Boris Pasternak, whose novel Doctor Zhivago occasioned the Soviet Union’s greatest cultural defeat just sixty years ago, utterly despised the groupthink encouraged by the regime and embraced by so many intellectuals. At a meeting of Soviet writers, Pasternak once bravely rejected the official requirement that novelists and poets take orders like so many factory engineers. When the other writers protested indignantly, Pasternak replied: “Don’t yell at me. Or if you must yell, at least do not do so in unison.” In the ussr, everything was, or was supposed to be, in unison.

What was it about this novel that so angered Soviet authorities? If one judges the book from David Lean’s 1964 film Doctor Zhivago—usually listed as one of the top ten grossing movies of all time—it would seem harmless enough. Against the background of Russian chaos from 1903 to 1929, a Russian doctor, who is also a poet, grows up, learns his trade, marries, falls in love with another woman, finds himself alone, and dies of a heart attack on a streetcar. Since Lean strives for epic length, stretching scenes instead of cutting them, there’s lots of time for beautiful pictures of the Russian (actually Spanish and Finnish) countryside, displays of tsarist brutality alongside Bolshevik zeal, and misspelled Russian placards. To be sure, the novel, however romantic, cannot rival the film’s schmaltz and vapid pretentiousness, but it hardly reads like the dissident fiction to come. As Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s nephew once remarked, this was not a book likely to spark a counter-revolution. Take out four hundred words, he opined, and everything explicitly anti-Bolshevik would be gone. (I rely on a fine and readable narrative: Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, The CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.)

Far from the epic Lean imagined, the novel reads more like a sequence of brief lyric poems, the form in which Pasternak and his hero Zhivago both specialized. When Pasternak began Doctor Zhivago in 1945, he was already a world-famous poet who would be nominated for the Nobel Prize the following year. No one would have guessed that he regarded his poems as mere preparatory sketches for a prose narrative showing what great art is all about, solving the riddle of life and death. More than a creation, Doctor Zhivago was for its author “my alter ego, in which with almost physical concreteness certain of my spiritual qualities and part of my nervous structure have been implanted.”

When Pasternak finished the book in 1955, he managed to publish a few excerpts from its last chapter, which contains its hero’s poems. Zhivago, too, thought of his verse as leading to “a book about life which would contain, like buried explosives, the most striking things he had so far seen and thought about. . . . He was like a painter who was always making sketches for a big canvas he had in mind.” Zhivago never wrote that novel, and Pasternak was never allowed by the Soviets to publish anything but these few poems. They meant to keep the explosive prose buried.

But when Sergio D’Angelo, an Italian Communist in Moscow, visited Pasternak with an offer to have the novel published in Italy, Pasternak seized the opportunity. Within a few years, several Russian dissident writers, including the Nobel Prize winners Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky, followed his example. No matter the cost, poets must speak. When Pasternak gave readings, audiences would shout out “Sixty-six!,” by which they meant his translation of Shakespeare’s sixty-sixth sonnet with its reference to “art made tongue-tied by authority.” They also had in mind his rather free “translation” of Hamlet’s soliloquy, in which “Who would bear the whips and scorns of time” became “Who would bear the phony greatness of the rulers, the ignorance of the bigwigs, the common hypocrisy, the impossibility to express oneself, the unrequited love and illusoriness of merits in the eyes of mediocrities?” The quiet dreamer Pasternak became the model of Russian resistance.

The quiet dreamer Pasternak became the model of Russian resistance.

D’Angelo represented Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a wealthy Communist capitalist who had set up a publishing house. Naively enough, Feltrinelli had no idea he might offend Soviet authorities, because he obtained the book during a brief window in which it looked as if freedom was the order of the day. Khrushchev had just delivered his “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s crimes. To use the jargon of the day, this was to be “the thaw.” But within months Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary to put down a revolt against Soviet domination, and things started freezing over again. By the time Feltrinelli realized that Doctor Zhivago would be banned in the socialist paradise, he had already accepted the view of one Italian Russian specialist that not to publish the novel would constitute “a crime against culture.”

Once the Soviets realized that the manuscript had escaped their control, they did everything to suppress it. Anticipating the pressure that would be applied, Pasternak warned Feltrinelli: “If you ever receive a letter in any language other than French, you absolutely must not do what is requested of you.” So when the Soviets compelled Pasternak to demand the return of the manuscript, Feltrinelli refused. Of course, Pasternak himself, not to mention his family, could be punished, and his wife, Zinaida, prevailed upon the visiting Isaiah Berlin to suggest “postponing” publication. Visibly angered, Pasternak insisted that the destiny of his book “cannot be subordinated to my own destiny, or to any question of my well-being.” Berlin, by his own testimony, was shamed into silence.

To the surprise of just about everyone, Pasternak kept to this stance, even though he faced the torture and death inflicted on other writers for a lot less. But he had demonstrated amazing courage many times before. When, at the height of the purges, Nikolai Bukharin, an original member of Lenin’s Politburo, was placed under house arrest—he would soon be executed—Pasternak sent him a note, sure to be seen by the secret police, stating that “No forces will ever convince me of your treachery.” Part of Soviet life was dutifully demanding the execution of some enemy of the people, but Pasternak refused to sign one petition against military leaders. “I know nothing about them,” he explained. “I don’t give them life and I have no right to take it away.” Nadezhda Mandelstam, whose memoirs stand among the great documents of modern Russian culture, recalled that when her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, was arrested, the only person who dared to visit her was Pasternak. In the late 1940s the poet Anna Akhmatova became the regime’s favored target and could no longer earn a living. While staying with mutual friends, she discovered under her pillow thousands of rubles left by Pasternak. The papers found after Pasternak’s death include receipts for the many money orders he sent to people in prison camps.

How did Pasternak manage to survive such behavior? We now know, although he did not, that Stalin had for some reason taken him under his protection: “Leave him, he’s a cloud dweller.” Why? Apart from the fact that terror is enhanced by sheer caprice, we can’t say. Even after “de-Stalinization,” the cultural “organs” knew what was good for them. Rejecting the manuscript, the literary journal Novy mir enumerated its shortcomings, ideological and artistic, in a long letter later published in Pravda. With understated irony, Pasternak replied that he was “pained at having caused my comrades such work.” At an interview with Dmitri Polikarpov, who served on the Party’s Central Committee, he remained defiant: “The only thing in my life for which I have no cause for repentance is the novel. I wrote what I think and to this day my thoughts remain the same . . . it proved to have more strength than I had dreamed possible—strength that comes from on high, and thus its further fate is out of my hands.” Nothing could offend a Communist official more than such an overt profession of religious belief.

Summoned to meetings and insulted by Alexei Surkov, the head of the Union of Soviet Writers, Pasternak was expelled from the Union, which meant he could no longer publish anything, not even the translations that had sustained him when his own verse proved unacceptable. When Surkov was dispatched to Italy in a failed mission to retrieve the manuscript, Feltrinelli described him as “a hyena dipped in syrup.”

The novel soon appeared in several languages, including a Russian edition secretly sponsored by the cia and handed out to Russians attending the Brussels World’s Fair, believe it or not, from the Vatican Pavilion. The cia, incidentally, was staffed by culturally sophisticated people, who also sponsored Russian translations of works with no obvious political import, like Nabokov’s Pnin and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist. Doctor Zhivago leapt to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, displacing another scandalous work by a Russian, Nabokov’s Lolita. In 1958, Pasternak was awarded, over Soviet objections, the Nobel Prize for Literature, which only made matters worse for him at home.

The Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare, then studying in Russia, recalled that “the radio from 5 AM to 12 at night, the television, the newspapers, the journals, magazines, even for children, were full of articles and attacks on the renegade writer.” Pasternak was expected to follow a standard script, in which he would deliver a piece of “self-criticism” and beg forgiveness, but he instead wrote to the executive committee of the writer’s union, “I still believe . . . that it was possible to write Doctor Zhivago as a Soviet citizen. It’s just that I have a broader understanding of the rights and possibilities of a Soviet writer.” They want me to go on my knees, he declared, but “in every generation there has to be some fool who will speak the truth as he sees it.”

The next step would be to expel Pasternak permanently from the Soviet Union—a punishment whose last victim was Trotsky and whose next one, within a little more than a decade, would be Solzhenitsyn. It was clear that only as a permanent exile could he go to Stockholm to receive the prize, and so he rejected it. The refusal made the whole affair even more of a propaganda disaster. Hemingway, a favorite writer in the ussr, offered Pasternak a house if he were expelled. T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene, Rebecca West, and other prominent writers sent a joint telegram of protest. Alluding to the Soviet invasion of Hungary, one French paper described the world-wide outrage as “an intellectual Budapest.” When Leonard Bernstein, conducting in the ussr, made a point of paying a call, Pasternak wryly remarked: “The artist communes with God, and God puts on various performances so that he can have something to write about.”

Unable to suppress the novel, the Soviets imprisoned its heroine.

In a poem smuggled abroad entitled “Nobel Prize,” Pasternak wrote: “Behind me is the noise of pursuit/ And there is no way out.” With millions in royalties abroad, Pasternak had no way to earn money at home and lived by borrowing, from his housekeeper among others, until a way was devised to smuggle in some foreign earnings. When he suffered a bladder blockage, he was at first declared unworthy to be treated in a Soviet hospital. The harassment continued until his death in 1960. Among his last words were: “Everything is steeped in shit. . . . My whole life has been a single-handed fight against the ruling banality, for the human talent, free and playing.” With special, craven pettiness, the Soviets then arrested Pasternak’s mistress Olga Ivinskaia, the model for the novel’s heroine Lara, and charged her with currency infractions. They even arrested her daughter. Ivinskaia got eight years of forced labor, and her daughter three. In the novel, Lara also disappears one day, presumably sentenced to a labor camp where she dies. Were the Soviets aware of the irony? Unable to suppress the novel, they imprisoned its heroine.

Is Doctor Zhivago a masterpiece? (The original translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari is generally better than the recent version by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, but in a few cases I have preferred the later one.) Opinions have differed. Albert Camus wrote to Pasternak: “I would be nothing without nineteenth-century Russia. I rediscovered in you the Russia that nourished and fortified me.” Italo Calvino enthused that “halfway through the twentieth century the nineteenth-century novel has come back to haunt us.” And Edmund Wilson, who reviewed the book for The New Yorker, predicted that “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s moral and literary history.”

Wilson’s review infuriated his friend (later enemy) Vladimir Nabokov, who appraised the novel as “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers, and trite coincidences.” He opined that it must have been written by Pasternak’s mistress. Some have attributed this evaluation to envy of the author whose book proved even more successful than Lolita, but if we recall that Nabokov also dismissed Dostoevsky, he could hardly have appreciated a work whose romantic aesthetic, mystical philosophy, and deep religious belief ran contrary to everything Nabokov stood for. Still, it wasn’t just Nabokov who expressed disappointment. Akhmatova pronounced the novel bad “except for the landscapes.” And while scholars generally agree that the book’s last chapter, “The Poems of Yuri Zhivago,” contains some of the best verse in the language, they differ on the viability of the prose narrative.

In comparing the novel to its great nineteenth-century predecessors, Camus and Calvino evidently had in mind its unapologetic concern with “ultimate questions” about art, genius, history, individual freedom, and life itself. Yuri Zhivago himself recognizes the Russianness of art dealing explicitly with such concerns. For Pasternak and his hero, no less than for Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and their protagonists, investigating these questions constitutes the very purpose of life.

But that, as Calvino recognizes, is where the similarity ends. Pasternak, he observes, “is not interested in psychology, character, situations, but in something more general and direct, life.” There are characters only to show how “life” manifests itself, more in creative people than in conformist hacks. The sort of deep exploration of the subconscious we associate with Dostoevsky is entirely absent from Doctor Zhivago. So is the unparalleled understanding of the smallest movements of consciousness that makes Tolstoy’s novels so realistic.

Doctor Zhivago aims not at realism but at symbolism. It reveals the traces of the life force and, beyond that, of immortality, a term that recurs. That is the reason Pasternak develops his aesthetic of coincidence, in which implausible meetings become the narrative equivalent of rhyme in verse. In both cases, a surprising coincidence—either in sound or events in time—unexpectedly uncovers a deeper meaning. The plot is not meant to be plausible, as in Tolstoyan realism, but revelatory, as in religious symbolism. Behind the world of mere sequence lie the riddles of life and death. As Pasternak wrote to Stephen Spender, it’s “as if reality itself had freedom and choice and was composing itself out of numberless variants and versions” and so coincidence showed “the liberty of being, its verisimilitude touching, joining improbability.”

The book’s famous nature descriptions work in much the same way. When the arch-realist Turgenev describes landscapes, he teaches one to detect what makes each scene particular. Where the untrained eye sees a static composition, Turgenev shows us everything in motion, as if one were present and paying close attention. Pasternak reveals each prosaic detail, sound, or smell to hint at something beyond them, at Life itself. In a world where intellectuals presume materialism, Pasternak offers vitalism, a mystical sense of life inexplicable in terms of this world.

Wonder, mystery, mystical, miracle: these words appear often as the author, setting mere events aside, touches on what makes them meaningful. When they occur to Zhivago, he writes poems. Zhivago is both a doctor and a poet, because he can discern spirit in matter. Even when he dissects a corpse, “the presence of mystery was tangible in everything, from the obscure fate of these spread-out bodies to the riddle of life and death itself.” His scientific research deals with the retina, that is with vision, and “this interest in the physiology of vision spoke for other sides of Yura’s nature—his creative gifts and his reflections on the essence of the artistic image.”

For scientifically minded intellectuals today, as for Russians a century ago, meaning, morals, and the spiritual are merely subjective, insubstantial things. They are ghosts that unenlightened minds take for real, or, as we say today, they are just “constructs.” Pasternak affirms the opposite. In addition to the world of material causes, there is another world, no less real, that registers meaning. Every action we take can be understood two ways, horizontally in terms of a sequence of causes, and vertically, in a structure of meanings. Art shows us the two worlds together.

“All great genuine art,” Zhivago muses, “resembles and continues the Revelation of St. John.” When his mother-in-law Anna Ivanovna dies, Zhivago plans a poem in memory of her. “He would include all those random things that life had sent his way . . . street incidents on the way back from the funeral, and the washing hanging in the place where, many years ago, the blizzard raged and he wept as a child” at his own mother’s funeral. The true poet is drawn not to grand themes, conquering heroes, and dramatic events like “the Revolution,” but to the most prosaic details of daily life where he discovers traces of the divine. Puddles reflect the sun, and barn doors open onto the world of meaning. The second Zhivago poem, “March,” concludes:

Everything’s wide open—the stables, the cowsheds.

Pigeons peck at oats in the snow,

And the perpetrator and life-giver of all this

The manure smells fresh in the air.

Mystery in manure, the humdrum made magical, the re-enchantment of a disenchanted world, and so poetry in prose: this is the essence of Doctor Zhivago.

Zhivago has learned from his philosophical uncle, Nikolai Nikolaevich, who appreciates the world in Christian terms. His Christ is not the one who sits in glory at the right hand of God, but the inconspicuous guest who performs a miracle at the wedding of ordinary folk. He appeared among us as an “emphatically human, deliberately provincial, Galilean, and at that moment gods and nations ceased to be and Man came into being—man the carpenter, man the plowman, man the shepherd with his flock of sheep.” People usually assume that what matters most in the Gospels are the ethical maxims, Nikolai Nikolaevich comments, “But for me the most important thing is that Christ speaks in parables taken from life, that he explains the truth in terms of everyday reality. The idea that underlies this is that communion between mortals is immortal, and that the whole of life is symbolic because it is meaningful.”

About a third of Zhivago’s poems, including “Star of the Nativity,” “Miracle,” “Evil Days,” Magdalene,” and “Garden of Gethsemane,”deal with explicitly Christian themes. In one, Jesus, approaching death, looks back on his life, as any of us would. He comforts himself by going over his achievements, like the marriage at Cana, “and the guests in great admiration over the miracle.” Wistfully he next recalls how, as the poor gathered in a hovel, he went down to a cellar with a candle “Which had suddenly gone out in fear/ When the man risen from the dead was getting up.” The matter-of-fact image of Lazarus getting up in a basement preserves the trace of realism in miracle and the voice of prose in poetry, which, like poetry speaking in prose, constitutes this novel’s signature.

For Nikolai Nikolaevich, humanity since the days of Jesus has begun to live in what he calls “the second universe” of meaning, or, as he sometimes says, in “history.” “It is possible to be an atheist, it is possible not to know whether God exists or why, and yet believe that man lives not in a state of nature but in history, and that history as we know it now began with Christ, and that Christ’s Gospel is its foundation.” History in this sense began when Christ enunciated two ideas absent from the earlier world of pure material things and causes: “the idea of the free personality and the idea of life as sacrifice.” Before that there were many achievements—he calls them “bronze monuments”—but only when the vertical world of meaning appeared real could human effort truly accumulate as a spiritual quest from generation to generation. “It was not until after Him that men began to live toward the future. Man does not die in a ditch like a dog—but in history.”

This spiritual quest eludes those rectilinear people possessed by an ideology that describes the world as simple rather than mysterious. “It’s only in mediocre books that people are divided into two camps and have nothing to do with each other. In real life everything gets mixed up!” Zhivago tells Lara. Nikolai Nikolaevich complains about the proclivity of intellectual herds to embrace fashionable ideas. “Every herd is a refuge for giftlessness, whether it’s a faith in Soloviev, or Kant, or Marx. Only the solitary seek the truth. . . . I think we must be faithful to immortality, that other, slightly stronger name for life. We must keep faith to Christ!”

Mystery and meaning beyond the reach of any causal theory.

In 1932 Stalin famously toasted a group of writers: “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks. . . . Man is remade by life itself. But you, too, will assist in remaking his soul. . . . And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.” Zhivago’s allusion to Stalin’s words particularly infuriated Soviet authorities. He objects, first that the Communist ideal of social good does not fill him with enthusiasm, and second, that the futile attempt to put it into practice, which costs a sea of blood, only shows that the end does not justify the means. But what most appalls Zhivago is the very idea of “remaking life.” “People who can say that have never understood a thing about life—they have never felt its breath, its heartbeat. . . . They look on it as a lump of raw material to be processed by them, to be ennobled by their touch.”

Life as a mystical force made meaningful not by its redesign but by its connection to another universe: this idea gave the hero, and so the novel, the name “Zhivago,” which in Church Slavonic means “living” (or “of the living”). Pasternak explained that he took the name from an Orthodox prayer: “You are in truth the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Syn Boga zhivago).

How remarkable that the two great Christian novels of our times, Doctor Zhivago and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita were both written in militantly atheist Stalinist Russia! Both writers grasped that life is the pursuit neither of personal satisfaction, as so many Westerners assume, or of some abstract idea of social justice, as intellectuals seeking power like to believe. To Pasternak and Bulgakov it includes mystery and meaning beyond the reach of any causal theory. In Zhivago’s poem “Star of the Nativity,” Creation itself is startled by the miracle of a new star. In the prosaic countryside, on an everyday highway, “a few angels walked in the thick of the crowd./ Their incorporeality made them invisible/ Yet each of their steps left the print of a foot.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 9, on page 13
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