by Steve Lancaster 4/5/17
One of the great novels of the twentieth century. Boris Pasternak was censored by the Soviet State and became a non-person for many years. His novel of the revolution and the subsequent horrific Stalin years was made into movies and even a Russian TV mini-series. However, I am just going to deal with the book and the classic 1965 movie by David Lean staring, Omar Sharif, Geraldine Chaplin, Julie Christie, and Rod Steiger.
Most people are only familiar with the movie, but the history of the novel is almost a novel all by itself. Originally published in the West in 1958 by an Italian publisher, financially supported by CIA and the master spy Allen Dulles as propaganda to cause discomfort in the Kremlin and certain directorates of state security. Remember, this was the real Cold War, Khrushchev was General Secretary of the Communist Party and “we will bury you” was his motto. Less than a year before Dr. Zhivago was published the same clod hopping Russians put Sputnik I in orbit. I purchased my first copy in 1964 at a JBS bookstore, as full service bookstores did not stock it. Occasionally, the Birchers got things right.
The publication and the world renown leading up to the Nobel Prize for literature served to protect Pasternak from extreme retribution from those same elements of state security that routinely sent dissents to the gulag for life. Pasternak, when told his novel would be published in the West, assumed it would be a death sentence, or at best years in some very cold places.
Like most Russian novels, Dr. Zhivago is not about simple themes, nor are the characters one-sided, and the major characters are symbols for things central to Pasternak’s understanding the Russian soul. Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) is the classic Russian of Tolstoy so pure and honest that Anna Karenina would think her almost a goddess, and in the novel, she is just as untainted. On the other hand, we have Lara (Julie Christie) a character that Dostoyevsky could have written, not pure, not chaste, driven by love, lust and guilt. The women are the radical sides of the Russian psyche acting and reacting on the men in their lives.
Komarovsky (Rod Steiger) is 80% Dostoyevsky and 20% Tolstoy. He is driven by his darker nature and in the same moment loves and hates Lara. He hates himself for his love for Lara and in the end, gives her up to Stalin’s gulag. “A faceless name on a list that was later lost”. Komarovsky is a friend of dubious nature to Zhivago’s father and by chance executor of the estate, there was not much left and by chance what there was belonged to Komarovsky.
Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif) the exact opposite of Komarovsky 80% Tolstoy and 20% Dostoyevsky and, I believe, in Pasternak’s writing the quintessence of Russia, and Russians. If you desire to understand Vladimir Putin, then you need to understand Zhivago. Zhivago’s love for two vastly different women in the turmoil of revolution and counter-revolution. This love is counterbalanced by is passionate love of Russia. He runs from one to the other, but never considers running from Russia, even when Tonya and Lara leave with his children, he stays.
Komarovsky and Zhivago play to each other’s passions and weakness through Lara, who is simultaneity in love and guilt ridden by her love for both men. This is the stuff of real Russian drama. Despite the efforts of Lean to turn the book into a western romance. It is still a tragic drama. Our old friend Sophocles would recognize the elements right away. The drama plays itself out against some of the most magnificent cinematography of the 1960s, and one of the most romantic movie themes of an age when movie music was still important to the story.
Americans, as a group, are not driven by the kinds of passions that can be found in every Russian. Even those who emigrate here seem not to fully become American until the 2nd or 3rd generation. It is often difficult to understand the motives, desires, and passions of Russian novels, or for that matter Russians, but one line from the book sets up an opportunity for understanding, “Russia and Russians have an almost unlimited capacity for suffering”
If you have read Dr. Zhivago then the more intense relationships of the characters should be familiar to you. If you have only watched the movie those elements are there, but you may have to stop and watch again to catch the nuance. Don’t give up, the story is eloquent and book or movie you will be rewarded with a deeper empathetic view of Russia. As my old boss, James Angleton was fond of saying, “we cannot defeat an enemy we do not know” I suspect that was also on Dulles mind when he paid expenses for the first publication.
BTW, “we cannot defeat an enemy we do not know”, is the theme of an excellent book and movie by Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game. • (2416 views)