Critical Context

Many novels are devoted to the Russian Revolution. Most of the Soviet-model ones, such as Maxim Gorky’s Mat (1906; The Mother, 1906) or Fyodor Gladkov’s Tsement (1925; Cement, 1929) stress the machinelike qualities of the “new man,” the Darwinian/Marxian improvement over human nature that “naturally” evolves in a better, communist environment. In some ways, Doctor Zhivago is one of the best novels about the Russian civil war. The realism of the situation is unmistakable and follows in accordance with the actual facts: Many people sought to avoid death by starvation in the cities either by emigration or seclusion in the provinces. The portrayal of both sides of the struggle is also unusual in its realism; so many authors, partisan to the Red Army by their own personal dedication or by coercion, portray the White Army in an unfavorable, inhuman light. Pasternak’s battle scenes rank on a par with those of Leo Tolstoy for psychological realism.

Pasternak wrote what amounts to ideological anathema: that people are bigger and better than revolutions because they are alive and sentient, capable of both great and small acts, comfortable with and without strong ideological foundation, blessed with their aesthetic sensitivities and expressions. Philosopher Karl Marx relegated art to the utilitarian: Art must inform. Pasternak, with Zhivago, negated this erroneous view: Art is a part of human nature, the height of human attainment, something with which the Greeks and Romans would concur. Doctor Zhivago remains a classic work of literature, usually reserved for the college classroom but accessible to anyone with either a poetic nature or genuine interest in life.