Text and photos Ian Mitchell
“Leave that cloud-dweller in peace,” Joseph Stalin said to an underling at the height of the Great Terror, when the arrest of Boris Pasternak (1890–1960) was proposed. A year later, the poet, translator, and novelist moved into the commodious country house where he later wrote Doctor Zhivago, a love story set during the chaos of the Russian Revolution and ensuing civil war.
Today that house is a museum, where the visitor can see the actual desk where Pasternak wrote. Though his study is on the second floor, it is not exactly in the clouds. But it is in what would, at the time, have been the terrestrial equivalent: a pine forest 20 kilometers outside Moscow.
It was almost as far from the torture chambers of Sukhanovka and mass graves of Butovo (see February and March 2008 issues of Passport), both of which were active while the story of the bourgeois doctor and his beautiful mistress was being committed to paper. Nothing in the Peredelkino woods was likely to disturb the rustic peace necessary to write the Lara poems, which include one of Pasternak’s best-known lines: “Life is not a walk across a field.”
Today, Peredelkino is quite different. For a start, it is just inside the boundaries of the vastly expanded Moscow. Secondly, the new Minsk highway is less than a mile away, with German trucks roaring toward Moscow carrying cargos of Italian kitchens, French wines, and Austrian skiing equipment. On the other side, across the railway line, blocks of modern flats are rising up in the woods.
Next to the graveyard where Pasternak is buried a half - mile away, the Transfiguration Church is being augmented with new buildings, including a second church. Indeed, the field over which the great writer’s coffin was borne to his grave — death, for him, was a walk across a field — has been leveled and huge new dachas are under construction. The policeman and part-time security guard who gave a journalist a lift said he was appalled at their ostentation and ugliness.
So is Peredelkino still worth visiting? The answer is an emphatic yes. The settlement was built as a refuge for writers and artists of all sorts, their dachas and houses are scattered on still quiet streets among still cool pine woods. In the middle is the grand, pseudo-classical Dom Tvorchestva [House of Creativity], which was constructed in 1955. It is still administered by the state’s Literary Fund and is used by writers who come there to work in peace and quiet.
Peredelkino is a place where anyone interested in 20th-century Russian culture can see a vignette of both the Soviet past and the capitalist-consumerist present and contemplate their curious but not entirely unsuccessful interaction. A good setting for such meditation is the Dom Tvorchestva’s basement bar, where beer is 50 rubles a half-liter — a tremendous aid to creative thinking.
Pasternak himself was persecuted to the extent that when awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 he was forced to send the organizers in Stockholm a telegram reading, “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offence at my voluntary rejection.”
The local writers’ union complained to the authorities about their newly famous neighbor: “We cannot continue to breathe the same air. It is necessary to ask the government that Pasternak be excluded from the forthcoming population census.” The petty, spiteful war continued into the 1980s, when the writers’ organization evicted the Pasternak family from the house they had occupied since 1939.
It has since been returned to them and is now a museum, but that is not the only reason to visit Peredelkino. Many other interesting figures lived there, including film director Andrei Tarkovsky, semi-dissident bard Bulat Okudzhava, and, for a time, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. There is a second museum in the house formerly occupied by Kornei Chukovsky, the children’s writer.
Writer and Soviet icon Maxim Gorky was the first chairman of the Writer’s Union, a body created in 1932 to ensure that creative writers observed the tenets of Socialist Realism. It was Gorky who suggested to Stalin that a dacha settlement be built at Peredelkino, on the grounds of a former nobleman’s palace. The houses were to be distributed on a rental basis so that the privilege could be withdrawn any time the occupier displeased the authorities. Pasternak’s home was a wooden building which, unusually for the time, had central heating rather than the traditional brick stove. The rooms were large and well lit. In the sizable garden, Pasternak grew fruit and vegetables.
Peredelkino quietly decayed until it was partly privatized in the 1990s. Today it is one of the most desirable and expensive suburbs of Moscow. Bomb threats have been made against writers who refused to move out of rented houses that an oligarch wanted to seize. Walking through the woods, it is clear that some succeeded, though not all. The Pasternak museum is a beautiful and intriguing island of peace at the edge of a rapidly changing city. No one interested in Russian literature should pass it by.
How to get there
Pasternak House-Museum (Dom-muzei Pasternaka)
3 Ul. Pavlenko
Open Thursday to Sunday, 10:00–16:00.
Entry: 50 rubles.
By train from Kiev Station to Peredelkino, fare: 19 rubles. Service is frequent, and the journey is under 30 minutes.
From Peredelkino station, cross the tracks and walk up the road past the Transfiguration Church. The graveyard where Pasternak is buried is 100 yards ahead on the other side. From the cemetery, turn right and continue for 600 yards, passing the Dom Tvorchestva on the left . At Ulitsa Pavlenko, you’ll see a small sign pointing to the museum.