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A Poetic Finale

USC College’s Institute of Modern Russian Culture acquires rare Boris Pasternak collection.

By Pamela J. Johnson
June 1, 2008

A Poetic Finale

In a poem, Russian writer Boris Pasternak conveyed his unjustified persecution following his Nobel Prize in Literature.

Am I a gangster or murderer?
Of what crime do I stand
Condemned? I made the whole world weep
At the beauty of my land.

A young professor at Latvia State University in Riga, Latvia, Lev Ladyzhensky watched as the Kremlin forced Pasternak to refuse the prize celebrating Doctor Zhivago, a novel banned in Pasternak’s homeland for its perceived criticism of life under communism.

Dr. Ladyzhensky had been collecting Pasternak materials long before the ill-fated 1958 Nobel Prize and the poet’s death of lung cancer two years later.

This unique collection, spanning more than a half-century of turbulent Russian history, is now housed in USC College’s Institute of Modern Russian Culture (IMRC), a library and research facility located in the Shrine Auditorium, across from the University Park campus.

“It’s probably the fullest collection of Pasternak published materials in the Western world,” John Bowlt, IMRC director and professor in the College’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, said from Moscow, where he is researching Russian painter and scene and costume designer Léon Bakst.

In addition to rare books, the Dr. Ladyzhensky collection includes articles and essays from newspapers and magazines around the world, some chronicling the Soviet government’s growing disapproval of Pasternak’s work. It includes many rare photographs and Russian, Soviet and Western imprints.

After Dr. Ladyzhensky’s death in 2004, his widow, Aviva, and her son Alex Brodsky searched for the best way to preserve the collection and make it available to researchers. With the help of Dr. Musya Glants of Harvard University, they contacted Bowlt and spent many months working with him to arrange the transfer of the collection from Massachusetts to the IMRC.

Bowlt said the acquisition was a major gain for the IMRC, a primary resource for faculty, graduate students and undergraduates conducting research on Russia’s cultural history in the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection, he said, is a monument to both Lev Ladyzhensky and Boris Pasternak.

“Dr. Ladyzhensky spent many years assembling the collection, so we wanted to keep it intact,” Bowlt said. “We felt a duty to save it from fragmentation.”

“We are very pleased,” Brodsky said from Massachusetts. “We always wanted the collection to be left in the hands of those who would preserve it as a whole and make it available to scholars.”

Dr. Ladyzhensky had a strong affinity for writers in early 20th century Russia, known as the Silver Age, a period ending after the Russian Civil War, Brodsky said. Of the famous poets in that era — Alexander Blok, Osip Mandelshtam, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak — Dr. Ladyzhensky was particularly drawn to Pasternak’s work and life in 20th century Russia.

Although never arrested as were many of his contemporaries, Pasternak was ejected from the Union of Soviet Writers as punishment for perceived anti-revolutionary views in Doctor Zhivago, finally published in the Soviet Union in 1988.

When Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, all publication of his work was suspended and he spent most of his time in rural Peredelkino, outside Moscow. His health deteriorated and he died in 1960, two years after winning the Nobel Prize.

Despite his suffering, he said leaving his motherland would be like death: “I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work.”

Born in 1929 in Kiev, Ukraine, Dr. Ladyzhensky attended Kiev State University and earned his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1955. A year later he became a mathematics professor at Latvia State University, and in 1960 he co-founded the university’s computing center, among the first such facilities in the Soviet Union. Throughout these years he continued to grow and refine his Pasternak collection.

In December 1973 Dr. Ladyzhensky was arrested for distributing Samizdat, government-suppressed literature. He served three years in labor camp in the Urals, and in 1980 was forced to leave the Soviet Union. He brought his family to New York, where he worked as a senior consultant for Standard & Poor’s.

After his retirement in 1998, he moved to Brookline, Mass. He continued to expand the Pasternak collection by adding publications from outside the Soviet Union and post-Perestroika Russia. The Pasternak collection was Dr. Ladyzhensky’s lifelong project until his death in 2004.

At the IMRC recently, archivist Mark Konecny sorted through one of the large boxes filled with Pasternak materials. The books had already been placed in shelves. But there were several boxes still filled with magazine and newspaper articles and rare photos of Pasternak and his family.

One unusual part of the collection is Dr. Ladyzhensky’s mathematical analysis of Pasternak’s poetry. A talented mathematician, Dr. Ladyzhensky performed mathematical analysis of some of Pasternak’s poetical works.

“This is a unique collection,” said Konecny, the IMRC’s associate director. “Without a doubt there’s nothing like this in the world — all in one place.”

In the collection, articles in various languages quoted Alex Zholkovsky, professor of Slavic languages and literatures in the College, an internationally recognized expert on Pasternak.

“Outside of Russia, Pasternak is known mainly for Doctor Zhivago,” Zholkovsky said. “But for Russians, Pasternak is foremost a poet. People know his poetry by heart. He’s one of the great names of Russian poetry in the 20th century.”

Zholkovsky said placing the collection at the IMRC for scholarly research was a poetic finale for works and other materials involving a gifted, once-banned author.

“It’s a great coup for all of us,” Zholkovsky said.