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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Raising a Glass to Pasternak

It was getting late as we drove up the driveway at Peredelkino. Most of the afternoon pilgrims had left. Inside, in the music room, Nikolai Petrov had just finished playing Chopin and Scriabin in what one of the guests called "a hush of beauty." It was February 10; it would have been the poet Boris Pasternak's 105th birthday. And as a television crew dismantled its lights and furled up its cables, only family and friends remained in the wooden dacha that has become a museum to the memory of the man who wrote "Doctor Zhivago."

They lingered for a while in little knots of reminiscence and quotation, and then, as darkness fell, they sat down to a simple meal, prepared by Natalya, the poet's daughter-in-law, of kulibiaka and buterbrody, vodka and champagne. There were perhaps 15 or 20 people around the long table in the dining room: among them Petrov and his wife Larisa; a doctor, a teacher of comparative religion; a famous cultural historian, and the ex-head of the state copyright agency, VAAP.

The poet Andrei Voznesensky -- who was once Pasternak's young acolyte, and who now lives a few doors away in the writer's village -- made a gentle toast of welcome to us all. And then little by little, in that lit intimacy against the darkness, that has always been the soul of the Russian kruzhok, toast followed toast to the spirit of the man who was already celebrated as a poet before the Revolution, but who lived to see himself compared to a pig by the head of the KGB. For "a pig," ranted Semichastny on the day that Pasternak declined under pressure the Nobel Prize for Literature, "will never do what he has done. Pasternak ... has fouled the spot where he has eaten, and messed on those by whose labor he lives and breathes."

When my turn for a toast came, I spoke in English, saying I refused to speak bad Russian in a place that was a shrine to the Russian language. And I raised my glass to all those who had saved what remained of the poet after his death. For when the conservative novelist Chinghiz Aitmatov was assigned Pasternak's dacha, and threw his personal belongings out of the windows, Natalya and her friends were underneath to collect them. When he put up garish wallpaper, it's said that Voznesensky and fellow young-tiger poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko raided the place to tear it off the walls.

It was hard in the soft mellowness of the evening to recall the violence that had burst about Pasternak's head when, after "Doctor Zhivago" had been published in the West, he was awarded the Nobel Prize. Literaturnaya Gazeta called him "a Judas," "a rabid individualist" and "a malicious literary snob;" Pravda denounced him as "an internal emigre" and his book as "a literary weed." He was expelled from the Writers' Union, and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, the model for Lara in "Doctor Zhivago," was twice sent to the camps -- once even after he himself was dead.

And for what? Because in "Doctor Zhivago," this feather in the cap of the Soviet intelligentsia had ignored the Revolution and the politics of his age completely. (His aim, he once wrote, had been "to bear witness as an artist, not as a politician.") And by having his central character die at the end of the 1920s, he had implicitly suggested that that was when the old Russian intelligentsia had died, too -- leaving those who remained to sell their works and souls to Stalin in the name of "service to the people." Put another way, in "Doctor Zhivago" Pasternak had asked the question, as Yevgeny Yevtushenko once remarked to me: "How many deaths of how many individuals was the Revolution worth?" And he answered in his book: "Not one."

We stayed and chatted at the table for an hour or so. And then a group of singers pressed out of the darkness and sat down with us. They carried handwritten musical texts, and when they stood up to sing, it was music "from the 12th century" and "from the time of Ivan the Terrible," with astonishingly difficult harmonies and dissonances. They were apologetic from time to time about their lack of practice, but it was everything you have ever wanted Russian music to be -- dark and somber and shining, with the voices rolling and turning like acrobats or seals.

The whole evening was a celebration of things I had thought almost lost in Russia: of friendship and remembrance; the softness and sentimentality that counterbalance the brutality of everyday life; the ability to deliver up in the middle of an awful day -- as a friend once put it -- something that will break your heart.