Boris Pasternak & Olga Ivinskaya
It was the beautiful heroine, Lara, who wept as she whispered these words to her dead lover in Doctor Zhivago, that sweeping novel of the Bolshevik Revolution. But the couple's infinite longing, played out against the wintry backdrop of mournful Mother Russia, was no more epic than the star-crossed love between the novel's author, Boris Pasternak, and the woman who for 14 years was his mistress, muse—and inspiration for the brave and tenderhearted Lara.
In 1946, at the time Pasternak met the bookish Olga Ivinskaya at a literary party in Moscow, he, at 56, was twice married, the father of two sons and Russia's most famous living poet. She, 34, a translator and editor, was the twice-widowed mother of a son and daughter and was well-versed in tragedy. Her first husband had hanged himself; her second had died of a blood disease in a hospital outside Moscow. The attraction between Pasternak and Olga was immediate. "My life, my angel, I love you truly," he wrote to her; she told a friend that meeting him was like "talking to God."
Olga and the still-married Pasternak soon became nearly inseparable as working partners—and more. But i the vagaries of Stalin's political repression always loomed above them. "I hope you will never weep over me," he said to her in what would prove to be a prescient warning. "But our meeting will not be without its effect—both on you and on me." In 1949, insisting that Zhivago, then a work in progress, was a piece of subversive propaganda, the Stalinists, reluctant to prosecute the famous Pasternak, instead vented their wrath on the defenseless Olga. Arrested and taken to the notorious Lubianka prison, she was eventually sent, without a trial, to a labor camp in the Mordovian Republic. Upon discovering her apartment in disarray after her arrest, Pasternak wrote in a poem, "This parting will consume them both/And grief gnaw clean their bones."
In prison, Olga was held in solitary confinement and interrogated day and night, but she steadfastly refused to implicate Pasternak in a trumped-up espionage plot. "I owe my life and the fact that they did not touch me in these years," he later wrote, "to her heroism and endurance."
Finding herself pregnant, Olga pleaded in vain with authorities to allow Pasternak to visit her; instead, in what officials later ascribed to an "oversight," they locked her in the prison morgue for a night, after which she suffered a miscarriage. Miles away in Moscow, Pasternak, who wrote to her constantly and continued to support her penniless mother and children, voiced his longing in the poem Meeting: "The snowy night appears double to my gaze/And I cannot draw a boundary line/Between myself and you."
After four years in prison, Olga was released in a period of amnesty that followed Stalin's death. She then took a dacha in the writer's colony of Peredelkino outside Moscow, just across the lake from where Pasternak shared a house—and little else—with his second wife, Zinaida. "For the family it was the deepest hell," says Pasternak's daughter-in-law Natalya. "Ivinskaya was never mentioned here. She was a simple secretary." Yet, lost in work and reverie, Pasternak would spend his days with Olga, who for the next seven years, the happiest in her life, acted as his literary agent, typed his manuscripts and helped engineer Zhivago's publication in the West. But the watchful eyes of the authorities were always on the couple, and when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958, the Soviets pressured him to refuse it. Out of love—and fear—for Olga, he did. "They want me to hate what I love," he later said, "and love what I hate."
In the spring of 1960, a weakened Pasternak died of cancer at his dacha, but not before calling for Olga, who never received his message. At his funeral in the small Peredelkino cemetery, nearly lost in the thousands of mourners, she tucked flowers under her lover's hands and laid herself over him in a final, wrenching farewell.
But her sacrifices were not yet over. Pasternak had always worried that authorities would harm her as a way of punishing him. "If, God forbid, they should arrest Olga," he once wrote to a friend, "the alarm should be sounded, because an attack on her is a blow against me."
His fears were not unfounded. Three months after his death, Olga was again arrested and sentenced to hard labor in a camp in Siberia. When she was released four years later, she spent her first day of freedom visiting Pasternak's grave. Olga moved to a tiny one-room apartment in Moscow, where in 1988, frail and half-blind, she was finally exonerated under the Gorbachev regime. She died of cancer in 1995.
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