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This report is taken from PN Review 235, Volume 43 Number 5, May - June 2017.

Pasternak’s Revolutionary Summer Frank Beck
AS THE WORLD marks the centenary of the Russian Revolution, lovers of Russian poetry will be remembering My Sister Life (Sestra moia, zhizn’), the landmark cycle of poems that Boris Pasternak began in the summer of 1917, with revolution shaking the society around him. It was a time, Pasternak later wrote in Doctor Zhivago, ‘when everyone went mad in his own way, and when everyone’s life existed in its own right, and not as an illustration for a thesis in support of a superior policy’.

Pasternak was twenty-seven and the author of two collections of verse. While doing wartime work at a factory in the Urals, he heard about the February rebellion and hurried back to Moscow, out of concern for his family. As it happened, he spent much of that spring and summer in the company of Elena Vinograd, a friend from his school days who had progressive ideas. The two followed Russia’s shifting politics (they were at the Bolshoi Theatre when Alexander Kerensky, soon to be prime minister, was showered with rose petals there in May), but My Sister Life is primarily an account of the couple’s one-sided romance that summer, with Pasternak
the amorous one.

In telling that story, Pasternak recreated modern poetry in Russian. His bold imaginative leaps have much in common with Symbolism, yet they mostly occur in rhyming stanzas that owe just as much to Lermontov and Heine. Pasternak had first wanted to be a composer, and he wrote poetry with a musician’s ear. Intricate sound patterns ...
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