Pasternak and Shostakovich: From Turmoil to Triumph

In this talk I want to discuss the reception given to the novel Dr Zhivago in the Soviet Union. I also want to consider this in the context of the cultural and political climate of that time; link it with what the composer Dimitri Shostakovich was doing during this period against that same cultural/political background; outline how this reception fed into a general Cold War context that was having a significant impact on the career of the composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein in the United States; and how all this comes together in 1959 when Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in a performance of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony in Moscow in the final concert of the orchestra’s tour of the Soviet union, with both Shostakovich and Pasternak in the audience. It’s a happy ending of sorts, triumph emerging out of adversity, a tale of a kind that the Soviets were fond of labelling as ‘optimistic tragedy.’

After working on his novel, Dr Zhivago for around 10 years, Pasternak had completed the manuscript in 1957 and submitted it for publication in the Soviet Union in the expectation, it seemed, that it would be published but in an abridged form. He was certainly aware that some parts of it might be deemed controversial, even inflammatory. Apparently when he gave it to his Italian publisher he said, ‘You’ve invited me to take part in my own execution’. ‘I have borne witness as an artist,’ he was to tell the New York Times, ‘I have written about the times I have lived through.’ As we know, it is at once a great love story and a great documentary of the Russian revolution. He knew it would be contentious because of its focus on the personal more than the political and the way it uses the Revolutionary experience almost as a backdrop to its theme of the maturation of a great Russian poet, Zhivago, who is a surrogate of Pasternak himself. Certainly there are passages which he could have predicted with some certainty would have raised the hackles of the Soviet authorities: e.g. Zhivago: ‘he understood that he was a pygmy before the monstrous machine of the future’;1 or: ‘he found he had only exchanged the old oppression of the tsarist state for the new, much harsher yoke of the revolutionary super-state’.2 And then there is Lara: ‘The whole human way of life has been destroyed and ruined. All that’s left is the bare, shivering human soul…’ –3 not to mention the terse, tragic description of her disappearance. But the novel offers no alternative to the Soviet system, no favourable Western model; and Pasternak thought it was more anti-political than anti-Communist. ‘Politics don’t appeal to me,’ he said, ‘I don’t like people who don’t care about the truth.’

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  1. Dr Zhivago, p. 168. 

  2. Ibid, p. 202. 

  3. Ibid, p. 362.