To The (Literary) Limit

The years after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech at the 20th Party Congress not only opened up a literary void that needed to be filled, but also showed how the government was still defrosting from Stalin’s death just three years prior. While Khrushchev denounced all of the actions Stalin had taken in his years as a leader, writers began to see more opportunities to push the limits previously put in place under Stalin. This was a changing society and Boris Pasternak, a Soviet poet and novelist, took advantage of it and crafted one of his most famous (and infamous) works, Doctor Zhivago, that would make him known around the world. One important thing to take away from this post is that the Russian government still wasn’t entirely ready to let go of the rigid policies that Stalin enforced. These years after Stalin’s death were known as The Thaw, a (slow) reversal of Stalinism.

As Seventeen Moments notes, both before and after Stalin, Pasternak was forced to translate other great literary works in order to make a living, his genius consistently suppressed by  Stalinism. Pasternak’s novel was extremely controversial, one that he had been writing in secret for years, waiting only for the right moment to have it published.  The novel denounced many of the things that Stalin put in place during his reign, much like Khrushchev said in his Secret Speech. Doctor Zhivago was surprisingly rejected by the Novyi mir, a Russian Literary magazine. In order to get the novel published, Pasternak knew he would have to go outside of the Soviet Union. An Italian publisher agreed to do the job, despite Russian demands that the novel could be returned. The government wished to avoid any kind of scandal, but the publication of the novel in 1957 crushed any hopes of a peaceful resolution.

Unknown Source; Portrait of Poet Boris Pasternak by Iurii Annenkov, 1921

It seems that it was easy for the Russian population to hear a single speech denounce Stalin and his actions, but Khrushchev also made the speech knowing that these changes would not happen overnight: “… [he] made clear that the ‘thaw’ did not mean artistic freedom.” (Freeze, 429) Therefore, Pasternak was forced into seclusion, not wanting to alienate the Russian government any further, despite already being accused of treason. The anger reached such a fever pitch that he was forced to reject the Nobel Prize he rightly won in 1958. A telegram from 1959 discusses what Pasternak should do with money from the Norwegian publication of Doctor Zhivago: A D. Polikarpov says, “I think that Pasternak should refuse receipt of money from the Norwegian bank. I am asking for permission to express this point of view.” It’s later noted that Pasternak refused the money, which he originally intended to donate a portion to a fund that assists elderly writers. Pasternak could have be extremely influential in the cultivation of a new literary movement in Russia, but it seemed that a majority of government officials desperately clung to the rules they had known for decades. It’s a shame that Pasternak’s genius could not be celebrated during his life and that he had to reject one of the highest honors a poet can receive just because his country’s government wasn’t ready to see eye-to-eye.

His poem, Nobel Prizeis particularly moving. It shows how distressed and saddened he was to be caught up in these persecutions long after Stalin’s reign ended.

Like a beast in a pen, I’m cut off
From my friends, freedom, the sun,
But the hunters are gaining ground.
I’ve nowhere else to run.

Dark wood and the bank of a pond,
Trunk of a fallen tree.
There’s no way forward, no way back.
It’s all up with me.

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.

Even so, one step from my grave,
I believe that cruelty, spite,
The powers of darkness will in time
Be crushed by the spirit of light.

The beaters in a ring close in
With the wrong prey in view,
I’ve nobody at my right hand,
Nobody faithful and true.

And with such a noose on my throat
I should like for one second
My tears to be wiped away
By someone at my right hand.

Boris Pasternak



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Freeze, Gregory, Russia: A History, p. 429


Literary Life at a Crossroads, 1956:


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