Pasternak wrote only one novel in his life, but he considered it his masterpiece and the summation of his life’s work. Doctor Zhivago is an ‘inner history’ of twentieth-century Russia that contrasts the private experiences of its finest citizens against the tumultuous changes in world history. The critic Nicola Chiaromonte describes the work as a ‘mediation on the infinite distance which separates the human conscience from the violence of history and permits a man to remain a man, to rediscover the track of truth that the whole whirlwind of events continually cancels and confuses.’ The key to rediscovering the track of truth lies in the capacity of love to seek that which exists beyond itself and in the process transform all things into signs and symbols of the transcendent.
The work is often misread, because it is a poet’s novel, a symbolic work, not a realist fiction in the tradition of Turgenev or Tolstoy, and because it was published in the West during the Cold War after it had already been rejected by Soviet publishers. When Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958, the Soviets saw the award as a propaganda attempt by the west to elevate a second-rate anti-Soviet novelist to the front ranks of world literature, and so forbade him from accepting the prize. Soviet critics blasted Zhivago as a species of failed socialist realism, misreading its form, undervaluing its lyricism, and totally ignoring its symbolic character; while many Western readers misappropriated the work as an anti-communist tract, oversimplifying its complex message, undervaluing its artistic integrity, and missing its ascetic spirituality. ‘What Pasternak opposes to Communism,’ the Trappist monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton wrote, ‘is not a defence of Western Democracy, not an alternative political platform, not a formal religion, but life itself, and leaves us to ponder the consequences.’
The novel (also terribly misrepresented by David Lean’s movie, which captures all its images and none of its ideas) illustrates how easy it is to succumb to amorality in the name of historical necessity, and how easy it is for people to fall into playing parts in a social drama they misconceive, abandoning their integrity for the greater drama of an artificial existence. Yuri and Lara, like many other educated men and women of their generation, welcomed the Revolution and yet, despite its betrayal, continued to make sacrifices for Russia. They understood their place in history much differently than those who ruled them, and so their lives witnessed to a deeper, spiritual vision still living in internal exile within the Soviet system.
Dr Zhivago is a great mandala of psychological and philosophical responses to the Russian Revolution and its aftermath – with Yuri and Lara at its moral/intellectual centre – unconvinced by Soviet ideology – remaining true to the lost promise of Russian high modernist culture.
It was left to Solzhenitsyn to turn this inner resolve into outward rebellion, and by so doing expose the limitations of Pasternak’s literary ‘no’ to power by adding his own brave ‘yes’ to active noncooperation with evil. Pasternak’s contribution to Russian history was to excise Russian Orthodoxy’s unconscious collaboration with Marx, and though he may have gone too far in his advocacy of a necessary, almost monastic, isolation form the powers that be, his tragic Christian vision helped pave the way for Solzhenitsyn’s dissident faith.
From Chapter 2 of Subversive Orthodoxy – outlaws, revolutionaries, and other Christians in disguise, published by Brazos Press 2005