Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was born in Moscow in 1890. His father, Leonid Osipovich, was a professor at the Moscow School of Painting and his mother, Rosa Kaufman, a successful concert pianist. Thus it was that Boris was surrounded from an early age with such literary and musical giants as Rainer Maria Rilke, Tolstoy, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Aleksandr Scriabin.
He entered the Moscow Conservatory to pursue his love of musical composition but, in 1910, changed course and went to study philosophy at the Marburg University in Germany. He returned to Moscow during the winter of 1914/15 after first taking a short tour of Italy. Once back in Russia he determined to devote himself to writing and his first collection of poems appeared in 1914. WWI, however, meant that he had to earn a living and he became firstly a private tutor and then a worker in a chemical factory in the Ural Mountains.
Despite expressing horror at the brutality of the government, he fully supported the 1917 Revolution. He remainded in Russia when his parents and sisters migrated to Germany in 1921, becoming a librarian. He started writing in earnest, mostly poems which were fairly well received. By 1934 he had married twice - the first marriage to Evgeniia Vladimirovna Lourie was dissolved in 1931 and he married Zinaida Nikolaevna Neigauz in 1934. By now his interest in emotional themes had waned and he moved on to studying and writing about the underlying meaning of the Revolution. The Socialist regime, however, was putting pressure on original thought through the medium of the Writer's Union and he could no longer get his works published.
During the 1930s and 1940s he found himself under increasing scrutiny from the RAPP1 who were trying to stamp out the 'old school' in favour of pro-soviet writers. Miraculously he still managed to stay on reasonable terms with the then powerful Stalin and avoided dying in the infamous Gulag Archipelago or being shot - a fate which many of his contempory writers shared.
Of course I am prepared for anything. Why should it happen to everyone else and not to me?
Pasternak turned to translating, notably interpreting the Shakespearian play Hamlet as a tragedy of duty and self denial. It was during this time that he penned Dr Zhivago drawing on his personal experiences including the journey to the Urals in 1915. The book was rejected by Russian publishers and first appeared in Russian and as an Italian translation, courtesy of publisher Feltrinelli in Milan, in 1957. His homeland labelled it as portraying 'non-acceptance of the socialist revolution' and it was banned there for three decades. The irony was that the book was based far more on the aesthetic values held by Pasternak rather than any political intent.
Doctor Zhivago became an instant hit in the west and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The Russian government was furious at the acclaim it received and forced Pasternak to recant and decline the award2. He was destined to spend the rest of his life vilified and isolated by the authorities. Despite many offers from other nations, he was determined to remain in Russia. As he wrote in a personal letter to premier Nikita Khrushchev after yet more attacks on his work:
Leaving the motherland will equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work.
Pasternak died from lung cancer only two years later in May, 1960. His most famous literary legacy lives on - through his words and through the film made in 1965.
Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand condemned?
I made the whole world weep at the beauty of my land