Wednesday, 10 August 2022

Real truth behind Boris’s mistress

AUTHOR Anna Pasternak is on a mission.

AUTHOR Anna Pasternak is on a mission. To ensure that posterity knows the truth about the woman who inspired the Nobel Prize-winning author of Doctor Zhivago.

That author was of course Anna’s great-uncle, the Russian poet, translator and — eventually — novelist, Boris Pasternak.

And the woman who inspired him? His muse for the book on which David Lean was later to base his epic film that won five Academy Awards and was nominated for five more?

Her name was Olga Ivinskaya.

So autobiographical was the novel — a sprawling work set between the Russian revolution of 1905 and the civil war of 1917 to 1922, at the heart of which is the love affair between Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova — that following its publication Boris would often direct his visitors to Olga with the words: “Lara exists, go and meet her.”

It sounds like the stuff of happy endings. Almost the sort of line you could have expected to find in the 1965 film starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie that built on the novel’s global success, further immortalising the characters of Yuri and Lara.

By then, however, Boris had been dead for five years.

Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958 — the year after Doctor Zhivago had been published by an Italian firm after the manuscript was smuggled out of Russia — intense political pressure subsequently forced Boris to renounce the prize.

At one point he was informed by the Soviet authorities that if he travelled to Stockholm to collect his Nobel medal he would not be permitted to return to Russia.

The turmoil of the revolutionary period covered by Doctor Zhivago had years earlier seen Boris separated from his beloved sister, Josephine — Anna’s grandmother.

She and her father Leonid, the renowned post-impressionist painter who famously illustrated Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection, left Russia for Berlin shortly after the October revolution of 1917.

Making their home in the German capital, the family were able to prosper for a while, but in the Thirties the Nazis began expelling citizens with Soviet passports, prompting the family to emigrate once again — this time to England, where they came to settle in Oxford.

Now in her late 40s, Anna studied at Christ Church, Oxford, before moving to London to work as a journalist and author — most notably of Princess in Love, her 1994 book about Princess Diana’s relationship with Major James Hewitt.

She never met her famous great-uncle, or her great-grandfather Leonid, who died in 1945, but naturally learned all about them growing up.

Today, happily settled in Hambleden with her daughter Daisy and husband Andrew Wallas, Anna says: “The great tragedy for the family was that they all expected to be reunited in Moscow.

“They never thought when they left after the October revolution that they wouldn’t return to Russia and I think there was an enormous sense of sadness for Boris that he never lived with the family again.

“From his correspondence with his parents, which continued right until his death, and to his siblings, you absolutely get the sense of his longing — they were an incredibly close family and he missed them desperately.

“Which makes it even more remarkable that when he was hounded by the Soviet authorities post winning the Nobel Prize, and asked to leave Russia, that he didn’t leave. He renounced the prize because he did not want to leave Russia — he did not want to desert the Russian people.”

It is well known that Boris spent many years writing his great novel — a feat that Anna can readily identify with, having just seen her book Lara: The Untold Love Story That Inspired Doctor Zhivago published at the end of last month.

“I first had the idea for the book 17 years ago,” she laughs. “I didn’t quite get to 20 years, which it took to write Zhivago! I researched it for about 10 years, on and off — and then it’s really the last five years that I’ve been much more intensely researching and writing it.”

On Sunday (October 2) at 11am, the final day of this year’s Henley Literary Festival, Anna will be appearing at the town hall to tell the story of the book — which is of course in large part Olga’s story.

As she explains, Olga paid “an enormous price” for loving “her Boria”.

Reputedly enamoured of Boris’s translations of some of his favourite Georgian poetry, Stalin is said to have personally crossed the author’s name off an execution list during the Great Purge, declaring: “Do not touch this cloud dweller.”

But this protection — which Boris was in any case unaware of — did not extend to his mistress, Olga, who he had first met in 1946 at the offices of the literary journal Novy Mir.

In 1949 Olga was arrested by the secret police and sentenced to five years in a gulag in Potma — an experience that she was again to endure shortly after Boris’s death in 1960, this time accompanied by her daughter Irina.

“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that Olga Ivinskaya was the prototype for Lara,” says Anna.

“What’s really exciting for me is that I always thought that the real story behind Zhivago was as good if not better than the story in the novel — and that’s exactly what some of the reviews have been saying.

“Olga was twice sent to a prison camp, she was interrogated for nine months, nightly, over the book that her lover was writing. Not once did she betray him.

“When the authorities got the nod from Stalin to leave Boris alone, they decided the way to get to him was to persecute his mistress instead, so she was interned, she was interrogated — it’s an incredible story of her loyalty and courage.

“And what is unique about my position in this book is that unlike the rest of the Pasternak family, who very much tried to belittle Olga and dismiss her — because to them for Boris to have had two wives and a public mistress was against their staunch moral code — I have come out and said that if it wasn’t for Olga I think not only would Doctor Zhivago never have been completed, it would probably never have been published.

“She did so much to support him both emotionally and practically with the writing of the novel and she was his absolute stalwart during publication when his wife Zinaida was very anxious about the trouble that they could get in and she wanted him to distance himself from the book.

“So I’m incredibly proud of this book because it’s absolutely my intention to right ancestral wrongs. I feel that my family did not fully accept and understand Olga’s role and the importance of her — her life — and I’m delighted to be able to right that wrong.”

Some tickets for events at the Henley Literary Festival remain on sale and can be booked in person at the box office in Market Place, where it is also possible to enquire about returns.

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