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From Lara – The Untold Story That Inspired Doctor Zhivago
by Anna Pasternak
It is almost impossible, by today’s standards of celebrity, to comprehend the level of fame that Boris Pasternak engendered in Russia from the 1920s onwards. Pasternak may be most famous in the West for writing the Nobel Prize-winning love story Doctor Zhivago, yet in Russia he is primarily recognised, and still hugely feted, as a poet. Born in 1890, his reputation escalated during his early thirties; soon he was filling large auditoriums with young students, revolutionaries and artists who gathered to hear recitals of his poems. If he paused for effect or for a momentary memory lapse, the entire crowd continued to roar the next line of his verse in unison back at him, just as they do at pop concerts today.
‘There was in Russia a very real contact between the poet and the public, greater than anywhere else in Europe,’ Boris’s sister, Lydia, wrote of this time; ‘certainly far greater than is ever imaginable in England. Books of poetry were published in enormous editions and were sold out within a few days of publication. Posters were stuck up all over the town announcing the poets’ gatherings and everyone interested in poetry – and who in Russia did not belong to this category? – flocked to the lecture room or forum to hear his favourite poet.’
The writer had immense influence in Russian society. In a time of unrest, with an absence of credible politicians, the public looked to its writers. The influence of literary journals was prodigious; they were powerful vehicles for political debate. Boris Pasternak was not only a popular poet hailed for his courage and sincerity. He was revered by a nation for his fearless voice.
There is a Russian proverb: ‘You cannot know Russia through your head. You can only understand her through your heart.’
When I visited Russia for the first time, walking around Moscow was like being haunted, as I had the sense of not being a tourist but of coming home. It was not that Moscow was familiar to me but it did not feel foreign either. I marched through the snow one wintry February night, up the wide Tverskaya Street, to dinner at the Café Pushkin restaurant, acutely conscious that Boris and Olga had used the same route many times during their courtship, over sixty years earlier, treading the very same pavements.
Sitting amid the flickering candlelight of the Café Pushkin, which is styled to resemble a Russian aristocrat’s home of the 1820s – with its galleried library, book-lined walls, elaborate cornices, frescoed ceilings and distinct grandeur – I felt the hand of history gently resting on me. The restaurant is close to the old offices of Novy Mir, Olga’s former workplace on Pushkin Square. I imagined Olga and Boris walking past, their heads bowed low and close against the snow, wrapped in heavy coats, their hearts full of desire.
Five years later, on another visit to Moscow, I went to the Pushkin statue, erected in 1898, where Boris and Olga frequently rendezvoused during the early stages of their relationship. It was here that Boris first confessed the depth of his feelings to Olga. The vast statue of Pushkin was moved in 1950 from one side of Pushkin Square to the other, so they would have started their courtship on the west side of the square and moved to the east side in 1950 where I stood, looking up at the giant bronze folds of Pushkin’s majestic cape tumbling down his back. My Moscow guide, Marina, a fan of Putin and the current regime, looked at me standing under Pushkin’s statue, envisaging Boris at that very spot, and said: ‘Boris Pasternak is an inhabitant of heaven. He is an idol for so many of us, even those who are not interested in poetry.’
This reverential view echoed my meeting with Olga’s daughter, Irina Emelianova, in Paris a few months earlier: ‘I thank God for the chance to have met this great poet,’ she told me. ‘We fell in love with the poet before the man. I always loved poetry and my mother loved his poetry, just as generations of Russians have. You cannot imagine how remarkable it was to have Boris Leonidovich – his Russian patronymic name – not just in the pages of our poetry, but in our lives.’
Irina was immortalised by Pasternak as Lara’s daughter, Katenka, in Doctor Zhivago. Growing up, Irina became incredibly close to Boris. He loved her as the daughter he never had, and was more of a father figure to her than any other man in her life. Irina got up from the table we were sitting at and retrieved a book from her well-stocked shelves. It was a translation of Goethe’s Faust which Boris had given her, and on the title page was a dedication in Boris’s bold, looping handwriting in black ink, ‘like cranes soaring over the page’ as Olga once described it. Inside, Boris had written in Russian to the then seventeen-year-old Irina: ‘Irochka, this is your copy. I trust you and I believe in your future. Be bold in your soul and mind, in your dreams and purposes. Put your faith in nature, in the spirit of your destiny, in events of significance – and only in such few people as have been tested a thousand times, and are worthy of your confidence’.
Irina proudly read the final inscription to me. Boris had written: ‘Almost like a father, Your BP. November 3, 1955, Peredelkino.’
As she ran her hand affectionately across the page, she said sadly: ‘It’s a shame that the ink will fade.’