Pasternak’s Heavenly Arson.

In early 1947, Pasternak wrote one of his best poems, Рождественская звезда [Star of the Nativity]. Here’s a bit of what Dmitry Bykov says about it in his great biography of Pasternak (which has been translated into French but not, so far, into English):

There was another reason he didn’t choose to take these events [the persecutions of writers in that year] seriously. In February 1947 “Star of the Nativity” was written, and a person who has written such verses no longer has anything to worry about.

[…] when “Star” appeared, everyone was stunned: both those who worshiped Pasternak […] and those who didn’t accept his work at all. Pasternak didn’t see these verses published in his own country: they were printed only in foreign editions of Doctor Zhivago […]. “Star of the Nativity” circulated in handwritten copies. […]

Maria Yudina wrote Pasternak that even if he’d never created anything besides “Star of the Nativity,” his immortality would be assured on earth and in heaven.

Была и еще одна причина, по которой он не желал принимать все происходящее всерьез. В феврале 1947 года была написана «Рождественская звезда», а человек, написавший такие стихи, может уже ни о чем не беспокоиться.

[…] когда «Звезда» появилась, ошеломлены были все: и те, кто боготворил Пастернака […] – и те, кто не принимал его творчества вовсе. Пастернак не увидел этих стихов опубликованными на Родине: они были напечатаны лишь в зарубежных изданиях «Доктора Живаго» […]. «Рождественская звезда» ходила в списках. […]

Мария Юдина писала Пастернаку, что если бы он ничего, кроме «Рождественской звезды», не создал, – ему было бы обеспечено бессмертие на земле и на небе.

There’s a lot to say about this poem — it’s a miracle of assonance, varied rhythm, and internal rhyme — but I’m going to focus on what was to me the most surprising stanza in the poem, which opens with a description of the cave in which the holy family is sheltering from the wind off the steppes (this is a very Russian Nativity, with plenty of realia that have nothing to do with Palestine), then segues to a hilltop where shepherds see a star. The fifth stanza describes it as you might expect, twinkling in the window, “shyer than an oil lamp,” pointing the way to Bethlehem. Then we get this:

It blazed like a haystack, apart
from heaven and God,
like a reflection of arson,
like a farm afire and flames on a threshing floor.

Она пламенела, как стог, в стороне
От неба и Бога,
Как отблеск поджога,
Как хутор в огне и пожар на гумне.

Now, what’s that about? It’s one thing to present the star as blazing brilliantly, but quite another to explicitly compare it to arson, to farms and barns and fields being burned deliberately, as happened so often in Russia during the grim years of revolution and civil war. (I was reminded of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous story “The Star,” but that’s a very different take on the idea, and I’m pretty sure Pasternak would have considered it blasphemous.) It’s not just here, either; there’s a similar image in В больнице [In Hospital], another great poem of his late period, he writes:

Then he looked gratefully
at the window, behind which the wall
was lit up as if by a spark
from a fire in the city.

Тогда он взглянул благодарно
В окно, за которым стена
Была точно искрой пожарной
Из города озарена.

My guess is that it has to do with a psychological trait of Pasternak’s that Bykov repeatedly emphasizes: he felt most comfortable in times of maximum stress and danger. The thought of the human world set ablaze may well have seemed appropriate for the greatest blessing that mankind was ever given. There’s been a lot written on this poem, and maybe I’ll find someone discussing this aspect, but those are my thoughts for now.

Two related things:

1) Having gotten to the relevant part of the biography, I’m going to put aside my 19th-century reading and finally start on Zhivago (I’ve had my Russian copy since 1993).

2) Maria Yudina, who told Pasternak the poem assured his immortality, plays a central role in The Death of Stalin; against all odds (a comedy made in the West about that horrifying time?), it’s a terrific movie, but I warn you, the humor is of the very darkest variety (there are lots of people shot), so don’t see it unless you have a taste for that sort of thing. If you do, though, I can pretty much guarantee a good time. Don’t take my word for it; Masha Gessen likes it too: “Iannucci shows something that few people understand about Stalin’s reign and its aftermath: that it was both terrifying and ridiculous, and terrifying in its ridiculousness.”


  1. this is a very Russian Nativity, with plenty of realia that have nothing to do with Palestine
    Yes. But there are elements of Orientalism. Camel is not your typical Russian animal and cedar is not your typical Russian tree. I guess, the imagery is mostly related not to the Nativity itself, but to it’s celebration in art and (Russian) custom.

  2. The threshing floor seems to be the key theological element there. The Temple was built by Solomon on the site of a threshing floor that was purchased by his father. The arrival of Jesus is metaphorically the burning of the building on the threshing floor, the Temple. It is the replacement of the old worship and old covenant of the Jews with the new covenant of the Christians. This is a common metaphor in Christology, with the body of Jesus physically replacing the doomed, superseded Temple as the locus of worship

  3. Brett: Thanks, that would never have occurred to me!

  4. Can thoroughly endorse the recommendation for Death of Stalin. Spoiler alert (from wp on Yudina) the episode featured in the movie is apocryphal, and anyway happened (if it did) at a completely other time.

  5. Yeah, if you’re looking for reliable history, this is not your movie, but it’s true in spirit to what was going on and what those horrible people were like.

  6. An anecdote about Yudina which I remember goes like this. Once Stalin heard on the radio Mozart’s sonata played by Yudina. He liked it and ordered an LP. Unfortunately, there was no recording. Yudina played live. Of course, no one was stupid enough to tell this to the Leader and the LP was produced in a single copy.

  7. That’s the story told at the start of the movie. If it actually happened, it would have been almost a decade earlier, but who’s counting?

  8. It’s said that when Stalin was on his deathbed somebody ensured that the Yudina LP was played constantly on a gramophone in the room. That may be piling apocryphal on apocryphal, but the existence of the story suggests the filmmakers weren’t taking excessive licence. (I haven’t yet seen the movie, so apologies if this is over-explaining the bleeding obvious.)

    An accurate biopic of Yudina, with a skilled and charismatic actress in the role, would be riveting.

  9. @Ian, oh yes: everything about Yudina was riveting in the movie. And as @hat says, however much of what the movie depicts is apocryphal, it is all absolutely true to spirit: both the terror and the ridiculousness. In fact, I might have just persuaded myself to go and see it again. It was that good.

  10. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. Maybe I’ll get the DVD (it might have some interesting extra features, too).

  11. @D.O.: moreover – goes the anecdote – Stalin ordered a large enough sum to be mailed to Yudina. She wrote back that she would give the money to her church and would pray for Stalin so that the Lord might forgive him the murder of so many people. That would have been in character – coming from a Jewish family, Yudina converted to Orthodox Christianity after the Revolution and was later a member of the so-called catacomb church, which did not recognize the pro-Bolshevik declarations of Sergius I.

  12. She was an amazing woman. (Her in-your-face anti-regime attitude is a plot point in the movie, too.)

  13. The movie was based on a comic (BD if you prefer), by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. There’s an image from the book on this page featuring Yudina.

  14. Thanks, I was wondering what the BD was like!

  15. the DVD (it might have some interesting extra features, too).

    There’s plenty of extras on youtube, including interviews with the cast. The act-person who plays Yudina is an actual pianist. Michael Palin is very engaging, as ever. It sounds like they all had a whale of a time with the shooting (pun intended).

  16. Looking at it from Arabic, the Temple being built on a threshing-floor very strongly suggests a pun: the root drs is both “to thresh” and “to study” in Arabic. I can’t see any evidence that that pun could work in Hebrew, but I wonder if something similar was going on there.

  17. David Marjanović says

    Does it at least work in Aramaic…?

  18. But the Temple was not (primarily) a place for study but for sacrifice, as I understand it.

  19. The threshing floor Solomon purchased for the temple from Araunah the Jebusite was a goren גֹּרֶן (cognate with Arabic جُرْن ǧurn), a threshing floor. A large, flat, horizontal piece of land would be a good place to build a large edifice. I can’t think of any pun having to do with studying in this case, and I wonder if worship and theological study were associated with the same locations and with each other at that time.

    The Hebrew roots drš/drs ‘study, expound’ / ‘trample, thresh’ are surely related. Per Klein, the Hebrew and Arabic are both Aramaic loans. I don’t know if the secondary meaning was at first ‘to teach’ (as in Arabic) or ‘to expound’ (as in Hebrew), and thus whether the metaphor is about threshing lazy students or threshing scholarly minutiae.

    Another metaphor of the same flavor appears in the Hebrew root lmd. In Modern Hebrew it means only ‘to learn’ (or ‘to teach’ in the causative pi‘el). Its older, wider meaning, is something like ‘to discipline, chastise’, hence מַלְמָד malmād ‘cattle goad (n.)’ Beating learning into reluctant children is pretty universal, it seems.

  20. I don’t understand the general history of sibilants in Semitic, but in Aramaic drš is used at various times both for ‘tread, thresh’ and ‘expound’. drs is used only for ‘tread/thresh’.

  21. Primarily, yes. But the Jewish courts were also in session there in Roman times. In addition and perhaps in consequence, the great Jewish sages, including the Zugot, or president of the council / chief judge pairs, and the first generation of the Tannaim, the rabbis quoted in the Mishnah, often held disputations with whoever cared to challenge them, including (according to Luke’s Gospel) the adolescent Jesus. The KJV misleadingly (to present-day ears) calls them doctors in this context, but the Greek didaskaloi means ‘instructors, teachers’ and was probably the standard Greek word for rabbanim ‘rabbis’.When this word is applied to Jesus himself, the KJV says Master, but more recent translations use Teacher.

    ObHat: Rabbanim is the plural of rabbi, which is in origin a sort of vocative, ‘my master’, when it means ‘rabbi’; when any other sort of teacher is meant, the singular rav and the broken plural rabbay was used.

  22. Rav, Rabbi and Rabban were all used as titles. There’s famous quote from a responsum of Rav Sherira Gaon, “Rabbi is greater than Rav, Rabban is greater than Rabbi, his name is greater than Rabban” (the latter referring to sages without a title, such as Hillel.)

    The title Rav may have come from Rabbi through vowel apocope, typical of Eastern Aramaic.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    The threshingfloor whereupon the Temple was built was not the only threshingfloor in the OT either literal (see Gen. 50:10 “And they came to the threshingfloor of Atad, which is beyond Jordan .. .”) or metaphorical (see Jer. 51:33 “For thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; The daughter of Babylon is like a threshingfloor, it is time to thresh her: yet a little while, and the time of her harvest shall come.”). Nor is it the only threshingfloor used metaphorically in the Byzantine hymnody Pasternak might have heard chanted in Slavonic. E.g., from vespers for the eve of the Sunday of the Prodigal Son (taking a simple metaphor and beating it into the ground in excruciating detail):

    Rich and fertile was the earth allotted to us,
    But all we planted were the seeds of sin.
    We reaped the sheaves of evil with the sickle of laziness;
    We failed to place them on the threshing-floor of sorrow.
    Now we beg Thee, Lord, eternal Master of the harvest:
    May Thy love become the breeze to winnow the straw of our worthless deeds.
    Make us like precious wheat to be stored in heaven, and save us all!

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    Or (if Pasternak could find a parish under the Bolshevik yoke which was able to hold all the daily services) he would have heard at vespers on the evening of (Old Calendar) Dec. 20, as part of the run up to Christmas: “Your womb, all-blameless Mother of God, is acknowledged to be a heap of grain of a threshing floor, which carries ineffably, beyond mind and beyond reason a ear of grain untilled; which you bear in a Cave of Bethlehem, and is about to nourish all creation by grace with divine knowledge and to rescue humanity from a famine which destroys the soul.” Even if Christ (and Mary’s womb) surpass and supersede the various Old Testament types that foreshadow them, it would sound quite jarring within the general rhetorical strategies of that typology to suggest that the types be burned/destroyed/trashed intentionally (except for the burning bush, which foreshadows Mary’s pregnancy by the figure of a fire that does not destroy the thing set afire). So either Pasternak was trying to be jarring or Brett’s exegesis is erroneous.

    FWIW, the English translation of that same text from the (Ruthenian) Byzantine Catholics in Pittsburgh begins “O all-immaculate Theotokos, * your womb was the pillar of the threshing floor . . . .” Because their forebearers left Orthodoxy to join up with the Vatican prior to the Nikonian reforms and ensuing Old-Believer schism, they took with them a somewhat different recension of the Slavonic texts than has been standard for the last three centuries and change, and presumably that accounts for the difference between the heap of grain and the pillar.

  25. Fascinating, thanks for the insider info!

  26. would sound quite jarring within the general rhetorical strategies of that typology to suggest that the types be burned/destroyed/trashed intentionally.

    Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

    -John 2:19, New International Version

    We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.”

    -Mark 14:58, NIV

    The destruction of the old temple is described in the gospels as an affirmative goal of Jesus’s ministry. Like the arson Pasternak’s poem, the destruction indicated in the gospels might be interpreted as metaphorical, although by the time that John was written (it’s less clear for Mark), the temple certainly had been destroyed in reality.

  27. J.W. Brewer says

    Um, Mark 14:57 says “And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying ..” So Jesus most definitely did not, on Mark’s account, actually say the thing he was then falsely claimed in verse 58 to have said. Note that in John 2:19 he’s talking about someone else (perhaps his interlocutors?) destroying the Temple, not doing it himself, which would be a rather significant difference even if it were not immediately and explicitly clarified in verse 21 (after it was pointed out that the literal/physical Second Temple had taken 46 years to build) “But he spake of the temple of his body.” Twisting the no-doubt weird-sounding statement of John 2:19 into the affirmatively threatening-sounding statement of Mark 14:58 is the sort of thing people acting in bad faith to try to get the authorities to arrest their political or theological opponents do.

    But I was talking specifically about how the liturgical tradition of Russian Orthodoxy, with which Pasternak was familiar, treats the typological imagery of the threshingfloor. Maybe some wacky evangelical dude with a late-night cable TV show has in fact talked about the destruction of the Temple consistent with Brett’s interpretation. There’s a very diverse range of interpretations out there. I just don’t think it’s likely Pasternak was tuned in to that show.

  28. @J.W. Brewer: Whether you care for it or not, the notion that the destruction of the Temple was part of Jesus’s mission is a very old concept in supersessionist theology. It has a history in both western and orthodox churches, although it has gotten a lot less prominent in recent decades. It remains an important element of much theological antisemitism, but often in “dog whistle” form; you probably won’t recognize it unless you are used to seeing it.

  29. David Marjanović says

    But the Temple was not (primarily) a place for study but for sacrifice, as I understand it.


  30. Trond Engen says

    I’m suddenly curious about the religious significance of threshing and the threshing floor in Bronze Age Canaan.

  31. @Brett: It’s not that Pasternak wouldn’t have subscribed to supersessionist theology (I suspect he would have or even did, based on certain conversations in Dr. Zhivago), but I doubt he consciously used the threshing floor image for a theological reason. The Russian word, gumno, is short, evocative, and rhymes with “fire” in the prepositional case. It’s poetically convenient, as it were. (It usually refers not to the threshing floor alone but to a large wooden shed where the harvest is stored, threshed and winnowed.)

    Incidentally, gumno begins with the same sound, has the same number of syllables and shares two consonants with גרן.

  32. Trond Engen says

    The Hebrew roots drš/drs ‘study, expound’ / ‘trample, thresh’ are surely related.

    Oh, slow thinker. Madrasah, obviously.

  33. Trond Engen says

    Even slower. A madrasah could then be a threshing floor as well as a place of study. Maybe threshing floors were used as gathering grounds similar to Greek gymnasions.

  34. I happen to have translated this poem a few years ago, and I remember being struck by the arson image as well. Here is my translation of the relevant lines:

    It flared up like a dry hayrick, apart
    from God and heaven,
    like an arson’s gleam,
    like a farm and threshing-floor in flames.

    And here is a link to my translation of the whole poem:

  35. Very nice, thanks for sharing it!

  36. I remember doing lots of thinking about terms for piles of hay when working on this translation. I noticed that you had “haystack” where I had “hayrick” (стог), but that’s because there was another “stack” (скирда) coming up in the next stanza.

Speak Your Mind