Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Dr.Z1Now that New York’s long winter season has (hopefully) turned toward warmer weather, the impetus to write a review for Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago has returned. Published in 1957, the novel follows doctor and part-time poet Yuri Zhivago as he bears witness to the Russian Revolution through the Second World War. Starting as staunch supporter of the Communist cause sweeping the nation,  our acutely observant character questions if history is heading down the correct path as the movement progresses.

Doctor Zhivago opens on a somber note with the death of Yuri’s parents. Soon after his Mother’s funeral, his father, Andrei Zhivago, commits suicide by jumping from a train (possibly from the influence of his conniving lawyer Komarovsky). Now an orphan, young Yuri is sent off to live on the Duplyanka estate with his Uncle’s family. Returning to Moscow after medical school, Yuri puts practice into action when he and his friend, fellow medical practioner Misha Gordon, are called to the bedside of Amalia Guichard, a widower intent on committing suicide over fears of her daughter’s marriage. Lara, the daughter in question, has been romantically linked (begrudgingly) to Komorovsky – who was also courting her mother. The men save Amalia, but not without Yuri getting his first glance at Lara, who would play a larger role in his life than the doctor could have known.

Soon after, Yuri marries Tonya, the daughter of his recently passed foster mother, Anna. With the changing of the guard in Moscow, and throughout Russia, the economically endowed Zhivagos feel it would be best to escape from the contempt to the wealthier classes brewing in the capital. The family, including Yuri’s foster father, return to the estate where the couple grew up. There, Tonya soon gives birth to a boy, Sasha. Although the happy family is not able to stay together for long.

As World War I develops in the East, the Russian Army drafts Yuri as a medical doctor. Meanwhile Lara, who has since married the vehement Bolshevik, Pasha Antipov, finds herself in a similar situation as Tonya –  with a child and a husband conscripted to the service. When Pasha is declared missing in action, Lara volunteers as a nurse to search for her husband. Unbeknownst to Yuri or Lara, the two find themselves working in the same region, in the same town, and in the same hospital, where Zhivago decides to stay on as a doctor, even after recovery from his battle wound.

While this synopsis is clearly focused on the love story in Doctor Zhivago, the novel fails to fit within such margins. Pasternak, who was no stranger to controversy after the publication of his autobiography Safe Conduct and a “reserved” embrace of socialism in Second Birth, utilizes Yuri as a surrogate mouthpiece to explain the many stages of the Russian Revolution. Despite his contemporaries drive to consider “suicide” after strict censorship on press and religion was applied, the author felt art should persist even if spirituality did not. To excercise such hope during despair, Pasternak dabbles in polemics, letting the characters debate the changing of the tides:

“But what kind of business can there be, these days?”

“Anything you please. Old unfinished deals, business operations, breaches of contract. I’m up to my ears in it.”

“But haven’t all such activities been abolished?”

“Of course they have, nominally. But in practice people are asked to do all sorts of things, sometimes mutually exclusive. There’s the nationalization of all enterprises, but the municipal soviet needs fuel, and the Provincial Economic Council wants transportation. And everyone wants to live. There is a transitional period, when there is still a gap between theory and practice. At a time like this you need shrewed, resourceful people like myself. Blessed is the man who doesn’t see too much. Also an occasional punch on the jaw doesn’t come amiss, as my father used to say. Half the province depends on me for its livelihood. I’ll be droppoing in at Varykino about timber one of these days…

“Do you know why we are going there, what we want to do?”

“MOre or less. I have an idea. Man’s eternal longing to go back to the land. The dream  of living by the sweat of your brow.”

“What’s wrong with it? You sound disapproving.”

“It’s naive and idyllic, but why not? Good luck to you. ONly I don’t believe in it. It’s utopian. Arts and craftsy!”

“How do you think Mikulitsyn will receive us?”

“He won’t let you in, he’ll drive you out with a brookstick, and he’ll be quite right. He’s in a fine pickle as it is. Idle factories, workers gone, no means of livelihood, no food, and then you turn up. If he murders you, I won’t blame him!”

“There you are. You are a Bolshevik, and yet you yourself don’t deny that what’s going on isn’t life -it’s madness, an absurd nightmare.”

“Of course it is. But it’s historically inevitable. It has to be gone through.”

To accommodate such hearty exchanges in Zhivago, Pasternak divides each chapter into sections. The novel reads like a journal, with each entry confessing, chronicling, or observing, the state of the nation and/or the protagonist’s relevance within it. Such structure allows the author to utilize his poetic background  and, as John Bayley states in the Introduction, “the full panorama of Soviet life”:

The light, sunny room with its white painted walls was filled with the creamy light of the golden autumn days that follow the feast of Assumption, when the mornings begin to be frosty and titmice and magpies dart into the bright-leaved, thinning woods. ON such days the sky is incredibly high, and there moves an icy, dark-blue radiance coming from the north. Everything in the world becomes more visible and more audible. Distant sounds reach us in a state of frozen resonance, separately and clearly. The horizons open, as if to show the whole of life for years ahead. This rarefied light would be unbearable if it were not so short-lived, coming at the end of the brief autumn day just before the early dusk. ” 

Furthermore, this structural decision grants Pasternak the space to focus on his belief in the Tolstoyian movement: a strict study of the gospel of Jesus without belonging to a specific church.  This trait would be inherited thanks to a close relationship between Pasternak’s father and Tolstoy. While Pasternak was surely influenced by his predecessor’s use of history to exhibit progression, Zhivago reads more like “dismantling” of such forces:

“Central though trains may be for the plot and sense of poignancy in the novel, Pasternak carries a thorough dismantling of the train as symbol of history. Although the train is pervasive here as a symbol of time and fate, it is remarkable how infrequently trains work!”

Though merely a sentence, Pasternak’s ability to concentrate on the train as a metaphor is powerful:

“In the train it had seemed to Zhivago that only the train was moving but that time stood still and it was not later than noon.”


Doctor Zhivago succeeds as a harsh indictment and embrace of beauty. When Pasternak finished the novel in 1956, the literary magazine Novy Mir, (the only approved Soviet publication), refused to print on grounds it did not fit into the policy-enforced style of Socialist Realism. At that time, Soviet Writers were instructed by the Kremlin that published works must glorify the Soviet state. In a daring act of insubordination, the author gave a copy of Zhivago to Sergio d’Angelo, an agent of  the left-leaning (and soon notorious) Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, which soon beget international demand.

“You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squard”, Pasternak quipped after handing over the manuscript.

"I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What's your crime?"

“I won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What’s your crime?”

A year later, admist protest from the USSR, who mocked the novel as “literary trash”,  the author would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Despite the acclaim, the long-arm of Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev still forbid the novel to be published in Russia and threatened Pasternak with exile if he accepted the award.  In dedication to his country, Pasternak would not accept the award, nor would he see the first accepted Russian publication of Doctor Zhivago in 1988.

In 1960, Pasternk would succumb to lung cancer. Notices for the author’s funeral were “posted” throughout the subway system in Moscow to avoid publicity. Despite the clandestine arrangements, travelers throughout the country attended the burial. At the culmination of the service, one speaker shouted out:

“God marks the path of the elect with thorns, and Pasternak was picked out and marked by God. He believed in eternity and he will belong to it… We excommunicated Tolstoy, we disowned Dostoyevsky, and now we disown Pasternak. Everything that brings us glory we try to banish to the West… But we cannot allow this. We love Pasternak and we revere him as a poet… Glory to Pasternak!”

While Doctor Zhivago may not be the most relevant work of fiction, it stands as an important piece of literature.


Unwelcome, but necessary post-script.

It is never pleasent to end on a sour note, but Pasternak’s belief  – which became more devout in later years – of the Christian-heavy Tolstoyanism produced an eschewed form of anti-semantism. After the international publication of Doctor Zhivago, the State of Israel decried “assimionlist” views featured in the novel. Jewish himself, Pasternak produced a number of the passages in his novel before Israeli liberation; yet, it is difficult to ignore the ferocity in which the author wrote such passages:

“We also talked about mediocre publicist who have nothing to say to life and the world as a whole, of petty second-raters who are only too happy when some nation, preferably a small and wretched one, is constantly discussed – this gives them a chance to show off their competence and cleverness, and to thrive on their compassion for the persecuted. Well now, what more perfect example can you have of the victims of this mentality than the Jews? their national idea has forced them, century after century, to be a nation and nothing but a nation – and they have been chained to this deadening task all through the centuries when all the rest of the world was being delivered from it by a new force (Christianity) which had come out of their own midst! Isn’t that extraordinary? How can you account for it? Just think! This glorious holiday, this liberation from the curse of mediocrity, this soaring flight above the dullness of a humdrum existence, was first achieved in their land, proclaimed in their language, and belonged to their race! And they actually saw and heard it and let it go! How could they allow a spirit of such overwhelming power and beauty to leave them, how could they think that after it triumphed and established its reign, they would remain as the empty husk of that miracle they had repudiated? What use is it to anyone, this voluntary martyrdom? Whom does it profit? For what purpose are these innocent old men and women and children, all these subtle, kind, humane, people, mocked and beaten up throughout the centuries? And why is it that all these literary friends of ‘the people’ of all nations are always so untalented? WHy didn’t the intellectual leaders of the Jewish people ever go beyond facile Weltschmerz and ironical wisdom? WHy have they not – even if at the risk of bursting like boilers with the pressure of their duty – disbanded this army which keeps on fighting and being massacred nobody know for what? Why don’t they say to them: ‘Come to your senses, stop. Don’t hold on to your identity. Don’t stick together, disperse. Be with all the rest. You are the first and best Christians in the world. You are the very thing against which you have been turned by the worst and weakest among you.” 

Far be it for a contemporary review to deny a masterpiece it’s due, but such work is not above criticism.


4 thoughts on “Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

  1. I read Doctor Zhivago last week and found it wonderful. Perhaps I approached it with a bias as it was the only film my Russian mother (she resents me for reading the novel in English) would watch with me when I was younger – she seemed negligent of scenes questionable for a 7 year old.

    I enjoyed this post, as well.

  2. UrbanBucolics,

    Thanks for checking out the site.

    Glad to hear you tackled Zhivago, despite it irritating your Mother.

    I assume you are discussing Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’?, which is a visual testament to the poetry of the Pasternak’s prose. Though the director doesn’t catch every bit of the author’s aesthetic landscape, the effort is noble and, not to mention, beautiful.

    On a side note: I’m becoming convinced Pasternak winning the Nobel was “paved by the CIA”:

    Not that this anyway demeans the wonderful book….


    Come back and visit soon. Cheers—

  3. Write more, thats all I have to say. Literally, it seems as though you relied on the video to make your point.

    You clearly know what youre talking about, why throw away your intelligence on just posting videos
    to your weblog when you could be giving us something enlightening to read?

  4. Awesome blog! Do you hasve any hints for aspiring writers?
    I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that
    I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any recommendations? Bless you!

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