Lev Golinkin is the author of the memoir “A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”
It’s standard for biographers of writers to chronicle the sacrifice the artist makes for his muse. As Anna Pasternak evinces in “Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago,” the muse often suffers as well.
“Lara” is the account of the tempestuous and often tragic love affair between renowned Soviet novelist and poet Boris Pasternak and his mistress Olga Ivinskaya, who became the inspiration for Lara — the heroine of “Doctor Zhivago,” Pasternak’s novel that shook Soviet society and the world. By the time the already legendary Boris met Olga, he was in the middle of a loveless marriage, his second. Olga, 22 years his junior, had been widowed twice. The two were smitten with each other from their first encounter. Over the next 14 years, passion and trauma drove Boris to channel his love for her and frustration with their relationship into the anti-Soviet “Doctor Zhivago”; Olga became the manuscript’s typist, advocate, agent and martyr, being twice imprisoned in the Soviet labor camps for her relationship with Boris.
“Lara” can be erratic for the first 50 pages, as it sets up short backgrounds of the Pasternak and Ivinskaya families, only to reset the timeline in the next chapter. This pace may be especially disorienting to readers unfamiliar with Soviet history, since the book covers the impact of events such as Stalin’s purges and collectivization efforts on the Moscow literati scene.
After its hectic exposition, the book excels as it chronicles the private tension between two lovers saddled with other families, and the wider antagonism between Pasternak and the Kremlin. We see Boris’s guilt over his treatment of both Olga and his wife; Olga’s unfailing desire for Boris even as he refuses to wed her; and looming over it all, the Soviet state apparatus as it threatens to swallow both lives.
These twin storms feed into Boris’s work on “Doctor Zhivago.” The author’s talent provides him with a certain degree of protection even as colleagues are snatched up, tortured and executed around him. (Stalin, who appears to have had a fondness for Boris’s translations of Georgian poetry, personally shielded him.) And yet, as the “Zhivago” manuscript grows, so does the danger from the party, which is keenly aware of the explosive potential of an author of Boris’s caliber (indeed, the CIA would go on to use the book to destabilize the U.S.S.R.). The Kremlin’s wrath falls on Olga and her daughter, Irina, who are imprisoned in the camps: Olga before Boris’s death, and both Olga and Irina after it.
The story of Yuri and Lara of “Doctor Zhivago,” into which Boris poured his love of and anguish over Olga, becomes intricately tied to the real-life romance of Boris and Olga. “Lara” accomplishes this by interpolating the narrative with passages from “Doctor Zhivago” as well as Boris’s poems inspired by his relationship with Olga and encounters with the Soviet system. And if the two never had a child (Olga miscarried after being tortured by Stalin’s secret police), “Lara” makes it clear that the fruit of their union was the book itself.
Given its setting, “Lara” could have easily devolved into a melodramatic saga of ill-fated passion in a time of tyranny. Instead, Anna Pasternak admirably refuses to reduce the lovers to stock tragic figures. She presents a warts-and-all, at times scathing portrait of the pair. “Boris’s fame was impacting his ego; he did not consider Evgenia enough of an artist to merit her difficult, emotional behaviour,” she writes, bluntly summing up the author’s relationship with his first wife. “Boris may have been courageous in his art,” Pasternak remarks when reflecting on his second marriage, “but in his personal life he was disappointingly weak.”
Neither does Olga, who often appears to care less for her children than for her affair, escape criticism. One of the book’s most heartbreaking lines is when Pasternak points out that Olga’s daughter, Irina, “knew too young that Olga’s romantic life took priority,” even as that romance placed her children in danger.
Anna Pasternak is Boris’s grand-niece, which adds two dimensions to the book. It’s clear that the archival research, interviews and field trips to Russia stemmed from a passionate desire to understand and appreciate her past. That yearning to touch family history is palpable in some of the book’s lyrical passages, such as the reenactment of Boris’s funeral: “That evening there was a crash of thunder and a heavy downpour. People put their hands over their candles to protect them from the heavy raindrops, and still went on, reciting one poem after another in the flickering candlelight.”
More important, the author discloses that one impetus behind “Lara” was to rectify what she sees as the family’s wronging of Olga. “The Pasternaks have always been keen to play down the role of Olga in Boris’s life and literary achievements,” she states in the prologue. At its heart, “Lara” is a quest to give recognition to a woman immortalized in “Doctor Zhivago,” yet consumed by the meat grinder of the Soviet state, then erased by the Pasternak family.
This awareness is what makes “Lara” so timely. The rehabilitation of Stalin’s victims began under Nikita Khrushchev and gained steam in 1988, when Princeton scholar Stephen F. Cohen’s biography of Nikolai Bukharin helped Mikhail Gorbachev exhume the long-anathemized Bolshevik revolutionary. The U.S.S.R.’s collapse 25 years ago furthered this by granting historians access to previously sealed KGB archives. It’s an ongoing process: Moscow’s Gulag Museum opened last year. And paradoxically, this is taking place amid a disturbing resurgence of the cult of Stalin, from books justifying his crimes to shops peddling T-shirts and window decals bearing his visage. The ominous ease with which one of history’s most brutal dictators can get a second chance at a legacy makes “Lara” — the story of one of Stalin’s innumerable victims — a particularly poignant book.
By Anna Pasternak
Ecco. 310 pp. $27.99