Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Boris Pasternak | Biography


On February 10, 1890, Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born in Moscow, Russia, to Leonid Pasternak, a portrait artist, and Rosa Kaufman, a concert pianist. Famous guests frequented their home, including the poet Ranier Maria Rilke, who was a strong influence on young Boris. Intending to follow in his mother's footsteps, Pasternak studied music theory and composition for six years, but felt his technical skills were lacking and switched to philosophy while at university, where he began to write verse as well. The summer after his final exams, Pasternak decided to dedicate his life to literature, particularly poetry.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 set the stage for Pasternak's long career. War was a major theme of his work, and his own apolitical stance was at odds with the ruling Bolshevik Party. Though he was hailed as a "major new lyrical voice" in the early 1920s, he couldn't get anything published in the 1930s. Pasternak's writing didn't meet the standards of Socialist Realism, which dictated that the arts should promote and glorify the ideals of communism and a classless society. For income Pasternak had to rely on translating other people's work into Russian, including Shakespeare's Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet.

Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak's only prose novel, was written in the aftermath of World War II. He knew its subject matter would most likely get him in trouble with the authorities. But he was driven by the need to write about the topics most important to him—freedom, independence, and a return to Christianity.

Pasternak originally submitted the manuscript for Doctor Zhivago to a Russian monthly magazine, where it was rejected. The novel's themes of love and war—most notably the glamorization of adultery during times of conflict—violated the Community Party's regimented approach to family and morality. Pasternak was thus forced to look for a publisher outside his homeland.

After the novel was rejected by a Russian magazine for its libelous nature, Doctor Zhivago was published in Italy in 1957. Within a year it was translated into 18 languages. Thanks in large part to Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. But he had to decline the honor for fear of banishment—or worse—from Russia, the country he so loved. Expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, which controlled literary affairs, Pasternak struggled to earn a living until his death from lung cancer on May 30, 1960. Thirty years after Doctor Zhivago's initial publication, the Writers' Union reinstated Pasternak—and Doctor Zhivago was finally published and read in Pasternak's native Russia.

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