Poetry and Politics in the 20th Century: Boris Pasternak, His Family, and His Novel Doctor Zhivago

Mon September 28th 2015, 9:00am - Fri October 2nd 2015, 9:00am
Oak Room, Tresidder Student Union


Monday, September 28, 2015 - 9:00am
Tuesday, September 29, 2015 - 9:00am
Wednesday, September 30, 2015 - 9:00am
Thursday, October 1, 2015 - 9:00am
Friday, October 2, 2015 - 9:00pm



The international conference “Poetry and Politics in the Twentieth Century: Boris Pasternak, His Family, and His Novel Doctor Zhivago” to be held at Stanford between September 28 and October 2, 2015 (Oak Room, Tresidder Union), is the largest ever on this major twentieth-century Russian writer. Some fifty papers will be presented by scholars from the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, Italy, Sweden, Estonia, and Israel during the five-day conference. Among the participants will be members of the Pasternak family from Moscow and England, three generations of specialists in Russian literature, and Stanford students.
The literary oeuvre of Boris Pasternak, immersed in eternal themes and values of pure art, seems infinitely remote from concerns of everyday reality. But it reflects the dramatic events that Russian people and their culture lived throughout the twentieth century. His major work, the novel Doctor Zhivago (1946–55), banned in the Soviet Union, was published during 1957–58 abroad, despite the desperate efforts of the Kremlin to prevent it. Awarding Pasternak the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958 triggered an unprecedented political storm in twentieth-century European culture.
During the past several decades the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, together with Stanford University Libraries, have amassed the largest collection of Pasternak family papers and printed materials in the world. In addition to the rich collections of Berkeley professor Gleb Struve (who laid the foundation for Pasternak studies) and the U.S. book collector Irwin Toby Holtzman, Hoover recently acquired the documents of the Italian journalist Sergio d’Angelo, who, in the summer of 1956, brought the typescript of Doctor Zhivago to the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, and the last portion of the extensive Oxford archive of the Pasternak family papers. The Pasternak Family Archive at the Hoover Institution contains the personal papers of the poet’s two sisters, Josephine (1900–93) and Lydia (1902–89), including numerous documents pertaining to the life and artistic activities of their parents: Leonid Pasternak, a prominent Russian-Jewish artist, and Rozalia, a noted pianist. The chronological scope runs from the end of the nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Hoover also possesses a large collection of digitized copies of materials from Pasternak’s personal archive in Moscow that were made available thanks to the poet’s son Evgeny Borisovich Pasternak (1923–2012) and his family. All those materials make Stanford the center of Pasternak scholarship and provide for the advanced study of twentieth-century Russian and Soviet culture in a wide European context. The large number of holographs of the great poet himself, along with all the documents in the collections, have a historical value, in that all his family, parents and siblings alike, were remarkable in their own way, belonged to the cream of Russian intelligentsia of this turbulent era, and were connected by innumerable links with the cultural elite in other European countries.
An exhibition of Doctor Zhivago rare first editions from Hoover and Stanford as well as the private collection of Paolo Mancosu will be held in the Hoover Tower during the conference. Together with its catalog, written by Paolo Mancosu and published by Hoover Institution Press under the title Smugglers, Rebels, Pirates: Itineraries in the Publishing History of Doctor Zhivago, the exhibition displays the significant shifts made by the poet’s novel in the political and cultural life of the Cold War era.
Several papers at the conference will discuss the effect Boris Pasternak’s lyrical poetry and novel had on the literary and social life in the United States, Italy, Sweden, and the Balkans and the Baltics. The authors of two recent monographs on the publication of Doctor Zhivago, Petra Couvée (Amsterdam–St. Petersburg) and Paolo Mancosu (Berkeley), will examine the role of various political factors in the appearance of the first editions of Doctor Zhivago and present the results of their archival investigations that open a window on the CIA involvement in the publication of Boris Pasternak’s novel in 1957–58 in the West.
Both Pasternak’s poetry and scholarly investigations gave impetus to new approaches in literary studies and new paths in humanistic research, to a large extent determining the direction of Russian and East European literary theory. Thus, important and fruitful ideas of Russian formalism and Roman Jakobson’s structuralism cannot be properly understood or fully appreciated without exploring the artistic experiments and aesthetic innovations by Boris Pasternak and other major participants in the early twentieth-century Russian avant-garde culture.
The conference brings together the scholars of three generations from the U.S. (including Stanford graduate and undergraduate students), England, France, Italy, Russia, Sweden, Estonia, and Japan. The conference’s proceedings will give rise to new directions in Pasternak studies. Several papers will discuss the influence his hermetic lyric poetry exerted abroad on literatures and cultures of his times. Nancy Pollak (Cornell) and Michael Wachtel (Princeton) will scrutinize its reception and the attempts to render it in English (the New York School; Robert Lowell). Several papers (Cesare de Michelis, Bianca Sulpasso, Chiara Benetollo, Andrea Gulotta) concern Italian reception of Pasternak’s poetry and novel and the role Italy played in deciding to award the Nobel prize to Pasternak. The complexities of Doctor Zhivago as well as the extraordinary circumstances of its appearance triggered political developments in many countries. The investigation of the American Right’s perception of Pasternak’s novel undertaken by Stanford undergraduate Ben Musachio reveals how the arguments contributed to a deep crisis and split in that political movement. Magnus Ljunggren of Gothenburg University examines the reaction of the Swedish Left to the Pasternak affair; Michael Sohlman, former Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation, offers Swedish perspectives on the story. Maria Rashkovskaya, assistant director of the Russian State Archive for Literature and Art, will report on foreign readers’ correspondence with the writer during 1958-60, when Soviet authorities attempted to obstruct his contacts with the West. 
A new sector of Pasternak scholarship studies the historical significance of the creative work and biographies of other members of this remarkable family: the poet’s father, Leonid Pasternak, and sisters, Josephine and Lydia. One paper will demonstrate the impact that Leonid’s drawings on the walls of Boris’s house had on the writing of Doctor Zhivago. Another paper will present new details of the 1924 trip of Leonid Pasternak to Palestine. Although after the 1917 Revolution the family was geographically split (Boris and his younger brother Alexandr stayed in Soviet Russia; their parents and sisters moved first to Germany and then, after the Nazis’ rise to power, to Great Britain), the bonds between both branches strengthened, thus overcoming the political boundaries and divisions of the turbulent and cruel times. The close family ties became even closer as the scandal around Doctor Zhivago in the Nobel Prize began to unfold.
The conference participants include four members of the Pasternak family (Ann Pasternak Slater and Nicolas Slater from England and Elena Pasternak and Petr Pasternak from Moscow), U.S. and international scholars and critics Michel Aucouturier, David Bethea, Robert Bird, Fiona Björling, Nikolai Bogomolov, Dmitry Bykov, Irene Delic, Alyssa Dinega Gillespie, Aleksandr Dolinin, Karen Evans-Romaine, Anna Kliatis-Sergeeva, Igor Loshchilov, Irina Paperno, Konstantin Polivanov, Harsha Ram, Evgeny Rashkovsky, Andrei Ustinov, Susanna Witt and others. On Wednesday, September 30 (from 5:00 – 7:00), the Moscow director Svetlana Rezvushkina will speak about her TV documentary “The Crime of Boris Pasternak” and will present background clips not included in it.
On Tuesday, September 29, the Russian writer, poet, and literary critic Dmitry Bykov (Moscow) will read his poetry and discuss the current situation in Russia with the Stanford audience. The evening (in Russian and English) will take place in Jordan (Bldg. 420), room 040, from 6:00 – 8:00.