To a Western reader, the name “Boris Pasternak” seems as Russian as Alexander Pushkin or Leo Tolstoy, and certainly the author of Doctor Zhivago has earned his place among the great Russian authors. But in 1958, the country that gave Boris Pasternak his name denied him his own greatest achievement. Though he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his poetry and literature, Pasternak refused it under pressure from the Soviet Union.
Pasternak’s poetry, plays, and translations were well known in the USSR by the 1950s. But his dissident views made him political persona non grata, and over the years he was threatened, suppressed, and spied on. His lover Olga Ivinskaya served four years in a gulag after refusing to denounce him. Hardened by his personal experiences and increasingly disillusioned with the state-sanctioned “social realism” the USSR required of all of its writers, Pasternak spent years writing an epic love story about how revolutions uplift and destroy individuals.
The result was a book that could never be published in the Soviet Union. Pasternak befriended an Italian journalist who smuggled Doctor Zhivago to Europe. Miriam H. Berlin recalls a clandestine meeting with Pasternak in which she questioned his motivations for sending his great book out of the country:
Did he really want this project to be completed and the book published outside the Soviet Union? “Without question,” he replied with great conviction. “It does not matter what might happen to me. My life is finished. This book is my last word to the civilized world.”
Pasternak told Berlin he would send a cable with an “instruction” to stop publication of the book, but it was only to save his own skin. The book was published in Italian in 1957 and appeared in English in 1958. It was an instant bestseller (helped in part by a CIA effort to use the book’s popularity to expose the realities of life under Communism). The book’s acclaim got the Nobel committee’s notice, and Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize to the exhilaration of the West and the infuriated humiliation of the USSR.
The consequences were swift and merciless—a smear campaign, impassioned anti-Pasternak speeches, and the threat that Pasternak would be refused re-entry to his home country if he should travel to Sweden to accept his award. Though Pasternak had telegrammed his delight at receiving the honor days before, he had no choice. On October 29, 1958, he telegrammed the Nobel Prize committee: “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must reject this undeserved prize which has been presented to me. Please do not receive my voluntary rejection with displeasure. — Pasternak.”
“The novel’s publication and the accompanying enthusiasm of the free world changed matters,” wrote Ludmilla Turkevich in 1959. “In Doctor Zhivago Pasternak says some very sharp and uncomplimentary things about his world, and his government, founded on the premises on which it is, can not tolerate such statements, especially when they become the object of so much international interest. Pasternak may ride out this storm, as Dudintsev did a while ago. It is, nevertheless, most regrettable and ironic that the award of the well-deserved prize for literature from a forum that appreciates real art should be so full of pain to the laureate.”
Editor’s Note: A subtitle was added to this story after publication.