Pasternak's Funeral: A Poetic Protest

When Dr. Zhivago author Boris Pasternak died in 1960, Soviet authorities pointedly did not publicize his death. Hundreds attended his funeral in a rare show of protest against the Soviet regime.

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Dr. Zhivago remains one of the enduring cultural icons to emerge from the Soviet Union. Zhivago is the hero of Boris Pasternak's novel of romance and the Russian Revolution. A young Moscow physician and poet, Zhivago is torn from his family, experiences the turmoil of revolution and civil war, and it falls in love with the storied Laura.

The tale behind the novel is also quite dramatic. Producer Robert Rand sent us this remembrance of Zhivago and of the impact it had on its author and on Russia.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT RAND: The first thing to know about Dr. Zhivago is that for more than three decades Kremlin censors banned its publication in the USSR. The first thing to know about the poet and writer Boris Pasternak is that he risked everything by having the novel published abroad under his own name.

It was an unprecedented and, under Soviet law, illegal move, one laced with danger for the author. Pasternak urged foreign publishers not to hold back for fear of harming him. I wrote the novel to be published and read, he said at the time. That remains my only wish.

Mr. PAVEL LITVINOV (Soviet Dissident) My name is Pavel Litvinov and I was one of the early leaders of the human rights movement in the Soviet Union in the 1960s.

RAND: To understand the power of Dr. Zhivago for Pasternak's contemporaries, listen to the reaction of Pavel Litvinov, who along with a circle of dissident friends, read a copy of the novel that had been smuggled into Moscow from the U.S. in 1966.

Mr. LITVINOV: It was just - people were in awe, and it was so different from all official literature that we just couldn't stop reading because it was so uplifting, because it's such a romantic novel. So people were overwhelmed by the book.

RAND: Litvinov says Dr. Zhivago presented life as it really was, which meant portraying the dark, brutal side of the Russian Revolution.

Mr. LITVINOV: It was not optimistic, Soviet novel where everything serves the purposes of the state, the purposes of the Communist Party, because it didn't serve their purposes. It means it was destructive, and they were right that way.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

RAND: A Soviet newsreel from February, 1956. At the time, Pasternak had just completed Dr. Zhivago, while in the Kremlin a new leader, Nikita Khrushchev, was consolidating power. Khrushchev speaks here to the Communist Party elite, lauding the achievements of the Soviet state.

(Soundbite of newsreel)

Mr. NIKITA KHRUSHCHEV (Soviet Premier): (Speaking Russian)

RAND: At this same party meeting, in a secret speech, Khrushchev denounced the brutal repression and terror of his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. Khrushchev also promised more freedom; not so much more freedom, however, as to allow the publication of Dr. Zhivago, which Khrushchev personally banned.

The novel's appearance abroad earned Pasternak a Nobel Prize in 1958. An incensed Kremlin forced Pasternak to reject the prize. The KGB hounded and harassed the writer.

Mr. LAZAR FLEISHMAN (Stanford University): And the way for them to react to it was to completely ban every mentioning of his name in press.

RAND: Lazar Fleishman is a Pasternak scholar at Stanford University.

Mr. FLEISHMAN: So (unintelligible) on one hand became an international celebrity, and dozens and hundreds of articles were published about him in the Western press, became in his own country as if there were no such poet, Boris Pasternak, anymore.

Mr. BORIS PASTERNAK (Author): (Speaking foreign language)

RAND: This is the voice of Boris Pasternak at a poetry reading in the 1950s. The Russian intelligencia revered Pasternak's verse, and the poet was able to write despite the hounding in the aftermath of the Zhivago affair.

In rapidly failing health, he lived with his family in isolation in Peredelkino, a village outside Moscow, until his death in 1960. Hundreds of people showed up at his funeral, explicitly against the authorities' wishes. Victoria Schweitzer(ph) was a young literary scholar in 1960. She attended Pasternak's funeral.

Ms. VICTORIA SCHWEITZER (Literary Scholar): (Through translator) His coffin was in a large room, and people filed by. Music was playing the entire time on a beautiful grand piano. There were so many people and lots of KGB agents, and they shamelessly took pictures of the people there. But nobody cared.

The coffin was lowered, and then people refused to leave. This was the main thing. People refused to leave. They read the poetry of Pasternak. It was amazing. Everyone there made a statement that he was a human being, that he was not afraid to be there.

RAND: Pasternak's death marked something of a turning point in the development of human rights in the Soviet Union. He became a symbol of one man's defense of free expression. Even Nikita Khrushchev, who was ousted from power in 1964 by a clique of neo-Stalinists, came to appreciate Pasternak's voice. In retirement, Khrushchev secretly recorded his memoirs in an audio diary. In that diary, Khrushchev expressed remorse at the way he had treated the Nobel Laureate.

Mr. KHRUSHCHEV: (Through translator) Now that I am approaching the end of my life, I feel sorry that I didn't support Pasternak. I regret that I had a hand in banning his book and that I supported the hard-liners. We should have given the readers the opportunity to reach their own verdict. I am truly sorry for the way I behaved toward Pasternak. My only excuse is that I didn't read the book.

RAND: Dr. Zhivago was published in the Soviet Union for the first time in 1988, three years before the collapse of the USSR. The first Russian-made screen adaptation of the novel aired on Russian TV earlier this year. For NPR News, this is Robert Rand reporting.

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