“Really living life” vs the Russian Revolution: Watching Doctor Zhivago fifty years on

When you’re trapped in an aeroplane seat for twelve hours, you will watch almost any movie to take your mind off the noise of the engines and the thought of the hours of immobility ahead. It was under circumstances such as these that I watched Doctor Zhivago recently, almost 50 years after its original release. I was a child when it first came out, forbidden by both state and parental censorship from seeing it, but I do remember that it caused quite a stir, in the Cold War atmosphere of the time. I remember the adults around me discussing it, if not the content of those discussions.

Poster for the movie Doctor Zhivago 1965

The book of the same title on which it was based, by Soviet poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, had been subject to an intense and spiteful campaign of censorship by the Soviet authorities, who spared to effort to see that the manuscript never saw the light of day. This only enhanced the book’s reputation when it was eventually smuggled out and published in the west. The lavishly-produced film, which fairly faithfully reproduces the novel, followed soon after, and likewise became immensely popular.

As a cultural artefact, Doctor Zhivago became a weapon in the cultural component of the Cold War, for its depiction of a totalitarian tendency inherent in the Russian revolution from the start. The United States Central Intelligence Agency bought up and distributed thousands of copies of the book, and even produced a Russian edition which it smuggled into the USSR.

Boris Pasternak. 1910 portrait by his father Leonid Pasternak

Boris Pasternak. 1910 portrait by his father Leonid Pasternak

(Pasternak, it should be noted, never sought this. He refused a Nobel prize for literature that was awarded him, perhaps out of fear of the reaction of the Soviet authorities. Despite this refusal, he was subjected to a crude Stalinist campaign of denunciation. “If you compare Pasternak to a pig, a pig would not do what he did, because a pig never shits where it eats,” declared the head of the Young Communist League, before an audience of 14,000 including Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev – who applauded enthusiastically.) It remained banned in Russia until 1994.

Fifty years on, a lot has changed. The Soviet Union no longer exists, and while the Russian state which succeeded it has carried over many of the institutions of repression unchanged from Soviet days, its powers of censorship are greatly diminished. So also is the bourgeoisie’s need to combat the influence of the Russian revolution of 1917 in the arena of culture and ideology. Watching Zhivago today is a very different experience. So how does it stand up after 50 years, as a film in its own right?

The central character, partly modelled on Pasternak himself, is Doctor Zhivago, an orphan taken in by a Moscow family from the age of ten, who becomes a medical doctor and a poet. Against advice, he chooses General Practice because he wants ‘to experience life.’ His zest for ‘life’ is also evident in his interest in poetry. (The name Zhivago is made up from the word ‘zhiv’ meaning ‘alive’ – this idea is a constant thread in the film.)  The story begins in early twentieth-century czarist Russia, and revolution is stirring. A peaceful demonstration of workers is cut down by sabre-swinging mounted Cossacks.  The radicalising effects of this are shown on Lara, a student, and Pasha, her fiancé, a student teacher. Bourgeois hatred of the revolution is represented by the corrupt and immoral capitalist Komarovsky, who lusts after Lara and rapes her. Zhivago also becomes infatuated with Lara, despite being married to the daughter of the couple who adopted him, a woman with a fondness for Parisian furs.

Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) tending to the wounded at the front

Zhivago (Omar Sharif) and Lara (Julie Christie) tending to the wounded at the front

World War begins. Pasha enthusiastically enlists in the czarist army, and goes missing in action. Zhivago tends to the wounded at the front, where by a happy coincidence he meets Lara, who has enlisted as a nurse in order to look for Pasha. He returns to Moscow to find the Bolsheviks in power and 13 families ensconced in the family home, led by a very thin-lipped ‘worker’s committee,’ which then proceeds to loot his family’s possessions. Warned that his poetry is ‘out of favour,’ Zhivago flees to a remote village in the Urals with his wife and family, where another piece of inherited real estate awaits him. By a happy coincidence, he learns that Lara will be living in a neighbouring village.

On the train journey to the village, he witnesses the miseries and violence of the civil war, and by coincidence (yes, there are rather a large number of such coincidences) meets Pasha, who is now a feared Red Army commander using the nom-de-guerre Strelnikov. When Zhivago challenges him about the brutalities he has seen, and the innocent peasant victims of the Red Army campaign, Strelnikov tells him that the violence was necessary ‘to make a point.’ Zhivago tells him of Lara’s presence nearby, to which he gives the stony reply, “Personal life has ended.” Harbouring a secret respect for Zhivago and his poetry nonetheless, he warns Zhivago that his poetry is ‘under suspicion’ because of its concern with the private and personal. This shocks Zhivago because he considers himself friendly to the revolution, and cheerfully endures its hardships.

And so on. And on, and on, for another couple of hours. It was hardly enough to drown out the noise of the jet engines.

This rambling, aimless and preposterous story, with its stilted dialogues and lifeless characters, is so trite and unconvincing that, on one level, it is difficult to believe that anyone ever took it seriously, even during the Cold War. It is impossible to warm to a single one of the characters, least of all to Lara, who meets every turn of events with a kind of melting passivity. Even the fluff-headed bourgeois wife has more fire in her belly.

Was the CIA really reduced to grasping at straws such as this in its ideological campaign against the influence of the Russian revolution? And why did the Soviet state put such colossal efforts into suppressing it? Couldn’t they have just left it to be laughed out of town? Yet it is undeniable that Zhivago had a wide appeal. The book remained at the top of the best-seller lists for months, and even today the movie ranks as the eighth highest-grossing film of all time.

The key to its appeal is the class point of view it presents. This is revolution from the viewpoint of the petty-bourgeoisie. ‘A plague on both your houses!’ it declares as it condemns in equal measure the violence of the Cossacks and the violence of the Red Army, the immorality of the capitalist Komarovsky and the amorality of the Bolshevik Strelnikov. With the exception of Komarovsky, all the main characters are petty-bourgeois (and urban professional petty-bourgeois at that – not a single one of the vast Russian population of petty-bourgeois producers on the land appears, except briefly as victims of Red Army violence.)

Zhivago sits in his rural cottage writing poetry, and we learn that he has an adoring audience of millions, but how the poems reach their audience, and how Zhivago draws the necessities of life from them, is never explained, let alone the content of the poems. This petty-bourgeois idyll, floating loftily above the sordid and brutal realities of the process of material production and its associated class struggle, is what ‘really being alive’ consists of, Zhivago tells us. It makes a direct appeal to those petty-bourgeois of the world who were attracted to the Russian revolution – the Zhivagos of the world – to see the error of their ways and return to a state of neutrality and passivity. And in the context of the rapidly-escalating 1950s military standoff between the USSR and the United States, threatening worldwide nuclear annihilation from both directions, neutrality had a wide appeal. (The movie was released shortly after Doctor Strangelove and On the Beach, films about nuclear war between the US and USSR.)

Pasha (Tom Courtenay, now Red Army commander Strelnikov

Pasha (Tom Courtenay, now Red Army commander Strelnikov

The one possible exception to the line-up of unattractive characters is Pasha (Strelnikov). His insistence, in his discussion with Zhivago during the civil war, on subordinating personal life to the demands of the revolution, has a certain appeal – even though the intent is clearly to portray him as a ruthless monster. This is as close as the movie ever gets to suggesting an alternative path to a happy and fulfilling life – the course of immersing one’s personal life in the revolutionary struggles of the oppressed and exploited. And even Pasha can’t keep it up: he too falls ‘out of favour’ (for reasons which are never explained) and tries to run back to Lara.

This appeal to the petty-bourgeoisie to abandon the Russian revolution is also the key to why the Soviet bureaucracy saw it as a mortal threat. The Soviet bureaucracy was itself a petty-bourgeois layer, but one with a particular defining characteristic: it depended for its entire existence on identifying itself with the October revolution. An appeal to this petty-bourgeoisie to abandon the revolution was therefore a dagger aimed at its heart.

Pasternak in 1950s

Pasternak in 1950s

And the dagger, in an ironic twist of history, reached its target: Doctor Zhivago, this weakest of propaganda pieces, a drama with passivity at its very heart, nevertheless outlasted the Soviet state. The Soviet bureaucracy abandoned its fraudulent identification with the revolution, and transformed itself into a new capitalist class.  There are no economic laws driving the transition to socialism after the working class conquers power. The construction of socialist society, the process of the working class taking economic and social forces under conscious control, is a supremely conscious act. In the absence of working class political leadership and consciousness, the blind laws of the market will inevitably reassert their dominance eventually. Such working class leadership had been destroyed in Russia decades before the appearance of this movie.

Pasternak was not lacking in personal courage. During the Stalinist frame-up trials of the 1930s he conducted himself honourably, reportedly refusing to bow to pressure from the Soviet Union of Writers to add his name to the denunciations of the victims, and interceding on behalf of arrested writers and other friends.  Pasternak’s failure, and the failure of the drama of Doctor Zhivago as a love story in the context of the Russian revolution, is his failure to join the revolution, the greatest drama of the twentieth century.

Larissa Resiner 1895-1926  Bolshevik fighter

Larisa Resiner 1895-1926 Bolshevik fighter

In 1926 Pasternak wrote a poem in memory of Larisa Reisner, who was, like Pasternak himself, a writer from a petty-bourgeois family, but unlike Pasternak, one who joined the revolution and never turned back. Her writings on her experiences in the civil war, including as a participant in the defence of Svyazhsk, a key battle that turned the tide of that war in favour of the Red Army, give a very different answer to the question of what “really living” is all about. Here is a small part of that account:

“It was, I believe, either on the third or fourth day after the fall of Kazan that Trotsky arrived at Svyazhsk. His train came to a determined stop at the little station; his locomotive panted a little, was uncoupled, and departed to drink water, but did not return. The cars remained standing in a row as immobile as the dirty straw-thatched peasant huts and the barracks occupied by the Fifth Army’s staff. This immobility silently underscored that there was no place to go from here, and that it was impermissible to leave. Little by little the fanatical faith that this little station would become the starting point for a counter-offensive against Kazan began to take on the shape of reality.

“Every new day that this God-forsaken, poor railway siding held out against the far stronger enemy, added to its strength and raised its mood of confidence. From somewhere in the rear, from far-off villages in the hinterland, came at first soldiers one by one, then tiny detachments, and finally military formations in a far better state of preservation.

“I see it now before me, this Svyazhsk where not a single soldier fought “under compulsion.” Everything that was alive there and fighting in self-defense – all of it was bound together by the strongest ties of voluntary discipline, voluntary participation in a struggle which seemed so hopeless at the outset.

“Human beings sleeping on the floors of the station house, in dirty huts filled with straw and broken glass—they hardly hoped for success and consequently feared nothing. The speculation on when and how all this “would end” interested none. “Tomorrow”—simply did not exist; there was only a brief, hot, smoky piece of time: Today. And one lived on that, as one lives in harvest time.

“Morning, noon, evening, night—each single hour was prolonged to the utmost count; every single hour had to be lived through and used up to the last second. It was necessary to reap each hour carefully, finely like ripe wheat in the field is cut to the very root. Each hour seemed so rich, so utterly unlike all of previous life. No sooner did it vanish than in recollection it seemed a miracle. And it was a miracle.

“Planes came and went, dropping their bombs on the station and the railway cars; machine guns with their repulsive barking and the calm syllables of artillery, drew nigh and then withdrew again, whilst a human being in a torn military coat, civilian hat, and boots with toes protruding—in short, one of the defenders of Svyazhsk—would smilingly produce a watch from his pocket and bethink himself: “So that’s what it is now—1:30 or 4:30 o’clock. Or, it is 6:20. Therefore I am still alive. Svyazhsk holds. Trotsky’s train stands on the rails. A lamp now flickers through the window of the Political Department. Good. The day is ended.”

“Medical supplies were almost completely absent at Svyazhsk. God knows what the doctors used for bandages. This poverty shamed no one; nor did anyone stand in fear of it. The soldiers on their way with soup kettles to the field kitchen passed by stretchers with the wounded and the dying. Death held no terrors. It was expected daily, always. To lie prone in a wet army coat, with a red splotch on a shirt, with an expressionless face, a muteness that was no longer human—this was something taken for granted.

“Brotherhood! Few words have been so abused and rendered pitiful. But brotherhood does come sometimes, in moments of direst need and peril, so selfless, so sacred, so unrepeatable in a single lifetime. And they have not lived and know nothing of life who have never lain at night on a floor in tattered and lice-ridden clothes, thinking all the while how wonderful is the world, infinitely wonderful! That here the old has been overthrown and that life is fighting with bare hands for her irrefutable truth, for the white swans of her resurrection, for something far bigger and better than this patch of star-lit sky showing through the velvet blackness of a window with shattered panes—for the future of all mankind.

“Once in a century contact is made and new blood is transfused. These beautiful words, these words, almost inhuman in their beauty, and the smell of living sweat, the living breath of others sleeping beside you on the floor. No nightmares, no sentimentalities but tomorrow the dawn will come and Comrade G., a Czech Bolshevik, will prepare an omelet for the whole “gang”; and the Chief of Staff will pull on a shaggy stiffly frozen shirt washed out last night. A day will dawn in which someone will die, knowing in his last second that death is only something among many other things, and not the main thing at all; that once again Svyazhsk has not been taken and that the dirty wall is still inscribed with a piece of chalk: “Workers of the World Unite!”

 

Compared to this vision, the ideas of ‘really living’ that Doctor Zhivago presents seem shallow, vain, and contemptible.

So, if you are ever stuck in an aeroplane for twelve hours and see Zhivago on the movie list, it has a certain curiosity interest. I would not recommend watching it under any other circumstances. After hearing the irritating theme tune repeated over and over for three hours, you might find yourself longing for the noise of jet engines to drown it out.

Note: the comparison with Larissa Resiner borrows from the review of Doctor Zhivago in Paul N Siegel’s Revolution and the Twentieth-Century Novel, Monad 1979.

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4 responses to ““Really living life” vs the Russian Revolution: Watching Doctor Zhivago fifty years on

  1. Hello from the US. Enjoying the website.
    Haven’t seen the flick in 40 years, but I wouldn’t expect a US film on the Revolution to reflect anything but a US take on it. Glad not to have to watch it to find out myself.
    But I’m a sucker for melodies and “Lara’s Theme” is a doozy. Don’t throw the nicely scented soap out with the bath water!

    • Thanks for your comment Jeff. Another friend made a very similar comment about the melody on my Facebook page. I guess it was not the melody itself that I found irritating, but rather the symbolic baggage that came with it. Rightly or wrongly, I came to associate the constant repetitions of the tune with the way the movie constantly beats you over the head with its “life-affirming” message.

  2. ! vividly recall my boredom watching this film when it i was first released.
    I had to keep yawning to stop myself going to sleep, the soporific “Lara’s Theme” did not help.
    The cinematography was gorgeous. Yawn.

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