How Boris Pasternak Won and Lost the Nobel Prize

Today in 1958, the “Doctor Zhivago” author won the Nobel Prize, but the Soviets made sure he never got it

Boris Pasternak
A shot from the famed 1965 film version of Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" Flickr

Fifty-nine years ago today, Russian author Boris Pasternak, author of "Doctor Zhivago," was awarded the Nobel Prize. The book took a twisted and dangerous path to publication in a repressive state, and the government he resisted for so long prevented him from ever seeing that prize in his lifetime.

Pasternak was born in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 to a family of artists and musicians, and unlike many of his family members and friends, he didn't flee when the Communists took over his country. He stayed and wrote, composing poetry and novellas and translating many works into Russian to support himself. His artistic, bourgeois background and beliefs quickly put Pasternak at odds with the Soviets, and he spent decades in their crosshairs. In 1934, Joseph Stalin himself called Pasternak to scold him for trying to get a poet friend of his released, and Pasternak's friend and lover Olga Ivinskaya was sent to the gulag for three years as a punishment to the man.

Through all of this, over the course of decades, Pasternak had worked on and off on his magnum opus, a story about a man named Yuri Zhivago and the two women he loved around the time of the Bolshevik Revolution. He submitted it for publication in the Soviet Union in 1955, but it was rejected for its anti-Soviet messages, with the country's foreign minister writing that it was "malicious libel of the USSR." However, a copy of the manuscript fell into the hands of a scout for an Italian book publisher. Working for a Western publisher was verboten for Soviet authors, but Ivinskaya convinced Pasternak to take a chance and Pasternak agreed to have the book translated and published in 1957.

The Soviets raged against the book, but that only increased its popularity, and soon "Doctor Zhivago" was published in multiple languages around the world. The arch-rival of the Soviet Union, the United States, saw an opportunity to use the book and its attempted suppression as a cultural weapon against the Soviets. Declassified documents show how the CIA purchased and distributed hundreds of copies of the novel to its embassies around the world to circulate to impressionable citizens, and even paid for a hasty print run of the book in its original language to discreetly hand out to Soviets visiting the 1958 World's Fair.

Pasternak had been already repeatedly nominated for the Nobel Prize, and it appears the worldwide buzz around his new book pushed him to the top of the list in 1958 (some researchers have claimed that the CIA manipulated the Nobel Prize committee to have it awarded to Pasternak, but declassified documents show no evidence of that). His prize was announced on October 23, 1958, with the committee citing "his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition."

The memoirs of the author's son detail his reaction: "Thankful, glad, proud, confused" read the telegram he sent back to the Nobel committee. Backlash was swift, with the Soviet government forcing his fellow writers to denounce him and newspapers printing screeds calling him a "literary weed." Pasternak was told if he went to Oslo to accept the prize, he would never be allowed back into the Soviet Union, so he wrote another telegram to decline the prize.

"I couldn’t recognize my father when I saw him that evening," Yevgeny Pasternak wrote about the author after that second telegram. "Pale, lifeless face, tired painful eyes, and only speaking about the same thing: 'Now it all doesn’t matter, I declined the Prize.”

Pasternak died less than two years later, never able to receive his Nobel Prize. It wasn't until 1988 that "Doctor Zhivago" was finally published in the Soviet Union, and the following year when Yevgeny was allowed to go to Oslo and retrieve his father's denied prize.

"This is a worthy ending of a tragedy [...] and I am very happy," Yevgeny told the audience that day.

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