Pasternak was a significant Russian poet, translator, and novelist. Although he lived through the decades of totalitarian rule under V. I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin, his literary work did not create controversy until he submitted his manuscript for Doctor Zhivago to a Soviet publisher in the 1950’s. The editors concluded the novel was unsuitable for Soviet readers because its story about an idealistic young physician contained philosophical values and other descriptions that directly or indirectly ran counter to communist ideology. Events in the novel were accused of being unhistorical, as dictated by the communist literary theory of Socialist Realism.
Pasternak had not personally participated in political events during or after the 1917 Russian Revolution. He had been more of an observer than an activist, and his literary portrayal of the fictional Zhivago’s ethical and moral standards was not intended as a political manifesto. However, the novel did express Zhivago’s humane outlook that eventually was overwhelmed by the power and intellectual narrowness of a totalitarian ideology. This perspective constituted Zhivago’s—and Pasternak’s—crime against the state.
A short-lived period of greater cultural openness in the Soviet Union that had followed Stalin’s death in 1953 ended by late 1956—the moment when Pasternak’s manuscript was being considered for publication. After the Soviet publishers rejected it, it was...
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