Tag Archives: Leonid Pasternak

Leonid Pasternak home, Oxford UK

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Everybody kept telling me, “it’s on the Crescent, but I don’t know exactly where.” That wasn’t doing me any good. I had no idea what a crescent was, at least in the local lexicon. It obviously meant something very specific. I only had two days to find it – and, in fact, I didn’t even have close to two days. I had a few hours spread out over a few days. I was busy at a conference that was running pretty much all the time I was in Oxford. I could only get away in the morning and, briefly, at meal breaks. But I wasn’t having any luck. I had a host of friends and colleagues telling me, “Oh, yeah, it’s right around here somewhere. You’ve been walking by it on your way to Wolfson. You’ve seen the Park Town sign?” Yes, I had seen the Park Town sign. I just saw it 20 minutes ago. “Well, it’s right there somewhere.”
“Somewhere” wasn’t good enough for me. I needed a photo. I needed a couple. I needed them to be specific and right. You can’t post a photo of just any old thing and say, “this is somewhere near what I’m talking about.” You need to know. And time was running out. In less than 24 hours I had a flight back to Moscow. In five minutes the next conference session would begin and then I’d be busy well into the dark night and my quest would be in vain. But sometimes little miracles happen.
What I am talking about is the apartment at 20 Park Town in Oxford where Leonid Pasternak lived for years and died in 1945. Leonid was Boris’s father. Everybody knows Boris because of Doctor Zhivago, in the English-speaking world anyway. They should probably know him for his poetry, because he was a great poet long before he wrote a novel that would win him the Nobel Prize. But that’s being rather picky. Especially when poetry translates about as well as a mud pie. This, by the way, is a word of warning to all you ambitious poets out there – write a novel, too, before you’re done. It’ll make it easier for people to find your poems.
But I was in search of Leonid, not Boris. Leonid was a marvelous painter, impressionistic in his often slightly blurred, dimly-colored images. But his drawings, I suspect, are what really set him apart as a major artist of his time. In his drawings he somehow maintains his impressionistic gaze while also bringing a paradoxical clarity to whatever his subject may be. Moreover, his drawings, especially, preserve for us a living glance at some of the great figures of his time – he drew portraits of Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. That is to say nothing of the enormous series of portraits and paintings he did of Boris from his childhood into his adult years. Many of these works, incidentally, are still held, and occasionally exhibited, at the Pasternak residence in Park Town.

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I was not giving up, although there was every reason to do so. I simply had no time left, and there was no reason to think that, in 25 minutes’ time, I would be running around outside Pasternak’s apartment, photographing it from various angles. But, again, it was my friend, the translator Oliver Ready, who tossed out some last-minute information that gave me flickering hope that I might yet solve this self-imposed riddle. Now I needed the internet to check it, and, sure enough, sitting right in my line of sight was Maria Kozlovskaya Wiltshire, a translator of Olga Mukhina’s play Tanya-Tanya, whom I had just met. She was sitting with her computer open, dabbling around online. I raced to her, we plugged the new information in and – voila! – up came the address, 20 Park Town, Leonid Pasternak. I grabbed my coat and away I ran. I hated to miss the beginning of a panel devoted to Noah Birksted-Breen’s production of a documentary play called Grandchildren: The Second Act by Mikhail Kaluzhsky and Alexandra Polivanova, but there was no stopping me now. I trotted through the drizzling rain back to Park Town and took a couple of shots of the street sign. That was just in case I still couldn’t find the place I was looking for. I peered in at every address on every house, waiting to see that number 20 I was looking for. I was still a long way off. And then the street took a brief jog to the left and, once again – voila! – there it was! Now I knew what they all meant by “the crescent.” There stood a handsome pair of two long buildings that wrap in a curve around a small park between them. The addresses on one side are all odd numbers, the addresses on the opposite side are all even – and there was number 20, not quite in the middle of the building on my right. I had to play hooky to find it, but as anybody, anywhere knows, that only made my success all the sweeter.
Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945) was born Yitzhok-Leib Pasternak in Odessa. In that kind of thrashing way that seems to suit artists, he studied medicine and then law before dropping both of them in favor of art. His first exhibited painting was purchased by none other than the great collector Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection would become the Tretyakov Gallery) and he was quickly accepted into a prestigious circle of major painters, including Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, Mikhail Nesterov and others. He married the promising pianist Rosa Kaufman in 1889 and the young couple welcomed their first child Boris the following year. (See my blogs on the Tretyakov Gallery and on Boris Pasternak’s birthplace on this blogsite.) Pasternak went to Germany in 1921 for an eye operation but chose not to return to Russia. Anticipating danger in Berlin, Pasternak traveled to England in 1938, ending up at this address of 20 Park Town that I had to scramble so to find in such a short period of time.

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Boris Pasternak’s birthplace, Moscow

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I have driven or walked by this building at 3 Oruzheiny Lane dozens, maybe more than a hundred times, over the years and never noticed what I happened to glimpse one night as my wife and I were driving home from her parents’ house three blocks away: Boris Pasternak was born in this house. I saw the little blue plaque from the passenger’s seat of my wife’s car – Oksana’s the driver in this mad town, not I – and I felt like a kid who’d just been given 50 cents for no good reason at all. I felt excitement well up inside me and burble out into the open. “Oh, my God!” I said, “Pasternak was born there!” We had already turned left and were preparing to turn left again a long way away already. “Who? Where?” Oksana asked automatically, more worried about merging traffic. “Pasternak, for God’s sake!” I said, irritated. How could news like that fail to register the first time?
It’s no wonder, apparently, that I had not noticed the plaque earlier, although it actually was erected in 1990 in honor of Pasternak’s centennial. It seems that over the last 25 years or so various stores and cafes occupying the ground floor here essentially covered the plaque up with their own signs and advertisements. That information comes to me by way of a pretty neat website called Moscow Perspective. The plaque on the building, known historically as the Vedeneev House, is not a traditional memorial plaque; it is one of those plaques that goes up in conjunction with a great official website that tells the stories of hundreds of interesting historical sites in Moscow. The page devoted to this building – with more information than just that pertaining to Pasternak – can be found here.  I’ll lean on it for some of the basic information that follows.
Pasternak’s parents Leonid, a well-known painter, and Rosa, an accomplished concert pianist, had married Feb. 14, 1889. They moved into the large, six-room apartment No. 3 on the third floor in the fall of 1889. The future poet Boris was born Feb. 10, 1890. By fall of 1891 the family moved to other quarters, largely because none of the rooms was suitable for a painter’s studio for Leonid, and because the price was higher than the young family could afford.
A relatively frequent visitor to the Pasternaks was pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Leonid would later sketch a pencil portrait of Rubinstein sitting in a chair, listening to music, perhaps in this very apartment as Rosa played the piano. But now I’m letting my imagination run a little too freely.

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Still another cool site called Real Estate, and curated by the RIA Novosti news agency, points out that Pasternak had this building of his birth in mind when he described the fictional “Chernogoria” neighborhood where Lara (Larisa) lived in Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago. The site quotes from the novel: “These were the worst places in Moscow, reckless drivers and dens of iniquity, entire streets given over to debauchery, slums full of ‘fallen creatures…'” The site also offers the following descriptive information: “According to the plot of Doctor Zhivago Lara’s mother Amalia Karlovna attempts to commit suicide by poisoning in ‘Chernogoria.’ This is where Yury Zhivago, who came in the company of Alexander Alexandrovich Gromeko, sees Lara for the first time.”
For the last tidbit today I’ll go back to the Moscow Perspective site (link above). It  quotes at some length a description of this building and the neighborhood contained in a biography of Pasternak by the poet’s son Yevgeny.
“They [Pasternak’s parents] rented an apartment located on the border between a wealthier neighborhood and the coachmen’s garages, where the prices were not as high – at the Old Triumphal Gates (now Mayakovsky Square). The Vedeneev House had a large courtyard and carpenters’ workshops, and stands between what is now 2nd Tverskaya-Yamskaya, Oruzheiny Lane and 3rd Tverskaya-Yamskaya. Apartment No. 3 consisted of six small rooms, all of which were badly suited to an artist’s workshop. This is what created the impression of cramped space throughout the whole apartment, as noted in Leonid Pasternak’s diaries. They paid 50 rubles a month for it.”

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