Pasternak and the Russians

John Bayley

The flowering of European Jewry in the days before 1914 is a cultural phenomenon comparable to the ‘golden’ periods of national art in Spain, France and England, even to the great years of the Italian Renaissance. Like other such peaks of civilisation, it might have faded of its own accord had it not been brought to a tragic end by the xenophobia engendered by two world wars, by Nazism and Soviet Fascism. It was, above all, cosmopolitan. Not for nothing (a favourite phrase of Russian critics) did Mandelstam observe that Acmeism, the literary movement which he helped to found in 1910 in St Petersburg, took as the inspiration for its poetry the whole European cultural tradition.

The particular ideas and ideals to which Mandelstam was referring, though naturally associated with pan-European Jewish culture, are just as much a part of the best German and Russian art at this time. Rilke and Musil, Joyce and Jules Romains, were all in a sense honorary Jews, the natural fellows of Proust or Svevo. It was a family atmosphere, in which German and Russian, Italian and French, were for members the natural media of intelligence and imagination. Pushkin’s feeling for the family of art was as strong as Auden’s, and Pushkin was a forerunner of this latterday renaissance of cosmopolitanism, however inevitably he is also Russia’s great national poet. Even while the state xenophobia of Stalin was setting in, Pasternak made most of his living by translations of European poetry, from Shakespeare to Goethe and Petöfi.

And it is an insight into relations within such a family that comes to us from this correspondence of Pasternak with his cousin, Olga Freidenberg, almost like the understanding we get from the art of a very good novel. Both Pasternak and his cousin belonged to predominantly Jewish families and clans from Odessa, the most cosmopolitan of Russian towns. Both families were Russianised: the Pasternaks, who lived in Moscow where the poet’s father was an art curator and successful painter, especially so. Although this correspondence reveals how closely Pasternak was connected with family and cousinage, it does not indicate – or only by indirection – what decidedly equivocal feelings the poet had about his ancestry. As much as Blok had done, he identified in his life and work with Russianness and Russian history; and this Russianness, together with the tendency among admirers of his work – and even in the Party – to identify him with Ivan the Holy Fool of Russian folklore, was undoubtedly one of the factors that contributed to his remarkable immunity from the worst persecution. By background, temperament and culture he was as cosmopolitan a poet as Mandelstam, but Mandelstam was not only more obviously Jewish but belonged to those especially Europeanised circles of the Petersburg intelligentsia which came in for the most systematic persecution by Stalin and his henchmen. Pasternak, like his own Dr Zhivago, was emphatically a Moscow man, and in the course of the Twenties and Thirties the Party came to identify more and more with the old xenophobic Muscovite tradition.

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