In the old Soviet Russia one of the more outrageous features of life was that their greatest creative writers for years were barred from publishing in their own native land. Among those so barred was Boris Pasternak.
It is hard to imagine that the Government of a great empire could show such heavy-handed stupidity and Philistinism as to ban one of the marvellous creative artists of the age from publication in his own country. But that is what happened to Boris Pasternak, the poet of burning beauty, in his Russia. Throughout his career Pasternak, born in l890, had trouble with the authorities. His great stature as a poet was recognised early and the state would have liked to tame and recruit his genius. “They kept making a fuss of me,” Pasternak wrote, “and sending me on foreign trips. I could have written any filth or trash and they would have published it ……I wanted to write something honest and genuine in honour of the society which was so kind to me, but this would only have been possible if I had been willing to write something false.
When his novel, Doctor Zhivago, profoundly beautiful and defying Soviet orthodoxy, was smuggled out of the country for publication and won the Nobel Prize for Pasternak in l958, state persecution was seriously stepped up. To protect those close to him, Pasternak had to reject the Nobel Prize. He was threatened with expulsion from his own country and it was only through the vigorous intervention of Pandit Nehru, India’s Prime Minister, that this threat was averted. However, all publications of even his translations came to a halt and he was deprived of his livelihood. He became a non-person in the great land he loved so much.
Two years later, in 1960, Pasternak died. The authorities accorded this man, one of the greatest writers in the world, the smallest possible notice in the Soviet Literary Gazette. More importantly, however, many thousands of ordinary people travelled out of Moscow to his funeral in the small village of Peredelkino where he had lived. Volunteers carried his open coffin to the burial place and those who were present recited from memory the banned poem Hamlet written in l946. His simple but beautiful grave became a place for the sort of pilgrimage which no state or bureaucrat has ever found it possible to prevent.
When dark times come there is solace in poetry. In one of the last poems Pasternak ever wrote, he did not despair. He may even have looked forward to that time when his poems would again be allowed to burst forth in the light of his own land as not many years later they did.
Like a beast in a pen I’m cut off
From my friends, freedom, the sun,
But the hunters are gaining ground.
I’ve nowhere else to run.
Dark wood and the bank of a pond,
Trunk of a fallen tree.
There’s no way forward, no way back.
It’s all up with me.
Am I gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.
Even so, one step from my grave,
I believe that cruelty, spite,
The powers of darkness will in time
Be crushed by the spirit of light.
The mark of an open society, a fully functioning democracy, a country free in every sense of the word is how it treats its creative people —- allowing them full freedom to express themselves however much what they express may be opposed to whatever apparatus happens to be in charge for the time being.