Pasternak and Stalin: What Was Said?

A short telephone call between Joseph Stalin and Boris Pasternak sealed the fate of a fellow writer. What exactly transpired during that fateful discussion remains subject to debate.

Soviet poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, 1930s. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images.

On 13 June 1934 Boris Pasternak was at home in Moscow when the telephone rang. As one of Russia’s most famous poets, he was used to being interrupted; but what he heard when he picked up made his blood run cold. ‘I have Comrade Stalin on the line for you’, said the voice. Pasternak was terrified. Before he could stammer out a reply, ‘the Boss’ himself came on. He wanted to talk about the recent arrest of Pasternak’s friend, Osip Mandelstam. A rather subversive man, Mandelstam had written a poem criticising Stalin and then recited it to a few acquaintances, one of whom had repeated it to the secret police. Eventually, Stalin himself had learned of it – and now he wanted Pasternak’s opinion. The two spoke for three or four minutes before Stalin hung up.

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