It was like magic, looking out from Boris Pasternak ’s tall windows into the red and golden woods on that autumn day and to know he saw the same thing when he looked up from his small desk as he wrote “Doctor Zhivago.” Boris Pasternak lived in Peredelkino from 1939 until his death in 1960. It is a village of dachas and dogs, and fat cats that sit in the middle of frozen roads in the winter. It is old Russian churches with burning candles and much kissed icons. It is woods with broken benches and small streams and old bridges. It is silence.
Pasternak’s home, a spacious two-storied dacha is surrounded by a garden with pumpkins and beets. Peredelkino is a sleepy settlement of dachas about fifty kilometers west of Moscow served by a train that takes you from Kievsky Station and lets you out on an unprotected concrete slab of a platform. The town is known for its writers; Yevtushenko, Voznesensky, and Okudzhava. But, poet Boris Pasternak wrote only one novel, Doctor Zhivago, which was translated into 18 languages. I remember the bookcase behind his desk, which I was told by the attendant, still contained some of his books that he loved to read. There was T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Emily Dickinson, W.H Auden, and I was happy to find my favorites, Robert Frost and Rainer Maria Rilke.
My paperback copy of Doctor Zhivago is torn, its dog-eared pages yellowing, and the cover floating free from the pages. Of course to Americans and to me it was Julie Christy and Omar Sharif, Alex Guinness and Rod Steiger and the unforgettable music of Maurice Jarre. But, I read the novel after a lunchtime conversation with girls in my Moscow office. Anya was a beautiful and talented stage actress who was playing Lara, the lead, in a Moscow staging of “Zhivago, the Musical.” In a discussion of the characters, she said Lara was not real, but a ghost, a specter of what every man wanted in a woman and couldn’t have. After that, I had to read it. I re-read Zhivago even today, some parts of it anyway, often to remind me what good writing is all about.
His description of a Siberian winter is matchless: “Torn, seemingly disconnected sounds and shapes rose out of the icy mist, stood still, moved, and vanished. The sun was not the sun to which the earth was used, it was a changeling. Its crimson ball hung in the forest and from it, stiffly and slowly as in a dream or in a fairy tale, amber-yellow rays of light as thick as honey spread and, catching in the trees, froze to them in midair.”
But his greatest contribution is his insightful and courageous characterization of the Russian mind during the times of the Revolution and the following Russian Civil War. Early in the story, returning from the front, hearing the predictions of starvation he says, “…what is there in the whole world worth more than a peaceful family life and work? The rest is not in our hands.” And near the end, sick Zhivago listens to his surviving friends and muses on their rationale of the pain Bolshevism has brought them: “Men who are not free, he thought, always idealize their bondage.”
Important to me, and to many of my same thought, would be this lengthy speculation by Dr. Zhivago on a common cause of death at that time, sclerosis of the heart, from which he would eventually himself succumb on a trolley car crowded with uncaring passengers who wouldn’t let him off. He says, “I think its causes are of a moral order. The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. I found it painful to listen to you, Innokentii, when you told us how you were re-educated and became mature in jail. It was like listening to a circus horse describing how it broke itself in.”
If Russians did not so love their writers, poets, artists, and composers, these great artists like Boris Pasternak would have all been tossed to the lions in those crushing times. Many were. Doctor Zhivago was written in 1954. Although prohibited by the Soviet leaders from receiving his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, he lived on and died a natural death in Peredelkino at seventy. He was a hero.
Excerpted from “Walking on Ice, An American Businessman in Russia”