The love af­fair that moved Boris Paster­nak to write his novel.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - BI­OG­RA­PHY RE­VIEW BY LEV GOLINKIN Lev Golinkin is the au­thor of the mem­oir “A Back­pack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka.”

It’s stan­dard for bi­og­ra­phers of writ­ers to chron­i­cle the sac­ri­fice the artist makes for his muse. As Anna Paster­nak evinces in “Lara: The Un­told Love Story and the In­spi­ra­tion for Doc­tor Zhivago,” the muse of­ten suf­fers as well. “Lara” is the ac­count of the tem­pes­tu­ous and of­ten tragic love af­fair be­tween renowned Soviet novelist and poet Boris Paster­nak and his mistress Olga Ivin­skaya, who be­came the in­spi­ra­tion for Lara — the hero­ine of “Doc­tor Zhivago,” Paster­nak’s novel that shook Soviet so­ci­ety and the world. By the time the al­ready leg­endary Boris met Olga, he was in the mid­dle of a love­less mar­riage, his sec­ond. Olga, 22 years his ju­nior, had been wid­owed twice. The two were smit­ten with each other from their first en­counter. Over the next 14 years, pas­sion and trauma drove Boris to chan­nel his love for her and frus­tra­tion with their re­la­tion­ship into the anti-Soviet “Doc­tor Zhivago”; Olga be­came the man­u­script’s typ­ist, ad­vo­cate, agent and mar­tyr, be­ing twice im­pris­oned in the Soviet la­bor camps for her re­la­tion­ship with Boris.

“Lara” can be er­ratic for the first 50 pages, as it sets up short back­grounds of the Paster­nak and Ivin­skaya fam­i­lies, only to re­set the time­line in the next chap­ter. This pace may be es­pe­cially dis­ori­ent­ing to read­ers un­fa­mil­iar with Soviet his­tory, since the book cov­ers the im­pact of events such as Stalin’s purges and col­lec­tiviza­tion ef­forts on the Moscow literati scene.

Af­ter its hec­tic ex­po­si­tion, the book ex­cels as it chron­i­cles the pri­vate ten­sion be­tween two lovers sad­dled with other fam­i­lies, and the wider an­tag­o­nism be­tween Paster­nak and the Krem­lin. We see Boris’s guilt over his treat­ment of both Olga and his wife; Olga’s un­fail­ing de­sire for Boris even as he re­fuses to wed her; and loom­ing over it all, the Soviet state ap­pa­ra­tus as it threat­ens to swal­low both lives.

These twin storms feed into Boris’s work on “Doc­tor Zhivago.” The au­thor’s tal­ent pro­vides him with a cer­tain de­gree of pro­tec­tion even as col­leagues are snatched up, tor­tured and ex­e­cuted around him. (Stalin, who ap­pears to have had a fond­ness for Boris’s trans­la­tions of Ge­or­gian poetry, per­son­ally shielded him.) And yet, as the “Zhivago” man­u­script grows, so does the dan­ger from the party, which is keenly aware of the ex­plo­sive po­ten­tial of an au­thor of Boris’s cal­iber (in­deed, the CIA would go on to use the book to desta­bi­lize the U.S.S.R.). The Krem­lin’s wrath falls on Olga and her daugh­ter, Irina, who are im­pris­oned in the camps: Olga be­fore Boris’s death, and both Olga and Irina af­ter it.

The story of Yuri and Lara of “Doc­tor Zhivago,” into which Boris poured his love of and an­guish over Olga, be­comes in­tri­cately tied to the real-life ro­mance of Boris and Olga. “Lara” ac­com­plishes this by in­ter­po­lat­ing the nar­ra­tive with pas­sages from “Doc­tor Zhivago” as well as Boris’s poems in­spired by his re­la­tion­ship with Olga and en­coun­ters with the Soviet sys­tem. And if the two never had a child (Olga mis­car­ried af­ter be­ing tor­tured by Stalin’s se­cret po­lice), “Lara” makes it clear that the fruit of their union was the book it­self.

Given its set­ting, “Lara” could have eas­ily de­volved into a melo­dra­matic saga of ill-fated pas­sion in a time of tyranny. In­stead, Anna Paster­nak ad­mirably re­fuses to re­duce the lovers to stock tragic fig­ures. She presents a warts-and-all, at times scathing por­trait of the pair. “Boris’s fame was im­pact­ing his ego; he did not con­sider Ev­ge­nia enough of an artist to merit her dif­fi­cult, emo­tional be­hav­iour,” she writes, bluntly sum­ming up the au­thor’s re­la­tion­ship with his first wife. “Boris may have been coura­geous in his art,” Paster­nak re­marks when re­flect­ing on his sec­ond mar­riage, “but in his per­sonal life he was dis­ap­point­ingly weak.”

Nei­ther does Olga, who of­ten ap­pears to care less for her chil­dren than for her af­fair, es­cape crit­i­cism. One of the book’s most heart­break­ing lines is when Paster­nak points out that Olga’s daugh­ter, Irina, “knew too young that Olga’s ro­man­tic life took pri­or­ity,” even as that ro­mance placed her chil­dren in dan­ger.

Anna Paster­nak is Boris’s grand-niece, which adds two di­men­sions to the book. It’s clear that the archival re­search, in­ter­views and field trips to Rus­sia stemmed from a pas­sion­ate de­sire to un­der­stand and ap­pre­ci­ate her past. That yearn­ing to touch fam­ily his­tory is pal­pa­ble in some of the book’s lyri­cal pas­sages, such as the reen­act­ment of Boris’s funeral: “That evening there was a crash of thun­der and a heavy down­pour. Peo­ple put their hands over their can­dles to pro­tect them from the heavy rain­drops, and still went on, recit­ing one poem af­ter an­other in the flick­er­ing can­dle­light.”

More im­por­tant, the au­thor dis­closes that one im­pe­tus be­hind “Lara” was to rec­tify what she sees as the fam­ily’s wrong­ing of Olga. “The Paster­naks have al­ways been keen to play down the role of Olga in Boris’s life and lit­er­ary achieve­ments,” she states in the pro­logue. At its heart, “Lara” is a quest to give recog­ni­tion to a woman im­mor­tal­ized in “Doc­tor Zhivago,” yet con­sumed by the meat grinder of the Soviet state, then erased by the Paster­nak fam­ily.

This aware­ness is what makes “Lara” so timely. The re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of Stalin’s vic­tims be­gan un­der Nikita Khrushchev and gained steam in 1988, when Prince­ton scholar Stephen F. Co­hen’s bi­og­ra­phy of Niko­lai Bukharin helped Mikhail Gor­bachev ex­hume the long anath­em­ized Bol­she­vik rev­o­lu­tion­ary. The U.S.S.R.’s col­lapse 25 years ago fur­thered this by grant­ing his­to­ri­ans ac­cess to pre­vi­ously sealed KGB ar­chives. It’s an on­go­ing process: Moscow’s Gu­lag Mu­seum opened last year. And para­dox­i­cally, this is tak­ing place amid a dis­turb­ing resur­gence of the cult of Stalin, from books jus­ti­fy­ing his crimes to shops ped­dling T-shirts and win­dow de­cals bear­ing his vis­age. The omi­nous ease with which one of his­tory’s most bru­tal dic­ta­tors can get a sec­ond chance at a legacy makes “Lara” — the story of one of Stalin’s in­nu­mer­able vic­tims — a par­tic­u­larly poignant book.


Boris Paster­nak with his mistress and muse, Olga Ivin­skaya, and her daugh­ter, Irina, in the late 1950s. Paster­nak chan­neled his love for Ivin­skaya, and his frus­tra­tion with their re­la­tion­ship, into his novel “Doc­tor Zhivago,” whose hero­ine was in­spired by her.

LARA The Un­told Love Story and the In­spi­ra­tion for Doc­tor Zhivago By Anna Paster­nak Ecco. 310 pp. $27.99

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