Boris Pasternak – too much a poet to conform

Born on February 10th in 1890, Boris Pasternak went on to become a giant of Russian literature of the 20th Century. His youth was spent amid the churn of revolution, and it was in the year of the Bolshevik Revolution, 1917, that he issued his first book of poetry, "My Sister Life," hailed as "one of the most influential collections ever published in the Russian language." His work is deeply personal and lyrical, and he could never embrace Soviet Realism, which required writers to deal with the glories of Communist ideals and the triumph of its proletarian peoples.

Soviet authorities were deeply suspicious of him, and he lived in constant threat of arrest and imprisonment. He is best known in the West for his extraordinary novel, "Doctor Zhivago," whose broad sweep covers the turbulent times before, during, and after the Soviet revolution. That revolution is the backdrop to the hero's love story with Lara. Few punches are pulled. The last sentence of the book is particularly poignant, when someone asks what became of Lara and is told, "She was forgotten as a nameless number on a list which was later mislaid, in one of the innumerable mixed or women's concentration camps in the north." It captures the essential inhumanity of the Soviet communist system.

The book's failure to conform to the literary canons that the Soviet authorities required meant that it could not be published there. Instead it was smuggled out by an Italian journalist and published in the West. It was an instant best seller, with the English language version spending half a year at the top of the New York Times list of best sellers. The fury of the Soviet authorities was doubled when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958.

He was forced to renounce the prize, which meant it was awarded in his absence. Pasternak was to receive hate mail for the rest of his life, and to be abused and reviled by writers loyal to the regime. The head of the Young Communist League made a speech before a mass audience declaring, "If you compare Pasternak to a pig, a pig would not do what he did, because a pig, never shits where it eats," a line later revealed to have been written by Khrushchev himself.

"Doctor Zhivago" was made into an epic movie directed by David Lean, with screenplay by Robert Bolt, and a cast full of famous stars. It captured the sense and sweep of the book with its lyrical scenes and landscapes, and won 10 Oscars.

The book was finally serialized in Russia under Gorbachev, having been previously only available illegally in samizdat editions. In December 1989, after the Berlin Wall had fallen, Pasternak's son Yevgenii was allowed to visit Sweden to collect his father's prize. And since 2003 "Doctor Zhivago" has been part of the Russian secondary school curriculum.