Doctor Zhivago, Part Two

I finally finished Doctor Zhivago yesterday and had a little weep over my lunch as I closed the pages. Despite its faults, this really is the sort of book that tears like a knife through the heart. Yuri and Lara’s tale, of two simple people in love with one another, and pulled apart by forces they have no power to control, was impossibly moving, and all the more so because their story is not really a story at all, but a truthful depiction of the terrible cruelties inflicted on so many people by the successive Russian governments after the revolution.

In and of itself, Doctor Zhivago is not a sublimely written book, certainly not in translation, anyway. However, the story it tells, the frankness in which it tells it, and the powerful impact it has on those who read it are what elevate it to a higher plane of literature and have made it the classic it is today. No other book has quite brought home to me the sheer horror of what war and revolution brought to the ordinary people of Russia, who were murdered, made homeless, starved and separated from the people they loved, for no good reason at all. The helplessness, the desperation, the grief,  the fear and the awful pointlessness of it all struck me to my core and filled my eyes with tears at the thought of the thousands of people like Lara and Yuri, nameless, numberless, all victims of a regime that cared nothing for the individuals it sacrificed for the achievement of its ideals.

When Lara is leaving Yuri behind at Varykino, believing he will follow her, my heart broke for them both, because I knew that they knew they would never see each other again. Their knowledge that their time together can never be permanent, and that the world they both so love to share with one another is irrevocably broken, and will not be repaired in their lifetime, was amongst the most poignant, emotional and devastating dialogue I have ever read. It didn’t even matter to me that their language was stilted, or that the climax of the book took 500 pages to arrive at; when these awful, beautiful, intensely moving scenes were being played out before me on the page, I was there, and I felt it all.

Pasternak has so much to say that it often feels desperate, incoherent, and difficult to follow, like it has all spilled out onto the pages in a passion to get it all down. The characters are often not well fleshed out, and the coincidences can get a little too much for today’s cynical reader. However, overall, this is a passionate, evocative and stunning portrayal of the evils of the Stalinist regime, and the tenacity of the human soul in the face of impossible horrors. I am at a loss to express myself, really, because I have been so overwhelmed by the unexpected power of this novel. The last words, before the epilogue, especially knocked me for six. To think that all the beauty, intelligence, love, emotion, loyalty, joy, hope, and dreams that make up a human soul, that constitute a mother, a father, a friend, a lover, a child, a brother, can be eliminated, in the thousands, just because their thoughts don’t align with that of their governing power, is just too painful for me to contemplate. Lara and Yuri and Tonya and everyone else I fell in love with were all crushed and destroyed, and for what? And how many ordinary Russians like them suffered the same fate?

I admire Pasternak’s bravery in daring to write and publish this when to utter a dissenting opinion against the Communist regime could still result in execution. His desire to expose the truth of what Lenin and Stalin and their followers had done to the Russia he so loved demonstrates just exactly what Yuri does; that no matter what, goodness will prevail, in the end.


  1. Deb says:

    Because he was so visible internationally, Pasternak was not executed or shipped to Siberia, but when he won the Nobel prize he was not permitted to leave Russia to accept it.

    When millions were starving to death in Russia, Stalin supposedly said, “One death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic,” giving everyone an idea of what a monster he was.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes, it’s a terrible shame that he wasn’t allowed to accept his prize and had to live as a virtual recluse for the rest of his life due to not being allowed to work or earn any money. I really admire his bravery in writing it and daring to publish it when he knew full well what the political reaction would be.

      I studied Russian history at school and I never could get my head around the sheer millions of his own people he massacred. What a dreadful, dreadul man.

  2. Jenny says:

    Oh, dear, I have fallen behind on Doctor Zhivago. I checked out a bunch of really interesting, not-translated books from the library, and they are calling to me with a sirenier song than DZ. But I am determined to finish it before the end of the year.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Well I took a few breaks too Jenny! That pesky Mid Manhattan library is my downfall too! But push through when you can – it will be worth it!

  3. Rachel, such a heart-wrenching story of the horrors of mankind and the unconscionable deeds of Stalin and his ilk bring a pain to my soul. You have written your two reviews on this epic remarkably and I thank you.

    Dr. Zhivago is really two stories to me; the book and the author. That “goodness will prevail” is a theme, a theory, a hope and a faith so deep that appears in the darkest hours of mankind, does it not? It is much like Anne Frank’s words that she believed, in spite of the conditions and fear and horror she was living in at the time she wrote her diary, that mankind was basically good.

    Well done.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you so much, Penny. Your compliments are always so lovely, and I’m glad you’ve enjoyed my reviews.

      Yes – I think we have to believe that, otherwise the world would be a very dark place indeed. It heartens me that despite all the evil in our world, just a pinprick of light is enough to dispel the darkness in any situation. The essential hope that lies at the core of Doctor Zhivago, the belief that good will prevail, is wonderful, and even the more so because it was written at a time when there was no end in sight to Stalin’s regime. Pasternak was a remarkable man indeed, and I find your comparison to Anne Frank very interesting and poignant. Now that is a book I could never bear to reread.

  4. Lisa G. says:

    This is very interesting; I haven’t read this book, and perhaps never will. I haven’t seen the movie versions, either – the Julie Christie and Omar Sharif one could never grab me; I couldn’t get interested in it. The newer one which was on PBS recently just didn’t get me, either. I don’t think it’s the Russian thing – I liked “War and Peace”.
    Anyway, as a result, I am totally ignorant of the story, and had no idea that it takes place during the Stalinist era! What an idiot! Well, now I know.

    Don’t you find the Russian/Polish style of story-telling to be quite a bit more dramatic and emotional than ours? I’m thinking of “Quo Vadis” and “Crime and Punishment”. Was his writing like those?

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Lisa! I think you SHOULD read it, if you ever get the chance. The book is very different to the film, very different. Much less romanticised. I think it’s worth the slog, but you have to be in the right mood otherwise you will just give up on it!

      You’re not an idiot! I think most people assume Doctor Zhivago is set in the 19th century, just because it tends to get lumped in with the other great Russian epics that were mainly written sixty or so years earlier.

      Russian culture is so much more emotional, mystical, spiritual and deep thinking than ours, and their literature reflects that. Yes, there is a definite drama and emotional depth to Pasternak, like in other Russian novels I’ve read, and I really enjoy that element, as Western fiction tends to be much more restrained and proper. I really feel like I’m in a different land and a different world when I read Russian literature, even in translation.

  5. Chrissy says:

    One day I hope to read this but, as Jenny said, stacks of other books are waiting (and more to come at Christmas – bliss!). Of course, a Rachel review written with such passion is the only encouragement needed and I WILL get to it eventually.

    Long ago,I saw the film and was very taken with it (perhaps I would see faults in it now). What I’d like to know is, did that terrible scene at the end, on the tram when Yuri sees Lara outside and collapses – was that in the book? It broke my heart at the time.

    All that snow – very appropriate this week when most of Europe has been brought to a standstill by the wintry weather. How is it with you over there?

    1. bookssnob says:

      Well, Chrissy, I think when you do get around to it, you will truly love it. I am glad my reviews have such credence with you, what a compliment!

      *whisper* no…that’s not in the book…

      BUT the ending is equally heartbreaking.

      Yes I know! My mum has been sending me emails about it all! I can’t believe the snow is so bad, I feel like I’m really missing out! Though of course, my time will come. It’s starting to get very cold here but no flakes yet! Hopefully we’ll get our own sprinkling soon!

  6. I love the way all our reviews are different. This post has reminded me of my thoughts when reading it. “the climax of the book took 500 pages to arrive at”oh so true but – oh so worth the wait. Somehow the feeling at the end of the book swept away any moments of ‘how many more pages?’ I may have felt at times when reading it. All in all I’m so glad I’ve read it and it will indeed stay with me.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I know – it’s been really surprising how we’ve all had different interpretations and emotional responses. The joy of literature! I’m so happy I reread it, and with such wonderful company to join me too. It really is the sort of book that sticks with you and I’m pleased that the effect it had on me the first time around has been repeated. I love Doctor Zhivago! Now I just need a nice long Sunday afternoon curled up on the sofa with Omar and Julie! 🙂

  7. Bellezza says:

    I absolutely love your reviews; they are so complete, and well thought out, and clear. You summarize the story in an eloquent and heartfelt way, catching me from the very first sentence when you said you ‘had a little weep’ to the very last about Zhivago’s daring.

    In my post I said I loved this book most for the relationship between Yuri and Lara, but I also love it for the things you mentioned here: the war, the desparation of the people, the way that Stalin and Lenin had changed the Russia Pasternak knew and loved.

    It’s such a pleasure to visit your blog and to receive one of your comments.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you so much Bellezza, what a beautiful comment! I am so glad you enjoyed my reviews. It was, despite the length and translation difficulties, a pleasure to read Doctor Zhivago alongside such intelligent and sensitive readers as you, and it’s also been a delight for me to rediscover your blog and add it to my favourites!

  8. Chrissy says:

    I’d like to say to Bellezza (with your permission, Rachel) that this is what makes Booksnob such a brilliant blog. Not just the things we all value it for (reviews, superb writing, the human touch) but also that there is always a warm response to a comment. No one is left out. It feels like a rewarding conversation with a dear and clever friend.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Chrissy! What can I say to such a lovely comment? You really are far, far too generous and I very much appreciate you reading and enjoying my blog so much. It is such a pleasure to have a reader so engaged and thoughtful and kind as you!

  9. Lisa G. says:

    Rachel, I’ll have you know that I inter-library loaned the book (ours in checked out!), and am going to read it, as you advised. 🙂 I’ve committed mysef!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oooh I’m excited for you Lisa! I am sure you won’t regret it, and I look forward to you coming back and reporting on how you got on! 🙂

  10. Kate says:

    I’ve always loved this book, and find it impossibly moving every time I read it.

    So what’s next for you? I hope it’s something light and fun after the tragedy of Yuri and Lara.

    1. bookssnob says:

      It’s just so unspeakably sad in places, isn’t it? Even the more so because I know these things did happen to ordinary people, and they’re still happening now!

      Sadly not. I am currently torturing myself with Ethan Frome. I had no idea it was this sad. I am in for it now!

  11. Orhedea says:

    I went to his museum yesterday. He was an exceptional man. And very mysterious. Did you know his son died the same way, on same street and the same date that Doctor Zhivago did?

    1. bookssnob says:

      The museum? Is it in Russia? I’d love to visit! No I did not – how fascinating and also tragic. Thank you for telling me that!

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