Doctor Zhivago

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Doctor Zhivago




Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago was first published in 1957, not in Pasternak's homeland, the Soviet Union, but rather in Italy. Pasternak's manuscript for this novel had to be written in secrecy and then smuggled out of the Soviet Union because of government censorship of Pasternak's work. Pasternak, as the author espouses through his protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, in this his only novel, believed that art should not be enslaved by politics and thus criticized his oppressive government through his writing.

Doctor Zhivago is an epic work that provides several fictionalized eye-witness accounts of the upheaval in Russia as the tsar is deposed, communism rises from the revolution, and a Marist government attempts to take control. Doctor Zhivago is also a love story of a man torn between two women—his wife, Tonia, and the beautiful Lara with whom Yuri has an affair. This novel explores the idealism of its protagonist, which is contrasted with the brutal reality of war and its effects on ordinary citizens. This work of fiction is also a philosophical treatise on life, religion, and art as expressed by its protagonist. Finally, Pasternak, who was also a poet, wrote Doctor Zhivago in a particularly lyrical style. Much of the text reads like poetry.

Critics, over the years, have had trouble classifying the work since in certain ways it does not conform to the conventions regarding novels. Pasternak often introduces characters who quickly disappear. The author often jumps forward in the story before solving present mysteries and sometimes focuses more on language and philosophical thought than on developing the plot line.

Despite some of these characteristics, Doctor Zhivago draws readers inside the lives and thoughts of its characters, their hopes and frustrations, their disappointments and their passions as they live through the Bolshevik Revolution and the creation of the Soviet Union, as a new world order under communism is attempted. One of the messages that Doctor Zhivago delivers is that some dreams are never realized.

Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for this novel. First published in Italian, the work was translated into many different languages and its story served as the basis for film and television dramas. After Pasternak died in 1960, the novel was finally accepted into the Russian literary canon.


Boris Pasternak was born in 1890 in Moscow to professional artists. His father was a painter who illustrated the works of famed Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, and his mother was a concert pianist. Pasternak grew up surrounded by outstanding artists; for example, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke was a frequent visitor in his home.

Pasternak was well educated in the liberal arts. He studied art, music, and philosophy, but his first love was poetry. His first collection of poetry was published in 1914 but went unnoticed. Almost a decade later, however, Pasternak gained the public's attention with his poetry collections Sestra moya zhizn (My Sister Life, 1922), and Temy i variatsii (Themes and Variations, 1923). Although his novel received more attention in the United States, Pasternak is mostly remembered in Russia for his poetry.

Pasternak was fascinated by the Russian Revolution of 1905, and unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not emigrate to another country to escape the violence. He had studied philosophy in Germany and was inspired by the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883), made famous by his book Communist Manifesto (1848), and the political activist and writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936). Details of the war and some of his own

experiences during the revolution found their way into Pasternak's poetry, as well as his only finished work of fiction, Doctor Zhivago. However, as the revolution continued and the brutality of the new government became obvious to him, he slowly retreated from politics. In addition, the Leninist attitudes present in the Russian government ran contrary to Pasternak's. Leninists believed that art should glorify and bolster the government, whereas Pasternak believed that art should seek the higher truths in order to benefit society. After Lenin's death in 1924, when Stalin came to rule, the clamp down on artists became more severe. The communist leaders demanded adherence to their rules and banned writers who did not agree that all art was to be used to promote communist ideals. Pasternak wrote an autobiography in 1931 called Okhrannaya gramota (Safe Conduct).

Pressure from government censorship intensified, so that when Pasternak decided to write his anti-Marxist novel, he had to do so in secrecy. When it was finished, he had it smuggled out of the country to Italy, where it was first published in 1957. The following year, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, but he was forced to refuse the award by the Russian government. He was thrown out of the official Union of Soviet Writers that same year and was threatened with exile. Instead, Pasternak pleaded with officials to allow him to remain in his beloved homeland. He lived out his remaining years in a colony of artists outside Moscow.

Pasternak was married twice. In 1922, he married Evgeniia Vladimirovna Lourie. They had one son. The marriage ended nine years later. In 1934, he married Zinaida Nikolaevna Neigauz, upon whom the character of Lara in Pasternak's novel is based.

Pasternak died on May 30, 1960, of lung cancer. In 1988, the Union of Soviet Writers reinstated him, which opened the path for Pasternak's son to officially accept his father's Nobel Prize the following year.


Chapter One: The Five-O'clock Express

Paternak's Doctor Zhivago begins with the funeral of the protagonist's mother. Yura Zhivago (who is called Yurii once he becomes an adult) is taken away by his maternal uncle, Nikolai Vedeniapin (or Uncle Kolia), whom Yura admires. Nikolai is a defrocked priest, cast out of the priesthood supposedly for his radical political views. He becomes, later in this book, a well known author, mostly of philosophy tinged with political theories.

Background information is given. Yura's father, a businessman, was very wealthy. Many buildings and streets in the town where Yura lived with his mother were named Zhivago, illustrating the influence that his father once had. Yura's father, however, was seldom at home. Yura discovers later that his father had a mistress and squandered the family's wealth. Yura's sickly mother often traveled in southern European countries in an attempt to cure her consumption. Yura, by the time of his mother's death, was used to living in the homes of many different people.

The chapter jumps ahead to 1903. Yura is still with his uncle. They visit another author whose work Uncle Nikolai has edited. Nikolai reminds Yura of his mother, "his mind moved with freedom and welcomed the unfamiliar." In this chapter, Pasternak initiates one of the main themes of this novel: the importance of the individual. Uncle Nikolai explains his belief that only the individual can express truth. But political thought in Russia at the time so subscribes to the group that Nikolai fears that outcome will be mediocrity. Uncle Nikolai suspects that many people grab on to one idea and stick with it regardless of its value.


  • David Lean directed Robert Bolt's screen version of Doctor Zhivago in 1965, which was a box office hit. Omar Sharif played Zhivago, and Julie Christie played Lara. The movie won five Oscars.
  • In 2002, Doctor Zhivago was adapted to a television script for British television.
  • In 2003, Masterpiece Theatre presented a television version of Doctor Zhivago. Scottish actor Hans Matheson played Zhivago, and Keira Knightley played Lara. This version is available on DVD.
  • As of 2007, a Spanish audio tape, El Doctor Zhivago (2005), was available. It was narrated by Philip Madoc.
  • The Nobel Prize committee maintains a Paternal web page at with links to other interesting sites.

Also introduced in this chapter is Misha Gordon, a boy about the same age as Yura who becomes Yura's lifelong friend. Misha is traveling with his father on a train. On this same train is Yura Zhivago's father, who eventually throws himself onto the tracks, committing suicide. Also on this train is a character that prevails in the novel, Victor Komarovsky, a lawyer. It is suspected that Komarovsky affected Yura's father's suicide, by fostering the older man's excessive drinking and leading him to financial ruin.

Chapter Two: A Girl from a Different World

An indeterminate amount of time has passed. Larisa (Lara) Guishar and her family, the widowed Amalia Guishar (Lara's mother) and Rodia (Lara's younger brother), are introduced. Russia is involved in a war with Japan (which Russia will lose) and the somewhat unorganized and sporadic revolutions of its citizens. The Guishars have just arrived in Moscow. Amalia has some money left from her husband's estate, but the sum is fast dwindling. She has asked Victor Komarovsky (who was at one time her husband's lawyer) to help her invest the money. Amalia buys a sewing shop and lives in one of the poorest sections of the city in order to extend her funds. She also has an affair with Komarovsky.

Lara, sixteen years old and just coming into her womanhood, notices the way Komarovsky looks at her, and this makes her very uncomfortable. However, as Komarovsky continues to focus on her, Lara is torn between hating him and being flattered by his attention. Komarovsky takes her out to dinner one night and makes a sexual pass at her. She turns him down initially but later gives in. Komarovsky is fascinated by Lara for her beauty, her intelligence, and her wild nature. Komarovsky scares Lara, and she despises herself for giving in to him.

Later in the chapter, Kuprian Tiverzin is introduced. He will later become a revolutionary. At this point of the story, Tiverzin becomes involved in one of the first labor strikes as the revolution gains momentum. Tiverzin has been identified as one of the leaders of the strike, and his mother warns him to run away. Pasha Antipov, the son of one of the managers of the railroad, seeks Tiverzin's mother, asking her to give him shelter since his father has been imprisoned.

A mass demonstration is organized; throngs of people crowd the streets, intent on rallying and protesting in front of the tsar's winter quarters. Tiverzin's mother takes Pasha with her as she joins the marchers. Cossacks, the tsar's military guard, surround the demonstrators and shoot indiscriminately into the crowd. Tiverzin's mother is punched in the back but not seriously injured.

Yura's uncle Nikolai has been published and is now very much in demand, giving lectures and teaching courses. He has left Yura in the care of the Gromekos. Alexander Gromeko is a chemistry professor. His wife, Anna, is the daughter of Ivan Krueger, a rich industrialist. The Gromekos have a daughter, Antonina (Tonia). Misha Gordon has also been left with the Gromekos, so Yura, Tonia, and Misha all live together through their adolescent years. Nikolai comments on how the three teens share beliefs about sexuality, how they think it is vulgar. Nikolai believes the youths have gone too far in their condemnation of sex.

Lara meets Pasha and notices that the boy has a crush on her. She watches him play with friends as if they are soldiers.

Lara hears that the area of Moscow where she and her mother live will soon be under attack. She and her mother pack their things and move to a cheap hotel outside the district. Lara is happy about the move because she hopes this will keep Komarovsky away from her. Her mother, however, is disheartened when her workers go on strike. Lara fears that her mother may attempt suicide if she learns that her daughter is having an affair with Komarovsky.

One night, a doctor who is visiting the Gromekos (where Yura is living) is called to the hotel. Amalia Guishar has indeed attempted suicide by swallowing iodine. No motive is mentioned. Since the doctor was at the Gromekos when he was called, Yura and Misha ask to go to the hotel with the doctor for the adventure of it. This is the first time that Yura sets eyes on Lara, and he is taken by her, although he does not speak to her. Yura also senses that there is some dark secret between Lara and Komarovsky, but this intuition only makes Lara more intriguing. Yura also realizes that his physical response to Lara is related to what he, Misha, and Tonia have been talking about, the vulgar or sexual side of human interactions. Misha tells Yura that Komarovsky acted as Yura's father's lawyer, the man who might have been responsible for Yura's father's suicide.

Chapter Three: The Sventitskys' Christmas Party

Yura is in college studying medicine. He tries to improve the health of Mrs. Gromeko, who has become bedridden. During one of the last talks she has with the two young adults, Anna Gromeko tells Tonia and Yura to become engaged. They are made for one another, Tonia's mother tells them.

Lara has moved in with a friend's family, the Kologrivovas, in an attempt to get away from her mother and Komarovsky. She is working as a tutor for the Kologrivovas's youngest daughter. While there, Lara's brother shows up and asks Lara for money. The only source of help that Lara can think of is Komarovsky. She finds out that he is at a Christmas Party, and Lara goes there uninvited. She has a gun with her. She sees Komarovsky playing cards with some other men. Lara shoots at him but misses, the bullet grazes another man's hand. Komarovsky later goes to court with Lara and helps to clear the case. Yura and Tonia were at the Christmas party, too. Yura is once again startled by and attracted to Lara. When Yura and Tonia return home, they find that Tonia's mother has died.

Chapter Four: The Hour of the Inevitable

Lara and Pasha marry. Both have now graduated from college and decide to take jobs in a small town, Yuriatin, in the Ural Mountains in western Russia. Meanwhile, Yura has his medical degree. Referred to as Doctor Zhivago or Yurii, he is working at a hospital on the front lines of World War I, where Russian and Hungarian troops are fighting. Yurii is married to Tonia, and she is about to have their first baby, a son.

Lara and Pasha also have a child, a three-year-old daughter, Katenka. Pasha is uncomfortable in his married life and decides to join the army. After joining, Pasha realizes he has made a mistake but it is too late to turn back. Later, rumors spread that Pasha has been taken prisoner. Other rumors state that he is dead. Lara, in the meantime, has decided to go to the frontlines to look for Pasha, to discover the truth of his whereabouts. She ends up working as a nurse in the same hospital as Yurii. At this point in the story, the human cost of war is unveiled as wounded soldiers flood the base hospitals. When Yurii is hit with shrapnel, Lara takes care of his wounds.

Chapter Five: Farewell to the Old

Chapter five begins in the town of Meliuzeievo. Lieutenant Galiullin is working with Yurii and Lara. Galiullin was once a friend of Lara's husband, Pasha. He has told Lara that Pasha was taken prisoner, but Lara does not believe it.

In a letter to Tonia, Yurii has mentioned Lara. In Tonia's reply, she insinuates that Yurii has fallen for Lara. Yurii is embarrassed about leading Tonia to feel this way, and he decides to make sure that Lara does not believe the same thing. Yurii appears unaware of his own emotions.

Meanwhile, revolutions and counter-revolutions occur all over the country. Government officials become increasingly ruthless, determined to stop the insurgencies. Court martials and death penalties that had once been rescinded are now in practice again. There are thousands of deserters: Soldiers are tired of war. Dissention brews among the Bolsheviks and between the Red and the White armies.

Yurii is distracted by wanting to confront Lara and make sure that she has not interpreted any of their conversations as his having an interest in her. In the midst of a philosophical discussion with Lara, however, Yurii exposes his true feelings toward her, as if the words just come out through their own will. He is embarrassed. Lara tells him to stop talking. She is about to leave to go back to Yuriatin. Yurii plans to return to Moscow. They part without further discussion.

Chapter Six: The Moscow Encampment

Yurii is home at last in Moscow. He must reacquaint himself with his son. His wife and her father are living in an old family home. Food is scarce and so is fuel; sporadic fighting breaks out in the streets. Yurii is reunited with old friends, but he is disappointed by how dull everyone looks. They are afraid of new ideas. Misha Gordon is there, playing a role that seems artificial to Yurii. Even Yurii's uncle Nikolai appears detached from what is happening around him. Yurii feels like a stranger in Moscow, someone who cannot fit in.

Much of this chapter deals with the everyday experience of hunting for wood for the furnace and whatever food Yurii and Tonia can find. The struggles are ongoing. However, Yurii holds out hope that this is part of the process of creating a new world order. He still has dreams that the communist system will adjust, and life will become easier.

Yurii contracts typhus, a disease carried by the ticks and fleas on rats. While he is unconscious with fever, his half-brother, Evgraf, brings the family food and other supplies. Yurii does not even know Evgraf. However, Evgraf is well aware of Yurii, having heard of Yurii's good works. Evgraf admires him. When Yurii is healthy again, he realizes that his time in Moscow has come to an end. It is now about 1917, and he does not accommodate the restrictions and the group-think style of the new Soviet Union. Yurii is an individual, and his forward-thinking ideas come up against the prescribed communist values. He and Tonia decide to leave. They plan to live at the estate of Tonia's grandfather, which is close to the town of Yuriatin.

Chapter Seven: Train to the Urals

The train ride is long, uncomfortable, and dangerous. Paranoia reigns everywhere in the government, in the military, and among the citizens. Yurii and his family must travel in a boxcar. The passenger cars are reserved for soldiers who are being taken to the frontlines.

Just before they arrive at Yuriatin, Yurii decides to take a walk at night when the train stops. Guards suspect him of being a spy or a deserter and take him to the man in charge. This man is known by the name Strelnikov. He is feared by everyone. He is a fierce fighter and renowned military strategist. He is also known as a cold-blooded killer. Yurii is interrogated by Strelnikov, who later muses about a wife and daughter who live in Yuriatin. Strelnikov wonders if they are still there. Yurii believes this man is Pasha, Lara's lost husband.

Chapter Eight: Arrival

Yurii is told that the old Krueger place where he and Tonia were heading is now occupied by a man named Mikulitsyn, who was once a manager at Krueger's ironworks. Yurii is warned that Mikulitsyn might turn Yurii and Tonia away. Both Yurii and Tonia are viewed suspiciously because they come from a moneyed class at a time when the labor class and peasants are in power. Yurii also finds out about the partisans, a group of fighters who infiltrate foreign forces (Hungarian and German, for instance) who are attacking the outer fringes of the Soviet Union. One band of the partisans in the area of Yuriatin is called the Forest Brotherhood because they camp in the thick woods in that area. The leader of the Brotherhood is Livka (or Liberius), the son of Mikulitsyn, the man living in the old Krueger estate.

Yurii and his family must go by horse from Yuriatin to the smaller town of Varykino, where Tonia's grandfather's house and factory are located. When they first meet Mikulitsyn in Varykino, Yurii and Tonia are a bit dismayed. Mikulitsyn is afraid that Yurii and Tonia will only bring trouble upon his family. However, he offers to allow them to stay in what used to be an old manager's house behind the main estate. Yurii and Tonia prepare to spend their time there as farmers, producing their own food, and generally keeping to themselves.

Chapter Nine: Varykino

Yurii and his family have happily settled in Varykino. They are living quietly as farmers, dependent only on the land. One day, while Yurii is visiting the library in Yuriatin, he recognizes Lara, sitting across the room. He decides not to approach her. After she leaves, Yurii walks over to the pile of books that Lara had been reading and notices her address on a piece of papers. Time passes, and one day Yurii decides to find Lara's house on another visit into town. He runs into her and admits that he had seen her earlier. She confesses that she saw him, too. As they drink some tea together in Lara's house, Lara confirms that the man called Strelnikov whom Yurii had met while on the train was indeed Pasha, Lara's husband. She and Pasha have not been together, however, since the day that Pasha left to join the army. Lara has accepted that for some unknown reason, Pasha believes he must not give away his identity. Yurii decides to spend the night, making some excuse to Tonia for not coming home. He feels like a criminal, but he cannot help loving Lara. On his way home one night, a few months later, Yurii is kidnapped by soldiers of the Forest Brotherhood.

Chapter Ten: The Highway

Yurii is taken to a place in Siberia where the Soviet government has been overthrown by banned Cossacks, former political prisoners, and other forgotten soldiers in the Soviet armies. At one time, this far northern area was under the control of a Siberian provisional government, but Yurii learns that it is now under the loose direction of an Admiral Kolchak. This chapter presents background regarding the politicians who are struggling to rule this part of Russia. There are partisans, whose members are loyal to the Red Army, who include Liberius, Tiverzin, and Pasha's father. There are members of the White Army, the more conservative wing of landowners and merchants. One faction fights another. As one citizen puts it, all the good young men have been lost. Those who are left are merely the garbage. Various divisions within these groups argue about what direction they should take.

Chapter Eleven: The Forest Brotherhood

Yurii has been gone from his family for over a year. He is with the partisans, acting as the group's physician. He is not treated as a prisoner, but he knows he cannot leave. He has tried to escape three times. He is constantly on the move with this group. Yurii spends several nights, sleeping in the same trench as Liberius, who keeps him up all night with his chatter. Liberius is addicted to cocaine, which Yurii has kept as a medical treatment for wounded soldiers. Yurii tries to keep his political comments to himself, but at one time, he tells Liberius, who is a zealous communist, that the theory of communism and the practice of it are far different things. Liberius then tells Yurii that rumors have it that Varykino has been attacked and destroyed by the White Army. Yurii fears for his family.

Time passes. Russia experiences the October Revolution on October 25, 1917, during which the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, take over the government.

Chapter Twelve: The Rowan Tree

The White Army has completely surrounded the partisans, who rally and break through the White Army's ranks. Refugees from the villages pour in before the White Army recuperates and cuts off the path, leaving part of the partisans stranded. News arrives that the newest revolution is over. The White Army is in retreat. The partisans join ranks with the Red Army, which is demolishing Kolchak's grip on Siberia. Yurii learns that most of the inhabitants of Varykino escaped before the White Army destroyed the village. Yurii hopes that his family has returned to Moscow and imagines the struggle that Tonia must have endured. Before he was kidnapped, Yurii had learned that Tonia was pregnant. He wonders about her having given birth. Yuriatin, where Lara is, however, appears to be still in tact. Yurii decides one night that he must escape from the partisans.

Chapter Thirteen: Opposite the House of Sculptures

Yurii finally arrives in Yuriatin, a "wild-looking, emaciated man." He has been walking for months. He finds Lara's house empty, but a note from her suggests that she is still in the area. He finally collapses there, falling in and out of dreams. When he finally regains consciousness, he finds he has been unconscious for many days. Lara has been taking care of him. After he regains his strength, he works at the local hospital. Yurii sends several letters to Tonia and finally receives a reply. She has given birth to a daughter, but the family will soon be deported.

Chapter Fourteen: Return to Varykino

Komarovsky arrives in town. He has come to warn both Lara and Yurii that their names are on a list of suspicious people. They will be imprisoned, maybe even shot, if they do not get away. Komarovsky is in a position of power with the government. He offers to take them away. Lara and Yurii refuse. Instead they decide to move back to the old Krueger place in Varykino, where Yurii and Tonia used to live. They stay there for a month or so, before Komarovsky comes again. Yurii suggests that Lara go with Komarovsky for her daughter's sake. Yurii promises to join them soon. After Lara leaves, Strelnikov (Pasha) shows up. Yurii tells him that Lara loves Pasha above all else. Pasha tells Yurii to run. Government forces are shooting anyone they fear is against them. In the night, Yurii hears a shot. In the morning he finds Pasha dead in the snow, an apparent suicide.

Chapter Fifteen: Conclusion

At the beginning of the New Economic Plan (NEP), Yurii returns to Moscow. The NEP is what the narrator calls "the most ambiguous and hypocritical of all Soviet periods," a time during which the ban on private enterprise is lifted in order to increase Soviet productivity. It is 1922, and Yurii returns to the city a broken man. At his side is a young man, a survivor of all the wars in Siberia, Vasia Brykin, who helps Yurii on their long walk toward Moscow. As time passes, Yurii and Vasia find means of making money. Yurii turns to writing. Vasia watches as Yurii turns more and more inward, away from life and passion.

After settling in, Yurii is further disappointed by his former friends, who are, in Yurii's eyes, mere shadows of the people they once were. Yurii lives with a common-law wife, Marina Markel, who bears him two children. At one point, unable to fit into society and wanting to refresh himself, Yurii goes into seclusion, leaving notes behind to explain his need for privacy. He works on his writing, and one day collapses on the streets, dead. At his funeral, Lara reappears for a few days and then vanishes. The narrator suggests that Lara is taken away to a concentration camp.

Chapter Sixteen: Epilogue

In the summer of 1943, Misha Gordon is involved in World War II. He is talking to a friend about a young girl who has suddenly appeared in his life. The girl's name is Tania, and she has a smile that Gordon finds similar to Yurii's. She tells her story to Gordon and to Evgraf Zhivago, Yurii's half-brother, who is now a general. Tania is an orphan of the war. She never knew her father and was long since separated from her mother, either because her mother was kidnapped or because her mother gave her away. She is not sure. Both men realize that Tania is the daughter of Yurii and Lara. Evgraf promises to take care of her.

Chapter Seventeen: The Poems of Yurii Zhivago

The last section is a collection of Yurii's poems, unaccompanied by narrative or explanation.


Pasha Antipov

Pasha Antipov develops a crush on Lara at a very early age. Eventually he marries her in Moscow then shortly afterward they leave for the village of Yuriatin in the Ural Mountains. After fathering a daughter, Pasha becomes restless and believes that joining the army will revive his passion for life. Rumors spread of his death or possible imprisonment. Pasha later turns up as the mysterious Strelnikov, leader of a group of extremists of the new Russian government.

Pasha has decided to completely disconnect from his former life and never sees Lara or his daughter again, although he is often stationed close to Yuriatin, where they live. At the end of the story, Pasha and Yurii meet. Pasha knows that Yurii has had an affair with Lara. But Yurii tells Pasha that Lara admitted to him that it was Pasha to whom she owed her allegiance. Shortly after this, Pasha kills himself.

Vasia Brykin

Vasia Brykin is a young man, the victim of war. He comes across Yurii as the doctor is walking back to Moscow at the end of the story. Vasia becomes disappointed in Yurii as he watches the doctor withdraw from life. Vasia represents the generation of young people who have learned to make a life for themselves in the midst of war, poverty, and stringent government regulations.

Lieutenant Galiullin

Lieutenant Galiullin appears when Lara and Yurii are working in the hospital on the frontlines. He tells Lara that Pasha was not killed but rather was taken prisoner. Galiullin works with Lara and Yurii for awhile then disappears. Later he reappears as a leader of the White Army. Whereas he had at one time considered himself a good friend of Pasha, he ends up the leader of an army that is opposed to Pasha's group.

Misha Gordon

Misha Gordon grew up with Yurii at the Gromekos' house. He is in and out of Yurii's life throughout the novel, one of the few acquaintances of Yurii's still alive at the end. Yurii was once very close to Misha, but as they mature, Yurii finds Misha artificial, willing to go along with the dictates of the government and too afraid to challenge them.

Alexander Gromeko

Alexander Gromeko is Tonia's father. Yurii greatly admires this man, a chemistry professor, who raised him. Alexander comes to live with Yurii and Tonia after they are married. Yurii often turns to Alexander, appreciating the way his father-in-law thinks.

Anna Gromeko

Anna was Tonia's mother and Alexander's wife. She is very loving toward Yurii and suggests that Tonia and Yurii become engaged. Anna dies early in the novel.

Antonina Gromeko

Antonina Gromeko, called Tonia, is Alexander's and Anna's daughter. She is also the granddaughter of Ivan Krueger, the rich industrialist from Varykino, to whose house Tonia and Yurii escape when Moscow's economy collapses. Tonia bears Yurii a son and persuades Yurii to escape from Moscow, fearful that because they both come from moneyed families, they will be persecuted by the new communist regime. Tonia bears up well, knowing that Yurii has fallen in love with Lara, sending notes to Lara when she needs to find out where Yurii is. Tonia spends two uninterrupted periods with Yurii, but for the rest of the novel, Yurii is often absent from her. Tonia becomes pregnant with a second child and gives birth after Yurii is kidnapped by the partisans. She escapes to Moscow but is later deported with the rest of her family, presumably ending up in Paris. She is never heard from after that.

Amalia Guishar

Amalia Guishar, the widow of a rich, French businessman, is the mother of Lara and Rodia. Amalia arrives in Moscow to begin a new life with the help of her husband's old lawyer, Victor Komarovsky. She opens a sewing shop, but when the women in her shop go on strike and when Amalia finds out that Lara is having an affair with Komarovsky, Amalia tries to commit suicide.

Larisa Guishar

Larisa Guishar, called Lara, is sixteen years old when she first appears in this story. She begins an affair with Komarovsky and is both attracted and appalled by it. Later, after she has broken away from his control over her, she tries to kill him.

After graduating from college, Lara asks Pasha to marry her. She then suggests that they get away from Moscow and go to the village of Yuriatin in the Urals. She gives birth to Pasha's child. When Pasha enlists in the army and goes missing, Lara goes to the frontlines to look for him. She meets Yurii there and is drawn to him. The passion she feels for Yurii is almost out of her control, despite the fact that she truly still loves Pasha.

Strong, independent, and intelligent, Lara thrives on her own. However, when Yurii turns up several years later, she cannot resist him. She helps to nurse him back to health and continues her affair with him, even though Yurii's family lives close by. When Yurii goes missing for almost two years, Lara waits for him. She is there when he returns, a sick man, and nurses him back to health again. She lives with Yurii, but she knows that she and he are marked people and could likely be imprisoned or put to death. When Komarovsky comes to Lara and offers her a way out of her predicament, Lara refuses to go with him. Only when she believes that Yurii will follow does Lara leave to preserve her safety and that of her daughter.

Lara reappears at the story's end. By this time Pasha is dead and so is Yurii. Then Lara disappears, supposedly accused of being an enemy of the Soviet government and taken to a concentration camp for women. Readers learn in the epilogue that she gave birth to Yurii's daughter, Tania.

Rodia Guishar

Rodia Guishar is Lara's younger brother. His role in this story is minimal. He gets into trouble and needs money, which forces Lara to turn to Komarovsky.

Uncle Kolia

See Nikolai Vedeniapin

Victor Komarovsky

Victor Komarovsky is portrayed as a cold-blooded businessman who takes advantage of women, especially young ones. It is suggested that he might have caused Yurii's father to lose his fortune and commit suicide. Victor does whatever he needs to do to survive, without consideration of morals or a twinge of conscience. He has an affair with both Lara's mother and Lara. Later he appears in the story when Lara and Yurii have been placed on a list of suspicious persons who will be arrested and imprisoned if not executed. Victor pleads with Lara to go to the farther boundaries of Siberia where he will protect her. Lara does go with him after she is tricked into believing that Yurii will follow. Victor lives with Lara for several years.

Ivan Krueger

Ivan Krueger is Anna Gromeko's rich father and Tonia's grandfather. Ivan made his money in iron and owned a large factory and huge family estate, to which Tonia and Yurii escape when Moscow collapses during the Bolshevik Revolution.


See Liberius Mikulitsyn

Marina Markel

Marina Markel is the daughter of a man who used to work for Yurii. Upon returning to Moscow at the end of the story, Yurii shares a house with Markel, who treats Yurii as being beneath him. Marina takes pity of Yurii and eventually falls in love with him. They live together as man and wife and Marina bears him two children.


At one time Mikulitsyn was a manager in Ivan Krueger's iron factory in Varykino. When Yurii and Tonia run away from Moscow, they find Mikulitsyn living in the old Krueger estate. Mikulitsyn is a small time political official in the town and agrees to shelter Yurii and his family.

Liberius Mikulitsyn

Liberius is Mikulitsyn's son, who becomes the leader of the Partisans who kidnap Yurii.


See Pasha Antipov


Tania shows up in the Epilogue, when the Soviet Union is fighting in World War II. Misha Gordon comes across her and is drawn to her because of her smile, which Misha compares to the type of smile Yurii had. Tania is interrogated by Evgraf Zhivago, Yurii's half brother, who is now a general in the Soviet military. Upon listening to Tania's story, he realizes that she is the daughter of Yurii and Lara. Evgraf promises to take care of the young girl. Tania remembers her mother but never knew her father.

Kuprian Tiverzin

Kuprian Tiverzin appears in the beginning of the story, one of the instigators of the strikes that sweep across Russia right before the collapse of the Russian tsar. He becomes a leader in the Red Army.

Nikolai Vedeniapin

Nikolai Vedeniapin is Yurii's maternal uncle. In the beginning of the story, Nikolai is Yurii's hero. Nikolai is responsible for the boy after Yurii's father and mother die. However, by the time Yurii is a teen, Nikolai has given Yurii to the Gromekos.

After Nikolai has become a famous author, Yurii is proud of him and the way he thinks. Nikolai has taught Yurii to open his mind to new possibilities, a concept that Yurii develops. However, Nikolai is ultimately a victim of the newly established communistic government that discourages individual thought. In the end, Yurii is disappointed with his uncle.

Andrei Zhivago

Andrei Zhivago, Yurii Zhivago's father, was, at one time, a very rich and influential industrialist. He deserted his family and lived with another woman. Yurii very rarely saw his father. In the first chapter of the story, Andrei commits suicide by throwing himself off a train.

Evgraf Zhivago

Evgraf Zhivago, Yurii's half-brother, is the product of Yurii's father's affair. Evgraf appears at times when Yurii is in trouble, such as when he falls sick with typhus. He also appears at the end of the story as an influential general in the Soviet army. He promises to take care of Tania, the daughter of Yurii and Lara.

Maria Zhivago

Maria Zhivago is Yurii Zhivago's mother. The novel begins with Maria's funeral.

Yura Zhivago

See Yurii Zhivago

Yurii Zhivago

Yurii Zhivago is the protagonist. The novel encompasses Yurii's development from young boyhood to professional doctor. Yurii has high ideals and expects much from what he perceives as the changing political mode of communism, which he expects to take over the world. As the story progresses, however, Yurii sees the ravages of war and the brutal behavior of the leaders. His initial ideals and optimism do not match the reality of how practitioners of communism plan out the lives of the Russian citizens. As the story progresses, Yurii withdraws more and more into himself.

Just as Yurii is torn between the ideals of political theory and the reality of its practice, he is torn between the love for Tonia, his wife, who represents the conventional relationship in marriage, and his love of Lara, which inspires a illicit passion that Yurii likens to natural urgings. Unable to choose between the two women, Yurii eventually withdraws from both of them.

By the end of the story, Yurii has withdrawn from society, from the two women who matter most to him, and from his children and his friends. He has withdrawn from society and into his writing. In the end, he lives in a small room where he sorts through and records his thoughts. He dies on a public sidewalk away from everyone he has ever known.



Revolution effects the violent and sudden change of political order, and Pasternak's novel shows its all-encompassing effects. Various uprisings and civil and world wars create the backdrop for and determine much of the action. The characters' lives are shaped by political upheaval. Revolution heightens the ironic contrast between the initial ideal and the harsh outcome. Revolution causes destruction and suffering and illustrates the contest between powerful groups and individuals. Revolution shows how the ordinary individual is swept along by group action. The characters fall for the hypnotic promise in political rhetoric, and they suffer the ruthless havoc that follows. Pasternak's portrait of revolution and the destruction it caused prevented his novel from being published in his country. He was called a traitor because he presented a critical view of this troubled time in Russian history. This more negative view was not permitted.

But Pasternak also depicts some positives in his portrait of revolution. He shows how passionately people believed in bringing about change and how willing they were to make sacrifices. Although he describes massacres, he also depicts the undying hope that some of the people involved in the revolution could maintain in spite of constant fighting.


  • Watch any of the televised versions or the 1965 movie adaptation of Doctor Zhivago with your class. Then lead a class discussion on how the adaptation varies from the written text. Use some of the following questions to get the discussion going. Then add some of your own questions. What themes are emphasized in the adaptation? Does the movie elicit different responses than the book? Is the characterization of Yurii different in the movie than it is in the novel? What role does the affair between Yurii and Lara play in the movie? How does that differ from the novel? At the end of the discussion, take a poll. Ask your peers which presentation they like best, the novel or the movie, and have them discuss the reasons behind their preference.
  • Do a historical presentation in which you compare the timeline in Pasternak's novel, which sometimes runs counter to actual historical events, with the history of the Bolshevik Revolution. Compare a map of old Russia with one of the Soviet Union, and explain the changes in the country. Locate the major battles and explain who fought in them, so your classmates better understand such groups as the Cossacks, the Partisans, and the White and the Red Armies.
  • Research communism as a political theory. How is the communist economy supposed to work? Why was there widespread starvation and lack of supplies as Lenin, and then Stalin, tried to set up a communist state in the Soviet Union? Present your findings to your class.
  • Take what little description that Pasternak gives his readers of the main characters, Yurii, Lara, and Tonia, and draw sketches or portraits of them as you imagined them. Present your drawings to your class. Ask them how your images compare to what they imagined.

Ideal versus Real

When the ideal clashes with the real, which it often does, alternative plans or concepts must be made. One of Pasternak's criticisms of the communist revolution in Russia was that these alternative plans were suppressed. The ideal, as Pasternak demonstrates in this novel, remains a concept or idea; it cannot be realized in actual circumstances. Pasternak presents the ideal in politics, economics, love, and friendship. When his characters attempt to bring the ideal into their lives, they show that it is impossible. Political upheaval brings death as citizens attempt to reshape their government in accord with the highest ideals of socialism and communism. When confronted or obstructed, reform leaders were brutal and resorted to dictatorship. When economic ideals were put in place, businesses dried up, people went hungry, and corruption spread. Even those intellectuals who first discovered and promoted the ideals got lost in their own ideas and stagnated. Zhivago himself discovers that his love relationships are not ideal; with one person he knows the dryness of an intellectual love and with the other the emotional and moral chaos of an illicit affair. People have flaws, Pasternak seems to imply, and ideals may spur them to act, but ideals themselves are not realized in actual experience.

Destruction and Suffering

Destruction and the suffering it causes can bring out the best or the worst in characters, either forcing them to rise as heroes or reducing them to beggars. The war touches everyone; suffering is universal. Characters suffer the loss of loved ones, homes, and basic needs for survival such as food and shelter. Wars provide the most obvious mode of destruction but not all destruction happens on the battlefield. The death of his parents destroys Zhivago's inner peace and security. The loss of wealth leads Zhivago's father to commit suicide. Health is destroyed when rats infest dwellings and easily contaminate the paltry food supply, which spreads disease. There is also the destruction of hope as brutal leaders, drunk on power, make extreme demands on the common people. Throughout all the destruction and suffering, however, Pasternak demonstrates how people adjust. Death of a loved one occurs, but those who are left behind learn to live without that person. Wealth of the bourgeois is stripped, and people learn to live on much less.

Individual versus Group

Socialism and communism promote the group over the individual. Although some ideas in socialism and communism seem to recommend

helping the poor, the country peasants, and the working class, Pasternak, through his protagonist, shows that thinking as a group rather than as individuals leads not only to stagnation but also to poorly conceived ideas. As communism spreads throughout his country, Zhivago feels more and more isolated from his former intellectual friends. They wear masks or enact prescribed roles rather than moving forward, independently. They begin thinking as a group rather than as individuals. As individuals, Zhivago believes, they might have thought up productive solutions. They might have found answers for starvation or ways to avoid or cope with the typhus epidemic. Perhaps these catastrophes could have been avoided if people had not been afraid to think for themselves, Zhivago concludes.


The Classic Russian Novel

Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago was written at the end of what many critics refer to as the golden age of Russian literature. Although the novel differs in some ways from the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, there are enough similarities to see it as following the form of the traditional nineteenth-century Russian novel.

The classic Russian novel provides extensive historical details. It also tends to explore religion and depict its influence on the characters. The large nineteenth-century Russian novel is realistic; it determines to present the authentic truth of real life. Often there are discussions of philosophy and contrasts drawn between the lives of those who dwell in the city and those who make their homes in the country. These novels also distinguish between romantic ideals and brute realism. The story of families is told, their ancestry and their progeny.

Journal Writing

Often in this novel, the narrator or some of the main characters reveal their thoughts as if they were writing in a journal. Quotation marks are even used to imply that the entries were taken directly from the journal. This adds a personal or introspective look into the characters' minds and also adds legitimacy to their comments or observations. It makes readers feel privy to the inner thoughts of the characters. It also helps the reader to imagine that the characters are real. The journal writings add complexity to the characters, as they are not just reacting outwardly to what is happening to them in the story but are also taking the time to think privately through the larger issues that define their experiences.


  • 1910s: Russia suffers through a series of civil revolutions as the people attempt to gain democratic rights and overthrow the rule of the tsar. The country suffers from devastating losses in World War I.

    1950s: Russia (now called the U.S.S.R.) is involved in a cold war with the United States.

    Today: Russia has witnessed the dissolution of the Soviet Union and struggles between communist rule and capitalism. The Russian Orthodox Church declares Nicholas II, the last Russian tsar, a saint.

  • 1910s: Lenin takes Marxist ideas and creates a political philosophy upon which the Soviet Union's Communist Party is based.

    1950s: Mao Zedong is established as the leader of a new communist government in China. In the United States, meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives, under the influence of Joseph McCarthy who heads its Committee on Un-American Activities, attempts to purge any communist sympathizers from the country.

    Today: Kim Jong Il, leader of North Korea, struggles to maintain control in his communist country, whose military is one of the world's largest but whose people suffer from starvation.

  • 1910s: There is a political revolution in Russia as the people rebel against the monarchy.

    1950s: Europe and the United States witness the beginnings of a cultural revolution as the younger generation rebels against the ideals of the older generation.

    Today: Many countries witness acts of terrorism, some of which are based on or prompted by particular religious beliefs.

Some critics have argued that the entire text of Doctor Zhivago is one large journal, the exposition of the author's thoughts, thinly clothed in characterization and plot. In other words, the novel does not fit into the expected form. The characters are not fully developed and the plotline barely exists. The main purpose in the novel is to express the ruminations of the author. The dialogue is not so much a form of communication between two characters as it is a monologue that the author records, perhaps for readers, maybe just for himself, as one might write to oneself in a diary.


Many people have called Pasternak's novel an epic. Traditionally, an epic refers to a long poem, but in modern times, this term has been used to describe novels and even movies. In general, an epic is a large work that encompasses a complex, huge subject. While it may focus on particular individuals, an epic generally tells the story of a people or a race, often including the story of how a given civilization or society had its beginning.

In an epic, the hero represents or endures the challenges that the people of his country face. While Zhivago, toward the end of this novel, feels more like an outsider than a hero leading his people, readers may envision him as a man of or before his time. Zhivago suffers much like most of the people in his country and is not afraid to speak his mind. He sees the foibles of the newly empowered leaders as well as the weaknesses and fears that paralyze many of the intelligentsia. In many ways, Zhivago predicts the fall of the Soviet Union, and in that sense, he may be considered heroic.

An epic may also cover a large geographic area and time. The timeframe of this novel, especially when read in the twenty-first century, adds to its epic quality. Also, the protagonist travels the vast landscape of the Soviet Union from its famous cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg to the remote regions of the Ural Mountains and Siberia.

However, Doctor Zhivago fails to meet the definition of an epic in the fact that it does not focus on great, majestic heroes or fantastic kings and warriors, but rather on the ordinary citizen, the true subject of an idealized communist state.


Karl Marx (1818-1883)

Pasternak studied philosophy in school while he was in Germany and was interested, as many students were at that time, in the writings of Karl Marx, a German philosopher who supported the working class and whose ideas fueled the socialist movement that began in the early twentieth century and swept across the world.

In Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844) Marx contrasted the different approaches to labor under a capitalist government and a communist one. In Marx's ideal communist environment, laborers worked in a cooperative in which all shared equally in the benefits. Together with Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), Marx published a book from which many revolutionists took their ideas. The Communist Manifesto (1847) contained all of Marx's beliefs about the nature of a communist society. This book was written in a simple language, unlike some of Marx's other works. The publication quickly became very popular and was said to be one of the instigations of revolutions that began sweeping across Europe. Marx's most extensive work, on which he devoted the latter years of his life, was the three-volume Das Kapital in which Marx delineated a capitalist society and its effects upon workers. Volumes one and two were published in 1885. After Marx's death, Engels put together Marx's notes and published the third volume in 1895.

Maxim Gorky (1868-1936)

Pasternak was also influenced by the political works of Maxim Gorky. Gorky was the pseudonym, taken from the Russian word that means "bitter," used by Aleksei Maksimovich Peshkov. Gorky began as a journalist and spent many years traveling across the vast territory of Russia, and what the standards of living he saw agitated him. To make sense of his experiences and to sort through his responses to them, he began writing fiction, which became instantly popular. His first work, Sketches and Stories (1889) tells of the hardships of the working class, of social outcasts, and the poor. Gorky's best known work is a play that he conceived after being encouraged by famed Russian playwright Anton Chekhov. Gorky's play, The Lower Depths (1902), received a lot of attention in Russia and also found appreciative audiences in Europe and in the United States.

In the same year that his play was positively received, Gorky was banished to northern Russia because of his political activism and his revolutionary ideas. He joined the leftist group, the Social Democratic Party led by Lenin. Then in 1906, Gorky traveled to the United States to raise money for the Bolsheviks. Later, he would find both the Bolsheviks' and Lenin's theories too harsh, and he placed himself in voluntary exile from his homeland. Gorky returned to Russia, however, before his death. By then Stalin's regime was in full force. Under Stalin, intellectuals and artists, along with many other citizens, were considered suspicious and thousands were executed. When Gorky died suddenly in 1936, rumors spread that he had been poisoned.

Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924)

The first head of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (whose real name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov) was the son of a Russian official who worked to improve the education of the masses. Lenin's brother was hanged as a terrorist, and his sister, who was considered an accomplice, was exiled. These events are said to have radicalized the intelligent Lenin, turning his thoughts to revolution. A student of Marxism, Lenin was himself exiled in 1895 for five years for contributing to propaganda in favor of revolution. His most famous propaganda pamphlet, "What Is to Be Done," is said to have sparked the 1903 split between the two factions of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party. The Mensheviks disagreed with Lenin's philosophy, while the Bolsheviks completely embraced it and made Lenin their leader. Another important and influential writing was Lenin's Materialism and Empiriocriticism (1909), which espoused the basic tenets of the Marxist-Leninist political philosophy. Lenin led the October Revolution in 1917, which overran the provisional government and then took power. He was elected chairman of the Council of People's Commissioners. After two assassination attempts on his life, in 1918, Lenin took a heavy handed and deadly approach to suppressing any rebellion against him and his government. Censorship prevented counterrevolutionary publications, and many people suspected of being against Lenin's revolution were executed, deported, or imprisoned. Known as the Red Terror, this systematic abuse of human rights continued for years. Some scholars estimate that approximately 6,300 were killed the first year; by 1921, an estimated 70,000 had been imprisoned in what came to be called the Gulag, a network of labor camps and prisons across remote areas of the country.

Lenin died of a stroke in 1924, and his body went on permanent display in the Lenin Mausoleum in Red Square in Moscow. Later, he was revered as the first leader of a communist state and was honored by statues in almost every Russian city. The name of St. Petersburg was changed to Leningrad until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

Considered Russia's greatest poet (and often referred to in Pasternak's book), Pushkin is also credited with establishing Russian literature. Pushkin was the first to use the language of the people in his poetry, thus making it accessible to the general public. He was the child of aristocrats, born in Moscow, and was a published poet by the age of fourteen. His earliest writings were influenced by old Russian fairytales. Pushkin was a radical politically and was later banished from his town because of his philosophy expressed in some of his writing. In 1833, Pushkin published what is considered his most influential work, a novel told in verse, titled Evgenii Onegin. His writings, with their mix of satire and drama continued to influence Russian literature for generations.

First Russian Revolution, 1905

Dissatisfaction among Russian workers was festering before 1905. Revolutionaries and those who called for democratic reform were carefully watched and if necessary suppressed, which caused a large emigration of intellectuals, artists, and students from Russia to other European countries. Many of these self-exiled people learned about Karl Marx while living in Germany, France, and Italy, and incorporated his ideas into their own beliefs about political change. In 1898, the Marxist Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party was formed. This party split into two factions in 1902, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks. In the following few years, many top Russian officials were assassinated, causing the government to crack down even harder on anyone suspected of being a revolutionary. During this same time, Russia was involved in a losing war with Japan. The people became more and more dissatisfied with the poor conditions of their lives, and even peasants began burning down farms. As a result, a large part of the Russian Army was involved in suppressing fellow citizens.

On January 22, 1905, a quiet protest march in St. Petersburg to complain about the poor living conditions and to ask for voting rights began moving down the streets toward the winter residence of Tsar Nicholas II. The crowd was confronted by armed men on horseback who shot out indiscriminately. In the end, around one thousand people were killed with many more thousands injured. This confrontation and massacre, which became known as Bloody Sunday, sparked even more widespread protests across the country. Workers organized strikes, peasants looted the homes of gentry, and even landowners demanded access to more land. The government made slight concessions, reducing forced labor and insubstantial payments for work and setting up a powerless representative arm of the government, which only infuriated the people further. In October of 1905, the people presented their October Manifesto, which demanded more civil rights.

Nicholas II reluctantly signed the manifesto, giving the people the right to form political parties and take part in the government. Their role was minor, and the Duma (the political house of representatives) was completely suppressed by the tsar a year later. The police and the military quickly took up arms against anyone suspected of political activism, yet the political activists increased their attacks on government officials. However, nothing really changed. The tsar continued his absolute rule, the peasants and laborers continued to suffer and go hungry, and the unrest simmered without a leader or powerful organization to focus its energy.

Russian Revolution of 1917

By 1917, the Russian people were dismayed. Thousands of people had died in Russia's disastrous involvement in World War I. Soldiers were deserting from the army by the thousands. Many returned home and used their weapons to take land they did not own. Food was scarce, and riots broke out in St. Petersburg. Soldiers united with the rioters, and this time they were successful in removing Nicholas II from power. Nicholas was forced to abdicate; he was assassinated the following year, along with all members of his immediate family and some members of the staff. He was the last Russian tsar.

With the tsar gone, a provisional government was established, which leaned toward a democratic form. However, the provisional government only lasted until October when the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, took power and established the Soviet Union in a nearly bloodless coup. This became known as the October Revolution. The Bolsheviks were popular but did not represent the majority of Russian citizens; the Bolsheviks knew that they could not maintain rule by democratic vote, so they declared a dictatorship.

Russian Civil War, 1918-1920

The Bolsheviks were in power in 1918, having created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.). The Bolsheviks were members of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, which supported the political philosophy of Marx and the leadership of Lenin. The army that supported the Bolsheviks was called the Red Army. There was, however, an anti-Bolsheviks group that was referred to as the White Army, which represented the conservative wing of Russian political activists. The Russian Civil War was fought between these two groups. The Red Army had control of the cities of St. Petersburg and Moscow, while the White Army found support in the outlying areas. In order to counter the anti-Bolshevik movement, the Bolsheviks created a secret police organization that captured, imprisoned, and killed anyone suspected of allegiance with the White Army. This became known as the Campaign of Red Terror. The fight between the two armies lasted for two years, then ended when the Red Army was successful in completely putting down the White Army in 1920.


Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958, but he was forbidden by the Russian government from accepting it, and Doctor Zhivago was initially banned from Russia. Pasternak's novel, however, won widespread acceptance and appreciation all over the world.

In his introduction to the 1991 edition of Doctor Zhivago, John Bayley attributes the great force of the novel to the "poetic power of the hero," Yurii Zhivago, and to Pasternak's skill in being "able to fill the book with that richness and minutiae of life which distinguish[es] a great novel." In the 1980s and 1990s, Bayley writes, readers and critics enjoy Pasternak's fiction more for its art than for its politics, while during the 1950s cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States the politics mattered most. "Thirty years or so after the book's first publication in English," Bayley writes, "it is the feeling of poetry it gives which now makes its strongest impression, an impression of continuing vitality and greatness…. No longer the explosive cry of freedom and protest from the heart of Stalin's Russia, the book has been published in its own country and been soberly valued and appraised, taking a distinctive and distinguished place in the tradition of Russian literary art." Bayley then explains the novel's uniqueness: Doctor Zhivago "is one of those rare works—whether we consider it fiction, poetry, or a kind of imaginary autobiography—which makes no attempt to protect itself against the reactions of the reader. It does not seem to care whether we are moved or unmoved by it; whether we criticize its sentiment and its discourse or whether we surrender to them. Like life itself it goes on its own way, indifferent to the conflicting responses of those who are, as it were, living it. This is an extremely rare quality in a modern novel, for modern fiction is the most self-conscious of art forms."

In Pasternak: A Critical Study, Henry Gifford comments on the fact that Pasternak was a poet who wrote a novel. Gifford states, "Though Pasternak would have liked it to be otherwise, he was ‘first and last a poet, a lyric poet.’ Dramatically, his novel lacks power; it is not everywhere realized with the same adequacy." Yet Gifford praises Pasternak for his "extraordinary keenness and fertility of perception," concluding that "Doctor Zhivago is a poet's novel." Finally, Gifford writes: "That intensity is focused finally in the poems proper that form the last section of the book, and for which the novel has provided an elaborate context."


  • Pasternak thought of himself primarily as a poet. A selection of his poetry appeared in Pasternak: Selected Poems, published in 1992.
  • War and Peace, first published in a series between 1863 and 1869, covers the lives of several characters and the Russian culture during the Napoleonic wars. Tolstoy, a friend of Pasternak's father, is a Russian literary legend. This novel is an epic recollection of five families and how they were affected by the wars.
  • Crime and Punishment is another classic Russian novel, written by Fyodor Dostoevsky and first published in 1866. The story takes place in St. Petersburg, Russia, and centers on a rebellious young student who commits a murder. This novel is much more than a murder mystery, however, as Dostoevsky uses the crime and the criminal to portray the ills of society.
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) relates the story of a man caught in the oppressive Stalin years in Russia. Like Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn was awarded a Nobel Prize for literature but was forbidden by his government from accepting it.
  • A more contemporary award-winning Russian writer is Ludmila Ulitskaya, whose 2005 novella and collection of short stories Sonechka relates stories of love, often turned bad. Ulitskaya tells stories of families who try to make their lives work in a terribly dysfunctional society.

Angela Livingstone, in her critical study of Doctor Zhivago, reviews the praise and the troubles that Pasternak experienced when his book was first published. "In 1958," she writes, "people started talking about Pasternak all over the world. Journalists, literary critics, people in public life, writers and readers, all suddenly became interested in this Russian who had written a novel which his own country refused to publish." In Pasternak's own country, Doctor Zhivago "was denounced as an anti-Soviet work by large numbers of Soviet citizens who had not read it. Its author was attacked as a traitor and condemned in the Press and at writers' meetings in the most vituperative language." Livingstone adds: "While persecuted by his fellow-countrymen, Pasternak found himself winning friends in the rest of the world, receiving up to seventy foreign letters a day, most of which expressed admiration." Livingstone points out that critics have had trouble categorizing Pasternak's work, not knowing for sure what to call it. She lists various descriptions: "It has been called ‘a rhapsody,’ ‘a kind of morality play,’ ‘an introspective epic,’ ‘a poet's novel,’ ‘an apocalyptic poem in the form of a novel,’ yet also ‘a political novel par excellence,’ ‘a love story for all time,’ as well as ‘one of the most original works of modern times.’"


Joyce Hart

Hart is a freelance writer and published author. In the following essay, she examines possible reasons why Pasternak's protagonist, Yurii, has trouble loving the women in his life.

Pasternak opens his novel Doctor Zhivago with the funeral and then the suicide of his protagonist's parents. From the beginning to the end of this story, the author then explores the slow fracturing that tears apart his protagonist, and his protagonist's dreams and relationships. As the outer world of Russian politics falls apart, so too does Zhivago, to the point that he is unable to deal with his society and is incapable of loving the women who affect and support him. The process is slow but devastating.

When readers come to this novel, they quickly become aware of the political struggles that provide the background of the story. The main theme is the struggle between the ideal and the real. The concepts of socialism and communism provide lofty ideals that fill those who believe in them with hope. However, when these same people attempt to put these concepts into practice, the lofty ideals fall apart. There is a disconnect between what people can imagine and what people actually experience.

Examples of failed ideals include the stories about the laborers who strike for better benefits. Other citizens join in when the laborers plan a march, taking their protest to the streets. The main impetus behind the protest is the ever widening gap between the moneyed class and the working class. To fill this gap, the workers hope to push the people with money out of their positions of power. However, as the story progresses and members of the working class take over, new gaps appear. The new political party splits into two factions, and later another crack appears between party members from the city and their counterparts who are from the distant countryside. These cracks divide again, just like the cracks in a sheet of ice, splitting in pairs that split again, fracturing what at one time appeared solid. By the end of the novel, the fissures have created chaos, brutality, and a complete breakdown of morals, human decency, and common sense. Instead of an equalizing distribution of wealth, the economy is completely destroyed. Starvation engulfs the population. Diseases such as typhus spread through the entire population. Social order, political structure, and the economy crumble. Moreover, familial and psychic fractures take place, too. These internal breaks in psyche are particularly noticeable in the protagonist, Yurii Zhivago.

Zhivago's familial disconnections begin quite dramatically right in the beginning of the novel. Zhivago is orphaned. Then he is abandoned by his beloved and admired uncle. Although he is placed with a considerate and supportive family, Zhivago has no one who claims him as their own. Zhivago's early family situation explains some of his later problems.

While a young boy, Zhivago's intellectual development is encouraged. So on this level, he does quite well. His college work earns him a degree in medicine, which he uses as a profession. He is satisfied with his work, and it provides him the freedom to travel and, for awhile, a fairly comfortable lifestyle. Throughout most of this story, Zhivago's intellect shows no fissures. However, his emotional side is quite weak.

One emotional disconnect in Zhivago is noticed by Nikolai. Nikolai mentions that Zhivago and his friends Misha Gordon and Tonia, while they are all still adolescents, declare that everything associated with sexuality should be considered vulgar. Passions are to be controlled by the mind. "It was right," Nikolai thinks to himself, "for adolescents to go through a frenzy of purity, but they were overdoing it a bit." Then Nikolai adds, "For some reason, they called the domain of the sensual, which disturbed them so much, ‘vulgar.’" This term, Nikolai states, "was applied to instinct, to pornography, to exploitation of women, and almost to the whole physical world." With this description, Nikolai emphasizes how Zhivago tried to use his well developed intellect to control his emotions.

Later in the novel, readers witness the cracks in Zhivago's thinking when he first comes upon Lara. Zhivago see her when Lara's mother has attempted suicide. Death and suicide are not new experiences for Zhivago, but sexual passion is. When Zhivago encounters Lara, he feels his own sexuality aroused and is startled by it. "His heart was torn by contradictory feelings of a strength he had never experienced before." The narrator then adds: "Here was the very thing which he, Tonia, and Misha had endlessly discussed as ‘vulgar,’ the force which so frightened and attracted them and which they controlled so easily from a safe distance by words." What Zhivago experiences at that moment when he finds himself aroused by Lara is the beginning of the cracks in his psyche. His emotions are starting to tear him apart. On one side is his rational self, the philosopher and the scientist. This is his intellectual side that has, up to this point, driven him forward. On the other side are his emotions, which have been suppressed in his attempt to look at them, to define them, then to place them on some interior shelf as if he could then forget about them. But Lara points out to him, just through her existence in the same room with him, that emotions are not the same as the intellect and are not so easily ruled. Just like the ideals of political thoughts, the actual implementation of those ideals is a lot more complex than the language that attempts to explain them.

Shortly after this scene, Tonia's mother dies. On her deathbed, she tells Zhivago and Tonia that they should marry because they are made for each other. What is interesting to note here is that Zhivago feels passion when he sees Lara, not Tonia. The relationship that Zhivago has with Tonia is rational or intellectual. They are definitely made for one another, at least on one level. They make the perfect Russian couple, on the outside. They can provide one another with the conventional comforts of marriage. They can set up a home and have children. They can work toward ensuring the health and success of this marriage. They might say that they love one another, but there are those words, again. The words of love do not necessarily imply deep feelings. Somewhere in their psyches, Tonia and Zhivago have defined their relationship and their love, just as they had previously defined passion and then placed it somewhere safe, hoping it remains undisturbed by emotional pangs. After all, they both have defined passion as vulgar—too commonplace or too far beneath the level of their strong intellects. Here readers may surmise from these descriptions that Tonia represents the ideal, while Lara symbolizes the real.

Although Zhivago attempts to suppress his feelings for Lara, Tonia recognizes them in him. Zhivago sends letters to Tonia while he is at the frontlines of the war. Zhivago believes that all he has done is mentioned Lara in his correspondence, as one would mention a colleague. But Tonia senses something underneath the few details that Zhivago presents. Surprised, Zhivago is thrown off balance. If Tonia sees an emotional connection in what he has written, Zhivago worries that Lara might also interpret his friendship in that emotional way. Zhivago appears to be the last one to know his own feelings. Instead of questioning himself, though, he runs to Lara to explain. Then, in the middle of talking to Lara about mundane things, he blurts out how much concern he has for her. Apparently Zhivago's emotions are so tired of being repressed that they come out without his intending it. In spite of his rational attempts to keep his emotions under control, his passion is expressed. He does not understand himself because he has split himself into two—his rational self and his emotional self, strangers to one another.

This split in him plays out through the rest of the novel. Zhivago believes that he loves two women, but in fact, as the story unfolds, readers discover that he really loves neither of them. Zhivago is incapable of loving because he is not a whole being. On the one side he has chosen Tonia, the perfect wife. Tonia stabilizes Zhivago, giving him what he, as a child, never had. On the other side is Lara, who represents freedom, excitement, and eroticism. Where as Tonia grounds Zhivago in the commonsensical, Lara makes him explode with possibilities. Lara inspires him and renews him, wakes him up. Unfortunately, Zhivago needs both of these women to make him whole, and ironically, because he needs both Tonia and Lara, he will never be whole. He has placed himself in the middle of a contradiction. When he is with Tonia, his relationship with Lara is eclipsed. When he is with Lara, his guilt keeps him from fully engaging in the relationship. So in the end, he separates himself from both of them. He lies to Lara, then sends her away with a man that both of them despise. When he is in a position to reunite with Tonia, he uses only half-hearted measures to find her.

Without a woman in his life, Zhivago becomes not much more than a decrepit beggar. Unable to live alone, he takes a common-law wife, with whom he attempts to replicate his relationship with Tonia. Once again he has a wife and two children. Once again, he has no passion. Marina is a lot like Tonia. She provides him with shelter and makes sure that he is fed. There is no mention of love or even companionship.

It is only at the end of the story, as well as the end of Zhivago's life, that Zhivago attempts to gain some congruence. Just as the fellow countrymen begin to compromise in the political structure in order to regain social health, so too does Zhivago. He makes sure that Marina and the children are taken care of and then he goes off on his own. He must withdraw from his women, his friends, and his society in order to empty his mind of all its random thoughts. He lives in a small room, which appears to him as a "banqueting room of the spirit, a cupboard of mad dreams, a storeroom of revelations." Here Zhivago hopes he can bring his intellect and his emotions together. He has so many thoughts to explore, however, that they constantly compete with one another, trying to come out at the same time. Some of these come out only as brief notes, interrupted sketches, or scribbles in the margins of books. Some, it is suggested, come out in the form of poetry, which is found at the end of this book.

More telling than the poetry, though, might be the thoughts of Lara, who returns during Zhivago's funeral. Lara, who for some unexplained reason has abandoned the child that is the product of her relationship with Zhivago, believes that what she and Zhivago shared was love. However, that love was not so much made up by their own passions as it was willed upon them, as if they were love's insignificant vessels. Maybe she is correct. However, as a vessel, Zhivago is imperfect. He held as much as he could, but that love could not be contained. Lara reveals her thoughts beside Zhivago's casket: Maybe that love was not for them alone to enjoy. Lara thinks, "Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the wide expanses they saw on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, took more delight in their love than they themselves did."

As in the beginning of this novel, so too in the end, the outer world and the inner world reflect and affect one another. As chaos reigns outside, so, too, does it rule the inner workings of the psyche. If Zhivago could have healed himself, so too might have his country.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on Doctor Zhivago, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2008.

Larissa Rudova

In the following chapter excerpt, Rudova offers a general introduction to the novel and gives an overview of its historical context.

On 23 October 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for "important achievements both in contemporary lyric poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition" (Conquest 1966, 85). But the award was not altogether a happy event in Pasternak's life because his joy and pride at receiving this high honor were overshadowed by the expectation of imminent trouble with the Soviet authorities and subsequent personal and professional isolation. In his conversation with Max Frankel, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow at the time, Pasternak expressed his mixed feelings about the award: "I am extremely happy, but you must understand that I am confident that I will move immediately into this new lonely role, as though it had always been so" (Conquest 1966, 88). Indeed, the Nobel Prize played a double role in Pasternak's literary career: on the one hand, it established his international literary stature, while on the other it made him the target of a slanderous ideological campaign unleashed against him by the Soviet authorities. In order to understand the "Pasternak affair," as it came to be labeled, it is necessary to back up and trace the events that precipitated the new ideological absurdities and excesses triggered against the poet after the recognition of his achievements by the Nobel Committee. Although no Soviet publisher had been willing to publish Doctor Zhivago, the Soviet authorities were profoundly irritated by its release in the West and its overwhelming success with the public. It appeared to the party ideologues that the Nobel Prize was awarded to Pasternak solely for his politically provocative interpretation of the revolution in Doctor Zhivago, as a part of the West's politics of cold war. The fact that the poet was nominated for the Nobel Prize for his poetry alone first in 1947 and again in 1953 did not seem to bear any significance for the cultural bureaucrats.

Pasternak wrote his novel between 1945 and 1955, but in a sense he had been working on it all his life. Most of his short stories and unfinished fiction in one way or another were geared to culminate in a novel. The first prominent piece that anticipated Pasternak's major project was the short story "Liuvers's Childhood," discussed earlier in this book. The immediate correspondence between Doctor Zhivago and this short work lies mainly in the place of the action, the Urals, where Zhenia Liuvers grows up and many of the events of the novel take place. But "Liuvers's Childhood" was also conceived by Pasternak as a chapter of the never-realized novel "Three Names." Important for Doctor Zhivago's genesis is also a prose sketch, "Bezliub'e" ("Without Love"), published in 1918. In this short piece Pasternak outlines one of the essential questions of Doctor Zhivago regarding the individual's role in society. The story's two Tatar names, Gimazetdin and Galliula, reappear in the novel. The protagonists of another one of Pasternak's stories, "Aerial Ways," Lelia and Polivanov, anticipate Doctor Zhivago's Lara and Antipov-Strel'nikov. In "Aerial Ways" the theme of the revolution—one of the central themes of the novel—enters Pasternak's fiction for the first time. Both the novella "The Tale" and the novel in verse Spektorskii develop around the character Sergei Spektorskii, a writer whose artistic nature and undefined political beliefs make him akin to Iurii Zhivago. By writing "The Tale" Pasternak hoped to develop one of the last chapters of Spektorskii, which he tentatively entitled "Revolutsiia" ("Revolution"). He also cherished the dream of using "The Tale" as the beginning of yet another novel. But besides these prose pieces, it is the poet's autobiography Safe Conduct that is most profoundly linked with the themes and central issues of Doctor Zhivago. The key questions that Pasternak addresses in Safe Conduct reappear in the novel. The concept of art as a fresh and original representation of reality, freedom of the artist in society and his role in it, as well as the artist's moral responsibility before himself and others are among the questions that guide both works. There are also the evolution and fate of his own generation that Pasternak is concerned with in both his autobiography and the novel. But whereas Safe Conduct spans the period from Pasternak's childhood to 1931, Doctor Zhivago expands and diversifies the historical background against which the ideas and ideals of Pasternak's generation are portrayed. The juxtaposition of two poetic types, the more withdrawn and aesthetically distant Pasternak and the politically involved Mayakovsky, anticipates a similar juxtaposition of characters in the novel, represented by Zhivago and Antipov-Strel'nikov. And finally, Doctor Zhivago, like Safe Conduct, is autobiographical and informed by Pasternak's personal life experiences.

After Safe Conduct Pasternak had not altogether given up his hope of writing a novel, and throughout the 1930s he had made further sketches for one, among them "The Notes of Patrick." Although this piece starts with World War I and then jumps back to the events of 1905, other chapters of the novel that Pasternak worked on were supposed to present a wider historical scene than that. Unfortunately, all this material perished in a fire in 1941. What survives is the cover of Pasternak's projected novel with two crossed out titles on it: "Kogda mal'chiki vyrosli" (When the Boys Grew up) and "Zapiski Zhivul'ta" (The Notes of Zhivul't). It is probably not accidental that the very sound of the name Zhivul't is close to that of Zhivago and that both names are related to the Russian word zhivoi (living). This similarity becomes especially meaningful if readers take into account that one of Pasternak's early prose sketches, "Smert' Reliquimini" ("The Death of Reliquimini"), has a variant name, Purvit—for Reliquimini, derived from the distorted French phrase pour la vie (for the sake of life, 3:645). The three names, Zhivago, Zhivul't, and Purvit, are then united by their common life-affirming symbolism.

"The Notes of Patrick" contains a range of themes that links it with Doctor Zhivago. Its heroine Evgeniia Istomina is reminiscent of Lara. Istomina is married to a teacher of physics and mathematics in the Ural town of Iuriatin, one of the major sights of action in Doctor Zhivago. After her husband disappears at the front during World War I, Istomina, like Lara, raises her daughter Katia alone. There are further characters in "The Notes of Patrick" that could be considered models for Doctor Zhivago. Among them are Anna Gubertovna (in Doctor Zhivago her patronymic is Ivanovna) and Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Gromeko, in whose house Patrick grows up. As in the novel, the Gromekos in "The Notes of Patrick" have a daughter, Tonia, whom Patrick/Zhivago marries. Other similarities that reach beyond the scope of this discussion further enhance the closeness between the two works.

Pasternak began work on Doctor Zhivago in the winter of 1945-1946, and his correspondence of that period reflects his intensive work on the novel. On 1 February 1946 he wrote to Olga Freidenberg that he was writing a "large prose" in which he wanted to express things most important to him. By October 1946 he informed her that he had already written a part of novel titled "Mal'chiki i devochki" (Boys and Girls), which spans the period 1902-1946. The degree of involvement with and excitement about this piece of writing is reflected in a letter to Freidenberg of 13 October 1946, in which Pasternak calls "Boys and Girls" his "first real work" and outlines some issues it was going to address: Christianity, nationalism, and the Jewish question. Despite his intense translation work at that time, Pasternak made progress on his novel, which later was titled Doctor Zhivago. In the fall of 1948 he reported to Freidenberg that the first part of the book was finished and he was planning for the second, which would cover the period from 1917 to 1945. The letter contains major points of the plot development that indeed later fully materialized in the completed novel: the characters Gordon and Dudorov were to survive their friend Zhivago, who was to die in 1929, leaving behind a notebook filled with poems, which would appear in a separate chapter.

Although the literary-political situation in the Soviet Union continued to be oppressive and Pasternak was systematically attacked in the press despite the fact that he was not publishing new works, on 27 December 1974 he signed a contract with the journal New World for the novel with the working title "Innokentii Dudorov," earlier called "Boys and Girls." The work on the novel did not progress as fast as he had hoped because of the bulk of commissioned translations he had to finish first and because of unexpected personal circumstances. In the fall of 1946 he met Olga Ivinskaia, who worked at the publishing house of New World and who soon became his new love. His intimate relationship with Ivinskaia lasted for the rest of his life, and once again he was caught in the moral dilemma of making a choice between his wife and his mistress. The problem was never resolved; he was torn between the two women until his death. Ivinskaia began to play a growing role as Pasternak's literary agent during his lifetime, and she also significantly influenced his creation of the image of Lara. Pasternak's liaison with Ivinskaia became known to the secret police, and in the fall of 1949 she was arrested, charged with anti-Soviet activities, and sentenced to five years in prison camps. She served practically the full term and was released in 1953 under the first amnesty for political prisoners. A few months before her return Pasternak suffered a serious heart attack from which it took him months to recover. On 14 March 1953 Stalin died, and a brief relaxation of the political climate, known as the "thaw," followed. In the April 1954 issue of the literary journal Znamia (Banner), ten poems from Pasternak's novel-in-progress were published with a short authorial introduction, and Iurii Zhivago's name was mentioned as the "author" of the poems for the first time. Also in 1954 Pasternak's Hamlet premiered at the Leningrad Pushkin Theater. But liberalism was never a lasting phenomenon in the Soviet Union, and a swift return to the ideological control of culture and literature was inevitable. When Doctor Zhivago was finally finished in 1955, Pasternak encountered the usual obstacles of censorship to publishing his novel.

The history of the publication of Doctor Zhivago could well serve as the plot for a political thriller. The general controversies have been aptly described by Robert Conquest in his book Courage of Genius. A brief review of them may suffice here in order to provide the background of the reception of the novel in the Soviet Union and abroad. Initially Pasternak submitted the manuscript to the journals Literaturnaia Moskva (Literary Moscow) and New World, but both found problems with its ideological overtones and refused to publish it. Despite the "thaw" and signs of some social criticism in newer works of Soviet literature, Pasternak's novel was an oddity because it challenged "the very theoretical basis of Marxism on which the Soviet state was built" and also seemed to demonstrate that Stalinism was the inevitable result of "the nature of the Bolshevik Party and Soviet power" (Fleishman 1990, 278). In addition to its oppositional ideology, the novel was also unacceptable because it contained "no statement of ultimate truths or prescriptions" (Fleishman 1990, 279).

The decision not to publish Doctor Zhivago reflected the government line on preventing any political controversy over intellectuals' desire for more freedom. The party also feared an emergence of antigovernment movements that were fermenting in Eastern Europe at the time (the East German uprising in 1953, the Hungarian struggle, and the unrest in Poland in 1956). What precipitated the liberal moods in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union was the so-called "secret speech" delivered by the new first secretary of the Communist Party, Nikita Khrushchev, at the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956. At a closed session Khrushchev exposed Stalin's crimes and denounced his cult of personality. The content of the speech became widely known and was viewed by Eastern European as well as Soviet intellectuals as a sign of liberalization. But all such hopes were shattered when the political oppositions in Poland and Hungary were quickly suppressed. Especially after the Hungarian rebellion the Soviet Government had to make sure that the dangerous spirit of freedom did not infect its own ranks and thereafter its stability. Among the first targets of the Khrushchev government in its preventive campaign to purge literature of the dangerous moods of liberalization were the journals New World and Literary Moscow, known for their liberal inclinations. Under these circumstances the publication of Doctor Zhivago in either of these periodicals or any other Soviet publication was out of the question, and in March 1956 Pasternak gave the manuscript to a visiting Italian journalist, Sergio D'Angelo, a member of the Italian Communist Party who was working in Moscow and visited Pasternak in Peredelkino. With Pasternak's permission, D'Angelo sent the manuscript to an Italian publisher with pro-Communist sympathies, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who offered to publish the book in an Italian translation. Pasternak was well aware of the consequences of his acceptance of such an offer, but in view of the near impossibility of publishing Doctor Zhivago in the Soviet Union and the urgency with which he wanted to see the manuscript published, he was willing to face the wrath of the authorities after the book's publication in the West (Fleishman 1990, 278). Since Pasternak made no secrets about his plans, the news of the novel's foreign release on 22 November 1957 spread rapidly among the literary circles and alarmed Soviet officials. The entire Soviet press mobilized its forces in a slanderous campaign against him. Pasternak was subject to enormous pressure from the authorities to stop the publication, and the Soviet officials requested that Feltrinelli abandon the book's production. Feltrinelli, however, was determined to publish the novel and pointed out to the Soviets that the English and other editions were already well under way (Conquest 1966, 66).

The rage of the Soviet authorities against Doctor Zhivago had been building even up before the novel was published in Italy. What was especially offensive to them was the publication of excerpts from the novel in a Polish literary journal, Opinie (Opinion), and of a few of Zhivago's Christian poems in the anti-Soviet émigré journal Grani (Landmarks). Soviet authors were not allowed to publish abroad without permission from the authorities, and so the fact that Pasternak's writing appeared in print in the West without official approval and on such a forbidden topic as Christianity was seen as a slap in the face of the Soviet literary institutions.

The success of the novel following its publication in Italian was sensational. Its first printing of six thousand copies was sold out on the first day. Over the next two years the novel was translated into twenty-four languages. After Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize the Union of Soviet Writers, the Communist Party, and various public organizations began systematic attacks against Pasternak. He was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and accused of betraying his country and negatively portraying the socialist revolution and Soviet society—despite the fact that the vast majority of the people participating in the campaign had never even read the novel. Some demanded his expulsion from the country. Privately, however, Pasternak received many letters of support and encouragement from admirers. Yet the psychological pressure on him mounted, and he seriously feared deportation to the West. Compared to other options—prison or labor camps—that dissident Soviet writers had to face, deportation to the West seemed to be a mild punishment. Yet Pasternak did not want to leave Russia. These circumstances forced him first to decline the Nobel Prize and then to write a letter to Khrushchev with a request not to be deported. In this letter he wrote: "I am linked with Russia by my birth, life, and work. I cannot imagine my fate separate from and outside Russia…. A departure beyond the borders of my country would for me be equivalent to death …" (Conquest 1966, 178). Pasternak was also forced to write to Pravda a letter of renunciation of the Nobel Prize. This letter is an interesting document. Despite its generally apologetic tone, it contains lines that can be read as a defense of the views expressed in the novel: "It seems that I assert that any revolution is a historically illegitimate phenomenon, that the October Revolution was one of such illegitimate events, that it brought Russia misfortunes and led the Russian traditional intelligentsia to its destruction. It is clear to me that I cannot accept such assertions carried to absurdity" (Conquest 1966, 181). Although Pasternak was allowed to stay in Russia and retain both his apartment in Moscow and the house in Peredelkino, the attacks against him never stopped. His last collection of verse, Kogda razguliaetsia (When the Weather Clears), includes a poem, "Nobelevskaia premiia" ("The Nobel Prize," 1959), that describes his feelings about that hard time: "I am lost like a beast in its bay. / There are people out there, freedom, light, / But behind me there is the noise of the hounds, / There is no escape for me. / … How did I dare to write such malicious offense, / I, a murderer and evildoer, / Who make the whole world weep / At the beauty of my native land."

Whereas the official Soviet press presented Doctor Zhivago as an artistically weak novel noted in the West solely for its political content, the reaction of Western critics, although not unanimous, was for the most part enthusiastic. Particularly favorable reviews came from such distinguished writers as the American Edmund Wilson, the Italian Alberto Moravia, and the French Albert Camus and François Mauriac, to name but a few. But the book was also attacked on both artistic and political grounds in the West. Vladimir Nabokov found it weak, and one American Slavic scholar bluntly called it mediocre in his 1959 review "Courage But Not Excellence" (Cornwell 1986, 11-13). There were also opinions voiced by the European orthodox left agreeing with the official Soviet views on history and politics. These critics presented the novel as ignoring or maliciously distorting facts of Soviet history and life (Conquest 1966, 52-53). There was another reason, beyond politics, however, why the case of Pasternak's novel attracted so much attention in the West. In Fleishman's opinion, Pasternak's frame of mind in Doctor Zhivago demonstrated "the organic, indissoluble tie with European culture," a feature that Stalin consistently had tried to destroy in the Soviet intelligentsia during his rule (Fleishman 1990, 286-87). Pasternak appeared to Westerners as a symbol of the old culture that had almost completely vanished in the Soviet Union. His refined education and open-mindedness, resistance to official culture, advocation of humanism, and original interpretation of Christianity—"all this was out of keeping with stereotypical portraits of the Soviet intellectual" (Fleishman 1990, 287). These features of Doctor Zhivago go against the grain of ideology and cultural assumptions and present a different, older world of free thinking and originality that the Soviet party apparatus was systematically trying to kill in its writers. …

In Doctor Zhivago readers see Russian history from the beginning of the twentieth century to the mid 1950s. Pasternak takes his characters through the turbulent events of the first Russian revolution of 1905, World War I, the February revolution of 1917 that overthrew the monarchy, the October revolution of the same year that installed the Bolshevik regime, and the civil war that followed it. In the conclusion he further, however briefly, treats the first years of building socialism in Russia, and finally, in the epilogue World War II and the postwar situation up to the 1950s are touched upon. This historical sweep and breadth of the novel makes Pasternak's approach to representing history seem problematic for some readers and critics. Isaac Deutscher, for instance, in a highly critical article titled "Pasternak and the Calendar of the Revolution," accuses the author of Doctor Zhivago of placing his characters "in the backwoods and backwaters" of history. Deutscher's comparison is to Tolstoy, who, in his celebrated historical epic, War and Peace, throws his characters "right onto the stream of history" (Deutscher 1969, 244). Deutscher also points out that whereas in War and Peace Tolstoy introduces real historical figures (for example, Czar Aleksandr, Napoleon, and the head of the Russian army, Kutuzov) and describes places of historical significance, Pasternak "has no eye for the historic scene. He runs away from history, just as all the time his chief characters flee from the scourge of revolution" (Deutscher 1969, 245). Deutscher's notion is indeed correct that Pasternak presents his heroes mostly on the periphery of the revolutionary events and introduces no real historical figures into the narrative (the White Army admiral Kolchak fighting in Siberia is perhaps the only historical figure to make a brief appearance in the book). But the critic fails to see that Pasternak was hardly concerned with writing a traditional historical novel or a "political novel par excellence" (Deutscher 1969, 241). Pasternak is neither attempting to chronicle history in Doctor Zhivago, which is obvious from his somewhat careless use of dates, nor does he intend to write a political indictment of the Soviet regime in a dissident vein à la Solzhenitsyn a short time later. Above all, he is writing "a philosophical novel, a testimony of thought and experience." The focus of Pasternak's exploration is primarily on the individual and, only through the individual and his existential and psychological situation, on history. It is because of this that Pasternak's novel projects a very different sense of history than Tolstoy's—more intimate, personal, and emotionally intense than Tolstoy's, whose philosophical views on the nature of war permeate the novel, and who at the end of War and Peace adds an essay on his understanding of the meaning of history. Pasternak approaches history as "an impressionist painter," de Mallac writes: "many strokes create the total impression if one just stands back far enough" (de Mallac 1981, 307).

The impressionistic perception, conceptualization, and projection of history are consistent features of the novel. Although views on history and the revolution are expressed by many characters in the book, the voice that readers hear most prominently is Pasternak's own. Through Iurii, a thinly veiled persona of the author himself, readers follow the evolution of Pasternak's views on Russia's revolutionary history, the view through the eyes of a sophisticated, sensitive, and talented artist, very much like Pasternak himself.

When the provisional government assumes power in Russia after the abdication of the czar, Iurii is at the front, in Meliuzeevo, far away from the events of the revolution. He responds to it with enthusiasm and idealism. The joy of freedom is reflected in his conversation with Lara: "Just think of it, the roof has been torn off Russia and we, with all the people, are out in the open…. Freedom! Real freedom … out of the blue, beyond our expectation, freedom by accident, through a misunderstanding." The language of Zhivago's welcoming of the revolution is significant both for understanding his views as well as the novel's whole meaning. What Iurii's words emphasize is the elemental nature of the events, their accidental occurrence and ambiguity, in fact a possibility of their being a misunderstanding. These aspects stand behind much of the novel's own plot progression. For Zhivago the revolution has a providential quality, and he elevates it almost to divine status in his vision of universal harmony ("mother Russia … is talking and she cannot stop. … And it is not only people that are talking. Stars and trees got together and are talking, and night flowers are philosophizing, and stone houses hold meetings"). In his interpretation the revolution acquires an abstract quality. Indeed, with Zhivago on the periphery of the events in Meliuzeevo, readers do feel far removed from the violent historical reality. This feeling is intensified by Zhivago's "double vision" of the revolution: "Everyone has been through two revolutions: first his own, personal as well as another, the general one." It is the personal one that readers are mostly exposed to, and the general one reveals itself through the multiplicity of the characters' voices in the novel.

Pasternak does not in any way promote Zhivago's ideas about the revolution as the correct ones. On the contrary, he emphasizes the fact that his protagonist expresses the view of the Russian professional middle class, which constituted the core of the intelligentsia. He makes it clear in the novel that Zhivago's response to the revolution has two sides. The first could be described as the "poetics of home," comfort, stability, "good-heartedness and purity." Zhivago is very concerned that this cozy life might vanish and "wanted it safe and whole." The second side reveals his naive and romantic attraction to the revolution, identifying it with the freedom-loving ideals of his youth and at the same time being fascinated by its new, unknown drifts. For Zhivago these new elements, while associated with blood and violence, also symbolize real life and a real change for Russia. With fascination and respect, he describes the Bolsheviks as heroes and "experts of [this] elemental power" of the revolution, guiding the people to the future.

In part 2 Zhivago's prerevolutionary world of comfort and high values is juxtaposed to the world of the revolutionary railroad workers. Once again it is an individual perception that Pasternak focuses on. Untouched by good fortune, the railroad worker Kupriian Tiverzin lives in a world of injustice, "of ignominy and fraud." In his revolutionary dreams, in the name of the workingmen, he rises against his oppressors, among whom Zhivago (by virtue of his class) might very well be placed.

Iurii's initial desire to include himself with the "people" is problematic from the very beginning. The people—like Tiverzin—are not eager to include him in their ranks. Later in the novel the growing polarization of the two worlds after the socialist revolution—the working class on the one hand, professional and industrial bourgeoisie on the other—is explicitly commented on by the author: "Old life and the new order did not correspond to each other. They were not yet openly hostile to each other, as when the civil war broke out a year later but there was a lack of connection between the two. These were two sides confronting each other…." The gap between the social classes is tangible even before the October revolution, and therefore, it is not surprising that Zhivago senses it and, while preaching socialism as the road toward an amelioration of society, foresees the imminent death of his class ("he considered himself and his own class doomed"). This, however, does not change his deep spiritual commitment to the people and their future well-being. A Christian touch of self-sacrifice, reminiscent of Lieutenant Schmidt, sounds in his words when he is talking about his fate, which he is willing to accept without resistance in the name of the suffering Russian people: "[He] was ready to sacrifice himself for the general good." In these words readers hear an echo of Vedeniapin' revolutionary utopianism ("[it] will lead people toward the light") and his total inability to connect theory with real life. In fact, both uncle and nephew preach the radical and complete liberation from the old system but have only a vague idea of the new one. Vedeniapin's metaphor of the complete destruction of the old building corresponds in its essence to the medical language of Zhivago's ecstatic welcoming of the October revolution. Zhivago marvels at the Bolsheviks' ability to "cut out the old stinking ulcers" at once Vedeniapin's and Zhivago's attitudes toward the revolution are romantic and idealistic. Their political naïveté points to Pasternak's earlier hero Lieutenant Schmidt and even to Pasternak himself at the time of the February revolution.

As the narrative develops, external events are given more attention and gradually influence Zhivago's attitude toward the new regime. As his hardships worsen, the pulse of history is felt more and more strongly and "manifests itself as civil war and domestic strife, in a ‘permanent revolution’ which is at once material and spiritual warfare, a total struggle without quarter or truce" (Poggioli 1958, 551). Material deprivations, hunger, epidemics, brutality, and the new bureaucracy of the Bolshevik regime all inexorably lead Zhivago to change his views on the revolution. Assuming that he was ready for self-sacrifice and suffering, is his subsequent disappointment with Bolshevism inevitable?

The answer to this question lies in Zhivago's philosophy and his idealistic expectations of new freedoms and enlightened liberalism for all people of Russia. Unfortunately, however, liberalism was scarcely on the Bolsheviks' agenda. Their priorities were the establishment of their dictatorship by means of a victorious class struggle and reshaping the new society according to their uniform ideological pattern. The October revolution that actually took place was not Zhivago's revolution, and he was quick to realize it. During his trip to the Urals he comes in contact with people outside his own social circle for the first time in his life. What he sees in the Russian provinces and hears from people only confirms his view that Marxism, which lies at the foundation of Bolshevism, is an abstract, self-centered teaching, far removed from life, and as handled by the new regime it becomes not a tool of liberation but an effective means of political suppression. Ordinary people have been fooled by it as much as the intellectuals. As Zhivago's cotraveler, the co-operativist Kostoed observes, the hope of the people for land and freedom was deceived, and instead, "from the fetters of the old government oppression, the people fell under the much harsher yoke of the new revolutionary superstate." The omnipresent oppression under the new regime is a major blow to Zhivago's liberal attitudes and leads him to reject the dictatorship of the Bolsheviks as a form of transition to a happier socialist society: "nothing can be gained by brute force. One should be drawn to good by goodness."

After the horrors of the civil war, which he experienced during his forced service with the partisans, Zhivago's sense of history and the revolution undergoes a drastic change. Now he clearly sees that his hope for freedom will not materialize in a state based on political dogma and oppression. He cannot expect anything from those "active, limited and fanatical geniuses," as he calls the revolutionaries, who are determined to transform Russia according to their will. From now on they will perpetually be called "bright heroes," whereas he will be stigmatized as a "petty soul that sides with obscurantism and the oppression of the people." This hurts and angers Iurii. But he is not the only one disturbed by the new people in power. Along with Iurii, the author himself responds to the powerful revolutionary force that from now on is going to determine the destiny of the Russian people. And therefore the portraits of the old revolutionaries Tiverzin and Antipov appear in a telling grotesque light: "Counted among gods at whose feet the revolution laid its gifts and sacrifices, they sat silent, as strong idols from whom political conceit annihilated all life and humanity."

After the true nature of the Bolsheviks begins to emerge even more clearly, Zhivago justifiably expects that in the process of altering the social order, they will eradicate any hint at individuality in the building of their monolith ideological state. The threat to his humanistic ideal of freedom is real, and he sees only two outlets for himself: art and love. Reality itself forces him to create his own castle, a world within the world of the revolution. To preserve his value system, he must reject the historical context. In that, Zhivago can be perceived as both "the weakest victim" and the most "elusive enemy" (Poggioli 1958, 551) of the Bolshevik regime. Art and love become his islands amid the hostile stormy waters. But despite his proud isolation as an artist without any political cause, he remains a threat to the new regime as long as he speaks his idiom and exists on the margins of the social system. While readers may interpret Zhivago's retreat from the world of socialism into the world of his ideas as a capitulation before the revolution and therefore pronounce the death of his whole class, there is an optimistic message in the novel that must not be ignored. Even under Soviet socialism Zhivago remains spiritually free and faithful to his moral and intellectual principles. It is these principles that Pasternak was interested in presenting in his novel and for the sake of which he avoided the presentation of history through dates, facts, and actual personalities. Instead, he foregrounds the individual perception and experience of history. Pasternak's novel is "a spiritual document of great significance" (Poggioli 1958, 551) in which the self occupies center stage and is elevated above history.…

Source: Larissa Rudova, "Doctor Zhivago," in Understanding Boris Pasternak, University of South Carolina Press, 1997, pp. 137-42, 160-65.


Bayley, John, "Introduction," in Doctor Zhivago, Pantheon Books, 1991, pp. xii, xiii.

Gifford, Henry, "Doctor Zhivago," in Pasternak: A Critical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 197.

Livingstone, Angela, "Reception, Importance, and Position of Doctor Zhivago," in Doctor Zhivago, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp. 1, 2. 5.

Pasternak, Boris, Doctor Zhivago, Pantheon Books, 1958.


Barnes, Christopher, Boris Pasternak: A Literary Biography, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Using both personal accounts and family archives, Barnes depicts in this two-volume work both the personal and the political side of this great Russian writer.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila, The Russian Revolution, Oxford University Press, 2001.

The Russian Revolution was supposed to bring about a model Marxist political form of government. Instead, the revolution caused great suffering among its intended beneficiaries. The research done by Fitzpatrick occurred after the fall of the Soviet Union, which opened up archives that had been closed to all historians, including Russian researchers, until this time.

Fleishman, Lazar, Boris Pasternak: The Poet and His Politics, Harvard University Press, 1990.

Having researched Pasternak's politics in preparation for writing this book, Fleishman gives the reader an understanding of the times in which Pasternak lived and an appreciation of the courage Pasternak displayed in speaking his mind and standing up to government censorship.

Reid, Christopher, From Tsar to Soviets: The Russian People and Their Revolution, 1917-21, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Reid presents the Russian Revolution through the eyes of the people, their struggles and their dreams. With a very readable style, Reid presents the political, economical, and social environment during the time of the Russian tsars and how the pressure built up in the citizenry, leading them to revolt. This book also attempts to explain how the Bolshevik goals differed from those of the citizens during the ensuing revolution.

Rudova, Larissa, Understanding Boris Pasternak, University of South Carolina Press, 1997.

In this book, Rudova expands on the merits of Pasternak, claiming that Pasternak's literary ability and claim to fame extend well beyond this one publication. After all, in Russia, Pasternak is known first as a poet. Rudova explores Pasternak's proficiency and artistry foremost in this genre.