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Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak

Here, in recounting the episode to me, Pasternak again embarked on one of his great metaphysical flights about the cosmic turning-points in the world’s history; it was these that he wished to discuss with Stalin—it was of supreme importance that he should do so. I can easily imagine that he spoke in this vein to Stalin too. At any rate, Stalin asked him again whether he was or was not present when Mandelstam read the lampoon. Pasternak answered again that what mattered most was his indispensable meeting with Stalin, that it must happen soon, that everything depended on it, that they must speak about ultimate issues, about life and death. “If I were Mandelstam’s friend, I should have known better how to defend him,” said Stalin, and put down the receiver. Pasternak tried to ring back but, not surprisingly, failed to get through to the leader. The episode evidently preyed deeply upon him. He repeated to me the version I have just recounted on at least two other occasions, and told the story to other visitors, although, apparently, in different forms. His efforts to rescue Mandelstam, in particular his appeal to Bukharin, probably helped to preserve him at least for a time—Mandelstam was finally destroyed some years later—but Pasternak clearly felt, it may be without good reason, but as anyone not blinded by self-satisfaction or stupidity might feel, that perhaps another response might have done more for the condemned poet.1

He followed this story with accounts of other victims: Pil’nyak, who anxiously waited (“was constantly looking out the window”) for an emissary to ask him to sign a denunciation of one of the men accused of treason in 1936, and because none came, realized that he, too, was doomed. He spoke of the circumstances of Tsvetaeva’s suicide in 1941, which he thought might have been prevented if the literary bureaucrats had not behaved with such appalling heartlessness to her. He told the story of a man who asked him to sign an open letter condemning Marshal Tukhachevsky. When Pasternak refused and explained the reasons for his refusal, the man burst into tears, said that the poet was the noblest and most saintly human being whom he had ever met, embraced him fervently; and then went straight to the secret police, and denounced him.

Pasternak went on to say that despite the positive role which the Communist Party had played during the war, and not in Russia alone, he found the idea of any kind of relationship with it increasingly repellent: Russia was a gallery, a slave-ship, and the Party men were the overseers who whipped the rowers. Why, he wished to know, did a British Commonwealth diplomat then in Moscow, whom I surely knew, a man who knew some Russian and claimed to be a poet, and visited him occasionally, why did this person insist, on every possible and impossible occasion, that he, Pasternak, should get closer to the Party? He did not need gentlemen who came from the other side of the world to tell him what to do—could I tell the man that his visits were unwelcome? I promised that I would, but did not do so, partly for fear of rendering Pasternak’s none too secure position still more precarious.

Pasternak reproached me, too; not, indeed, for seeking to impose my political or any other opinions on him—but for something that to him seemed almost as bad: here we both were, in Russia, and wherever one looked, everything was disgusting, appalling, an abominable pigsty, yet I seemed to be positively exhilarated by it: “You wander about,” he said, “and look at everything with bemused eyes”—I was no better (he declared) than other foreign visitors who saw nothing, and suffered from absurd delusions, maddening to the poor miserable natives.

Pasternak was acutely sensitive to the charge of accommodating himself to the demands of the Party or the state—he seemed afraid that his mere survival might be attributed to some unworthy effort to placate the authorities, some squalid compromise of his integrity to escape persecution. He kept returning to this point, and went to absurd lengths to deny that he was capable of conduct of which no one who knew him could begin to conceive him to be guilty. One day he asked me whether I had heard anyone speak of his wartime volume of poems On Early Trains as a gesture of conformity with the prevailing orthodoxy. I said truthfully that I had not heard this, that it was an absurd suggestion.

Anna Akhmatova, who was bound to him by the deepest friendship and admiration, told me that, at the end of the war, when she was returning from Tashkent, to which she had been evacuated from Leningrad, she stopped in Moscow and visited Peredelkino. Within a few hours of arriving she received a message from Pasternak that he could not see her—he had a fever—he was in bed—it was impossible. On the next day the message was repeated. On the third day he appeared before her looking unusually well, with no trace of any ailment. The first thing he did was to ask her whether she had read this, the latest book of his poems. He put the question with so painful an expression on his face that she tactfully said that she had not, not yet; at which his face cleared, he looked vastly relieved, and they talked happily. He evidently felt ashamed, needlessly, of these poems. It seemed to him a kind of half-hearted effort to write civic poetry—there was nothing he disliked more intensely than this genre.

Yet, in 1945, he still had hopes of a great renewal of Russian life as a result of the cleansing storm that the war had seemed to him to be—a storm as transforming, in its own terrible fashion, as the Revolution itself, a vast cataclysm beyond our puny moral categories. Such vast mutations cannot, he held, be judged. One must think and think about them, and seek to understand as much of them as one can, all one’s life; they are beyond good and evil, acceptance or rejection, doubt or assent; they must be accepted as elemental changes, earthquakes, tidal waves, transforming events, which are beyond all ethical and historical categories. So, too, the dark nightmare of betrayals, purges, massacres of the innocents, followed by an appalling war, seemed to him a necessary prelude to some inevitable, unheard-of victory of the spirit.

I did not see him again for eleven years. By 1956 his estrangement from his country’s political establishment was complete. He could not speak of it, or its representatives, without a shudder. By that time his friend Olga Ivinskaya had been arrested, interrogated, maltreated, sent to a labor camp for five years. “Your Boris,” the minister of state security, Abakumov, had said to her, “your Boris detests us, doesn’t he?” “They were right,” Pasternak said: “she could not and did not deny it.” I had traveled to Peredelkino with Neuhaus and one of his sons by his first wife, who was now married to Pasternak. He repeated over and over again that Pasternak was a saint: that he was too unworldly—his hope that the Soviet authorities would permit the publication of Doctor Zhivago was plainly absurd—martyrdom of the author was far more likely. Pasternak was the greatest writer produced by Russia for decades, and he would be destroyed, as so many had been destroyed, by the state. This was an inheritance from the tsarist regime. Whatever the difference between the old and the new Russia, suspicion and persecution of writers and artists were common to both. His former wife Zinaida—now Pasternak’s wife—had told him that Pasternak was determined to get his novel published somewhere. He had tried to dissuade him, but his words were in vain. If Pasternak mentioned the matter to me, would I—it was important—more than important—perhaps a matter of life and death, who could tell, even in these days?—would I try to persuade him to hold his hand? Neuhaus seemed to me to be right: Pasternak probably did need to be physically saved from himself.

By this time we had arrived at Pasternak’s house. He was waiting for us by the gate and let Neuhaus go in, embraced me warmly and said that in the eleven years during which we had not met, much had happened, most of it very evil. He stopped and added, “Surely there is something you want to say to me?” I said, with monumental tactlessness (not to say unforgivable stupidity), “Boris Leonidovich, I am happy to see you looking so well. But the main thing is that you have survived. This seemed almost miraculous to some of us” (I was thinking of the anti-Jewish persecution of Stalin’s last years). His face darkened and he looked at me with real anger: “I know what you are thinking,” he said. “What am I thinking, Boris Leonidovich?” “I know, I know it, I know exactly what is in your mind,” he replied in a breaking voice—it was very frightening—“do not prevaricate. I can see more clearly into your mind than I can into my own.” “What am I thinking?” I asked again, more and more disturbed by his words. “You think—I know that you think—that I have done something for them.” “I assure you, Boris Leonidovich,” I replied, “that I never conceived of this—I have never heard this suggested by anyone, even as an idiotic joke.” In the end he seemed to believe me. But he was visibly upset. Only after I had assured him that admiration for him, not only as a writer, but as a free and independent human being, was, among civilized people, world-wide, did he begin to return to his normal state. “At least,” he said, “I can say, like Heine, ‘I may not deserve to be remembered as a poet, but surely as a soldier in the battle for human freedom.”’

He took me to his study. There he thrust a thick envelope into my hands: “My book,” he said, “it is all there. It is my last word. Please read it.” I read Doctor Zhivago during the following night and day, and when two or three days later I saw him again, I asked what he intended to do with it. He told me that he had given it to an Italian communist, who worked in the Italian section of the Soviet radio, and at the same time was acting as an agent for the communist Italian publisher Feltrinelli. He had assigned world rights to Feltrinelli. He wished his novel, his testament, the most authentic, most complete of all his writings—his poetry was nothing in comparison (although the poems in the novel were, he thought, perhaps the best he had written)—he wished his work to travel over the entire world, to lay waste with fire (he quoted Pushkin’s famous biblical line), to lay waste the hearts of men.

  1. 1

    Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam agreed to give him four out of five for his behavior in this case.

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