Authors: Lara Prescott
The first copies were passed from hand to hand in the parlors of Moscow’s intelligentsia. After Borya won the Nobel, then declined it, copies of the copies were made. Then copies of those copies.
was whispered about in the bowels of the Leningrad Metro, passed from worker to worker in the labor camps, and sold on the black market. “Have you read it?” people across the Motherland asked each other in hushed voices. “Why was it kept from us?” The
never needed to be named. Soon the black market was flooded, and everyone could read the novel they’d been denied.
When Ira brought a copy home, I forbade her to keep it in the house. “Don’t you realize?” I cried, ripping the pages up and tossing them into the bin. “It’s a loaded pistol.”
“You’re the one who bought the bullets. You placed him above our family.”
“And I know what you’re keeping hidden here. Don’t think I don’t!” She stormed out before I could respond.
The money was kept in a russet leather suitcase with a brass lock tucked behind the long dresses in the back of my closet. The bundles were wrapped in plastic, stacked neatly in rows under two pairs of trousers.
D’Angelo had arranged for the transfer—first from Feltrinelli to an account in Liechtenstein, then to an Italian couple living in Moscow. The Italian couple would phone my apartment and say a delivery for Pasternak was waiting at the post office. I would then collect the suitcase, take the train to Peredelkino, and store it at Little House for safekeeping.
Borya didn’t want it. Not at first. With the State having cut off his ability to publish or make a living through his translations, he said we’d find other ways to support ourselves. I reasoned with him that it was but a fraction of what he was owed. Feltrinelli had sold so many copies, he’d already had to reprint it twelve times in Italian; it was a bestseller in America too. The film rights had even been sold to Hollywood. In the West, Borya would’ve been a very wealthy man. When he said we’d make do with what we have and we should be grateful we have each other, I asked him to imagine what would become of me and my family once he was gone.
He eventually came around.
To say I pushed him to accept the foreign royalties would be an understatement; to say I had anything in mind other than ensuring my family would be taken care of, a lie. But why not get something for myself? Why not? After everything I’d done. After everything I’d been through.
But with the money came even more surveillance. They were still watching. I saw no one but always felt their eyes. I shut the windows, closed the drapes, and obsessively checked the locks to Little House. At night, every branch breaking, every gust of wind rattling the door, every screech from some distant car made me jump. Sleep was out of the question.
Seeking relief, I left Little House to stay at my Moscow apartment. It was difficult to be away from Borya, but for the first time in my life, I was glad for the five flights of stairs, the onionskin-thin walls, and my many neighbors who lived on top of one another. If something were to happen, surely someone would hear it and come to my aid. Wouldn’t they?
I was also glad to be with my family. I was seized with the feeling that I needed to be near my children, something I hadn’t felt so strongly since they were young. But Mitya and Ira stayed out of the apartment, making excuses about friends and school. When they were home, they treated my mother with the respect they denied me. Mitya, who had always been such an obedient child, began acting out. Not coming home when he said he would, sometimes smelling of liquor. Ira chose to spend most of her time with a new boyfriend.
Borya was warned by friends to leave Peredelkino for the safety of the city, but he refused. “If they come to stone me, let them. I’d rather die in the country.”
The first night I spent back in Moscow, a neighbor knocked on our door and told us that Vladimir Yefimovich Semichastny was giving a speech on television about Boris. Ira and I followed her back to her apartment and stood with her family around the tiny television propped up on a cold radiator. The black-and-white picture flickered in and out, but we could hear the leader of the Young Communist League loud and clear. “This man went and spat in the face of the people,” Semichastny railed. “If you compare Pasternak to a pig, a pig would not do what he did, because a pig never shits where it eats.” The camera panned to the crowd of thousands. “I am sure the society and government will not place any obstacles in his way, but would, on the contrary, agree that his departure from our midst would make our air fresher.” The audience erupted in applause. Khrushchev himself, sitting on the dais, stood and clapped. Ira looked at me with fear in her eyes. I took her hand and led her back to our apartment.
Later that night, Mitya woke me. A drunken party had gathered in front of our building. I wrapped a shawl around my shoulders, went to the balcony, and looked down. Three men wearing dresses, no doubt sent by the KGB, were dancing and singing “Black Raven,” an old drinking folk song I’d always hated.
Raven black, why are you wheeling,
Over my head circling low?
Ever will your prey elude you.
Raven black, I am not yours!
The noise had also awoken my neighbors, who joined me outside on their balconies and yelled for them to shut up. The men dressed as women looked up and laughed. One pointed in my direction. Then they linked arms and sang even louder.
Why do you spread wide your talons,
Over my head circling low?
Or do you sense prey beneath you?
Raven black, I am not yours!
“You can’t tell from up here,” Mitya whispered, “but they’re wearing wigs. Bad ones. One has lipstick smeared across his mouth like a clown.”
Take my shawl, now stained with red blood,
To my darling, dearly loved.
Say to her that she is free now:
To another I am wed.
“Crazy drunks,” Ira said. She placed her hand on my shoulder. “Come inside, Mama.”
“Nothing will be enough for them,” Borya said after I told him what happened. “I’ll have no peace until I’m in the grave. I’ve already penned a letter to the Kremlin, asking for your permission to emigrate with me.”
“You asked them before you asked me? What if I don’t want to go?”
“That’s not what I said.”
“I haven’t sent it yet.”
“That wasn’t my question.”
“I can’t leave without you. I’d rather be sent to the camps.”
“What about my family? What would they do?”
He told me we’d find a way. What I didn’t know was that he’d already discussed the matter with his wife. He didn’t ask me the same question he’d asked her until she’d told him she’d never leave, and while he was free to go, she and their son would have to denounce him once he was gone. “You understand,” she’d told her husband.
The following day, he told me he’d torn up the letter to the Kremlin. “How could I look out another window, in a foreign city, and not see my birch trees?” he asked.
It was his stand: not to let them drive him from his home.
I should have known that leaving was never a real option for him. In spite of everything, he’d be lost without Mother Russia. He could never leave his trees, his snowy walks. He could never leave his red squirrels, his magpies. He could never leave his dacha, his garden, his daily routine. He’d rather die as a traitor on Russian soil than live as a free man abroad.
They banned Borya from receiving mail, cutting off one of his only lifelines to the world. Shortly after, letters began appearing under my apartment door. Some were stamped, some not; some had return addresses, some not. Each morning, Ira and I would bundle the letters, wrapping them in butcher paper like cuts of meat. We’d take the train to Little House, where Borya would be waiting to read them. I had become his postmistress.
He received letters from Albert Camus, John Steinbeck, Prime Minister Nehru. He received letters from students in Paris, a painter in Morocco, a soldier in Cuba, a housewife in Toronto. His demeanor brightened as he opened each envelope.
One of his most treasured letters came from a young man in Oklahoma. The man wrote of his recent heartbreak and how much
had touched him. The man had addressed his letter to
Boris Pasternak, Russia, in a small town outside Moscow.
Borya took his time replying to each, his soaring handwriting covering page after page in purple ink. He wrote until his hand hurt, until his back ached, but he refused to dictate his replies when I offered to help. “I want my hand to touch theirs,” he said.
But he received other letters too, letters to which he did not respond. Letters from detractors, letters from the State, letters meant to intimidate. Despite his renouncing the Prize, they wanted to see the cloud dweller brought back down to earth. They wanted him on his knees. They wanted him to grovel, to bow down. He would not, but neither would he confront them. His inaction was seen as weakness, both by those watching the affair unfold from afar and by me.
If he wasn’t going to do something, I would. I couldn’t wait for them to come to my door.
I met with the head of the authors’ rights division of the Writers’ Union, Grigori Khesin, an old contact of mine from
He barely listened to me as I stated Borya’s case, and when I was finished, he said there was nothing to be done. “Boris Leonidovich is no longer a member of the Union and thus has no ‘rights’ to be upheld.” I stormed out of Grigori’s office and was immediately approached by a man offering another solution.
This man, Isidor Gringolts, was a distant acquaintance. I recalled having seen him at poetry readings but barely knew him. Young and handsome, Isidor had wavy blond hair and dressed like a European. For some reason, I found myself nodding as he told me he’d do anything in his power to help Boris.
We went to my apartment, where a plan was set in motion. After hours of debate with Ira, Mitya, and a close circle of friends, Isidor told us the only thing to do was to pen a public letter from Boris to Khrushchev, asking for forgiveness and not to be expelled from the Motherland. I balked, thinking Borya would never sign his name to such a thing or allow this stranger to put words in his mouth. But he was convincing, and in the end, we decided it was the only way.
Isidor wrote the first draft himself, and I adjusted the voice to sound more like Borya’s. Ira delivered the letter to Peredelkino. They’d worn him down so much that when Ira asked if he’d sign it, Borya could no longer raise his voice; all he could do was raise a pen. “Just let it be over,” he told her.
He offered only minor revisions. “Olya, keep it all as it is,” he’d written me in a note. “Write that I was born not in the Soviet Union, but in Russia.” Ira said his hand shook as he ended the letter with his own addition:
With my hand on my heart, I can say that I have done something for Soviet literature, and may still be of service to it.
The next day, Ira and a friend from school took the revised letter to 4 Staraya Square. A guard outside the gate of the Central Committee building saw them approach. With a cigarette clenched in his teeth, he looked them up and down and asked what they wanted.
“We have a letter for Khrushchev,” Ira said.
He laughed, almost spitting out his cigarette. “From whom? You?”
The guard stopped laughing.
Two days later, Polikarpov phoned to say that Khrushchev had received Borya’s letter and that his presence was requested immediately. “Put on your coat and meet us on the street. You will be accompanying us to fetch the cloud dweller.”
Ten minutes later, a black ZiL idled outside my apartment building. Inside, Polikarpov was waiting. Already in my coat, I looked out the window, then at my clock. I waited fifteen more minutes before leaving the apartment.
As I approached, Polikarpov stepped out of the car. He was wearing a thick black jacket that came down to his ankles, the cut of it foreign, the wool heavy and luxurious. “You’ve kept us waiting.”
I didn’t apologize. My anger mimicked a bravery I could not contain. He ushered me into the backseat of the car. He sat in front with the driver, whose eyes never left the road. The car took the middle lane, reserved for government vehicles. As we sped through traffic, civilian cars pulled over to the side.
“What more do you want from him?” I asked.
Polikarpov turned to face me. “This whole affair, which he has brought unto himself, is not yet finished.”
“He declined the Prize. He renounced
He begged forgiveness. What more do you want? This ordeal has stolen years from him. He’s an old man now. Sometimes I barely recognize—” I stopped myself. Polikarpov didn’t need to know more.