One of the strands in my seedling novel takes in a character who has escaped from the Russian Revolution. With this in mind, I made my way to central London on a steaming hot Tuesday during the mid September heatwave, taking refuge in the cool basement room of Waterstones Piccadilly to hear the story of a woman who should, according to the writer of her biography, be hailed as the inspiration for Boris Pasternak’s character Lara in his literary colossus Dr Zhivago.
Anna Pasternak, the great-niece of Boris, claims that her grandmother’s brother had referenced his relationship with Olga Ivinskaya when creating the romance between Dr Zhivago and Lara – acknowledged to be one of the greatest love stories ever written.
Olga, to date, has been sidelined by the Pasternak family due to the fact that she was the mistress of Boris Pasternak during his second marriage, says Anna. She has written her own book about Lara’s life, aiming to set the record straight about the influence of Olga on Boris’s writing.
Settling in for a recount of the arguments set out in Anna’s book, I was happily surprised at the enthusiasm with which she told the story of Olga – there is obviously much warmth felt for this woman who has been denied a true hearing of her fascinating life.
Meeting Boris in 1946 at the age of 34, Olga would have been star-struck at meeting a man who at the time commanded huge audiences for his poetry readings – Anna told of adoring fans who would surge forward at a reading by Boris to catch pieces of ash falling from his cigarette as a souvenir of having been in the great man’s presence.
Olga and Boris embarked upon a passionate affair, documented for posterity through the many love letters written between the two.
Boris at this time was in the midst of writing his masterpiece Dr Zhivago. As was the custom, he gave public readings of his work as it developed, which brought to the attention of the KGB the anti-Soviet nature of the novel. It would appear that Boris was protected to a degree by his celebrity and the popularity of his poetry with the leader Stalin. Sadly, this did not protect Olga, who was imprisoned, sentenced to five years in the Gulag, and questioned over her lover’s work. She even lost her unborn child (the father was Boris) due to a particularly cruel episode.
Upon the death of Stalin, Olga was released, but was taken off to the Gulag again after the death of Boris, along with her daughter Irina. Anna told us that it had taken five years for her to gain an audience with Irina, but that this was due to the animosity felt towards the Pasternak family for their treatment of Olga’s memory rather than any resentment felt for her time spent in the Gulag.
During the Q&A, Anna was asked about the Russian reaction to her book. She explained that as a member of Boris Pasternak’s family, she had been treated like royalty when visiting the country for research. She also told us that the book rights had been sold to a Russian agent for translation, speculating that there might be some revision with a few of the facts contained within!
A confession – Dr Zhivago remains a stranger to me, but I shall move the novel a few notches up the reading list having now learned about the remarkable woman who inspired the central love story.