Brendan King tells of Boris Pasternak's use of Shakespeare as a protest against the Soviets.
When Shakespeare Fought Stalin
byBrendan King on Boris Pasternak
I have previously written and published an account of Boris Pasternak's heroic decision to translate the works of William Shakespeare -- a writer whom Joseph Stalin despised as "decadent" -- into Russian during the Great Purge of the 1930's. Since the publication of this article, however, a new piece of the puzzle has been brought to my attention.
Early in 1948, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union decided to retaliate for Winston Churchill's "Iron Curtain" Speech by ordering twenty of the USSR's leading poets to compose verse on the theme "Down with the Warmongers! For a Lasting Peace and People's Democracy!" Among them was Boris Pasternak, a poet every bit as admired in the West as in the Motherland.
All twenty poets were to read their verse at the Moscow Polytechnic Museum, which possessed what was then the largest auditorium in the city. As Pasternak was to be reading, the whole auditorium was packed with an audience that squatted in the aisles and spilled outside. Among those present was British diplomat Max Hayward, from whom the following account derives.
As the meeting opened, twenty poets trooped out on to the stage and took their seats facing the audience. Novelist Boris Gorbatov, who was to preside over the meeting, took his seat at a nearby table with a small bell before him. To the palpable disappointment of the audience, Pasternak's chair remained empty.
The first poet to read stepped up to the microphone and began to recite a poem which overtly demonized the Capitalist "Warmongers", the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and, of course, Winston Churchill.
As the first poet was almost finished with his reading, the audience burst into applause as Pasternak entered the stage from the wings. After motioning for the audience to calm down, Pasternak at last took his seat.
As the other poets read their verse with visible discomfort, the audience squirmed while awaiting for Pasternak to be summoned to the microphone. When Gorbatov at last called his name, the audience went wild with applause, shouts, and cheers. When the audience finally managed to calm down, Pasternak announced, "Unfortunately, I have no poems on the theme of the evening, but I will read you some things I wrote before the war." Again the audience erupted into cheers and applause. Meanwhile, Gorbatov's bald head was suddenly drenched with sweat.
Visibly enjoying his dangerous victory, Pasternak began to recite poems well known to the audience, followed each time by thunderous applause. At last, someone called out a request for Pasternak to read his translation of William Shakespeare's Sonnet 66.
As Pasternak began to oblige, a terrified Gorbatov began ringing his bell frantically, trying to call an intermission. At last he succeeded. Even so, the evening had been destroyed from the Party's perspective.
According to Max Hayward, anyone other than Pasternak would have been arrested and potentially shot for staging such a "political provocation". But Stalin's orders to "Leave this cloud-dweller in peace", still held good. Pasternak not only outlived the dictator, but also continued to write his novel "Doctor Zhivago", which he smuggled to Italy for publication and for which the world outside Russia now remembers him.
Anyone who has read Hayward's account of that poetry reading, however may be forgiven for wondering why a Shakespeare Sonnet was considered so subversive. The answer lies in its contents, which are a ringing indictment of the hypocrisy of all police states, and how they wilfullly degrade morality, culture, and the arts.
By William Shakespeare.
"Tir'd with all these, for restful death I cry, --
As, to behold desert a beggar born,
And needy nothing trimmed in jollity,
And purest faith unhappily forsworn,
And gilded honor shamefully misplac'd,
And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,
And right perfection wrongfully disgrac'd,
And strength by limping sway disabled,
And art made tongue-tied by authority,
And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,
And simple truth miscall'd simplicity,
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tir'd with all these, from these I would be gone,
Save that to die, I leave my love alone."