Friday, 3 June 2016

A History of the World in 50 Novels. 40 - "Doctor Zhivago," by Boris Pasternak

The dawn of the Twentieth Century sent shock-waves through many of the World's established powers, but perhaps none more so than Russia. The 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War saw the first major defeat in modern times of a European by an emergent Asian power, and seriously undermined the autocratic regime of Tsar Nicholas II. Defeat was followed by civil unrest, strikes and military mutinies. The strikers and mutineers were brutally suppressed, and order was restored, but on new terms: the "Autocrat of all the Russias" would henceforth have to rule, at least in theory, as a constitutional monarch.

Troops in Saint Petersburg. Photo: German Federal Archive, Bild 183-S01260 (image is in the Public Domain).

Terrorism and repression dogged the final years of imperial rule: between 1906 and 1909, almost eight thousand Russians, including members of the imperial family, politicians and military commanders, were murdered by revolutionaries; and, during the same period, more than two thousand Russians were executed by the state.

The First World War would prove to be a disaster for Russia. The war's eastern front, which has received little attention in the west, stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and, in conflict with German, Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Ottoman forces, more than two million Russian servicemen, as well as unnumbered civilians, lost their lives.

The town of Perm, on the European side of the Ural Mountains, in 1910. This town, where Pasternak lived for a time, is the basis for the fictional Yuriatin, where Zhivago and his family take refuge from the upheavals of the time (image is in the Public Domain).

On International Women's Day, the 23rd of February 1917, more than ninety thousand female workers went on strike in Saint Petersburg, calling for bread, the removal of the Tsar, and an end to Russian involvement in the war. The troops sent out to suppress them instead mutinied and joined them. Russia was, perhaps, the last country on Earth in which Karl Marx or Friedrich Engels would have expected their Communist ideals to take hold, but, within months, Lenin and his Bolsheviks had taken charge of the country, sued for peace, and moved the capital from Saint Petersburg to Moscow.

A unit of the Red Army in Moscow. Photo: Grigori Petrowitsch Goldstein (image is in the Public Domain).

There followed five years of bloody civil war between the Red and White Armies; the latter a rag-bag of Tsarist and capitalist factions, backed, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, by the British, the Americans and the French. Civil War brought famine in its wake, and some Russians even resorted to cannibalism. When the smoke of conflict cleared, in 1922, a new country, the Soviet Union, and a new world order, had been born.

Refugees of the Russian Civil War (image is in the Public Domain).

Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, a work of epic scope, beginning in 1903 and ending in 1943, looks at these events through the eyes of civilians caught up in their wake. His protagonist, Yury Zhivago, is a physician and poet, a man whose instinctive modernism is moderated by an even deeper rooted humanism. Initially sympathetic to the ideals of the Revolution, his personal experiences lead him, increasingly, to dislike and distrust ideologues of every political hue.

When he is abducted, and forced to work as camp doctor in a semi-autonomous faction of the Red Army, it is Yury's commitment to his calling as a doctor, rather than to the revolutionary cause, that motivates him to continue, clinging fast to a vision of humanity that will never allow the individual to be crushed beneath the weight of an abstract ideal.

Yury Zhivago is a Twentieth Century modernist in his private, as well as his professional life. For him, as for Pasternak, a human soul can survive, at least for a time, without physical sustenance, but it cannot survive without love. In a world whose circumstances tear individuals away from those closest to them, love must be sought where it can be found in the moment, and, over the course of his life, Yury is torn between his love for three different women, and finds himself unable to remain faithful to any of them (for those who know the novel, yes, I include Marina, but it is difficult to explain why without spoiling the plot for those who don't know it).

"On they went, singing 'Eternal Memory,' and whenever they stopped, the sound of their feet, the horses and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: 'Who is being buried?' - 'Zhivago,' they were told. - 'Oh, I see. That explains it.' - 'It isn't him. It's his wife.' - 'Well, it comes to the same thing. May she rest in peace. It's a fine funeral.' The last moments flashed past, counted, irrevocable ... The priest scattered the earth in the form of a cross over the body of Marya Nikolayevna. They sang 'The souls of the just.' Then a fearful bustle  began. The coffin was closed, nailed and lowered into the ground. Clods of earth drummed on the lid like rain as the grave was filled hurriedly by four spades. A mound grew up on it and a ten-year-old boy climbed on top."

Cossacks during the Russian Civil War (image is in the Public Domain).

 "In this area the villages seemed to have been miraculously preserved. They were unaccountable islands of safety in a sea of ruins. One evening at sunset Gordon and Zhivago were driving home. In one village they saw a young Cossack surrounded by a happy crowd; the Cossack tossed a copper coin into the air and an old Jew with a grey beard and a long coat was supposed to catch it. The old man missed every time. The coin flew past his pitifully outstretched hand. the old man bent down to pick it up, the Cossack slapped his bottom, , the onlookers held their sides and groaned with laughter; this was the point of the entertainment ... The driver, who thought this extremely funny, slowed down so that the passengers could have a look. But Zhivago called the Cossack, cursed him, and ordered him to stop baiting the old man. 'Yes, sir,' he said readily. 'We didn't know; we were only doing it for fun.'"

A Russian field hospital of the First World War (image is in the Public Domain).

"His thoughts swarmed and whirled in the dark. They seemed to move in two main circles, two skeins which constantly tangled and untangled themselves. In one circle were his thoughts of Tonya: their home and their, former settled life, where everything, down to the smallest detail, had its poetry and its sincerity and warmth. Yury felt anxious about this life, he wanted it to be safe and whole, and, after two years of separation ... he longed, already, to be there. Here too were his loyalty to the revolution, and his admiration for it ... New things were also in the other circle of his thoughts, but how different, how unlike the first! These things were not familiar, not led up to by the old; they were unchosen, prescribed by reality and as sudden as an earthquake. Among them was the war with its bloodshed and its horrors, its homelessness, savagery and isolation, its trials and the worldly wisdom which it taught ... And among his new thoughts was Nurse Antipova, caught by the war at the back of beyond, with her completely unknown life, Antipova who never blamed anyone, yet whose very silence was almost a reproach, mysteriously reserved and so strong in her reserve. And here too was Yury's honest endeavour not to love her as wholehearted as his striving throughout his life until now to love not only his family or his friends, but everyone else as well."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon. He is currently working on The Cheapside Tales, a London-based trilogy of historical novels.


  1. I liked Pasternak's book so much! I liked the movie, too, the first one. The story is so strong. But the writing was so effective and memorable. Scenes stayed with a reader for a long time afterwards.

  2. I adore this novel. Because I studied it at uni in Belfast , I read it maybe five times over my life. I think the original translation best btw. I don't have it to hand as I am in Greece right now. It is a very well- selected novel.

  3. I never read the book, though I'd like to. I did see the film, which was wonderful, on the big screen at my local re-run cinema, a 1930s building. It seemed the right place to see it.

  4. Thanks Mark, this makes me want to read a book that I should have read years ago.