Letter From Crimea: Of Pushkin, Pasternak and Putin

This is the fifth in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


The dacha outside Moscow in Peredelkino where the Nobel Prize winning author Boris Pasternak wrote his celebrated novel of the Russian Revolution, Dr. Zhivago, which was later made into a Hollywood film. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

On my last full day in Moscow I planned to spend the morning with Alexander Pushkin and the afternoon with Boris Pasternak—well, if not with them personally, at least in museums dedicated to their writing lives. Pushkin lived at the beginning of the 19th century—he was Russia’s Lord Byron, if you will—and Pasternak, who wrote Dr. Zhivago, lived in the late 20th century. What interested me about both men—in the age of Putin, when dissent is criminalized—is that they managed to survive tsar and commissar banishment and exile and still make their voices heard.

Pushkin: Russia’s Byron

As I knew less about Pushkin, I decided to start with him. In Moscow when one googles “Pushkin Museum,” what comes up is about five destinations, ranging from the apartment where he lived on Arbat Street (historically old, but now a hip street of funky shops and fast food) to the fine arts museum in the center of Moscow.

I might have chosen the apartment, as a way to glimpse how the poet lived, but it was closed. So I rode my bicycle to the State Pushkin Museum, which is a baronial arts center devoted to his life and works, with paintings, sculpture, manuscripts, and ceramics on the general themes of short but tumultuous life. (Pushkin died in a duel with this wife’s lover, at age 38 in 1837.)

Pushkin was something of a literary child prodigy, publishing his first poems while still in his teens. His evocative language, obvious patriotism, and love of Russia’s rural beauty made him a national favorite, while at the same time his declarations on behalf of personal and national liberty put him at odds with Tsar Alexander I, who sentenced Pushkin to exile in what was then southern Russia.

Exile for Pushkin was—to quote Herman Melville on whaling in the South Pacific—“My Yale College and my Harvard,” and the young Russian happily toured Ukraine, the Caucasus, and Crimea, recording his travels in a series of epic poems and essays (not unlike Byron’s images of Italy and Greece when they were yearning to breathe free).

At one point in his wanderings Pushkin lived in Chisinau, now the capital of independent Moldova, but then a Russian provincial city.

When I went to Moldova some years ago (I took the night train from Bucharest), I not only went to Pushkin’s small house in Chisinau but hired a car and driver so that I could cross the river into the Russian enclave of Transnistria—the Soviet wedge in the side of Ukraine and Moldova that represents everything you need to know about Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions and Soviet revanchism.

Siberia: A Vast Artists’ Retreat?

On a Sunday morning, the State Pushkin Museum was a dream—quiet, elegantly curated, with just the right mix of portraits, manuscripts, landscape paintings, and ceramics from the early 19th century.

In one of the display cabinets I came across a copy of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, from Pushkin’s library, which he no doubt read so that he could be the bridge in Russian literature between romanticism and realism. Perhaps what interested Pushkin about Clarissa was the subtitle of the novel, which reads, in full:

The History of a Young Lady


The Most Important Concerns


Private Life.

and Particularly Shewing (sic)

The Distress That May Attend The


Both of

Parents and Children,

In Relation to Marriage.

In Eight Volumes.

Vol. II.

A New Edition.

By no means was Pushkin the only writer sent into exile to come back with more ideas about Russia than he had when he left. For example, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn are but a few who were packed off, usually to Siberia, where it turned out that they had nothing to do but write more novels, many of which touched on the crushing hand that Russian autocracy has placed on individual spirit—a theme that Pushkin was among the first to address.

Pushkin himself was not one of the Decembrists who in 1825 plotted to overthrow tsarist rule (Alexander I had just died, and Nicholas I had yet to assume the throne) and replace it with more democratic institutions. In a way they was the first Russian revolutionaries.

For their idealism, the Decembrists were executed or exiled. What made their banishment memorable is that many decamped from Moscow and St. Petersburg with their wives, children, pets, pianos, writing tables, and paint brushes in tow, and in Siberian cities, such as Irkutsk, they set up what amounted to utopian communes in which their arts and music flourished. They even published their own newspaper.

While Pushkin sympathized with the Decembrists and knew many of them personally, he was not among the plotters, and around this time his fate (almost as grim for the free-spirited poet) was to marry a woman with tsarist connections. This meant that toward the end of his life, Pushkin wasn’t traveling with a donkey in Crimea but was an accoutrement of court life in St. Petersburg (which is where his wife collected her lover who killed Pushkin in their duel).

A Crimean Baedeker

My personal interest in Pushkin was that, in his exile, he made it to Crimea, where he wrote his epic poem, The Fountain of Bakhchisaray, which he saw at the Khan Palace in Tatar Crimea in 1820—long before Stalin banished the Tatars to Central Asia and Putin turned the peninsula into an armed camp.

As I was heading to Crimea with my bicycle, I kept looking at the display cabinets for little hints of places where I might ride or villages I might see. Needless to say, the Pushkin Museum had fewer train schedules and cycle maps than I might have preferred.

It wasn’t lost on me that in Moscow and St. Petersburg today, Pushkin is a Russian national treasure, although if you read his poetic praises for native (meaning Islamic) culture in places such as Crimea and Chechnya, you might wonder why Putin hasn’t tried to exile or poison some of his verses.

Dr. Zhivago in the Moscow Suburbs

I wanted to see Boris Pasternak’s dacha in the Moscow suburbs because I enjoyed seeing the movie based on his novel Dr. Zhivago. As I recall, I saw it with my high school girlfriend, and afterwards I gave her a Hallmark edition of the doctor’s poetry, which read in this vein:

The noise is stilled. I come out on the stage.
Leaning against the door-post
I try to guess from the distant echo
What is to happen in my lifetime.

The dacha is located in Peredelkino in the Moscow suburbs where Stalin, in one of his less deadly moments, allowed the construction of a writer’s colony. In about a half hour I got there on a commuter train from Kiyevsky station, yet another of the grand terminals that form a ring around the center of Moscow.

In the mid-1930s some thirty houses—more are in Peredelkino today—were built in the woods outside the small town. On my bicycle, I found the subdivision of wooden literary dachas, which were constructed on lots cleared from a gloomy forest.

I had printed directions to the Pasternak house and museum, and, after a few wrong turns, I found it down a potholed lane; I figured I was close when I spotted some parked cars on the lane outside a driveway.

People were milling around in the yard when I pushed my bicycle up the house. Rather than lock it, I leaned it up against a tree, on the supposition that if your bicycle is safe anywhere in Russia, it’s at the house of Dr. Zhivago’s creator.

Stalin Starts a Writers’ Colony

Like many dachas in Peredelkino, the exterior of the house, with its rounded-glass veranda, has the look of a tug boat. Inside it feels like a Vermont cottage. Pasternak was only able to live there full-time after the house got better heating and plumbing. He was living there when he died in 1960, two years after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

A member of the staff sold me a ticket and handed me a laminated guide that resembled an iHop menu. She said that I was free to wander through the house on my own, and pointed me in the direction of the dining room, where it was easy to imagine Pasternak eating soup while watching, say, a Sputnik launch on his wooden-edged television set from the 1950s.

I was mostly interested to see his desk, where he wrote much of Dr. Zhivago. I found it upstairs, near some of his books (haphazardly arranged on some Ikea shelving) and in the room next to the sparse hospital cot on which he slept.

The monkish arrangements upstairs do not quite jibe with his fraught romantic life, in which at times he had both his wife and his mistress living in Peredelkino. The mistress was stashed nearby, and Pasternak would spent his days with her, working on his writing, and evenings back home with his wife and family.

Nor does the simplicity of his rural life quite capture his moody egotism that aligned his personality more, say, with that of Norman Mailer than his alter ego, the kindly Dr. Zhivago (portrayed in the movie by Omar Sharif).

I am guessing that Pasternak qualified for a dacha in the late 1930s both as a nationally admired poet and after he wrote a few odes to Stalin. In the late 1940s and 50s, however, he became a pariah, at least to the commissar classes. His early denunciations of Soviet repression led to the arrest and imprisonment of his secretary and mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, who was the model for Lara in Dr. Zhivago and to whom Pasternak wrote many of his Hallmark poems.

Banning Dr. Zhivago

Pasternak finished the draft of his celebrated novel in 1955, after which he sent it around to Soviet publishers, including Novy Mir (which also had a journal in which it would excerpt from books soon to be published).

Novy Mir sent back a rejection letter that ran to some 10,000 words, which was perhaps the first hint Pasternak had that maybe his book might not be a hit inside the Kremlin.

Many scenes in the novel—beyond the love story of Lara and the good doctor—show the Russian revolution devouring its own, although the nobility comes out in equally bad light, frittering away its time while waltzing at palace balls.

With no hope of getting the novel published in the Soviet Union, Pasternak managed to smuggle the manuscript to a publisher in Milan (one, however, with pro-communist sympathies), who brought out an Italian edition.

There perhaps the affaire might have ended except for two developments: Thought Police in the Soviet Union banned the book, and the American CIA printed a pirated edition in Russian.

Nothing quite sparks attention in a novel so much as an official ban. (At The Strand bookstore in New York, there’s an entire table devoted to “banned” literature that includes To Kill a Mockingbird and, of course, Lolita.) But it was the CIA edition (printed in the Netherlands by proxies for Dutch intelligence) that gave the book its wide readership.

The CIA Discovers the Pleasures of Self-Publishing

In the 1950s, the CIA devoted more energy than most of us realized printing and distributing books (Animal Farm and 1984 were others) in languages that made them accessible to readers in Russia and occupied Eastern Europe. Supporters called the effort a “Marshall Plan of the mind” (to which I might add, had the CIA limited its operations to book publishing, I might have a higher opinion of its achievements).

With Dr. Zhivago, the indy publishers in Langley hit gold, as in 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, which set off yet another firestorm around the banned novel and its now disgraced author.

The accepted theory of the Nobel Prize is that the pirated CIA editions sparked a worldwide admiration for an author who was, only with his pen, challenging the Soviet system. But in the memoirs of Sir Brian Urquhart, who also wrote a biography of Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish-born UN secretary-general who died in a plane crash in 1961, there is this supposition:

Two years earlier Hammarskjold had, by all accounts, backed the selection of Boris Pasternak for the 1958 Nobel Prize, and had helped draft the citation of the Russian poet’s literary merits. Pasternak’s Dr. Zhiva go, with its overtones of criticism toward the Soviet system, had provoked something of a political uproar in Russia, culminating with the disgrace of the author. What it was about Dr. Zhivago that impressed Hammarskjold so much has never emerged clearly. The literary merit of both the book and its poems is arguable, and few have maintained that in itself it could have been the reason for the award. The likelihood is that Hammarskjold probably was moved more by Pasternak’s theme of antiviolence and his conscious defiance of the pressures against free expression in the Soviet Union.

Whatever the reasons for the awarding of the honor, Soviet officials refused permission to Pasternak to travel to Stockholm to collect his prize and the money that came with it.

Probably what infuriated them the most was that Pasternak had first published the novel abroad and then allowed it to come out under the rubric of CIA Books (actually the spook publishers always had more literary names, such as Bedford or Encounter).

Authors Peter Finn (of the Washington Post) and Petra Couvée tell the story in much greater length in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book, which was published in 2014

Pasternak’s Funeral March Against the Soviet State

Pasternak never really recovered from the drama over the Nobel Prize. His heath deteriorated, and he died in 1960. He was buried near his dacha in the local Peredelkino cemetery. His funeral attracted a large crowd that followed his coffin from the nearby church to his gravesite, in what some have considered to be among the first public rallies in opposition to Soviet rule.

From the dacha, I went on my bicycle in search of the Pasternak gravesite. I had no trouble finding the cemetery, which is between the Peredelkino colony and the train station, but for the longest time Pasternak’s headstone eluded me, as it was just one of thousands in the burial ground. Finally some workmen directed me to the grave, an upright piece of marble with Pasternak’s profile engraved near the top.

The blockbuster Hollywood film was released in 1965, made by the director of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean. (This one, instead of having freedom-loving Arabs waving flags and blowing up trains, has Russians.) Lean’s focus in Dr. Zhivago was largely on the love story, in which the Russian revolution and the civil war are shown to spice up the foreplay.

By then even the deposed First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had read a purloined edition—maybe one of the copies from the CIA Book of the Month Club?—and had said, in effect: “I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”

But the “fuss” under Khrushchev had included sending Pasternak’s mistress and daughter to the Gulag for allegedly helping Boris first publish the novel in the West and for laundering the proceeds of his Nobel Prize money.

Not until 1988, when Mikhail Gorbachev was general secretary, was Dr. Zhivago officially published in the Soviet Union. With the regime tottering, a critical account of the 1917 Revolution felt quaint in comparison. Now the book is a classic that everyone knows, and that no one reads.

Reading Dr. Zhivago

I only read the novel in 1992, when I was traveling extensively in Russia. From my notes on the flyleaf I see that I finished it in Ufa, the capital of Bashkiria, which now calls itself Bashkortostan.

Ironically, it is one of the places to which Stalin deported the Tatars from Crima, who have since become a majority in the republic, which is 900 miles east of Moscow.

It makes sense that I would have carried the book there, as Ufa during the Russian civil war had five minutes of fame for hosting an anti-Bolshevik conference in autumn 1918 as the world war in Europe was coming to an end.

I don’t recall loving or hating the novel, although I now realize that the poetry, at least, is on the level of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I am sure I enjoyed Pasternak’s descriptions of milestones in Russian history (the Russo-Japanese War, the 1905 revolution, and the Great War) and then—weary from my travels to Ufa in some clapped out Aeroflot Tupolev—happily moved on to the love scenes.

In my travels I did highlight some of the passages that I suspect might have caused Pasternak his many problems with the authorities, including this one:

It was then that falsehood came into our Russian land. The great misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was the loss of faith in the value of personal opinions. People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must all sing the same tune in chorus, and live by other people’s notions, the notions which were being crammed down everybody’s throat. And there arose the power of the glittering phrase, first tsarist, then revolutionary.

Or maybe it was these thoughts that burned his bridges with the Kremlin: “I think that collectivization was both a mistake and a failure, and because that couldn’t be admitted, every means of intimidation had to be used to make people forget how to think and judge for themselves, to force them to see what wasn’t there, and to maintain the contrary of what their eyes told them.”

Pasternak and Putin

What’s interesting now about the Pasternak house museum is that it opened in 1990 just before the fall of the Soviet Union and its collectivization schemes, and ten years before Vladimir Putin came to power.

I have no way of knowing whether the autocratic president admires Pasternak’s romantic notions of the great Russian past (leaving aside their differences on the Revolution) or detests his collaborations with the enemy in the West. I suspect that Putin thinks that writers should do their work in the interests of the state, and of that he has said: “Russia’s border doesn’t end anywhere.”

I suppose it’s possible that, like Khrushchev, Putin read a pirated edition of Dr. Zhivago when he was young, carefree, and in love, and that parts of it inspired him to look differently at Russian history. At the same time I cannot ever see him reconciling what Pasternak called his “two basic ideals of modern man…the idea of free personality and the idea of life as sacrifice.” Putin might like the part about sacrifice, but less so the political concept of a “free personality”. After all, the capstone of Putin’s career has been to refight the Russian Civil War, and of that Pasternak wrote: “Man is a wolf to man.”

Next: On the train to Stalingrad, now the Russian city of Volgograd. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.