Some of the best Russian literature is ridiculously long: War and Peace (which I’ve already read), Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamzov…all over a thousand pages. Even Anna Karenina‘s 800+ page length is still long for a month in which I have to fit not one but two countries (totally my fault for slacking this summer). And then I saw Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak with its reasonable 537 pages. Huzzah.
A Note on History:
I’m not going to delve too much into the history because it’s so complex, but suffice it to say that this book takes place from about 1903 to the 1920s (with an epilogue that jumps to the 1940s). This was a time of great unrest in Russian history. The Russian Revolution takes place in 1905, World War I in 1914, the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, and the Russian Civil War from about 1918 to 1922. Many innocent people were pulled into conflicts that they didn’t believe in. At least 12,000,000 Russians died during this quarter century of bloodshed and fighting. Doctor Zhivago and his family were caught up in the madness as well.
Doctor Yuri Zhivago is just a boy when the novel opens in 1903. In the next dozen years his character is formed in a society with a collapsing class system. It’s not just the class system, but the intelligentsia—this means the doctors, the teachers, the politicians, all the well-educated—that were regarded with the same suspicion and hostility as the rich and aristocratic.
As a doctor and philosophic man with a natural inclination to become involved in society, Yuri Zhivago was drafted into wars (twice: World War I and the Russian Civil War) and in danger of imprisonment in the dreaded Siberia labor camps. But he still managed, during this upheaval, to carve out a life for himself. He got married, had children, and fell in love (not necessarily to the same people). It’s this true, pure love that proved both his salvation and his downfall.
This book wrenched my heart because of the devastation experienced by the common Russian civilians. They were degraded by the monarchy and then by the state who professed to save them. Doctor Zhivago is just a type, a symbol of the people. The real people, not the communistic, socialist state that professes to speak for the people while oppressing them.
Despite the way he started to fall apart, Yuri Zhivago was a good, strong character. The fact that he became frayed toward the end like a well-used piece of cloth wasn’t a commentary on any sort of lack of character on his part, but evidence of a disintegrating world that lasted for decades. Anybody would come apart under such conditions year after year.
Lara was the true love, another strong character who survived personal trauma that most of us can’t understand. Despite what she was subjected to, she loved Yuri loyal, strongly, and to the end. They love they had saved each other, even if it only occurred in a stolen period of times, a few years that acted as an oasis in a sea trouble (yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors).
There are other characters, some major, some minor, but these are the two around which the story revolves. What’s fascinating is the way characters dance around each other and then disappear only to re-emerge years and miles later in the same location, never really meeting until the destined day. This way, all the players know Yuri while not necessarily knowing him. They come together in the end as an illustration of the intricate hand of fate.
The storyline isn’t particularly clear-cut, and this can mean flipping pages back and forth to establish a connection among events. The year 1903 starts the narrative and moves forward in a logical way. Then it jumps to 1911 and back to 1906, mostly to illustrate some points in both Yuri’s and Lara’s lives. The storyline also digresses to include this or that person’s life story. Mostly, though it moves from 1903 to the epilogue during World War II in a somewhat straightforward manner.
The themes of the story—the suffering of the people, their strengths and weaknesses, the evil of the government, and the rejection of the socialist state—were stated so honestly without self-pity or even condemnation that the book was more powerful for it. There were some very deep quotes, ones that make you think. Pasternak tells about the value of humanity:
“I don’t think I could love you so much if you had nothing to complain of and nothing to regret. I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and of little value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.”
The joy, and pain, of life:
“How wonderful to be alive, he thought. But why does it always hurt?”
Having hope is essential:
“And remember: you must never, under any circumstances, despair. To hope and to act, these are our duties in misfortune.”
“They loved each other, not driven by necessity, by the “blaze of passion” often falsely ascribed to love. They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet.”
This book is one of those that needs to be read because the suffering of the people needs to be remembered. And although it doesn’t end as happily as a person would like, it’s not a sad book. There’s too much triumph of the soul for that.