Private Lives

The Correspondence of Boris Pasternak and Olga Freidenberg, 1910-1954

complied and edited by Elliott Mossman, translated by Elliott Mossman, by Margaret Wettlin
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book), 365 pp., $19.95

From despotisms like the Soviet Union the only voices that tell one anything are the voices of private life. These distinguish the sporadic correspondence of Olga Freidenberg with her first cousin Boris Pasternak between 1910 and 1954. She was in Leningrad, he mostly in Moscow. Forty-five years of this harassed exchange of news and affection come out of their cold envelopes and bring us close to the dire and confusing realities of their time. The cousins were born in 1890 in distinguished and cultivated families who were assimilated Jews. (One can guess at their hopeful childhood and youth in Pasternak’s early writings.) We see them first in 1910 and—after the long gap of the First World War—in touch with each other again through the Second World War and the Stalinist terror, until 1954, the year before she died.

They write to each other as loving friends who are co-equals—as Elliott Mossman, the editor of the letters, says—she the academic, classical scholar whose interests are philology and the history of culture, who has been able to take advantage of the opening of the Academy to women after the Revolution. She became a professor. She was never famous. She survived the Stalin purges by the skin of her teeth—as she wrote in her vigorous diaries that were somehow hidden and now lie in Oxford. (Many passages from these are interleaved with her part of the correspondence.) Her thesis Poetics of Plot and Genre was published in 1936 but in a few weeks was confiscated and denounced because of its “formalism” and scholarly style.

She is said to have been alluring and mischievous as a young girl. Pasternak fell in love with her and this shocked her. She thought of him strictly as a brother. He was too vain, “difficult,” egotistical, incalculable, and elusive; whereas she was strong, settled, and determined in will. Pasternak impatiently threw away letters and records; she was the born archivist who hoarded copies—an alarming gift in a country where all records could be incriminating—but it is thanks to this gift that their letters have survived. A lifetime of letters between two people who rarely met but who had the family bond is a chaos, but Mr. Mossman has made them intelligible by inserting a series of historical introductions to each period of their lives. Her diaries are at their most dramatic in their pictures of the siege of Leningrad and in her account of the scandalous attempt of powerful Party hacks (and Izvestia) to get her dismissed for not being in accord with the changing directives of Marxism. Her difficult and feckless brother Sasha and his uncongenial wife were sent to a labor camp. This imperiled her own embittering situation.

The Pasternak family bond was of great importance to her. She felt it was at the heart of her passionate concern for history. She knew she belonged to a family that was “great and exceptional” in its culture:

In this …

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