#100PENMembers No. 47: Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak was the Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist whose treatment at the hands of the Soviet authorities forced PEN to confront their Cold War divisions.

Pasternak in 1959

Pasternak is a towering figure in world literature and the subject of one of PEN’s most high-profile campaigns. 

It was Doctor Zhivago that first bought Pasternak to PEN’s attention. The book, which is a sprawling account of the impacts of Russia’s revolution and related events on the lives of a group of interconnected but ordinary Russians, has been repeatedly banned and censored in the Soviet Union, despite earning Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.

While portions of the novel were published in Russia, Pasternak knew that it would not get past the censors. In 1957, a full manuscript was smuggled into Italy at the behest of the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who published it in Italian translation. This led to a proliferation of translated versions appearing across the West, helped in no small part by the CIA who saw the book as an opportunity to get one over on the Soviets. It was widely lauded and was translated into several languages but it remained banned in the Soviet Union because of its depiction of the history of the revolution and its rejection of socialist realism, in which all literature must support the broader aims and interests of the revolution.

Pasternak was given the Nobel Prize in 1958 for ‘his important achievement both in contemporary lyric poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.’ Although he initially accepted the award, the Soviet authorities placed significant pressure on him and he was forced to decline it.

This is when he came to PEN’s attention. On 28thOctober 1958 International President Andre Chamson and International Secretary David Carver sent a telegram to the Soviet Writers’ Union stating, ‘International P.E.N., very distressed by rumours concerning Pasternak, asks you to protect the poet, maintaining the right of creative freedom. Writers throughout the world are thinking of him fraternally.’

Centres across the world from Denmark to India issued press releases to their local media and sent resolutions to Congress condemning the behaviour of the Russian authorities.

Within PEN these events caused a significant stir by drawing attention to existing fissures within the organisation between centres in the West and centres based in Communist countries. This came to a head in 1958 when Arthur Koestler publicly snubbed the Japan PEN Centre for, he felt, failing to offer their full support to Pasternak.

These issues dominated the Congresses of the late 1950s. In his statement to the Frankfurt Congress in 1959, Carver said: ‘The fight for the freedom of the Word has been a fight as for life itself. There are many ways of burning books, the Nazis did it with a match; the Soviet critics are seeking to burn Pasternak’s novel with scorching words. Fortunately the world can read this novel and judge for itself – which the Russian people at this moment are not allowed to do. Pasternak becomes, in our century, the living proof that the voice of the poet cannot be silenced; is destined, indeed, in Milton’s immortal words, to have a life ‘beyond life.’

But the German magazine Kulturspiegel wrote that ‘there are writers who ask themselves what is the use of our good old P.E.N. Charter if it is now full of holes, that is, if there are Hungarian Communists in the P.E.N., while in our midst all those who formerly saluted a certain flag are excluded from membership’ condemning the Charter as ‘the spiritual child of 1922 […] it was good then but it is not certain whether it will always continue to be as good as it was at the beginning.’

This was often compounded by the views of the Writers in Exile Centres, which were filled with PEN members who had defected from or been exiled from Communist countries for their criticisms of Communist ideology and governance. They believed that the Organisation should eject Centres who displayed signs of collusion with Communist governments and called for strict reprisals for those not supporting the Organisation’s commitment to free expression. The Centres which remained in Soviet countries and whose members were more sympathetic to their governmental regimes, repeatedly called for a return to PEN’s impartiality and, rather ironically in light of the violent treatment of writers by their governments, a return to the more genteel politics of bygone times. There was an immoveable wall between them and it was all that PEN’s management and more impartial centres could do to try to maintain some semblance of order.

Added to this heady mix was the sometime involvement of the C.I.A. in fermenting debates through organisations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the developing relations with the Soviet Writers Union, particularly around the formation of a Russian PEN Centre, and the organisation was being pulled in multiple directions at once.

The Times– very astutely – wrote on 24 March 1959 ‘Behind the façade of unity, there lies a deep rift among members of the club about the attitude the club should take toward the Cold War. This has resulted in a policy of “neutrality” and “coexistence”, to which the directors have given a distinct fellow-travelling tinge’ (The Times, 24 March 1959).

Even after Pasternak’s death in 1960,  the plight of his mistress Olga Ivinskaya would draw PEN once again into a dispute with the Soviet Writers Union, the Russian authorities and even its own members.

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