From Pasternak’s novel to David Lean’s film of Doctor Zhivago

Pasternak told an interviewer from abroad in 1960 that 

I wanted to record the past and to honor in Doctor Zhivago the beautiful and sensitive aspects of the Russia of those years. There will be no return of those days, or of those of our fathers and forefathers, but in the great blossoming of the future I foresee their values will revive. I have tried to describe them.

His novel, rejected in his own country, appeared in 1957 in Italy, where it was published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, despite huge pressure from Moscow. Feltrinelli was an Italian Communist, sympathetic, but who felt the Soviet model ought to be able to withstand criticism. Also he recognized, as a publisher, that he had a work of world literature on his hands. When the English translation, admitted as imperfect by its translators, followed in 1958,  three extraordinary things happened. In reverse order of importance, Pasternak’s reputation as a genius was cemented, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, and a particular view of Russia as moral through its literature, against the political odds, was enshrined for all time.

Western critics delighted in a work that seemed to revive the great nineteenth-century tradition of moral realism. Pasternak was a new Tolstoy, they said. Zhivago, whose very title meant ‘Doctor of What is Living’,  evoked the consolations of Russian nature and human goodness against the backdrop of a savage political history.

That critical moment, fifty years ago, is worth analysing now, not only for the historical event but for the values that were at stake.

The deep Russian soul, a notion that arose out of nineteenth-century mysticism and resistance to Western utilitarianism in the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, coupled with a desire to identify a national essence, was in fact of no interest to the Bolsheviks, in their assessment of the country and its people. In the twentieth-century West people were divided. Those who had hopes for an improved humanity, fired by the Russian revolutionary example, were in the early decades more interested in a Soviet vision of progress than the old soulfulness. It was after the Stalin era, and the first great discrediting of the Communist image, that the great Russian soul became once again the way for a moderate West to hold on to a positive idea of Russia.

Even more than the novel, because of its greater audience reach, David Lean’s 1965 film Doctor Zhivago brilliantly, in its very existence, embodied that new-old hope; which is why it’s worth reexamining today, as evidence of a moment in history. If you follow closely the screenplay, and listen out for the pared down dialogue, extracted from the novel, you can find both passion and argument in favour of a great idea of Russia. It was more than a British love, of course. It belonged to the postwar West. But let me call it British, after the nationality of the director, and because there are details in the film that tell a specifically British story.

Soviet critics insisted that Pasternak was guilty of egocentrism and individualism – bourgeois failings post-revolutionary Russia had left behind. In the film Larissa, or Lara, Yuri Zhivago’s lover, is told that these are his weaknesses but she firmly rejects them. We can make another comparison. Lara’s seducer Komarkovsky is an egotist and a selfish man. Yuri is neither of those. Yet such was the Bolshevik ideology, both novel and film explain, that anyone who cultivated an inner and private emotional life, and spent time reflecting, was branded the class enemy. As ideological and moral values become fatally interwoven and willfully confused. Because of his care for emotional nuance, and the value he places on individual lives, Yuri Zhivago can’t survive in Soviet times, both Efgraf, his brother, and Komarovsky, insist. Komarovsky is a bad man to Yuri’s good soul. Efgrav wears the uniform of a general in the Red Army whereas people take Yuri to be a counter-revolutionary. The real truths and the moral cost they involve are more mixed. Komarovsky, a convincing character able to live with his own faults, offers to help Zhivago and is rebuffed; although he is allowed to help Lara. Efgrav’s help is accepted.

The Zhivago brothers are not enemies but they are estranged by history. The point is that together they are Russia. Lean was praised for his ingenious conversion of a visionary text studded with poems into a gripping narrative of the Russian revolution. He grasped this complex Russia was at stake. Intuitively he used Efgraf’s quest for his lost niece, Yuri and Lara’s daughter Anna, as a framing device to tell the story of Zhivago’s life. The tensions in one family spiral out to tell a story of Russia that continues into subsequent generations. At the same time they pose questions unsolved then and now.  Should society be individualistic or collectivist? Can Russia deal with this age-old tension in a humane way, or must it involve, over and over, punishment and killing, from the Civil War of 1919-21, to the Gulag and on. There are shades of feeling on both the ‘Red’ and White sides, and no side at all. They are all, for Pasternak, his beloved Russia, and Lean is remarkably faithful to that vision.

Consider though the novel’s fierce condemnation by exiled Russian novelist, and Pasternak contemporary, Vladimir Nabokov. Doctor Zhivago, Nabokov said, was  a novel about a ‘lyrical doctor with penny-awful mystical urges and philistine turns of speech and an enchantress straight out of …[popular novels for teenage girls]’.

Nabokov, a superb writer, and superbly nostalgic about the old-style Russia he knew as a boy, succumbed as a man to envy and malice. He never had a gracious word for another rival of his times, the Russian-born philologist Roman Jakobson, who made a stellar career in the United States, and he has rightly been accused of envy in Pasternak’s direction too.

Nevertheless, to compare the poetic worlds of Nabokov and Pasternak is in fact to discern many similarities, stemming from their common immersion in Russian Symbolist poetry of the early century. Nabokov in 1940 urged the American critic Edmund Wilson to read Pasternak’s poetry. Even in this division of loyalties outside the story there was one complex Russia to be imagined. A spiritual country inclined to kitsch. A brutal place redeemed by its Holy Fools. The Russia that Nabokov fled and Pasternak endured was all these things and more.

Nabokov was right that Pasternak’s novel risked sentimentality. One day it would inspire a sickly Broadway musical. Lean’s film would almost have avoided the kitsch, but for its musical score, epitomized by the world-famous ‘Lara’s theme’ played on a balalaika. The most than can be said for that theme, perhaps, is that it functions like a Wagnerian leitmotif, reminding viewers of the main course of the action. (There’s also a wonderful, borrowed Wagnerian moment when Yuri first arrives in the Urals, where briefly he can lead an idyllic family life. )

On the other hand the entire novel is about pure feeling for ‘What is Living’.  Moreover, we can observe that Yuri never feels hatred and never pursues revenge. In the face of cruelty and brutality he responds with a deep existential disappointment. Now this was not sentimentality. It was a vital Christian element in Pasternak’s makeup. It was important to Pasternak to represent humanism, and not any church, but how he felt those humanist values came out of a philosophical tradition which respected a transcendent moral law and made strong demands on individuals to sacrifice their own interests to follow it. (For more on this Kantian tradition in Russia see my book Motherland A Philosophical History of Russia). None of this, contra Nabokov, was schlock.

The many characters in the novel are in some ways devices to bring out the breadth and subtlety of Yuri’s Russian character. But they are also characters in their own right, and they are brought alive by great acting in the film.And so in Doctor Zhivago in both its forms, on the printed page and on celluloid, we have this panoramic view of Russia as a beautiful natural land alive with moral possibilities through its powerfully driven but also deeply fallible and gullible people.  Pasha Antipov, who later renames himself Strelnikov, ‘the archer’, is a case in point. Antipov, Lara’s childhood sweetheart, is a good man but lacks something as a human being. He is drab and over-serious, dutiful but no fun as a husband. The actor Tom Courtenay does a marvellous job. From the brave part Antipov plays in the 1905 Revolution, a long overdue people’s protest against the cruelty of the tsarist regime, we know he has justice on his side. But his puritanical character, especially after he and Lara go their separate ways, suits him to the Bolshevik machine and turns him into an agent of harm. He meets out what is no longer justice but class retribution; and he accepts, like the regime he once fought, that life is cheap. And yet he spares Yuri, when he is in a position of authority over him. The words ring out: ‘Let him go! This man is innocent.’ And you know that Pasternak has resurrected some old goodness in this man’s soul, in this anti-type, some true moral quality which history and conflict have almost obliterated. The goodness is borne on the memory of his wife, whom he seems to be trying to reach when he is arrested and kills himself.

Two recent publications, in 2013 and 2014, have made clear how involved the CIA was in promoting Pasternak’s novel as a tool in the Cold War cultural struggle. The CIA action was focused on getting the novel in Russian back into Soviet Russia, to affect minds and hearts there. But so far as a Western view of Soviet Russia was concerned, the CIA was not needed in order for a wide readership to understand the novel’s importance in the Cold War. Edmund Wilson voluntarily laid down the gauntlet in the West’s ideological struggle against the Soviet Union when he described Zhivago as ‘one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history’. On our side, the humane side, this was a great event, he might have added.

The Cold War was a war of rival philosophies. It was about opposing views of ‘mankind’, individual versus collectivist, mystical against utilitarian, and, in some quarters, religious against atheist. The film features these very arguments in its fine dialogue, and in the actions it highlights. It was a time, in the 1950s and 1960s, when remnants of philosophical idealism in the West struggled with a materialism in the Communist East which rejected a spiritual view of human beings. Seen the other way round, the West clung on to a phoney ‘spiritual’ philosophy which defended the class interests of the privileged and discouraged the rest from seeking happiness in a material world. The Cold War wasn’t only about nuclear warheads and superpower posturing. The Zhivago story in and off the page assures us of that.

I mentioned just now the rainbow Wagnerian moment when Yuri Zhivago gets out of the train and scents the pure air of the Ural mountains, where a brief time of happy family life awaits. This is his bourgeois concept of happiness, now outmoded in Soviet Russia. It is matched at the end of the film by an actual rainbow hanging strangely low over a hydroelectric dam, a more appropriate goal for the new collectivist age.

Because so much more was at stake it would be wrong to see CIA involvement in the Zhivago story in Russia as now the main issue. It’s still the novel, and the film made from that novel, that can best tell us about the real battle that was going on between two visions of humanism. Now both have been eroded. In the West by capitalism, and in Russia by capitalism’s long delayed arrival married to potential lawlessness. The lawlessness we could already see in the chaos and savagery of the Civil War that furnished the main action in Zhivago.

Pasternak was not a Cold War warrior, whatever the Cold War made of him. Indeed he ardently hoped that his view of Russia was so nuanced as to be unserviceable to any ideological side. I don’t think Lean was either.

Yet, if you want to insist on ideological content in the film, then, yes, there is something it can’t control in its very form, It sympathizes with an upper-middle-class family displaced by the proletarian takeover of 1917. Made in 1965, it is unselfconsciously a middle-class work of art, expressing a middle-class vision. The workers’ committee that appropriates the Moscow family home of Yuri’s wife Tonya consists of doltish-looking proletarians in rough clothes, worn-out by a life of labour and completely lacking in intellectual sophistication. The only appealing ‘worker’ is an old family retainer, of the kind Russian literature has otherwise preserved for us in Chekhov fifty years before.

I don’t condemn it. It’s an indelible record of how the West used to feel about ‘Mother Russia’ and ‘the Russian soul’ fifty years ago. They were feelings of great intensity, which took the British at least out of their residual emotional reserve. David Lean lent a certain Imperial uprightness to the graciousness of Pasternak’s best Russian aristocrats, like Tonya’s father Alexander (Ralph Richardson) and gave a stiff upper lip to Efgraf Zhivago (Alec Guiness). Omar Sharif’s Yuri, magnificent both physically and spiritually, was like an exceptional foreigner, and Indian prince perhaps, who had been educated at a British public school pre-war. These were all great actors who spoke for, in cut-glass English accents, the establishment order of things in their day. They embodied a world in which to be correctly dressed and well-spoken tended to suggest moral decency.

It is in fact this deep identification between an idealized upper middle class England and a good Russia that the film unconsciously celebrates.  There is an unreflected solidarity with the class that was ousted by the Bolsheviks, despite condemnation of the harsh tsarist regime (in the early sabre charge against defenceless and peaceful demonstrators). Is it fanciful to imagine Lean’s film making up for the refusal of King George V to give his brother the last tsar refuge on British soil after he was deposed in 1917? That refusal left Nicholas II and his family vulnerable to imprisonment and murder by the Bolsheviks – a moment Lean uses as a real historical reference point, and when he directs his best characters to be silenced and outraged.

Lean was widely praised for turning a diffuse poetic conglomeration into a thrilling temporal narrative, so that film-goers really did think Zhivago was an epic novel of the Russian Revolution, as well as a series of visionary moments.

But he also created this document, a poem in itself, reflecting Britain’s and I think generally the West’s once heart-felt love of Russia, a view now sadly alienated by despotic contemporary politics and brash consumerism.



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