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.

With the click of the receiver, Mandelstam’s fate was sealed. Back in May – just days after his arrest – he had been sentenced to three years’ exile in Cherdyn, a nondescript town in the Northern Urals. He had attempted to kill himself shortly after arriving. On 12 June orders had therefore been given to transfer him to Voronezh, in southwest Russia. He had not even set off when Stalin called Pasternak. At first, the effects of the conversation might have seemed encouraging. Though Mandelstam was isolated from the wider world in Voronezh, he was not persecuted and was free to write whatever he pleased. But any chance of rehabilitation had vanished. As Mandelstam’s friend, the Acmeist poet Anna Akhmatova, later put it, night had fallen ‘without the hope of dawn’. Months after he was released in 1937 he was rearrested on charges of ‘counter-revolutionary activity’ and sentenced to a further five years’ detention in the Far East. On 27 December 1938 he died of typhoid while en route to the correction camp.

What ‘difference’?

during Stalin’s fateful call with Pasternak remains something of a mystery. Unusually, this is not for want of evidence. According to the Albanian author Ismail Kadare, no fewer than 13 accounts have survived. None of them is what we might call ‘first-hand’. Some were written by people who claimed to be present in Pasternak’s apartment, or heard about it from Pasternak himself; others give no indication of where they got their information – and all were written down long after the events in question.

Most of them agree on the basic outlines. Stalin began by asking Pasternak what he thought of Mandelstam. Why he did so is anyone’s guess. Maybe he was trying to find out whether Pasternak had heard the poem. Or perhaps he was just playing with him. He may even have been genuinely uncertain what to do with Mandelstam and seeking Pasternak’s honest opinion. Whatever the case, Pasternak equivocated, noting merely that they wrote ‘different’ sorts of poetry. This angered Stalin, who growled that, if he had a friend in trouble, he’d definitely have done more to save him – or words to that effect – then slammed the phone down.

Mixed messages

When it comes to the details, however, there is much less unanimity. Some claimed the call happened in the morning, others in the afternoon. Depending on who you read, Pasternak spoke ‘plainly and directly’, ‘with characteristic vacillation’ – or in a state of abject confusion. A handful of accounts even suggest that Pasternak tried to call Stalin back. Running through them all, however, is a central bone of contention: what did Pasternak mean when he said that he and Mandelstam were different? Was he dodging Stalin’s question or was he making an excuse? Could he have done more to help Mandelstam, or was he keen to save his own skin?

Pasternak’s widow, Zinaida Nikolayevna, certainly thought he’d done all he could. At the time she had been lying sick in bed and had only heard fragments of the conversation, but got the impression that Pasternak had highlighted their differences only to assure Stalin of his objectivity. As she remembered it, Pasternak had gone on to acknowledge Mandelstam as a ‘first-rate poet’ – and had even asked Stalin to release him. Mandelstam’s widow, Nadezhda, felt that he had behaved creditably, too.

Others were not so sure. Nikolai Vilmont – who claimed that he was also in Pasternak’s apartment at the time of the conversation – didn’t recall his friend saying anything of the kind. Quite the reverse, in fact. According to him, Pasternak had been more interested in speaking about other, more important issues. Convinced that they were destined to have a ‘historic’ conversation, he tried to steer Stalin into a discussion of ‘life and death’ – only to be brushed off. Zinaida Nikolayevna had hinted at something like this, too; but in Vilmont’s account, it was the only thing that Pasternak seemed to care about. For what it is worth, similar versions were told, with varying degrees of bile, by Anna Akhmatova and her young admirer Isaiah Berlin.

Most believed that Pasternak had been evasive. Galina von Meck – who, in addition to being Tchaikovsky’s great-niece, was rumoured to have been Mandelstam’s lover – adamantly maintained that, rather than standing up for Mandelstam, he had fumbled, saying something like ‘you know best, comrade’. Sergei Bobov, the Futurist poet, thought he had dodged the question completely. Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Ivinskaya – often thought to have been the model for Lara in Doctor Zhivago – suggested that he tried to turn the whole thing into a philosophical discussion about whether there could be gossip without the existence of literary groups. In these accounts, Stalin’s anger at Pasternak’s inaction is generally emphasised. The most colourful is by the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, in whose telling Stalin grew so enraged that he ended up calling Pasternak a ‘big fraud’.

To forgive or to blame?

If Pasternak was evasive can he really be blamed? Mandelstam’s arrest had taken place in an atmosphere of incipient fear. Since 1930 Stalin had been growing increasingly worried about the scale of popular opposition against him. Severe famines caused by the forced collectivisation of agriculture had sparked off a series of rebellions; even within the Communist Party itself, criticisms of the leadership were openly being voiced. A campaign of repression was set in motion – extending, naturally, to literature and the arts. Many authors were killed. Even more had their work suppressed. Mikhail Bulgakov, whose writing Stalin had previously admired, was pushed into obscurity; Anna Akhmatova, who struggled for years to publish her verse, saw her partner, Nikolai Punin, and son, Lev Gumilev, dragged off to the gulag.

Anyone who received a call from Stalin could have been forgiven for being flustered. As Robert Service has noted, the dictator was deliberately putting Pasternak in a bind. Although Mandelstam’s arrest was, by then, common knowledge, Pasternak cannot have known what Mandelstam had said during his interrogation, or whether he was suspected of complicity. If he defended Mandelstam too openly he risked incriminating himself; but if he said nothing he must have realised that there was still a good chance Mandelstam could be taken to the gulag – or worse. In the circumstances, equivocation might have seemed the better part of valour.

Even so, it is hard to believe that Pasternak could not have done more. Stalin’s approach to writers was often unstable. Although he was determined to stamp out any trace of opposition, he could also turn a blind eye when the fancy took him. He had written a good deal of poetry in his youth, read voraciously, and had remarkably frank relationships with some writers. If he detected flair in an author he could be tolerant, even forgiving, of political infelicities. As Pasternak’s friend Alexander Gladkov noted, it was only after Gorky’s death in the summer of 1936 that ‘things began to get out of hand’. Stalin was not deaf to appeals, either. Before the charges against Mandelstam became clear, Pasternak had evidently felt confident enough to write to Nikolai Bukharin, the editor of the newspaper Izvestiya, to ask for help in securing Stalin’s support. Since nothing untoward had resulted, there was nothing, in principle, to have stopped him from taking the matter further. Indeed, a year later, Pasternak did intercede with Stalin on behalf of Nikolai Punin and Lev Gumilev – and Stalin listened. So why did he hesitate, if not out of self-interest?

It is telling that Pasternak seems to have benefited from the call. At the time, he was living in a painfully ordinary apartment: a kommunalka (communal apartment) with a shared bathroom. Soon afterwards, however, he was moved. He received a beautiful apartment in a desirable area of Moscow and was granted a dacha, too. It has been said that Stalin also crossed his name off a list of those to be purged and came to regard him almost as inviolable, even after Doctor Zhivago was published abroad in 1957.

A fickle legacy

But there is a deeper question: why did Pasternak tell people about the conversation in the first place? Regardless of what actually passed between them, he must have realised that his role in the affair would now be open to suspicion, and that the more he said, the more he would fan the flames of speculation. Yet he seems to have had an almost compulsive need to repeat the story. No sooner had he put the phone down than he rushed round to Yevgeny Khazin’s house to spill the beans; he told Mandelstam’s widow; he told his mistress; and he told Isaiah Berlin twice, each time adding or omitting certain details until, by the 1950s, an entire, confusing mythology had grown up around the call. Was Pasternak trying to justify himself? Was it a confession? Did he want absolution? Did the contrast between Mandelstam’s fate and his own Nobel Prize (1958) become too painful to bear? Or, having seen how fragile friendships are under tyranny, was it his punishment to discover how uncertain truth becomes with the telling – and how fickle history in the writing?


Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick.  His latest book, Machiavelli: His Life and Times, is now available in paperback.