October 16, 2007
Stanford conference to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 'Doctor Zhivago'
By Cynthia Haven
In the period of de-Stalinization that followed Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power in the 1950s, optimists saw signs of a thaw. Pessimists were more cautious. Thaws, after all, can be dangerous thingsthey can give way to harder frosts or slick, impassible mud.
The pessimists were right. When the Soviet leader was faced with revolt in Poland and then Hungary in 1956, he reacted with ruthless force. In that precarious climate, novelist and poet Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago made its illicit debut. The book, focusing on a doctor's struggle against his destiny within the violent context of the Russian Revolution, was banned.
Then, the surprise: The 1958 Nobel Prize in literature went to Pasternak. In the post-Cold War era, it's hard to understand the lightning bolt the novel and its Nobel were. It was the first award to a Soviet writer. Pasternak was coerced into refusing the prizethe first Nobel winner to do so.
It's the 50th anniversary of Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago, and Stanford is planning to celebrate.
An international conference, organized by Slavic languages and literatures Professor Lazar Fleishman, will honor the poet and his novel during the weekend of Oct. 19-20 in Tresidder Union's Oak West Room.
It will be accompanied by an exhibition of rare printed and archival material on Pasternak and his book from the Hoover Institution collections. The exhibition, in the Hoover Tower Rotunda, is free and open to the public and will continue through the end of winter quarter.
Sponsored by Stanford's School of Humanities and Sciences and the Hoover Institution, the symposium will explore the historical significance of Doctor Zhivago for Russia and the West. A highlight of the program is "An Evening of Recollections" to be held in the Oak West Room from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 19. The poet's nephew, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and acclaimed Russian artist and writer Olga Andreyev-Carlisle will share their memories about Pasternak.
A schedule of symposium events and speakers is online at http://www.stanford.edu/dept/slavic/symposium_pasternak.html.
All events are free and open to the public.
The Nobel lightning bolt came not a moment too soon for Pasternak. Dark political clouds had been gathering around him. Without the prize, the poet might have faced more obvious persecutionpoet Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp, poet Marina Tsvetaeva was hounded to her suicide. Both were friends of Pasternak.
Doctor Zhivago was published in Milan. Albert Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, nominated it for a Nobel. However, the book required publication in its original language to be considered. There was little financial motive for a non-Russian publisher to publish a book in Russian, and huge disincentives for Russian publishers, who faced long imprisonment in a very cold placeor worse. In recent years, researcher Ivan Tolstoi has revealed details of how the CIA financed a Russian translation of the book. Tolstoi is one of the speakers at the Stanford event. He will be speaking in Russian on a panel. A discussion in English will follow.
Tolstoi told the Moscow News this year that "both sides during the Cold War used different methods, but as for ideological subversion of Soviet power, the Americans always used above-board methods. Instead of using poison, derailing trains and kidnapping, the CIA subverted the Kremlin by Russian culture, which the Soviets were prohibited to know or remember."
"Thanks to the fact that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, Pasternak wasn't arrested," Tolstoi told Radio Free Europe last year. "This deed by the CIA served to ennoble and save Pasternak. The actions of American intelligence saved a great Russian poet."
The CIA similarly published Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others. "Such a reprehensible organizationand such nice deeds," Tolstoi told the Moscow News. "How is that for thinking evil, but doing good."
At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, copies of Doctor Zhivago were distributed by a Russian-speaking priest at the Vatican Pavilion. The ground nearby was reportedly littered with the dark-blue binding. Russians tore it off so the book could be divided in half, one for each pocketit was a huge book, and Russians could assume they were being watched. With samizdat redistribution in the Soviet Union, it achieved fame on the underground book market.
It would be 30 years before the book was published in its native land. Its launch heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the "Warsaw bloc" of socialist countries.
Khrushchev, after his own fall from power, expressed regret for the hounding of Pasternak. He had entrusted the matter to others, he said, and only realized later, when he had had a chance to look through the book himself, that he had been misled.
"In connection with Doctor Zhivago, some might say it's too late for me to express regret that the book wasn't published," Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs. "Yes, maybe it is too late. But better late than never."
Pasternak never lived to see his book read throughout Russia. He died in 1960but he died of natural causes, and in his own bed. It was not a fate to be taken for granted in the Soviet Union. Thousands swarmed to his funeral in the rural beauty of Peredelkino, the writer's colony outside Moscow.