Dr. Zhivago: From Limbo to Legacy


In June, 1977, Andrei Voznesensky, a noted Soviet poet, entertained a group of American writers at his dacha in Peredelkino, a writers’ colony not far from Moscow. After lunch, he announced somberly that he would escort us to a nearby cemetery where Boris Pasternak was buried.

Among the Americans were Robert Lowell, Pulitzer Prize- winning poet, and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, a literary critic; Vera Dunham, a specialist in Russian literature and translator, and Edward Albee, playwright. I had the feeling at the time that Voznesensky was not without risk in conducting us on a pilgrimage to Pasternak’s grave site. Those were pre-Gorbachev days; Pasternak, even in death, was still too much of a literary outcast to warrant acceptable on-site homage from American writers.

Trailing along behind Voznesensky, we crossed a planted field in single file in order not to step on vegetable shoots. Then we took a sudden turn into the side entrance of a cemetery and threaded our way through narrow lanes. Voznesensky held up his hand and stopped at a small, secluded burial plot. It was inconspicuous, unweeded.

“This is it,” he said simply.


We were silent for several minutes. It seemed to me that all of us were contrasting the drabness of the gravesite with the luminosity of a major world literary figure, one of the three or four greatest Russian poets of the century, a writer who transcended ideology but not history or human aspiration. Pasternak had helped to reawaken hopes that had been deferred for a thousand years. His majestic novel, “Dr. Zhivago,” had been denied publication in the Soviet Union, but copies from abroad had been smuggled into the country, were acquired by people in arcane ways, read and re-read, passed along endlessly from friend to friend.

Robert Lowell broke the silence at the grave site. He raised an imaginary glass and toasted a writer who had the courage of our convictions.

All this, as I say, was a decade before Gorbachev. Today, visitors to the Pasternak grave need feel no furtiveness. Not long ago, the wife of an American President laid a wreath at the site. Pasternak’s poems and novels, finally, are being published in the Soviet Union and are being discussed in public places without uneasiness or penalty. The restoration of Boris Pasternak is only one feature of what may well be a new Russian Revolution. Three hundred million people are being encouraged to think and speak in ways that only a few years ago would have filled the trains to a remote gulag .

Few aspects of glasnost (openness) or perestroika (regeneration) are more symbolic of what is happening in the Soviet Union today than the availability in Russian of “Dr. Zhivago.” This is more than the removal of a ban, explicit or implicit; it is the rediscovery and restoration of a national asset. Pasternak speaks to the prideful connection of the Russian people with their homeland, a connection sanctified time and again by the Leningrads of their history.


Pasternak is quintessentially Russian. In reading “Dr. Zhivago,” the Russian people experience not just the shock of recognition but the comfort of kinship. Also, the kind of confidence that enables them to stand in front of statues of Peter the Great or to walk without hesitation through the massive doors of marbled cathedrals. The Russian people are repossessing their past without repeating it or exalting it, and Boris Pasternak stands majestically at the doorway. He is neither worshipful nor disdainful, just aware that the heritage is not without value. Nor is he uncomfortable with new beginnings, even though he knows they generally bring new ordeals.

Through Zhivago, Pasternak tries to scrutinize history. He is not sure it is possible to understand the cause-and-effect relationship of events; such understanding makes it necessary to go back to the beginning of things. But this is where the search founders. “It is only in a family quarrel that you can look for beginnings. After people have pulled each other’s hair and smashed the dishes, they rack their brains trying to figure out who started it. What is truly great is without beginning, like the universe. It confronts us as suddenly as if it had always been there. . . .”

The historical quest, then, ends in philosophy for Pasternak as it did for Tolstoy. And, like Tolstoy, Pasternak finds himself asking the omnipresent question: What is happiness, and how do you find it?

Tolstoy, typically, inverts his answer. Unhappiness, he says, is the result not of our needs but our abundance.


Pasternak thinks of basic requirements. Happiness cannot exist, he says, unless it is shared. Zhivago looks around the room at his closest friends; he finds warmth, joy, communion, roast duck, vodka. But “beyond his windows lay silent, dark, hungry Moscow.” The absence of happiness on the outside blocks happiness on the inside. Look out the window, he tells us, not for grim contrast but for an awareness of what true happiness requires.

The characters in “Dr. Zhivago” are recognizable as descendants of the great figures in classical Russian literature. They manifest all the fascinating paradoxes and contradictions that are peculiar to the society as seen by the major writers. They have difficulty in responding openly to the sweetness of life. Their apparent heartiness is at odds with their brooding eyes. In T. S. Eliot’s phrase, they live in a world of shuffling memories and desires. On the verge of triumph, they seem to lose their way. Pasternak’s Zhivago, like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, excites more sympathy than admiration.

It would be a mistake to regard “Dr. Zhivago” as a thoroughgoing and blazing denunciation of Soviet ideology; indeed, the tone of the book seems curiously aseptic, even standoffish. Pasternak at times is almost self-consciously diffident, detached. He allows Zhivago’s friend, Misha Gordon, to deliver a rebuke in a way that is suspiciously autobiographical.

“Do you or don’t you agree,” Misha asks, “that it is time you changed your ways and reformed? You’ve got to wake up and shake off your inertia, pull yourself together and look at things without this impermissible arrogance, yes, yes, without this inexcusable haughtiness. . . .”


Then, almost by way of reluctant atonement, Zhivago says: “I’ve been thinking of something of this sort myself recently, so I can really promise you that there’s going to be a change.”

There is nothing equivocal or detached, however, about Pasternak’s disdain for Soviet intellectuals. “Zhivago could not bear the political mysticism of the Soviet intelligentsia,” he writes, “though it was the very thing they regarded as their highest achievement, or, as it would have been called in those days, ‘the spiritual calling of the age.’ But this he kept to himself in order not to hurt the feelings of his friends.”

Earlier, referring to literary ideologues, Zhivago underlines his feelings: “Their philosophy is alien to mine; their regime is hostile to us. I have not been asked if I consent to all these changes.”

It seems appropriate that Pasternak’s most incisive criticism of the Soviet system is couched in the idiom of medicine. Zhivago confesses to Misha that he is experiencing cardiac symptoms.


“It’s a typical modern disease,” Zhivago says. “I think its causes are a moral order. The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn’t just a fiction; it’s a part of our physical body, and our soul exists in space and is inside us, like the teeth in our mouth. It can’t be forever violated with impunity.”

Susan Sontag’s “Illness as Metaphor” is both prelude and postscript to Pasternak’s perception of what was happening to the Russian soul in the long night of political depersonalization.

It would be unreasonable and unhistorical to believe that glasnost will usher in total freedom overnight. The same political upheaval that makes it possible for democratic forces to emerge is also making it possible for far-right elements to start the build-up of a political movement. Students of post-World War I history look back at the origins of Nazism in the Weimar Republic and wonder if Gorbachev is able to protect the nation against the development of political extremism. Some reassurance, at least, is offered in “Dr. Zhivago.” “What for centuries has raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inner music--the irresistible power of unarmed truth, the powerful attraction of example.” He speaks of a “glorious holiday, this liberation from the curse of mediocrity, this soaring flight above the dullness of humdrum existence.”