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.