Most Explosive Book by Max Hayman, The Milwaukee Sentinel, December 28, 1958.
2. Seven Things You May Not Know About the Nobel Prizes, by Barbara Maranzani,, December 10, 2012.

N.B. The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s.

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