Sunday, 12 December 2010

Urals Federal District - Dr Zhivago

I've read a few 'heavy-duty' Russian epics in my time (eg. Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment) and Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, is a novel of epic proportions.  I must admit, a mere twenty pages into the novel, I found myself double-checking the publication date (1957), as the style it's written in is like something straight out of the 19th century.

Pasternak and Zhivago

Pasternak was a well-known writer and poet in the Soviet Union, long before Dr Zhivago was smuggled to the West by Pasternak's friend Isaiah Berlin.  The novel was an instant hit in the West, but suppressed in the Soviet Union, because of the political views it espoused.  It's quite telling that Dr Zhivago was only published after Stalin's death and that Pasternak continued to live in the Soviet writer's colony outside Moscow, Peredelkino, despite having written such a controversial book.  When Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, he faced great pressure from the Soviet government to turn down the award, which he dutifully did.

Having read a bit about Pasternak's background, after finishing the novel, I can't help drawing parallels between Pasternak and his fictional hero Dr Yury Zhivago.  Both Pasternak and Zhivago came from fairly affluent artistic backgrounds (Pasternak's father was a well-known Russian painter).  They both sympathised with the revolution initially, becoming more and more disillusioned as the horrors of the Civil War reduced Russia to a barbarian state.  They both decided to stay in Russia, despite the repressive nature of the new Bolshevik government. 

Something that's difficult for a lot of Westerners to understand is how much Russians love their country.  I think we all presume that life is so hard there, they would rather be anywhere else, but it's almost as if the opposite is true!  Practising the third conditional with my students in Moscow, the question 'If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you like to live?' invariably received the answer Russia, whereas I'm sure a lot of people in Ireland and Britain could think of more exotic places to live (Barbados, Tahiti etc.)  At first, I thought this was a lack of imagination on the part of my Russian students, but I realise now that the question is simply a 'no-brainer' for most Russians.

Pasternak stayed in the Soviet Union, likewise Zhivago refused to flee to Mongolia or China, or to rejoin his wife and children in Paris.  In Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, published 80 years earlier, the main character Raskolnikov would rather stay in Russia and accept his punishment, than go into exile in America.  Zhivago is not an actual surname in Russia, but is a play on the Russian word for 'life/live' zhizn/zhit'/zhivoy.  Dr Zhivago symbolises the continuation of life in Russia, after a period of great turmoil and upheaval. 

The Personification of Nature

There are several themes running through the novel, one of the most glaringly obvious, and treated beautifully in the language he uses, is Pasternak's personification of nature.  Just as Dr Zhivago (a human) symbolises some kind of natural life-force, Russia herself, her landscapes and the familiarity of her seasons, become human in their moods and actions.  Something as natural as a snow-storm is given a life and character of its own.  As Lara's innocence melts away in the spring, so the 'water drops lisped, the thaw muttered its spells'.  Pasternak gives nature its own language, therefore making it human, as language is what separates us from the non-human world.  As the boats are moved in early winter from the river to the people's gardens, they're described as 'migrating storks'. 

There are two very touching scenes in the novel that illustrate this.  The first is when Dr Zhivago is travelling with his family from Moscow to the Urals and the trees along the way are described as holding out napkins of snow to the train, a reference to the Russian tradition of welcoming guests by holding out a napkin with bread and salt.  The second scene is when Dr Zhivago leaves the train and goes wandering in the forest, he lies down on the sun-speckled forest floor and melts into the natural background.  It's when he is most at peace and far-away from the troubles of the human world around him. 

It's ironic that so many Russians now live in horrible industrial cities, far from the 'nature' that they love so much.  Perhaps the cities are horrible because Russians don't really believe in them and are simply waiting for the long summer evenings and weekends at the dacha, the joy of hunting for mushrooms in the forest and roasting sausages on an open fire, far away from the crowds of people and endless bustle of trains and cars.

Trains and death

Which brings me nicely onto another theme, not just in Dr Zhivago, but also in novels like Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.  Like a lot of countries, Russia's fate seems to have been sealed by the development of the railway.  There's the Trans-Siberian Express, of course, one of the world's most famous railway journeys, six and half days from Moscow to Vladivostok and a lot of towns in the Urals region and Siberia owe their very existence to the fact that they were built to service the Trans-Siberian route.  A large chunk of the novel happens on the train journey from Moscow to the Urals fictional town of Yuryatin (probably based on Perm).  Trains symbolised progress and movement, societies in transition, as the world was transformed by this revolutionary method of transport.

I can't help noticing how often trains are responsible for the deaths of characters in Russian novels.  Dr Zhivago's father commits suicide by throwing himself off a moving train, Dr Zhivago has a heart attack whilst travelling on a tram in Moscow, Anna Karenina commits suicide by throwing herself under a train.  It's an interesting sub-theme in Russian literature and one I would like to explore more.  Not only in Russian literature either: I seem to remember that Lantier in Zola's La Bete Humaine also died by falling off a moving train.  Just as nature is idealised in novels from the 19th century onwards, industrial innovations like the railway are feared and regarded as a cause of death. 

Lara's ruin and the English novel

The subtitle of the edition of Dr Zhivago that I read is 'One of the greatest love stories ever told'.  Whilst reading the novel, I realised that it's much more than a love story and there are bigger themes at play than this subtitle suggests.  Nevertheless, Zhivago's passion for Lara Antipova is an important theme in the novel, as is his love for his family and Tonya, his legal wife.  What I found most interesting about all of this is that Lara's story begins (rather than ends) with her being ruined by an older gentleman friend of her seamstress mother.  I couldn't help comparing this to the heroine of an English novel, whose ruination would, most definitely, come at the end of the novel. 

One thing I love about the Russians is that they are quite practical about 'matters of the heart' and don't tend to take a moral high ground or judge other people's relationships, in the way that we love to do in Ireland and Britain.  Lara is not condemned for being a fallen woman, but becomes the real heroine of the novel, an incredibly kind woman who is even more respected, it would seem, because of the fact that she isn't perfect.  Zhivago's wife, Tonya, who is morally 'pure' and would be a perfect character in a Jane Austen novel, becomes irrelevant in this Russian one and can't support Zhivago when he needs her most.  Likewise, the fact that Zhivago is 'living in sin' with Lara is barely relevant to the events of the book and, in many ways, their relationship is one of the only things that makes sense in the chaotic world they find themselves in. 

The Suffering of the Jewish people in World War 1

An interesting theme that Pasternak raises in the novel and one, I admit, I've never thought about before, is how badly the Jews were treated during the First World War.  I guess it's inevitable that the horrors of WW2 and the Holocaust have obscured the discrimation and suffering that Jewish communities experienced before that.  There's no doubt that Jews also suffered horrendously during World War One.  From the Russian point of view, this war was fought on the Eastern Front, modern-day Ukraine and Belarus and those parts of the old Russian Empire where the existence of Jewish communities was 'tolerated'.  Pasternak was Jewish, as were many of the Bolshevik leaders.  Russia has the third biggest Jewish population in the world (the country with the biggest Jewish population is the United States, with Israel being number two).  It's a theme I'd like to explore even more, as it's something you don't really hear much about. 

10 reasons why I think the book was banned

When I first started reading the novel, I couldn't understand what was so controversial about the book that meant it couldn't be published in Russia during the soviet period.  I started making a list of reasons as I was going along and, as you'll see below, I have come up with 10 main reasons why the soviet authorities would have opposed the publication of this novel. 

1. It was anti-nationalist.  There is a paragraph early in the novel when Zhivago questions the nature of the Russian national identity, a very controversial issue in Russia, even in modern times.

2. It had a spiritual quality to it.  It's not a religious book, as such, but the way Pasternak idolises the natural world, would have raised a few eyebrows in Soviet Moscow!

3. It wasn't suitably upbeat about the revolution, but also told of the hardship, starvation and suffering that happened after the October Revolution.

4. The novel depicts trade on the black market, even at the height of revolutionary anti-capitalism, a view that wouldn't have been condoned by the soviet authorities.

5. During the epic train journey to the Urals, Zhivago suggests that the new worker's revolutionary government didn't really have the peasant's best interest at heart and that it was only substituting one kind of repression (under the Tsars) with another (under the Soviets). 

6. As the train passes through the Volga region on its way to the Urals, Zhivago witnesses a country in open revolt against the competing Red and White Guards.  The novel depicts the period as anarchic and highlights a massacre by the Red Guard, which is not a version of history that would have been accepted by Pasternak's government, even in the 1950's.

7. In his conversation with Semdevyatov, on the train, Zhivago openly slates Marxism as a type of politics that is far from the truth.

8. At times it would seem as though Zhivago openly sympathises with the Whites.

9. Zhivago is disillusioned with the revolution, especially when he rejoins Lara in Yuryatin.  Again not the progressive opinion officialdom would expect a Soviet writer to portray.

10.  Towards the end of the novel, Pasternak refers to the existence of gulags, a very controversial issue at the time and one that led to fellow-Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn being expelled from the Soviet Union and stripped of his citizenship in 1974. 

The Movie

As part of my learning experience, I watched David Lean's award-winning screen adaptation of the novel, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.  It was a great pleasure to watch this visually-stunning movie again, especially as the novel was so fresh in my mind.  Lean took to heart a lot of the criticisms of his adaptation, but I think he did a great job.  He was criticised for cutting down the number of characters and reducing the First World War scenes to a five minute narration sequence, but I think it was probably a good idea to do both these things.  Movies can't handle the complexity of novels and are definitely more watchable if the number of characters is kept to a logical minimum.  Not surprisingly the movie was banned in the Soviet Union and wasn't shown in Russia until the mid-90's. 

Image credits:

I've used the flag of Perm for this blogpost, although Perm Oblast isn't part of the Urals Federal District, it is deemed to be in the Urals and Pasternak spent some time living there and probably used Perm as the basis for his fictional Urals town, Yuryatin.  This image was shared on Wikimedia Commons by wikiuser Panther and you can see its description page at

The painting is by Boris Pasternak's father, Leonid, and depicts a young Boris with his brother Aleksandr.  It is copyright free and in the public domain. 

The image of the book cover is one I took myself, I read the 2002 Vintage edition (Random House).  The photograph on the cover depicts White Russian Troops 1919 (c) Corbis. 

The images of stills from the movie were also from photos taken by me.  These stills are being used to illustrate this blogpost and promote David Lean's movie version.  By publishing these photos, I'm not condoning or encouraging reproduction of these images on the Internet or anywhere else.  These photos are not meant to bring the actors into disrepute or suggest their endorsement of this blogpost, but are meant to promote the amazing performances of these actors in this movie. 

The first still shows Julie Christie in the role of Lara Antipova in the scene where Lara and Yury Zhivago are reunited in the library at Yuryatin.

The second still shows Omar Sharif in the role of Dr Yury Zhivago, as he reads the all-important letter from Moscow, informing him that Tonya has moved to Paris with his children.

The third still shows Omar Sharif in the role of Dr Zhivago, after he has deserted the Red Guards and is walking back to Yuryatin through the bitter Siberian winter. 
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