The Writer and the Valet - Boris Pasternak: Dr Zhivago

Isaiah Berlin was on his honeymoon – he married late – when he first read Dr Zhivago. It was the evening of Saturday, 18 August 1956, and he had just made the short journey back to Moscow from the village of Peredelkino, where he had spent the day with Boris Pasternak. Pasternak’s dacha was part of a complex set up on Stalin’s orders in 1934 to reward the Soviet Union’s most prominent writers. One of them, Korney Chukovsky, described the scheme as ‘entrapping writers within a cocoon of comforts, surrounding them with a network of spies’. Periodically, and usually at night, the NKVD would turn over a dacha and bundle its resident into a waiting car. Pasternak’s immediate neighbour and friend, Boris Pilnyak, was arrested in October 1937, removed to the Lubyanka, and killed with a single bullet to the back of the head. The same fate awaited Isaac Babel, who was taken from Peredelkino in May 1939. There were others, less well known, but equals in the manner of their death.

How Pasternak survived the necropolitics of the Stalin era was a mystery. ‘It is surprising that I remained whole during the Purges,’ he wrote in 1954. ‘You cannot imagine the liberties I allowed myself. My future was shaped in precisely the way I myself shaped it.’ Nadezhda Mandelstam (whose husband, Osip, became ‘camp dust’ in 1938) put it down to a combination of sheer luck and Pasternak’s ‘incredible charm’. Others wondered whether Stalin had personally ordered him to be spared – ‘Leave him alone, he’s a cloud dweller’ – after gifting him what were called, in the political slang of the day, ‘madman’s papers’. True, Pasternak had written some boilerplate patriotic verse during the Second World War, ‘civic poetry’ that encouraged some party hacks in the belief that he had finally found ‘the correct path’. And the translations of Georgian poets were known to have pleased the Boss. But in the main, where others, fatally, confronted argument with argument, he replied with the reveries of a yurodivy, a holy fool, marking his distance from the idiom and events of his era to the point almost of vegetal insouciance (‘What century is it outside?’ he asks in one poem).
In his youth Pasternak looked, Marina Tsvetaeva said, ‘like an Arab and his horse’. In older age, he looked the same. Sinewy and tanned from long walks and tending his orchard, at 66 he was still an intensely physical presence. This was the woodsman-poet who was waiting by the garden gate to greet his friend Isaiah Berlin, 19 years younger, bespectacled and pudgy, his indoor skin betraying the rigours of the Senior Common Room and the international diplomatic circuit.
‘The Foreigner Visiting Pasternak at His Dacha’ is its own subgenre of intellectual history. Its principal theme is the excitement of discovering a lost generation who, like ‘the victims of shipwreck on a desert island’, have been ‘cut off for decades from civilisation’ (Berlin). The foreigner, moved by his role as witness to an impossible reality, records every detail of the encounter: the welcome (Pasternak’s handshake is ‘firm’, his smile ‘exuberant’); the walk (oh, that ‘cool’ pine forest, and look, some dusty peasants); the conversation, with Pasternak holding forth ‘as if Goethe and Shakespeare were his contemporaries’; the meal, at which his wife, ‘dark, plump and inconspicuous’ (and often unnamed), makes a sour appearance; the arrival of other members of the Peredelkino colony, the dead undead; the toasts, invoking spiritual companions – Tolstoy, Chekhov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov. And finally the farewell at the gate, at which Pasternak disappears back into the dacha and re-emerges with sheaves of typescript. These are given to the visitor (‘the guest from the future’, as Anna Akhmatova put it), who is now tasked with the sacred and thrillingly immortalising responsibility of carrying Pasternak’s writings out of this place where the clock has stopped and into the world beyond.
Berlin’s reports of his meetings with Pasternak, which cover two periods spanning a decade, conform to the conventions of the genre (not surprising, as he largely invented it) but his published account of his visit of 18 August 1956 is curiously short on colour, and there is no mention of his bride, Aline, who accompanied him, or of Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida. We learn only that the two men convened in a lengthy conversation, which must have vibrated amid the pine trees like some strange antiphon. Pasternak, Berlin once observed, ‘spoke slowly in a low tenor monotone, with a continuous even sound, something between a humming and a drone’; Berlin’s voice was variously described as ‘a low, rapid rumble’, ‘a melting Russian river’, the ‘bubble and rattle’ of a ‘samovar on the boil’. At some point, Pasternak took Berlin into his study, where he thrust a thick envelope into Berlin’s hands and said: ‘My book, it is all there. It is my last word. Please read it.’
Berlin and Aline returned that evening to the British Embassy on Sofiyskaya Embankment, where they were guests of the ambassador. Berlin sat up all night reading the typescript. He was ‘deeply shaken’. He wept. Dr Zhivago was a ‘magnificent poetical masterpiece in the central tradition of Russian literature’, ‘a personal avowal of overwhelming directness, nobility and depth’. It was a ‘unitary vision’ that fused the broken vertebrae of Russian literature, a miraculous retrieval of the past in an age that had outlawed history.
And so Isaiah wept by the bank of the Moskva River. (Forgive the over-reach, but the river did run in front of the embassy, and what we’re talking about here is not so muchDr Zhivago, as the novel of the novel.) Directly opposite (truly), behind the walls of the Kremlin, the Soviet response to Dr Zhivago was being prepared. In an ‘important memo’, the foreign minister, Dmitry Shepilov, was working himself up to an ulcer. Pasternak’s concoction, he wrote, was ‘a spiteful lampoon against the USSR’, and measures had to be taken ‘to prevent the publication of this anti-Soviet book abroad’. The memo, with attachments supplied by the KGB and the director of the Central Committee’s Culture Department (who emphasised his revulsion at Pasternak’s ‘malicious libel against our revolution and our entire life’), was to be circulated to the highest party officials, including the Politburo and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev.
The last Russian to publish a novel abroad without official sanction was Boris Pilnyak, and in so doing he had assigned himself his own bullet. In 1948, Pasternak warned his sisters in Oxford against printing some early chapters of Dr Zhivago, which he had sent them via an (unidentified) intermediary. ‘Publication abroad would expose me to the most catastrophic, not to mention fatal, dangers,’ he wrote. Since then, the Thaw (taken from the title of a novel by Ilya Ehrenburg) had ushered in a less chilling repertoire of punishments for writers who wandered from ‘the correct path’. Pasternak was nonetheless taking an enormous risk in offering his novel for publication outside the Soviet Union. But this was his resolve. He hadn’t given the typescript to Berlin to enliven a few hours in his Moscow bivouac, but in order that it should ‘travel over the entire world’ and, quoting Pushkin, ‘lay waste with fire the heart of man’.
As he tells it, Berlin tussled with his conscience before reluctantly accepting the mission of smuggling Dr Zhivago out of Russia. Indeed, a few days after his stirring all-nighter, he returned to Peredelkino, determined to rescue the author from his own intentions – Pasternak, he believed, was flirting with martyrdom and ‘probably did need to be physically saved from himself’. At this second meeting, Zinaida begged Berlin to dissuade her husband from damaging himself and his family. ‘Moved by this plea’, Berlin ventured an alternative solution to Pasternak: ‘I promised to have microfilms of his novel made, to bury them in the four quarters of the globe … so that copies might survive even if a nuclear war broke out.’ Pasternak, who was in no mood to be buried alive mid-sentence, rebuked his friend. He had spoken to his sons and they were prepared to suffer, just as he was (Zinaida’s suffering is not mentioned). At which point Berlin’s bubbling samovar came off the boil. He was, he claims, ‘shamed into silence’.
And so Berlin left the forest, his conscience quieted by Pasternak’s determination to break a lance for a greater prize than his own well-being. ‘I may not deserve to be remembered as a poet,’ he had said, ‘but surely as a soldier in the battle for human freedom.’ Furthermore, he told Berlin that he had already given a typescript to an agent of the Italian communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, and this copy was now in Milan (a fact that had been duly noted by the KGB, which was trying to get it back). Dr Zhivago had already crossed the line.
The question for Berlin now was not whether but how to smuggle the manuscript out. He could no longer avail himself of diplomatic privilege, as he had done a decade earlier when he served as first secretary in the Moscow embassy. Then, shortly after meeting Pasternak for the first time, he had used the pouch to exfiltrate an early draft section of Dr Zhivago, sending it to his parents in London in October 1945 with instructions to keep it somewhere safe until his return (perhaps this was the ‘somewhat underground route’ alluded to by Maurice Bowra, Berlin’s key ally in establishing Pasternak’s reputation in the West). Berlin’s interest in Pasternak and other members of the lost tribe had not gone undetected – throughout his posting he had been aware of being followed – and he was ever after burdened with the accusation of having endangered them. ‘I saw quite a lot of very remarkable people,’ he later told an interviewer. ‘It didn’t do them any good.’ This was something of an understatement. His meeting with Akhmatova at her apartment in Leningrad in November 1945 had prompted Stalin’s famous remark, ‘So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies.’ Though Berlin always insisted he’d never been a spy, he was sufficiently versed in Soviet sensibilities to know that all diplomats were suspected of intelligence-gathering, and that everybody they made contact with was, ipso facto, an intelligence source. The consequences for Akhmatova were dire: her apartment was bugged, she was denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, and her son Lev was arrested for a third time.
Berlin’s 1956 visit to Russia was a further tutorial in the Soviet character. Moving among the members of the Politburo at an embassy reception – the ‘spy’ hiding prominently in plain sight – he found them ‘at once smooth and brutal, class-conscious and corrupt’. Here were the thieves of the Revolution, the same men who had supported Stalin in his massacres. The visit reinforced his suspicion that the Thaw was overestimated in Western liberal circles. The Soviet Union, he concluded, was still expansionist and repressive at heart. In this climate, it’s highly improbable that Berlin ever considered carrying Pasternak’s manuscript out of Russia himself. The only secure option would be to ask his host and friend, the British ambassador William Hayter, to send Dr Zhivago to London in the bag. This might explain how the Foreign Office was able to copy the typescript onto two rolls of microfilm and hand it over to MI6, which in turn delivered it to the CIA, with dreadful consequences for Pasternak.
The story of Dr Zhivago’s publication is, like the novel itself, a cat’s cradle, an eternal zigzag of plotlines, coincidences, inconsistencies and maddening disappearances. The book was always destined to become a ‘succès de scandale’, in Berlin’s words, but the machinations and competing energies that went into seeing it into print, on the one hand, and trying to stop it going to print, on the other, make it the perfect synecdoche for that feint, counterfeint round of pugilism we call the Cold War. Some punches were landed, of course, reminding the contestants that this was a real fight and not just a protracted argument about washing machines. But the Cold War was also a great engine of false realities, and the Zhivago Affair (as it immediately became known) is the story of how its protagonists became embroiled in these inventions and, more controversially, enlarged them.
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