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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book Review: Doctor Zhivago (1957) by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago, another Russian novel where you need a scorecard to keep track of the characters.
Book Review:
Doctor Zhivago (1957)
 by Boris Pasternak


   You can't talk Doctor Zhivago without talking about the Cold War. Banned by the Soviet government prior to publication, a manuscript was smuggled out of the country and published in Italy (in Italian) in 1957.   The United States picked up on "propaganda value" of Doctor Zhivago and this led to the CIA publishing a Russian edition and smuggling back into Russia.  In the west, Zhivago was nothing less than a sensation, with a Omar Sharif starring, David Lean directed film and many millions of copies sold.  In fact, the library version I checked out was an illustrated Readers Digest edition- color illustrations!

   As you can see from the above diagram, the number of characters and their interrelationships can be difficult to follow, and this is made worse by Pasternak's refusal to stick with a single name.   The action spans several generations and takes place between 1903 and the end of World War II.  Mainly though, the Russian Civil War takes center stage, as seen through the eyes of Yuri, a Doctor and a Zhivago and therefore the Doctor Zhivago of the title although he is literally never called Doctor Zhivago by anyone at any time for the entire book.

 Yuri flees Moscow at the onset of the civil war, only to be captured by Red Communist Partisans and forced to work as a Doctor.  Near the end of the war, he deserts, only to find that his wife has left to return to Moscow.   He then hooks up with the wife of a friend, and spends an additional several years in the sticks before returning to Moscow, where he lives as a semi-vagrant derelict.

  It is easy to see why the Soviet's refused to allow Doctor Zhivago to be published inside Russia.  The Civil War is a disaster for everyone, and what comes next, the runaway inflation and disastrous economic policies of the so-called N.E.P. or "new economic period" are arguably worse.    With the exception of the period Yuri spends as the Doctor-prisoner of the Partisan army, Doctor Zhivago is almost a moles-eye view of the Russian experience of the early 20th century.

  Pasternak does a great job conveying the experience of loneliness, confusion and alienation that many experienced at the hands of the totalitarian Russian regime.  While readers are spared some of the more graphic details of mass slaughter and state-sponsored terror, Pasternak makes sure that you know about it happening off camera.  Any potential for glamour or fetishization of the Russian Revolution is defeated by Pasternak's prose.

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