I have written about the impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak (Леонид Пастернак), the father of Boris Pasternak, in a previous post about the wealthy Moscow tea merchant, David Wissotzky, who had portraits of himself and his wife painted by Pasternak (https://wordpress.com/post/odessasecrets.wordpress.com/834). His children was also tutored by Boris Pasternak one summer. Boris fell in love with his daughter, Ida, and was inspired to begin writing poetry. There was a teacher called Leon Wissotzky who died in the Odessa pogrom and the Wissotzky’s had offices and warehouses in Odessa, using the port for their tea business. But what I never realised was that the Pasternaks were also from Odessa. It was only when I was looking up where Isaac Babel had lived in Odessa that the name Pasternak came up as well, as having stayed at Bazarnaya 78 over the years from 1885-1911 (like Jabotinsky and Kataev who had also lived on Bazarnaya), although he was living in Moscow at the time.
So where was the artist born and what was his life like growing up in Odessa? From the Russian Wikipedia entry, I found that Leonid (Yitzhok-Leib or Isaac-Leon) had been born in 1862 on Kherson Street 20, now Paster Street 20 (по Херсонской — Пастера улице). This is an area outside the centre near the harbour, between the centre and Moldavanka. Just beyond, along the harbour, is Peresyp, and further inland is Slobodka. According to Wikipedia and many accounts of Pasternak’s childhood, when he was quite small his father rented a courtyard and inn, eight rooms for small landowners coming to market, in central Slobodka near the cathedral and market square. A footnote leads to a very long article on a Russian history website about Peresyp and Slobodka-Romanovka mentioning many Odessan writers and historians and descendants of local people vouching for the Pasternak’s having lived at what was called the inn of Baransky, at 9 (possibly changed to 11) Rozhdestvenskaya near the church and Market Square, and yet to many writers on Odessa it was also called Gruzdyev House (https://www.istmira.com/istnovvr/aura-odesskoj-peresypi-i-slobodki-romanovki-kraeve/page/40/). On the 1888 map of Odessa, you can see Slobodka on the bottom with the market square in the centre. The beginning of Kherson Street can be seen across the ravine and railway track at the top of the map.
9 Rozhdestvenskaya just north of the central square
So I tried to find out more about Leonid’s early life in Odessa through his memoir, translated into English in 1982. He describes the bustling courtyard filled with the landowner’s horses and carts, which, as a small child, inspired him to begin drawing. He also describes his first trip outside at night, as a four-year-old, walking with his father to a special bakery on New Year’s Eve to collect a cake for their landlord. It is this detailed description of his walk to the bakery on Preobrazhenskaya near the City Gardens that makes one begin to doubt that the family lived in Slobodka. Then I came upon another story of his childhood on a website of biographies of famous Odessans. In this short biography, it says that Leonid’s grandfather Isaac came to Odessa from Galicia in the early 1800s and Leonid’s father, Joseph, was born in 1813. According to this story, Joseph’s inn was near the New Market (Новобазарная) on Koblevskaya between Olgievskaya and Konnaya, just across the ravine north of Slobodka (http://odessa-memory.info/index.php?id=243). New Market is the square towards the bottom left of the map.
New Market (Новобазарная) and Koblevskaya (Коблевская)
I went back to the memoir and read more carefully how Leonid described his childhood home. ‘I can only properly remember my early childhood from the time when father’s affairs took a turn for the better and he rented the vacant area described above – the courtyard and wing. “Gryuzdov’s House” was known throughout the regions and visitors used to travel from afar since the rooms were very cheap. Where we lived, on the outskirts of the city, was very provincial, almost like a village. You could see the sea, as well as the little settlement Romanovka nearby.’
How could he live in the middle of Romanovka near the marketplace and see it from where he lived? He then describes the courtyard more fully:
One would have thought that my childhood imagination would have been confined to things urban, but in fact it was nourished on country impressions. Although we lived in the town, our courtyard was more like a village and we were surrounded by things rural. This courtyard with its carts and wagons, it horses and oxen, it’s chumaks and coachman and Tartars – helped enrich my artistic imagination enormously, as well as develop my sense of observation. Every evening peasants would arrive to stay overnight, bringing with them their bread to sell. Their lodging would cost them only a few kopecks. By nightfall the yard would be filled to overflowing with wagons, people and animals. There was a strong smell of manure and the sound of neighing and chewing was everywhere. Even now I can still smell that peculiar odour of horses’ harness and tar, I can still hear the muffled lowing of oxen, the snorting of horses quarrelling and somebody’s certain and penetrating cry: ‘You swine!’
Then I found a history online of the famous bakery, Duryan’s, where Leonid had gone with his father to buy the special New Year’s cake, for their landlord, Untilov. He quotes from Pasternak about the bakery and describes Pasternak’s early home as being at Koblevskaya 13 on the corner of Olgievskaya, a house which his father rented from Mikhail Untilov until 1873 when he was able to buy the property. This house is near the New Market and a reasonable walk to the bakery on Preobrazhenskaya. It is also at the edge of the city and near the ravine that separates the city from Slobodka-Romanovka. Koblevskaya 13 was destroyed in the war but here is another nearby house with courtyard.
I went back to the internet to search again for more about Pasternak’s childhood and found his memoir in Russian which had an extra sentence in the beginning which was not in my English edition. ‘Знаю лишь, что я родился на Старом Базаре, в 1862 году, 22 марта по старому стилю, и когда мальчиком бывал там, т. е. в центре города, то ничего такого старого не находил в нем, что отличало бы его от Нового Базара, куда мы перебрались, когда мне было 2–3 года.’ (I only know that I was born in the Old Bazaar, in 1862, on March 22, in the old style, and when I was a boy there, that is, in the center of the city, I would not find anything so old in it that would distinguish it from the New Bazaar, where we moved when I was 2-3 years old.) (http://az.lib.ru/p/pasternak_l_o/text_1943_zapisi_raznyh_let.shtml) Old Market is on the previous map towards the top right in the centre of town.
So Leonid had lived as a child near the New Market, but also says that he was born near the Old Market in the centre of the city. The only reference I had about where he was born was that it was Kherson St 20, a couple of streets over from Koblevskaya. The original detailed history of Slobodka mentions that the landlord Untilov, a member of the Duma, was listed in the directory as owner of Kherson St 20. Possibly this is where the idea of it being Pasternak’s birthplace came. But the article about the bakery says that Untilov was also the owner of the inn on Koblevskaya, which makes sense as they were buying the cake for their landlord. It seems that no one has actually looked into where Pasternak was born. I’m not sure why or how the story of Pasternak coming from Slobodka came about. It is and was a much poorer working class area and his family seem to have been an up-and-coming family who wanted their children well educated and eventually moved into the city centre. The inn on the edge of town was surely just as good a story as the childhood home of the famous painter.
Pasternak’s memoir continues with experiences at his local primary school and then moving on at age 10 to Richelieu High School, the most prestigious high school in Odessa and difficult to get a place in. He then moved to the Odessa State High School in the fifth year where he met a French teacher who was interested in art and introduced him to museums, galleries and exhibitions. Another stroke of luck was that the editor of various illustrated magazines, Mikhail Freudenberg, rented a room in his courtyard, and asked him to do some illustrations for him. In his last year of school, Leonid also began taking classes at the Odessa School of Drawing.
Leonid Pasternak as a young man
When he finished school in 1881, Leonid entered the medical faculty of Moscow University which was the desire of his parents, hoping also to join the School of Painting but found there were no more places. He did not enjoy medicine so transferred to the Law Faculty, but really wanted to study art abroad and discovered that this was easier to do from the Odessa University so he transferred to the Law Faculty in Odessa, where he would be able to spend much of his time at universities and studying art abroad.
What interested me so much about Leonid Pasternak’s childhood in Odessa was his ability, from a relatively poor, uneducated Jewish family, to navigate the education system with the help of his incredible talent, study art in Odessa while at school and get a place at Moscow University in medicine, which was the career his parents wanted him to pursue. It presents another picture to the often described difficulties Jews had with education quotas and difficulties living outside the Pale. It is also interesting to look more closely at the description of his family as poor and uneducated, because when his father was a child he was probably brought up speaking Yiddish and going to a traditional Hebrew school so he may not have learnt an educated Russian. Because Odessa was known for its Russian education, even for Jewish children, families that spoke Yiddish or people who had just learnt Russian orally were looked down upon and families rarely admitted to knowing Yiddish. Leonid’s father may have been educated in the old tradition and Yiddish-speaking, but seems to have done quite well in his hotel business, so the family may have entered the middle-class when Leonid was still quite young.
Certainly all of Leonid’s paintings of his family life were in very middle-class settings, but he also documented the older Jewish generation and made one trip to Palestine where he drew the people and landscape. Another major part of his work were portraits and he was obviously proud, coming from his background, of getting to know some very famous people like Tolstoy, Rilke and Einstein, but his relationship with Tolstoy was probably the most important to him (he illustrated Resurrection and several scenes from War and Peace) and he was called by Tolstoy’s wife to draw Tolstoy just before he died. In the early 1920s he moved to Berlin with his wife and daughters for health reasons and then stayed, only leaving in 1938 to settle in Oxford where one of his daughters lived.
I will end this post with a series of drawings, paintings and a few photographs predominantly relating to his own family, time spent in Odessa, and Jewish life from the late 1880s through the 1920s.
Letter from home 1889 (first large-scale painting)
Old Jewish woman 1889
Leonid and his wife, recently married, 1890
The Pasternaks and Boris 1896
On the sofa 1916