I saw David McLean’s film of Doctor Zhivago back in 1969, forty years ago, on a ‘date’ my parents organised. The night was memorable for his melancholy: I think he had a broken heart and I was no cure for it. I spent the film day-dreaming about the boyfriend my parents didn’t approve of, especially when Lara’s haunting theme was played. So when I stumbled on this book at the library, I had no memory of the plot, only the scenic majesty of the vast Russian snowscapes. I should have paid better attention to the film because it’s a very good story indeed.
Doctor Zhivago is not only a memorable love story, it also shows how the Soviet revolution impacted on its citizens. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but the USSR made him renounce it because the authorities didn’t like his criticisms. Reading this book has certainly made me more aware of how difficult life must have been for ordinary people in the period Pasternak writes about.
The story begins with the death of Yura Zhivago’s mother, deserted long ago by his wastrel father. He had been rich, but had squandered it away with gambling and so the orphaned Yura went to live with his Uncle Kolya. (Like all Russian novels, this one confuses Western readers with names: all the characters have three or four but I’m sticking with the short and easy ones.) He is a thoughtful and rather dreamy boy who seems to stumble from one disaster to another, plodding through life with determination and courage, but very little initiative. It seems quite clear that initiative was a bad idea in Soviet Russia.
Yura’s first contact with Lara is in 1911 – at a party when she aims a futile shot at her tormentor Komarovsky – who had seduced her as a teenager, provoking her flight from her family and into teaching to avoid him . She is fatherless, and her mother is a dressmaker beholden to Komarovsky. Such funds as they have are used to send Lara’s improvident brother to military school, but he gambles to such an extent that she has to borrow from her employer, and in the end she is propelled into a hasty marriage with Pasha to escape all this. She decides in a fit of passion that Komarovsky ‘owes her’, but he is barely hurt and it is all hushed up – it seems that only Yura is cognizant of the oddity of this situation.
Then when the marriage of Pasha and Lara is under strain, he enlists in the army and goes off to War. Because he known to be wounded, but missing in action, Lara – who is nothing if not impulsive – abandons teaching, trains as a nurse and goes off to the front to find him. On the battlefield, Yura and Lara’s paths converge again. From this point onward the star-crossed lovers are constrained by one unfortunate event after another. Yura marries Tonya and has a family but they have to flee the city for the Urals. He meets up with Lara again and for a while leads a double life but by p274 he is feeling guilty about deceiving his wife. He has just made up his mind to break things off with Lara, then decided to defer the break-up for a little while longer when he is conscripted by the partisans and forced to work for them as a doctor. The ins-and-outs of the love story are of interest, but what I found most intriguing was the commentary about the effects of the revolution.
What was striking was Yura’s awareness that he was living though tumultuous times. Here in Australia people think that a football final is a tumultuous event, and tiresome as that can be, there’s something to be said for that. Places like the Middle East are always in tumult, and yet nothing much has really happened there to change the status quo, not in my lifetime anyway. The Russian Revolution, however, (which was really a series of revolutions, which began in 1905 and culminated in the Bolshevik supremacy in 1918) really was historic. As Yura foresees on p167, ‘Russia is destined to become the first socialist country since the beginning of the world’. It was an extraordinary event that shook Europe to the core and for citizens living there it must have seemed bizarre, whether they agreed with it or not.
As Yura returns from the front to his family, he has to confront overwhelming change. Yura says that ‘Half the world has ceased to be itself’ and he copes by distancing himself from his friends and cares only for his family in the struggle to survive that critical winter. His circumstances are radically different because the property reforms mean that he has to live in the cramped top floors of his former home, and share the rest with others. How was this done so quickly, and was there chaos? If I try to imagine this happening, the closest analogy I can think of is the way English evacuees were billeted during WW2. Officials in the countryside counted the number of available bedrooms and allocated children accordingly, splitting up siblings, inadvertently placing children with child abusers and inflicting little city kids on hapless farmers who had no idea how to care for them. Did the Russians simply draw up lists of would-be tenants and allocate them to the wealthy? It must have been a logistical nightmare.
And what’s it like to have your monarch killed by your new government? I’m a staunch Republican, but I can see that it must have shaken the sense of social stability to the core. As I understand it, things were so chaotic beforehand that any sense of stability was compromised anyway, but still, I find myself wondering how the people reacted. Did they care? (There was a precedent, of course, in the French Revolution.)
Another thing that struck me was the strangeness of a new way of provisioning for the family because there was a whole new away of shopping. We all heard the stories of long queues for shoddy goods in the USSR: how often supplies ran out and service from surly assistants was desultory because they had no incentive to work hard. Since desultory service is so common in Australia I dismissed some of this at least as Cold War propaganda but I’d never really thought much about it. Yet provisioning the family is a very basic need. From the most primitive to the most sophisticated of societies, a breadwinner does what must be done to put food on the table and clothes on the backs of the family. For thousands of years men have worked to earn the wherewithal to do this, and women have organised supplies. Suddenly in Soviet Russia this no longer applied. Whether one thought the revolution a beneficial reform or not, this must have taken some getting used to, being paid in chits which were to be exchanged in the ‘newly introduced closed-consumer shops’ (p191). Perhaps in reality it was not so very different to war-time rationing in Britain, and I suppose that discovering one’s nest-egg is worthless is hardly rare (due to wars, currency fluctuations, share-market crashes and the occasional fraud or business failure) but to have that exacerbated by changes in land ownership so that one could not even grow vegetables or keep a chicken must have created a sense of panic sometimes.
I try to imagine myself confronted by the idea that I could no longer own my home, keep my garden or spend the money I have, and I can’t envisage it at all, The power of literature to make me feel this impact is so much greater than simply learning about it from a few pages in a history text book!
It’s no wonder that Pasternak got into trouble for writing it. He challenged the idea of a fair go for everyone with his picture of Yura’s life in the Urals. He’s a much needed doctor, but doesn’t practise because as a ‘suspect bourgeois’ he needs to lie low. He enjoys physical work in the garden but he doesn’t delude himself that he’s supporting his family – he lives well through the black market generosity of a powerful friend.
The cultural limitations of the new regime are obvious too. By candlelight (since the electricity doesn’t work) he reads and re-reads a very small number of books because there is nothing else (p254) . Later on he discovers the reading room at the library – which is where he sees Lara and re-establishes the relationship. It turns out that her husband Pasha is the dreaded Strelnikov (p271) whose purpose in life is to foment revolution to further his own undercover ambitions. His enthusiasm even extends to shelling Lara’s building, purportedly so that no one will accuse her of receiving special treatment. (I didn’t find this character very convincing, but obviously there were strange characters like this during the revolutionary period.)
Lara and Yura often discuss the impact of these changes. She is distressed by the loss of faith in the value of one’s personal opinions in favour of sloganeering (p363), and on p280 there is a eulogy of a simple peasant life.
There is also beautiful writing about everyday things. Yura writes about Tonya’s pregnancy: ‘A woman’s face changes at such a time. It isn’t that she becomes plain but her looks are not quite under her control. She is already at the disposal of the future which she carries within her , she is no longer only herself. ‘(p255) and on p248 there is such a perceptive picture of a small child’s reaction to stress!
Sasha, who unconsciously expected to hear his childish utterances greeted with raptures and therefore prattled obligingly, was upset because for once he had no success, no one took any notice of him. He was disappointed that the black foal had not been brought into the house and when his mother snapped at him and told him to be quiet, he burst into sobs, afraid that he might be sent back to the baby shop where, he believed, his parents had bought him. His fear was genuine and he wanted to share it with everyone around him, but it was taken for nonsense and on this occasion failed to charm. Ill-at-ease in a new house, the grown-ups seemed ot be in more than their usual hurry; they went about silently absorbed in their tasks. Sasha was offended and had a fit of what nannies call tantrums. He was made to eat and put to bed with difficulty. (p248)
It was with some reluctance that I took this book back to the library, but it was due back and I couldn’t renew it. Now I have collected the film and look forward to watching it properly this time!
Author: Boris Pasternak
Title: Doctor Zhivago
Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward
Publisher: Vintage 2001
Source: Kingston Library
This book is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.