Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn

April 29, 2009

Two books by two great Russian writers came to my attention this past week. The first book was Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Warning to the West, published in 1975. One of his major warnings was of the then policy of detente, which he felt was a cynical Communist device to exploit western vulnerabilities. Yet it was because of detente that made it possible for me to finally get to Russia.

Only after reading further in this first book did I realize it was published at the time I had returned to the Mormon Church after a 10 year exile. This was important to me because I had first become aware of Solzhenitsyn in September 1973, just two years earlier, during that first trip to Moscow. While there I was a dinner guest of Soviet writer Nikolai Bogdanov at the Writer's Club in Moscow. He noticed fellow writer, the Russian Poet Laureate Yevgeny Yevtushenko sitting alone at a table nearby and introduced us. Yevtushenko was holding his head in great pain, which, it turns out, was the result of just having been severely censured by Brezhnev and the Communist Central Committee for circulating an open letter complaining about the government's harassment of Solzhenitsyn. Three months later Solzhenitsyn was sent into exile and for the next 20 years lived in Vermont where he was largely ignored. Because he enjoyed far too much international popularity by late 1973 in his own country (having won the Nobel prize in 1970) the authorities would not dare send him to the gulags again.

The second book came to my attention as a major image in a recent dream. It was Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago. Here is the dream:

27 Apr 09 0400
Defending authenticity

Am about to leave the office of a university administrator after coming to retrieve something I'd left long ago. The man sees a paperback copy (cover missing with rubber bands around it to keep the pages together) of an English translation of Doctor Zhivago in my hands and says "I see you have that story. Isn't it pathetic?"

Surprised by his remark I respond immediately, "On the contrary, it's one of the greatest things written."

The man stiffens, looks down his nose at me and says, "Don't try to get chummy with me!"

I reply, "That's of no interest to me, but being genuine is. And this book--especially the poetry--is as genuine as anything I can imagine."

In an earlier scene in this same dream and at the same location, I am discussing Russian literature with Barbara (ex-wife).

This dream gave me a new sense of clarity at this point in my Orthodox Odyssey and excited me again about my favorite book. It also inspired me to begin to read Pasternak's poetry in the original Russian.

Both Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak won Nobel prizes for literature, which came from the crucible of their Soviet experience. Both writers shook the Communist system to its foundation because of their courage and artistic gifts. In doing so they expressed themselves in entirely different ways: Solzhenitsyn as an unyielding, judgmental and condemning Old Testament-like prophet; Pasternak with a love story about life and the human spirit.

Both were treated badly by a system that feared openness and expressions of truth as only art can do.


  1. ...And for sure [IDL] interviewing the book ... sounds right on. The critical mind reminds me of any number of haughty, self-righteous, exclusionary stake presidents you've told me about over the years...

  2. Zhenya, doesn't that administrator remind you of someone in our parish?