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Chicago Tribune
May 5, 2003
Fields of 'Dr. Zhivago' ripe for developers' bulldozers
Residents of the village where Boris Pasternak wrote fight to preserve its tranquil character
By Alex Rodriguez, Tribune foreign correspondent.

From his second-floor study, Boris Pasternak would gaze across a vast field of beets and berries tended by collective farm workers and conjure up the fate and poetry of Yuri Zhivago.

Pasternak had the poet-hero of one of Russia's beloved novels marvel at the uncomplicated beauty of the Russian countryside in much the same way he was awe-struck by the view from his study: the stands of silver birch, fir and pine on the far edge of the field, the meandering banks of the Syetun River, a distant hillside with a small cemetery and a church domed with gold cupolas.

"This was his motor," said Pasternak's daughter-in-law, Natalya. "The beauty of the land was most important."

On a recent sunny morning, as she stood at the window of Pasternak's study and looked out over the field, her face was tinged with dread. Soon, possibly this summer, wealthy Muscovites will build a complex of 78 posh cottages on Pasternak's field.

To the residents of Peredelkino, the idea is sacrilege. Pasternak wrote "Doctor Zhivago" inside his brown, turreted wooden villa here. Russia's famed children's writer, Kornei Chukovsky, called Peredelkino home. Russia's pre-eminent contemporary poets, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrei Voznesensky, have country cottages, or dachas, here.

At the same time, locals realize that post-Soviet Moscow sprawl has encircled Peredelkino and that it's only a matter of time before it wends its way into the village's heart and soul. Demand for prime real estate in Peredelkino has made prices soar: An acre of land costs as much as $600,000.

"This might be the last nail in the coffin, the event that will begin the devouring of Peredelkino," said Voznesensky, a next-door neighbor of Pasternak, who lived from 1890 to 1960.

Though they face stiff odds, Voznesensky, Natalya Pasternak and others in Peredelkino's literary community are eager to fight. They would stand a better chance if they knew whom they were fighting.

Local and regional officials will not divulge who owns the land, who will develop it or who is lining up to buy the cottages that will be built there. The field's previous owner, a collective farm, fears repercussions if it talks and also is balking at divulging any information about the transaction.

Natalya Pasternak said she received assurances from the region's governor, Vladimir Gromov, that Pasternak's field would not be developed. But, she said, "Maybe he forgot."

Governor defends project

Gromov's counsel, Vladimir Zemtfov, suggested that the fact that Pasternak wrote about the field doesn't necessarily mean it must be cordoned off as sacred ground. He was wary of disclosing details about the development project, though he said the plan calls for the construction of a cultural center and a church in addition to the cottages.

"Who says that the project will be bad? Maybe it will turn out good," Zemtfov said.

Local people doubt that.

This initial foray into Peredelkino is expected to spur more interest from developers. Once that happens, "it will be difficult to preserve Peredelkino as a literary oasis," Voznesensky said.

"For a long time, no one dared build anything here, but those days are long past," he said.

Josef Stalin established Peredelkino in the 1920s to provide the Soviet literary community a quiet refuge.

Stalin was fulfilling the request of a close friend, writer Maxim Gorky, the organizer of the Union of Soviet Writers and a man Stalin proclaimed "the greatest proletarian writer."

Writers such as Pasternak, Chukovsky and Fyodor Pavlenko moved into Peredelkino dachas at the state's expense. Though Peredelkino was Stalin's brainchild, it became the venue for Pasternak's unflinching prose about the stifling grip of communism.

Pasternak spent 11 years writing "Doctor Zhivago" while translating Shakespeare and Goethe to make ends meet. Banned in the Soviet Union, the book was first published in the West in 1956. Two years later, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

After the book was published, Pasternak was ostracized from much of the Soviet literary community. The Union of Soviet Writers expelled him. Soviet authorities forced Pasternak to reject the Nobel Prize. Today, however, Russians regard his dacha (now a museum), the field and the nearby cemetery where he is buried as places of pilgrimage. Fresh roses are placed regularly on his grave.

A treasured writers' colony

Though it was a product of the Soviet era, Peredelkino still means something to Moscow's burgeoning crop of young writers. They regularly sit down to tea with established poets and writers such as Voznesensky, or rent rooms at the village's Dom Tvorchestva, or "House of Creativity."

"It's the perfect location for writing," Voznesensky said. "You're close to Moscow, but you have peace and solitude here. It's really a charming place."

Natalya Pasternak said it is impossible to forecast when she will know whether the builders follow through with the project. "When the cement trucks come, that's when we'll know," she said.

She hasn't hired a lawyer to battle the developers because she doesn't own the land. Nevertheless, she thinks from a moral standpoint that the argument against development is strong.

"The builders don't understand that this field, because of Pasternak's writing, belongs to humanity," she said. "Who is more important, the few who will live in these cottages or the thousands who come here every year because of Pasternak?"

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