Pasternak’s Is Published Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The publication of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and the Soviet reaction to the Nobel Prize Pasternak was awarded in 1958 revealed the extent of the repression of speech in the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

Boris Pasternak had achieved international acclaim in literary circles well before he aroused an international sensation with the publication of his novel Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958). He was known for his outstanding poetry, which he first published in 1913, and for his authoritative translations into Russian of the works of William Shakespeare and other Western writers. Even during the oppressive reign of Joseph Stalin, Pasternak, while restraining himself from political commentary, continued to produce quality writing. In 1947, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature. [kw]Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago Is Published (Oct., 1957)[Pasternaks Doctor Zhivago Is Published] [kw]Doctor Zhivago Is Published, Pasternak’s (Oct., 1957) Doctor Zhivago (Pasternak) Censorship;Soviet Union Doctor Zhivago (Pasternak) Censorship;Soviet Union [g]Europe;Oct., 1957: Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago Is Published[05610] [g]Soviet Union;Oct., 1957: Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago Is Published[05610] [g]Italy;Oct., 1957: Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago Is Published[05610] [c]Literature;Oct., 1957: Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago Is Published[05610] [c]Cold War;Oct., 1957: Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago Is Published[05610] Pasternak, Boris Khrushchev, Nikita S. [p]Khrushchev, Nikita S.;censorship Zaslavsky, David

Pasternak became a household name throughout the Western world when the events surrounding the publication of Doctor Zhivago received enormous attention in newspapers across Europe and America. Pasternak had conceived the book’s story perhaps as early as the 1920’s, but he actually began to write the novel in 1948. Originally, he had intended to place the story in the context of the 1905 rebellion in czarist Russia; however, he changed his mind and used the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 for his point of departure. The basic theme of Doctor Zhivago, the confusion and uncertainty created for individual Russians by the revolution, was not unique. The subject already had served as the basis for Mikhail Sholokhov’s Tikhii Don (1928-1940; And Quiet Flows the Don, 1934), but Pasternak couched his novel in a poignant tale of romance, some of it quite autobiographical.

Pasternak completed the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago in 1956 and submitted it to the editors of the journal Novy mir Novy mir (periodical) (our world), the principal publisher of Soviet writers. The editors, after keeping the manuscript for more than a year, rejected it on the grounds that it contained views “antithetical” to those of the editors. According to journalist Murray Kempton, then of the New York Post, while the editors of Novy mir considered Pasternak’s manuscript, an obscure Italian communist traveling in the Soviet Union happened to read ten of Pasternak’s poems published in the Soviet magazine Neva. Pasternak intended to use the poems in his last chapter of Doctor Zhivago. The Italian, who worked as an agent for the Milanese publishing house G. Feltrinelli G. Feltrinelli , told his superiors that Pasternak had finished a substantial novel and that they ought to consider acquiring the rights for an Italian translation.

A contract was sent to Pasternak, and he agreed to allow Feltrinelli to publish his work after it had appeared first in the Soviet Union. Subsequent to this arrangement, Novy mir turned down the manuscript, leading Feltrinelli to conclude that the clause requiring publication first in Russian was null and void. Feltrinelli therefore published Pasternak’s work in October, 1957. The Union of Soviet Writers Union of Soviet Writers made an attempt to stop Feltrinelli from releasing the book but had no success. At the time of its release in Italy, Feltrinelli, while retaining exclusive rights, had arranged for the book to be published in Sweden, West Germany, France, and the United States.

The early success of Doctor Zhivago brought an immediate response from Soviet authorities. Pasternak was described as a writer consumed by egotism, decadence, and a rebellious nature. Such assaults on Pasternak’s character did nothing to slow the popularity of Doctor Zhivago, which became an international best seller. In 1958, the Swedish Academy of Arts selected Pasternak as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature Nobel Prize in Literature;Boris Pasternak[Pasternak] . The announcement angered Soviet officials, who then began a much more intensive campaign to disparage Pasternak and the Swedish Academy of Arts.

In October, 1958, a Communist Party-controlled Communist Party, Soviet;and literature[literature] literary magazine published an article proclaiming that “the granting of an award for an artistically feeble and malevolent work, prompted by hatred of socialism, is a hostile act against the Soviet State.” Pravda (truth), the Communist Party’s principal newspaper, on the same day published an article by David Zaslavsky, a literary critic who worked in the party’s interest; Zaslavsky called Doctor Zhivago “worthless” and Pasternak a “weed” in the great socialist state. The Party further accused Pasternak of treason and stupidity. Within days of the Swedish Academy’s announcement, the Union of Soviet Writers expelled Pasternak.

Behind this barrage of abuse stood the leader of the Communist Party and the head of the Soviet government, Nikita S. Khrushchev. Khrushchev had survived an attempt to oust him as party leader in June, 1957, and he was most unhappy about the excitement caused by Doctor Zhivago. He had not read the book, but Zaslavsky provided him with excerpts that indicated Pasternak’s disenchantment with the consequences of the Revolution of 1917. Khrushchev was angry that the novel had first appeared in capitalist countries, and he encouraged the campaign against Pasternak.

The accusations and criticism weighed heavily upon Pasternak, who had not been in good health since a heart attack in 1953. His anguish increased when he learned that Soviet officials planned to force him to leave the country. The effort reached a crescendo by the end of October. On October 31, 1958, Pasternak wrote directly to Khrushchev pleading to remain in his homeland. He told Khrushchev that he had refused the Nobel Prize. Khrushchev then relented, and Pasternak was permitted to remain in the Soviet Union. By this time, he was a virtual recluse in his small country house near Peredelkino. He never recovered from the abuse heaped upon him, however, and he died in May, 1960.


The publication of Doctor Zhivago and the circumstances surrounding Pasternak’s Nobel Prize selection made a huge impression in Western countries. The episode also had a profound effect on writers and politicians within the Soviet Union. Of course, Cold War tensions between the Soviet Union and the capitalist West exacerbated the reaction on both sides.

The initial response in the West was that Pasternak had produced a great work of literature. The Times of London, in a review published on September 4, 1958, compared the book to Leo Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) for its “scale, scope, compassion, and beauty.” American journalist Harrison Salisbury, writing in Saturday Review for September 6, 1958, argued that the novel placed Pasternak in the same category as the great nineteenth century Russian novelists. Similar critiques appeared in French, German, and Italian newspapers and journals.

It was commonly agreed that Pasternak had written an epic story of romance in Doctor Zhivago; nearly all reviewers found little in the novel that was overtly anti-Soviet and argued that the book was really a story with a universal message. The most extensive Western review of Doctor Zhivago was written by Marc Slonim in The New York Times. In an article published on September 24, 1958, Slonim pointed out that Pasternak had produced a work that called for the “triumph of truth and human freedom.”

The perspective from which the West viewed Doctor Zhivago made the reaction to the work in the Soviet Union all the more alarming and incomprehensible. How could any government find offense in the benign, and largely indirect, criticism of Soviet communism contained in Doctor Zhivago? The bitter assault on Pasternak and on the Swedish Academy of Arts by Soviet authorities alerted the world once again to how far the Soviet Union had departed from the course intended by the architect of the 1917 revolution, Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Khrushchev, who had gained a reputation for reversing the oppressive policies of Socialist Realism imposed by Joseph Stalin, was now exposed as capable of Stalinesque repression. The world responded with a cascade of abuse against the Communist Party’s unrelenting efforts to control individual expression. These attacks on the party came not from the West alone but from all corners of the globe.

Newspapers in North America and Europe were joined in their condemnation of the Soviet Union by counterparts in Yugoslavia, India, Thailand, Pakistan, and various African countries. World leaders from U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower to Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister of India, decried the attempt to limit artistic freedom. Never before had there been such an outpouring of support for the notion that governments should not interfere with individual creativity.

In a more specific way, the Pasternak affair heightened tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, tensions that had begun to relax somewhat since the death of Stalin in 1953. The extent to which the Communist Party would try to control the efforts of its artists in all fields was brought home again. The Pasternak controversy established a new awareness of the plight of dissidents in the Soviet Union, and it also contributed to the favorable reception in the West of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books in the 1970’s.

Within the Soviet Union itself, the attack on Pasternak continued until his death. Over and over it was said that Pasternak was a pawn used by the capitalist powers in the Cold War against communism. The First All-Union Congress of Writers First All-Union Congress of Writers[First All Union Congress of Writers] , meeting in December, 1958, condemned the “pathological individualism” represented in Doctor Zhivago. It was not only Pasternak who suffered. Khrushchev warned all Soviet writers, sometimes by calling them to his presence, that he could tolerate no literature that departed from his vision of what was good for the Soviet people, the vision of the country put forward by the Communist Party. His watchdog, Zaslavsky, kept Khrushchev informed of any deviant writing. The result was that many imaginative writers were forced to write in secret.

The Doctor Zhivago affair also affected Soviet music and art. In the late 1950’s, Khrushchev reiterated the party’s objection to all music and art that showed excessive individuality; hence, “modern” paintings were banned from Soviet galleries, and jazz music was strictly forbidden. These actions by Khrushchev were all too reminiscent of the 1930’s repression of Stalin and his henchmen. Doctor Zhivago (Pasternak) Censorship;Soviet Union

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berlin, Isaiah. The Soviet Mind: Russian Culture Under Communism. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2004. A series of essays on Berlin’s experiences visiting the Soviet Union and his interactions with Soviet writers and artists struggling under Communism. Includes two chapters on Pasternak, one of which is an interview of the author. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davie, Donald, and Angela Livingstone, eds. Pasternak. London: Macmillan, 1969. An interesting collection of articles, many translated from Russian by Angela Livingstone, which critique Pasternak’s body of work. Among the insightful essays are two especially noteworthy articles by Isaac Deutscher and Irving Howe. Chronology, select bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaev, Arkady. Boris Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago. Munich: Institute for the Study of the USSR, 1959. A very brief, but excellent, account of the Pasternak controversy, well researched and carefully written. Gaev is particularly good in establishing the worldwide reaction to the publication of Doctor Zhivago. Highly recommended. Good footnotes, no index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hingley, Ronald. Pasternak. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Provides a reasonably objective view of Pasternak by an author who knew him. This is a scholarly work, but Hingley is not afraid to put forward his opinions about Pasternak’s work. A useful, well-written biography. Photographs, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hughes, Olga R. The Poetic World of Boris Pasternak. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Assesses Pasternak’s view of the world as expressed in his poetry and prose. Hughes thinks Pasternak had an “affinity” with Romanticism but yet was not truly a Romantic. Especially relevant to Doctor Zhivago is Hughes’s chapter “Time and Eternity.” Very informative about Pasternak, but challenging. Chronology, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mallac, Guy de. Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981. A thorough biography that gives considerable attention to the historical and philosophical context of Pasternak’s writings. Mallac is especially strong when recounting the last three years of Pasternak’s life. A highly useful work. Bibliography, notes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rudova, Larissa. Understanding Boris Pasternak. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. Introductory guide to Pasternak’s life and works. Bibliographic references and index.

Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime

Solzhenitsyn Depicts Life in a Soviet Labor Camp in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Soviet Intellectuals Begin to Rebel Against Party Policy

Categories: History