Considered by many the greatest Russian novel of the 20th century, Boris Pasternak’s (1890-1960) Doctor Zhivago is certainly the most famous fictional treatment of the defining moments of modern Russian history at the outset of the 20th century, inviting a comparison with Tolstoy’s similar effort in War and Peace to dramatize the crucial events of the Napoleonic era. Doctor Zhivago shares with War and Peace an epic tonality; both attempt to encapsulate a national history, culture, and philosophy of human nature and experience in the stories of individuals caught up in the maelstrom of history. Depicting pre-revolutionary Russian culture, the revolution, and the ensuing civil war from a decidedly subjective viewpoint, Doctor Zhivago broke with the enforced literary dictates of socialist realism and party doctrine at a time when such a challenge demanded enormous courage and conviction. “A miracle of non-conformity,” the Russian scholar Victor Frank has called Pasternak’s novel, “full of supreme indifference to all the offi cial taboos.” Refused publication in the Soviet Union, the novel was surreptitiously sent to an Italian publisher who brought it out in 1957, with an English translation appearing in 1958. Hailed by the critic Edmund Wilson as “one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history . . . a great act of faith in art and the human spirit,” Doctor Zhivago became a worldwide popular and critical sensation that culminated in Pasternak being awarded the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature “for his notable achievement in both contemporary poetry and the field of the great Russian narrative tradition.” Regarded by the Soviet state as a political rather than a literary judgment on behalf of a novel it considered unpatriotic and subversive, Doctor Zhivago provoked a barrage of hostile reviews and resolutions in Russia that branded it “literary trash” and a “malicious lampoon of the socialist revolution.” Pasternak was expelled from the Writers’ Union and condemned as “worse than a pig” because “a pig never befouls where it eats or sleeps.” Pasternak’s deportation from the Soviet Union was averted only by the writer’s refusal of the Nobel Prize and by his impassioned appeal to Nikita Khrushchev in which Pasternak equated banishment from Russia to a death sentence. Doctor Zhivago would not be officially published in Russia until 1988 to great acclaim and acceptance into the post-Soviet literary canon as a landmark and unavoidable masterpiece.
Despite its undisputed importance as a social document chronicling a crucial period in Russian and world history, Doctor Zhivago continues to divide critics at the most basic level of how it works, its affinity to the novel tradition in the 19th and 20th centuries, and even the genre to which it belongs. Described as both one of the greatest political novels and one of literature’s great love stories, Doctor Zhivago has also been called “a fairy tale,” “a kind of morality play,” “an apocalyptic poem in the form of a novel,” “one of the most original works of modern times,” and “a nineteenth-century novel by a twentieth-century poet.” Compared to predecessors like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the great 19th-century Russian realistic novel tradition, Pasternak has been found wanting in his failure to provide believable, rounded characters. Compared to modernist innovators like Joyce, Woolf, and Faulkner, he has been viewed as old-fashioned and outmoded. To appreciate fully Pasternak’s achievement in Doctor Zhivago, it is necessary to recognize that its nonconformity extends beyond its unorthodox and unsanctioned ideas to its formal challenges to established narrative assumptions. Doctor Zhivago is neither a failed 19th-century nor a disappointing modernist novel, but a radical syn-thesis of both traditions in a daringly original construct.
Aspects of Pasternak’s life and career provide crucial contexts for his single novel published three years before his death. Born in Moscow in 1890, Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was the eldest child of the painter Leonid Pasternak and the concert pianist Rosa Kaufman and was raised in the midst of Moscow’s intellectual and artistic community. Tolstoy was a household visitor, and the distinguished composer Alexander Scarabin encouraged the 14-year-old Pasternak in his study of music. Convinced that he lacked the necessary technical skills, at age 19, Pasternak abandoned music for poetry and philosophy, eventually enrolling in Germany’s prestigious Marburg University until 1912 when he returned to Russia and committed himself exclusively to poetry. Associated with the Russian symbolist and futurist movements, Pasternak began to gain a reputation as a leading figure of a new generation of Russian poets who sought a greater freedom of poetic subjects and expression, more closely tied to actual experience and colloquial language. Declared exempt from military service during World War I because of a childhood leg injury, Pasternak managed a draft board in the Urals. When the revolution came, Pasternak was largely sympathetic, embracing the promise of needed social reform and liberation of the spirit that his poetry advocated. As the new Soviet regime grew increasingly conservative in cultural matters and repressive in silencing dissent, Pasternak, throughout the 1930s, published little, perfecting the delicate art of survival under Stalin, of maintaining core principles while avoiding the fate of fellow writers and artistic colleagues who faced death sentences and banishment to labor camps. Convinced that the Soviet state had betrayed the ideals of the revolution and that the drive for collectivism in Soviet society violated essential imperatives of human nature, sometime during the 1930s Pasternak decided to turn from poetry to prose to tell the story of his generation and its historical fate under the czar, during the Great War, and through the revolution and the establishment of the communist state, in part as an expression of survivor’s guilt. Writing in 1948, Pasternak admitted, “I am guilty before everyone. But what can I do? So here in the novel—it is part of this debt, proof that at least I tried.” Drawing on his earlier interests in musical composition, philosophy, and a career devoted to poetry, Pasternak conceived a novel capacious enough to contain his “views on art, the Gospels, human life in history and many other things.” Rejecting the “idiotic clichés” of socialist realism and an edited, sanitized view of the revolution and its aftermath, Pasternak embraced the role as truth teller in which “Everything is untangled, everything is named, simple, transparent, sad. Once again, afresh, in a new way, the most precious and important things, the earth and the sky, great warm feeling, the spirit of creation, life and death, have been delineated.” Doctor Zhivago began to take final shape during the late 1940s as Pasternak faced increasing government hostility for his “anti-Soviet” views. To punish him indirectly, Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Vsevolodovna Ivinskaia, was arrested in 1949 and sentenced to five years in a hard-labor camp “for close contact with persons suspected of espionage.” Pasternak would later confess that Olga was the Lara of his novel, which was finally completed in early 1956.
Pasternak’s comments about his work in his letters reveal key points about his intentions and methods for Doctor Zhivago. Throughout his correspondence, Pasternak refers to his “novel in prose,” a nod to Pushkin’s “novel in verse,” Eugene Onegin, and a connection to Pasternak’s following the same literary trajectory of Russia’s literary fountainhead, Pushkin, from poetry to prose. Regarding his poetry as preparatory work and incapable of supporting his historical and philosophical aspirations, Pasternak claimed, “a poem is to prose as a sketch is to a painting.” Yet at the core of Doctor Zhivago is Pasternak’s insistent lyricism in which narrative elements are joined through imagery, counterpoint, and symbolism. Pasternak’s poetic method explains why Doctor Zhivago, measured against the standard of the realistic novel, often falls short. Characters, rather than appearing distinct and original, tend to merge together, expressing shared preoccupations and feelings. Defending himself against charges of “not sufficient tracing of characters,” Pasternak insisted that “more than to delineate them I tried to efface them.” To the charge of the novel’s many violations of probability with coincidence, Pasternak claimed, “Realism of genre and language doesn’t interest me. That’s not what I value. In the novel there is a grandeur of another kind.” Underlying the novel’s blending of elements from poetry and prose and a manipulation of events that lends a fairy tale or providential aura to the book is Pasternak’s contention that “existence was more original, extraordinary and inexplicable than any of its separate astonishing incidents and facts. I was attracted by the unusualness of the usual.” Pasternak’s subjective, poeticized perspective aligns Doctor Zhivago in certain ways with magic realists like Márquez as much as with Tolstoy in his pursuit of “the atmosphere of being,” which he described as “the whole sequence of facts and beings and happenings like some moving entireness, like a developing, passing by, rolling and rushing inspiration, as if reality itself had freedom and choice and was composing itself out of numberless variants and versions.”
Pasternak’s “moving entireness” in Doctor Zhivago begins with the 10-year-old Yury Zhivago attending his mother’s funeral in a driving snowstorm, imagistically uniting human destiny and the vitality and power of nature that threaten to engulf and overwhelm the individual. This theme of the survival of the individual will be orchestrated throughout the novel, embedded even in the title character’s family name, an older Russian form of the word “alive.” It is the first of many scenes in which Zhivago’s isolation and vulnerability to both natural forces and human events aligned against his aspirations toward selfhood will be emphasized. The novel relies on several traditional structural principles including the novel of development and education of the artist as well as the quest novel in which the artist Zhivago eventually emerges after a succession of tests. Yet Doctor Zhivago is a tragically conceived modern Odyssey in which not home but isolation and separation from virtually every sustaining relationship and external consolation are his destination. Ultimately, Zhivago’s only reward or redemption is his art and the affirmation of the mystery and majesty of existence that his poems assert.
The first portion of the novel dramatizes the last decade of czarist rule and the events leading up to World War I and the revolutions of 1917. Following the suicide death of his father over the loss of his fortune, Yury is raised in the professorial home of Alexander and Anna Gromeko and their daughter Tonya. The novel’s catalyst and moral touchstone is the “Girl from a Different World,” Lara Guishar, the teenaged daughter of a Belgian hat-maker, whose story connects the comfortable bourgeois world of the Gromekos with Moscow’s labor class and incipient revolutionaries. Her seduction by the rich lawyer, Komarovsky, establishes a connection with Yury who is on hand after Lara’s mother’s failed suicide attempt and at the Christmas party where Lara tries and fails to shoot her lover. They next meet at the front during World War I where Yury, having married Tonya, is serving as a doctor and Lara is working as a nurse, having gone to the front in search of her husband, Pasha Antipov, who has abandoned her and their child, unable to reconcile himself to his wife’s past with Komarovsky. As Yury and Lara’s attachment grows, news of the revolution reaches them, and both return to their respective homes—Yury to Moscow, and Lara to Yuryatin in Siberia.
Having experienced the dehumanizing conditions of war, Yury returns to similar conditions in Moscow under the Bolsheviks where his family’s privileged existence has been transformed to a struggle for survival in which Yury’s integrity, individualism, and artistic sensibility are not just valueless but dangerously subversive. Seeking relief, the family travels east to Tonya’s former family estate in Siberia, near Yuryatin, Lara’s home. The train journey is one of the triumphs of the novel in which the immense Russian landscape is brilliantly evoked and a rich collection of the various classes of Russian soci-ety displaced by the revolution are brought together during the dangerous and lawless days of the civil war. Yury barely avoids execution in an encounter with the merciless revolutionary leader Strelnikov, Lara’s renamed husband Antipov. Settling at the Varykino estate and subsisting off the land, the fam-ily thrives for a year before a chance reunion between Yury and Lara leads to their love affair. Guilt-ridden and determined to reconcile with Tonya, Yury is kidnapped on his way home by Bolshevik partisan fighters in need of a doctor. Serving with them for over a year and experiencing the horrific violence and human debasement of the civil war, Yury finally escapes back to Yuryatin where he is nursed back to health by Lara and learns that Tonya, her father, and their children have returned to Moscow. (They will subsequently be deported to the West.)
The reunited lovers are interrupted by the appearance of Komarovsky who warns Lara of her danger as the wife of the now-condemned Strelnikov. They respond by leaving Yuryatin for Varykino and two weeks of happiness in which Yury resumes his poetry, inspired by Lara. Komarovsky offers Lara and her child safe passage to the East, and Yury, to convince her to take it, lies that he will join them. Left alone, Yury is visited by the hunted Strelnikov who, in despair over the failure of his revolutionary ideals and his betrayal of Lara’s love, shoots himself. The novel concludes with Yury’s life in Mos-cow, having been stripped of everything he had formerly relied on to sustain him—his wife, family, and lover. Resuming his medical career and his writing, Yury finally dies of a heart attack, ultimately vindicated by the poems that close the book, testimony of both his heroic resistance to the forces of death and despair and affirmation of the value of life, embodied by the essential human qualities of his muse, Lara. She arrives in Moscow in time for the funeral before disappearing: “She must have been arrested in the street, as so often happened in those days, and she died or vanished somewhere, forgotten as a nameless number on a list which later was mislaid, in one of the innumerable mixed or women’s concentration camps in the north.”
In the fates of both Lara and Yuri, the reader feels an overwhelming sense of human waste, having been instructed by the author in the value their lives and living has, set beside the necessities of history and ideology that has diminished both. Doctor Zhivago attempts to redress the balance, translating the “nameless number on a list” into memorable human terms that never neglects the “unusualness of the usual.”