Authors: Lara Prescott
He won, he won, he won.
My thoughts matched my steps as I paced Little House waiting for Borya to arrive. The Nobel was his. Not Tolstoy’s or Gorky’s, not Dostoyevsky’s: Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was the second Russian writer ever to receive the Prize. His name would be marked in history, his legacy secured.
And yet, should he accept it, I feared what else might come. The Nobel win was already an embarrassment to the State, and Boris’s accepting the Prize would be viewed as an even greater indignity. And the State did not like to be humiliated, especially at the hands of the West. So once the world looked away, once the headlines died down, then what? Who’d protect us? Who’d protect me?
To still my nerves, I went outside to the small garden Borya had helped me plant. The morning rain had ceased and the clouds parted to reveal a light that bathed everything anew. Everything—how the magpies called out to each other, how a sunbeam warmed the neat row of cabbage, how the air felt against my exposed wrists and ankles—everything, every little thing, felt altered in the way it does when the world you’ve known is about to change.
Borya approached, hat in hand. We met midway down the path and he kissed me. “I’ve sent the telegram to Stockholm,” he said.
“Saying what?” I asked.
“That I’ve accepted the Prize, and all that will come with it.”
“You’ll go, then?” I asked. “To Stockholm?” For a moment, I allowed myself to imagine this absurd dream: me in a black gown made in Paris, tailored to fit my body like a second skin; Boris in his favorite gray suit he’d inherited from his father. I’d watch as he’d stand to accept the Prize. And while he was at the podium, I’d let the cheers from the audience come over me like a wave. At the banquet, we’d dine on filet de sole bourguignonne in the Blue Hall and he’d introduce me as the woman who’d inspired Lara, the woman the world had fallen in love with, just as he had.
“That’s impossible,” he said, shaking his head. He took my hand, and without another word, we went inside and to my bedroom and made love in the slow and steady way we’d grown accustomed to.
He spent most of the night with me, not leaving my bed until the blue light of morning peeked between my curtains. In that light, I saw new moles and black hairs and yellow marks on his back, then looked at my own skin. Our ages hit me as if jumping into a freezing river, and I wondered if we had anything left in us to sustain all that was to come.
As I watched him leave my bed, I was seized with a deep longing for something I hadn’t lost yet, but knew I would soon.
After Boris sent his telegram to Stockholm, the Kremlin issued its official response to the Academy. “You and those who made this decision focused not on the novel’s literary or artistic qualities, and this is clear since it does not have any, but on its political aspects, since Pasternak’s novel presents Soviet reality in a perverted way, libels the socialist revolution, socialism, and the Soviet people.”
Their message was clear: Boris’s defiance would not be tolerated. And it would not go unpunished.
We were told couriers were going door to door, from Peredelkino to Moscow, summoning every poet, playwright, novelist, and translator to an emergency meeting of the Writers’ Union to address the issue of the Nobel. Attendance was mandatory.
Some writers were undoubtedly elated that the narcissist, the overrated Poet on the Hill, was finally getting his due. Some, we were told, said justice should’ve been served long ago, the questions about why Boris had been spared by the hand of Stalin during the Great Terror still unresolved. Other writers were apparently nervous, knowing they’d have to fall in line to denounce their peer, their friend, their mentor—hoping their protests would appear genuine when they were called upon.
Borya didn’t read the newspapers, but I did.
They called him a Judas, a pawn who’d sold himself for thirty pieces of silver, an ally of those who hated our country, a malicious snob whose artistic merit was modest at best. They deemed
a weapon heralded by enemies of the State, and the Prize a reward from the West.
Not everyone spoke out; most just kept quiet. Friends who previously sat rapt at Little House listening to Borya read from
made themselves scarce. They did not send letters of support, nor did they visit, nor did most admit to having a friendship with Borya when asked. It was these silences, the taped mouths of friends, that cut the deepest.
One day, Ira returned from school with news that a student demonstration had taken place in Moscow. Borya was sitting in his red chair as Ira, still in her coat and squirrel hat, paced in front of him. “Professors told students that attendance was mandatory.”
Borya stood up and put some wood into the stove. He faced the fire, warming his hands over the flame for a moment, before closing the metal door.
“The administration handed out placards for us to carry, but I hid in the toilets with a friend until they left.” Her eyes looked to Borya’s for approval, but he didn’t return her gaze.
“What did the placards say?” Borya asked.
Ira took off her hat and held it in her hands. “I didn’t see them. Not up close.”
The next day, a photograph of the “spontaneous demonstration” appeared in
A student held up a placard with a cartoon image of Borya reaching for a sack of American money with crooked fingers. Another placard stated in black block letters:
THROW THE JUDAS OUT OF THE USSR!
The article also printed a list of names of students who signed a letter condemning
Ira held up the newspaper. “Half these students never signed it. At least they told me they hadn’t.”
That night at dinner, Mitya asked if it was true that Borya was now richer than the greediest American. “The teacher said so in school. Are we rich now too?”
“No, darling,” I told him.
He rolled a kidney bean across his plate with his thumb. “Why not?”
“Why should we be?”
“He pays for our house. He gives us money. So if he has more, he should give us more.”
“Where would you ever get an idea like that?”
Ira shot her brother a look and he shrugged.
“It makes sense though, Mama,” Ira said. “Suppose you should ask him?”
“I won’t hear another word of it,” I told her, although I can’t pretend I hadn’t been thinking the same thing. “Now finish your dinner.”
It had been raining for five days when they met in the great White Hall of the Writers’ Union. With every seat filled, writers lined the walls. Borya was asked to attend, but I pleaded with him to stay home. “It will be an execution,” I said. He agreed that his presence would accomplish nothing and instead wrote a letter to be read:
I still believe even after all this noise and all those articles in the press that it was possible to write Doctor Zhivago as a Soviet citizen. It’s just that I have a broader understanding of the rights and possibilities of a Soviet writer, and I don’t think I disparage the dignity of Soviet writers in any way. I would not call myself a literary parasite. Frankly, I believe that I have done something for literature. As for the Prize itself, nothing would ever make me regard this honor as a sham and respond to it with rudeness. I forgive you in advance.
The hall echoed with jeers from the crowd. Then, one by one, each writer went to the podium to condemn
The meeting lasted hours, every last person speaking out against him.
The vote was unanimous, the punishment effective immediately: Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union.
The next day, I gathered every book, every note, every letter, every early draft of the manuscript from my Moscow apartment. Mitya and I took them to Little House to burn. “They won’t take what’s mine again,” I told my son, as we gathered sticks from the forest. “I’d rather destroy everything.”
“How can you be sure?” Mitya asked.
“We’re going to need more wood,” I said, picking up a small log.
Borya arrived as we placed the rocks we’d hauled up from the creek in a ring. “Has it all been for nothing?” he asked, in lieu of a greeting.
“Of course not,” I said, and dumped a bucket of dry leaves atop the wood. “You’ve touched the hearts and minds of thousands.” I poured petrol onto the leaves.
He circled the fire pit. “Why did I write it in the first place?”
“Because you had to, remember?” Mitya said. “That’s what you told us. You said you were called to do it. Remember?”
“It was nonsense. Utter nonsense.”
“But you said—”
“It doesn’t matter what I said then.”
“When you handed it over to the Italians you said you wanted it to be read. Well, you’ve accomplished that.”
“I’ve accomplished nothing but putting us in danger.”
“You said the Prize would protect us. Do you no longer believe that? The whole world is watching, remember?”
“I was wrong. It’s my execution that the whole world will watch.” He raked his hands through his hair. “Am I what they say I am? A narcissist, someone who thinks—no,
—fully believes, that he has been chosen for this task? That I’m fated to spend my life attempting to express what’s in the hearts of men?” Borya paced frantically. “The sky is falling, and I sought to
instead of building a roof to protect myself and my loved ones. Has my selfishness no bounds? I’ve sat at my desk for so long. Is it true I’m out of touch? Could I even know what is in the hearts and minds of my countrymen? How could I have gotten it all so wrong? Why go on?”
“We go on because that’s what we have to do,” I told him. Before I could get another word out to calm him, he launched into his plan.
“It’s all too much. I won’t wait for them to come for me. I won’t wait for their black car to arrive. I won’t wait for them to drag me out into the street. To do to me what they did to Osip, to Titsian—”
“And to me,” I added.
“Yes, my love. I’ll never let them. I think it’s time we left this life.”
I took a step back from him.
“I’ve saved them, you know. The pills. I’ve saved the Nembutal I was given the last time I was in the hospital. Twenty-two. Eleven for each of us.”
I didn’t know whether to believe him. Boris had threatened to kill himself before. Once, decades earlier, he even drank a bottle of iodine when his wife, before she was his wife, had refused him. He’d confessed to me later that he’d only sought her reaction, not his actual death. But this time, something in his voice, how he remained calm, made me think he might be serious.
He reached for my hand. “We’ll take them tonight. It will cost them dearly. It will be a slap in the face.”
Mitya rose to his feet. He was now taller than I, and almost as tall as Borya. Mitya, gentle Mitya, looked him in the eyes. “What are you talking about?” He looked at me. “Mama, what is he talking about?”
“Leave us, Mitya.” I said.
“I won’t!” He reared back as if he might hit Boris.
For the first time, I realized that his was no longer the hand of a little boy, but of a young man. A well of guilt filled my chest. All these years, I’d put Borya first.
“Nothing will happen.” I let go of Borya’s hand and took my son’s. “I assure you.” I pulled a fistful of kopeks from my pocket and asked him to get more petrol for the fire.
He refused to take the money. “What is wrong with you? With both of you?”
“Take it, Mitya. Go and get the petrol. I’ll be right along.”
He grabbed the money and left, looking back to warn Borya with his burning stare.
“It will be painless,” Borya said once Mitya was gone. “We’ll be together.” All this time, he’d been pretending the roaring whispers of condemnation weren’t upsetting him—that the microphones we suspected were planted in his house and mine were something to laugh about, that the negative reviews had no merit. He’d been focusing on a speck of white light at the tunnel’s end that, with the latest blow from the Writers’ Union, had faded to black.