65 years after the publication of Boris Pasternak’s masterpiece, his niece is embroiled in a legal battle over her latest biography
On a flight to Milan about nine years ago, Charles Pasternak read the proofs of his daughter Anna’s most recent book, Lara: The Untold Story that Inspired Doctor Zhivago. Anna was sitting next to him but Charles remembers barely talking to her. After the flight he continued reading the book in his hotel room until he had finished it. “It was a very emotional experience,” he tells me in his light-filled South Kensington flat, the walls adorned with paintings by his grandfather, including one of his uncle Boris. “I told Anna that Boris would have been very proud of her.”
Boris, of course, is the hero-poet-author of Doctor Zhivago and perhaps the most acclaimed Russian novelist of the 20th century, still revered by ordinary Russians who like to quote his poetry in the street. Immortalised on screen through the snow-swept love affair between Julie Christie’s Lara and Omar Sharif’s Yuri, his 1957 masterpiece remains an indelible critique of Stalin’s Soviet Union, steeped in passion, politics and Boris’s personal disillusionment with his homeland’s new revolutionary ideals.
Yet the story behind it is just as dramatic – an epic saga involving persecution, smuggled manuscripts, the CIA and, at its heart, a life-defining love affair between Boris and his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, a widow with two children whom Boris met in 1946.
Lara, published in 2016, gives a full account of the whole remarkable history (Doctor Zhivago was banned in Russia but smuggled out and published in Italy in 1957; shortly afterwards the CIA disseminated copies across Russia as part of a Cold War propaganda campaign) but concentrates on Olga’s role, not only as the inspiration for Lara, but the woman without whom the novel may never have been finished and almost certainly never published.
Anna’s book is now at the centre of its own drama, with a High Court plagiarism battle between the Pasternak family and international publishing giants Penguin Random House. The £2 million trial is set to begin on Wednesday.
In 2019, the American novelist Lara Prescott, herself named after Pasternak’s tormented heroine, published her own fictional account of the CIA campaign, The Secrets We Keep, framing it through the lens of a Mad Men-era pool of typists engaged to help with the logistics, but also weaving in the passionate affair between Boris and Olga.
Not long after, Anna sued Prescott for plagiarism, claiming that Prescott had presented her novel in press interviews as the untold story of Olga while her lawyers stated that “an astonishing number of substantial elements” had been copied from Anna’s book. Anna has said she felt like a victim of “identity theft” and claims that Prescott had not “properly” acknowledged Lara as a source for The Secrets We Keep. Almost immediately Prescott’s publishers, Penguin Random House, “swept in” and took up the defence on Prescott’s behalf saying that Anna’s claims are “simply without merit” and accusations of plagiarism are “unfounded”.
At stake is the right of non-fiction writers to have their research and the structure of their book copyrighted when drawn on by novelists in works of fiction.
Charles, 92, has never before spoken publicly about his famous family.
“When people have asked me in the past I’ve tried to divert them,” he says. “I wanted to achieve in my career on my own terms, not because of my birth.” He is doing so now because of his outrage over what is alleged to have happened, and because of the impact the case has had on his daughter.
“At times I’ve been very concerned for Anna. Three times, she’s asked Penguin Random House to sit round a table and try and reach an agreement; each time they batted her away. They’ve tried to intimidate her by asking for endless evidence, and they’ve ramped up the costs which for us now run to £700,000; if a family friend hadn’t come to the rescue, the situation would have been desperate. Nobody goes to the High Court lightly. It’s a tremendous strain. I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it myself, in fact I told Anna not to do it. But Anna has Boris’s courage.”
Charles is charming, fastidious and as sharp as a tack (he spent lockdown writing a book about the roots of gender inequality, Androcentrism which has just been published). He never met his uncle, whose sister Josephine was his mother. Yet the story Anna tells in Lara is to some extent his story, too.
As a young boy he remembers his mother, who escaped the Russian Revolution by moving to Berlin (Charles was born in Munich in 1930), recounting what would prove to be her final meeting with her adored sibling in 1935.
“I remember it being a very traumatic time in her life,” says Charles, explaining that Boris, terrified by surviving Stalin’s Great Purge where 1,500 writers were killed, had been made to attend the First International Writers Congress in Paris accompanied by a KGB minder. “But he was somehow able to stop off in Berlin and visit my mother. It was obviously very emotional. Yet despite Boris’s state of mind he told her he was very excited about this new novel he was going to write.”
For decades the Pasternak family maintained that the character of Lara was inspired by Boris’s second wife Zinaida, whom he married in 1934. Anna argues it was only a decade later when he met Olga, an editorial assistant at the literary journal Novy Mir that the writing of Doctor Zhivago took off. Olga was to suffer terribly for her love for Boris, and was twice imprisoned over her association with him, losing the baby she was carrying as a consequence. The first time, in 1949, Olga refused to denounce him during interrogation and torture. Boris, meanwhile, channelled his overwhelming grief he felt at her absence into Doctor Zhivago. “Life became converted into art,” he wrote at the time. “And art was born of life and experience.”
For decades Olga remained a woman lost to history – and to bigotry. The Pasternaks dismissed her as a “fantasist” and an “adventuress”, closing ranks to protect Boris’s reputation. Even official biographers of Boris have toed the family line, not daring to emphasise the significance of Olga in order to secure access to Boris’s two children. “My mother Josephine was probably the worst,” admits Charles. “As far as she was concerned, having a mistress went against the grain for her.”
During Anna’s research, Charles accompanied Anna on a trip to Paris to meet Olga’s daughter Irina, whom Anna had spent five years trying to persuade to talk. “She hated the Pasternak family but she adored Boris. He called her ‘the daughter I never had’ and based the character of Katya, Lara’s daughter, on her. It was only when Anna suggested she bring me along, she relented.”
It was during this meeting that Irina voiced her suspicion that the Soviet authorities ensured Olga miscarried Boris’s baby while in Lubyanka prison: in the book, Anna details how, just before it happened, Olga had been locked inside the freezing morgue, an unmistakable “sweetish smell” thick in the air, and told that one of the bodies lying there was Boris. “It would have been too embarrassing to the Soviets if it emerged that Olga had had Boris’s baby in prison,” says Charles.
Boris succumbed to lung cancer in 1960 (two years after being forced by the Soviets to reject the Nobel prize for literature). Soon after this, Charles visited Russia for the first time and stayed with Zinaida, Boris’s widow at the dacha in Peredelkino, outside Moscow, where Boris had spent two decades writing his novel. By this point Charles was deeply regretting the fact he had never met his uncle. “I was very sorry he was no longer alive.” Instead he met Boris’s younger son Leonid and his brother Alexander and visited Boris’s grave in Moscow. He witnessed first hand, too, the adoration for his uncle of the Russian people.
“His loyalty and devotion to the Russian people was so strong,” says Charles. “He never left like Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn, he stayed. He said he loved the silver birch trees too much. And he risked his life every day under Stalin to tell his story in Doctor Zhivago. This is the Pasternakian spirit that I feel in this legal case. If Anna wins she hopes to create a law, Lara’s Law, protecting a non-fiction writer’s individual intellectual copyright. Anna’s not just doing it for herself. She’s doing it for writers everywhere.”
Androcentrism: The Ascendancy of Man by Charles Pasternak is published by World Scientific £25