The History Book Club discussion

Doctor Zhivago
This topic is about Doctor Zhivago

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)    post a comment »
dateDown_arrow    newest »

message 1: by Bentley, Group Founder, Leader, Chief (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bentley | 24010 comments This thread is a "spoiler thread" and is a bibliography thread which identifies many of the books which were referenced or used as primary documents during the writing of Dr. Zhivago. Please feel free to add properly cited books (book covers, author's photo, and author's links). Add a review or a few words why this book is important to the subject matter, etc.; but remember there is no self promotion, etc. Any self promotion links or posts are removed.

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak by Boris PasternakBoris Pasternak

Becky (httpsbeckylindrooswordpresscom) | 1219 comments Bibliographies are difficult for historical fiction as most of the authors don't reveal their sources - (some do!). Sometimes the sources are traceable, other times it's quite difficult. Sometimes historical records are mentioned or alluded to in the text itself, but that would be more of an annotation entry. With that said I offer this entry:

Pasternak lived through this entire era! The story is partly autobiographical and partly from accounts of the times (newspapers, etc.) as well as the experiences of his friends and acquaintances. Little actual research was necessary for Pasternak. Doctor Zhivago is historical literature in that it is a generally accurate historical account of Pasternak's own times, to which he played the role of artistic witness

Additionally, when he was really involved in writing the book in the 1940s, Stalinist sensibilities were systemic and most of the documents he would have consulted had been "purged," "updated," or simply unavailable. What Pasternak was wanting to say was not in accord with the Bolshevik or Soviet view of history or art or philosophy.

"Noting that the book was published in the West, one Communist party member characterized Pasternak as a "literary whore" in the employ of Western authorities."


Artistic Influences:

Pasternak was quite familiar and influenced by the writings of Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Blok, and other Russian writers or writers of the day as well as the Bible, etc. These writers are frequently referenced in the book. Other influences would include Andrei Bely, and poet Rainer Maria Rilke, whose writing would greatly influence Pasternak. He also associated with the Symbolists and other thinkers and artists of the times.

He started writing bits and pieces in the 1910s and 1920s which were later incorporated into the book, but didn't really start his "large prose" until after WWII. For a long time it was called "Boys and Girls," but in 1956 it was finally published as "Doctor Zhivago."

"Elliott Mossman has noted that Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" was never far from Pasternak's desk as he worked on the novel Doctor Zhivago, and he suggests that "Dickens's celebration of natural rights in A Tale of Two Cities exerted a strong influence on Pasternak's use of the biological metaphor of history." There is little explicit material with which to document this influence though. An observable similarity between the two writers' methods has not been explored, and Mossman notes it only en passant while comparing Pasternak's historical metaphor with that of Lev Tolstoy who in War and Peace founded his historical presentation on Newtonian thought. However, at two main points during the 1930s and 195os - ont he latter occasion during the actual composition of Doctor Zhivago - Pasternak did mention the Dickensian novel as an ideal to be aimed for. In 1934, as he contemplated the scheme for a proto-Zhivago work based on memories of his own youth and early manhood spent in Moscow and the Urals, he wrote to his father explaining:

"I am hastily transforming myself into a prose writer of a a Dickensian sort, and later, if I have the strength, into a poet of Pushkinian mould. You must not imagine that I think of comparing myself to them. I mention them only in order to give you an idea of this inner change."

Direct Experience:

The love story of course is at least partly imagined but also possibly based on an early love of his own or on that of his love for Olga Ivinskaya, his mistress of many years.

Per Christopher Barnes, Pasternak met Trotsky shortly after Pasternak's book, My Sister, Life, was published in 1922. Trotsky interviewed him as to his philosophical position (Was he idealist ala Hermann Cohen?) , the meaning of his poems ("That's something to ask the reader.") and why he didn't deal with social issues (response unknown). Per a letter to Bryusov, Pasternak said, "Trotsky captivated and quite enraptured me."

Boris Pasternak  A Literary Biography by Christopher Barnesby Christopher Barnes
My Sister - Life by Boris Pasternak Boris Pasternak by Boris Pasternak

"During World War I, Pasternak taught and worked at a chemical factory in Vsevolodovo-Vilve near Perm, which undoubtedly provided him with material for Dr. Zhivago many years later."


And according to Max Hayward (translator of Doctor Zhivago)
"Exempted from military service by a leg injury, he spent most of the war in the Urals, the scene of much of the action in Doctor Zhivago, and returned to Moscow in 1918."
Doctor Zhivago, Introduction by John Bayley -
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak by Boris Pasternak

Pasternak always had a double view of the revolution. He saw it, on the one hand, as a justified expression of the need of the people, and, on the other, as a program imposed by “professional revolutionaries” that was leading to a deadly uniformity and mediocrity. His doubts began as early as 1918 and increased as time went on."

Richard Pevear (trans.) in Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak by Boris PasternakBoris Pasternak

"Pasternak remained in Moscow throughout the Civil War (1918–1920), making no attempt to escape abroad or to the White-occupied south, as a number of other Russian writers did at the time. No doubt, like Yuri Zhivago, he was momentarily impressed by the "splendid surgery" of the Bolshevik seizure of power in October 1917, but – again to judge by the evidence of the novel, and despite a personal admiration for Lenin, whom he saw at the 9th Congress of Soviets in 1921 – he soon began to harbor profound doubts about the claims and credentials of the regime, not to mention its style of rule. The terrible shortages of food and fuel, and the depredations of the Red Terror, made life very precarious in those years, particularly for the "bourgeois" intelligentsia. In a letter written to Pasternak from abroad in the twenties, Marina Tsvetayeva reminded him of how she had run into him in the street in 1919 as he was on the way to sell some valuable books from his library in order to buy bread. He continued to write original work and to translate, but after about the middle of 1918 it became almost impossible to publish. The only way to make one's work known was to declaim it in the several "literary" cafes which then sprang up, or – anticipating samizdat (copying by other dissidents or artists) – to circulate it in manuscript. It was in this way that My Sister, Life first became available to a wider audience.

"In his poetry, from the mid-1920s Pasternak moved away from personal themes (in his poetry) and focused his attention to the meaning of the Revolution. He began to study historical and moral problems in such works as Vozhushnepuit, a prose piece, and in the poem The Year Nineteen Five. (These works are by Pasternak - not resources.) When the Writer's Union increasingly imposed on the doctrine of socialist realism, he gradually ceased to produce original work. Socialist themes did not attract Pasternak who was interested in ethical-philosophical issues. His concept of realism was not the same as the official doctrine. "We cease to recognize reality," Pasternak wrote in 'Safe Conduct'. "It manifests itself in some new category. And this category appears to be its own inherent condition and not our own. Apart from this condition everything in the world has a name. Only it is new and is not yet named. We try to name it - and the result is art."


"Pasternak's disagreement with Soviet Communism was not political but rather based on his aesthetic views - he couldn't fully accept official literary doctrines developed from a theory of class struggle but followed his own principles. Already in 1923 he wrote in a poem: "I was not born to look three times / Into the eyes of men. / Even more senseless than song / Is the dull word ''foe."


Becky (httpsbeckylindrooswordpresscom) | 1219 comments The unforeseen is the most beautiful gift life can give us. That is what we must think of multiplying in our domain. That is what should have been talked about in this assembly, and no one has said a word about it. Art is inconceivable without risk, without inner sacrifice; freedom and boldness of imagination can be won only in the process of work, and it is there that the unforeseen I spoke of a moment ago must intervene, and there no directives can help.
Pasternak - speech to the Writers' Union in Minsk, 1036


Later, in 1946, while still reworking the same material in a form that would be related, taxonomically at least, to the "boyhood" chapters of Dickens' biographical novels, Pasternak wrote to his cousin Olya Freidenberg describing this as his "first real work."

"In it I want to provide a historical image of Russia over the last 45 years, and at the same time, in every aspect of its story - which is grave, sad, and worked out in fine detail, as it is in ideal way in Dickens and Dostoevesky - this work will be an expression of my views on art, on the Gospel, on teh life of man in history, and on many other things. Provisionally the novel is called "Boys and Girls" ... The atmosphere of the piece is set by my Chrsitianity, which in its breadth is slightly different from Quaker or Tolstoyan Chrsitianity, proceeding from various other aspects of teh Gospel in addition to the ethical ones."

Despite the testimony of these two letters, the Dickensian element in the novel resulting from Pasternak's efforts has not been fully recognized. The English novelist does make one named appearance int he text of Doctor Zhivago, but in a context that hardly draws attention to his special significance: in chatper 9, section 2, a brief paragraph cited from Yurii Zhivago's diary lists the books that he and Tonya read together: ... "
(subscription only)

From an interview with Zhivago at:
Boris Pasternak, The Art of Fiction No. 25
Interviewed by Olga Carlisle

What about Zhivago? Do you still feel, as you told my parents in 1957, that he is the most significant figure of your work?

“When I wrote Doctor Zhivago I had the feeling of an immense debt toward my contemporaries. It was an attempt to repay it. This feeling of debt was overpowering as I slowly progressed with the novel. After so many years of just writing lyric poetry or translating, it seemed to me that it was my duty to make a statement about our epoch—about those years, remote and yet looming so closely over us. Time was pressing. I wanted to record the past and to honor in Doctor Zhivago the beautiful and sensitive aspects of the Russia of those years. There will be no return of those days, or of those of our fathers and forefathers, but in the great blossoming of the future I foresee their values will revive. I have tried to describe them. I don’t know whether Doctor Zhivago is fully successful as a novel, but then with all its faults I feel it has more value than those early poems. It is richer, more humane than the works of my youth.”

Fragment of a letter from Boris Pasternak to a fellow poet:

"You will understand from a reading of my most recent works that I, too, am under the power of the same influence, but we must try to make sure that, as in Alexander Blok, this note works, reveals, incarnates, and expresses thoughts to their ultimate clarity, instead of being only a reminder of sounds which originally charmed us, an inconsequential echo dying in the air.”

Pasternak's goal was not literal historical accuracy (although he seems to have achieved a good measure of that) but rather an emotional and personal accuracy related to the times. He has his own views:

The different view of the Russian civil war that Doctor Zhivago offered, implicating the old Bolsheviks and Lenin in the murderous insanity of Stalinism, represented a total rejection of the Soviet official version of the two revolutions of 1917 and the civil war (1918-21). As Pasternak remarked to the sculptor Zoya Maslenikova in 1958, "in Doctor Zhivago the revolution is not treated as cake with cream. For some reason people normally treat it as a cake with cream. I am criticized for ignoring the established views of hose historical events and thus I have allegedly violated what has been interpreted somehow by someone as the interests of the state. That is like standing on the shore, shouting to a ship that is pulling away from the pier bound for an ocean voyage that one has forgotten a small piece of baggage." (Malenikova, 18). Pasternak was clearly bound on such an "ocean voyage," taking the huge risk of a long view of a history, a viw that deliberately ignored the traditional hyperbolic formulas and black-and-white judgements of ritualized Soviet historiography.

What is more, as the well-known critic Andrei Sinyavsky has suggested, Doctor Zhivago was written in the guise of a historical novel but is really a novel for and about the future. It challenges an attitude toward history well expressed by O'Brien, the evil genius of Orwell's dystopian novel, 1984, that whoever controls the past certainly controls the future. By bearing witness in his own way to the experience of his own generation, Pasternak wrested historical and literary truth from teh hands of the establishment editors, critics and censors. All this is certainly enough to assure Pasternak's novel, finally published in Russia in 1988 in huge editions, a special position in the post-Soviet literary cannon. And indeed, Doctor Zhivago is now required for high school students bound for university. For Russian readers Doctor Zhivago deals with a painful historical reality that will long be with them.

Pasternak's "Dr. Zhivago"  A Critical Companion by Edith W. Clowes by Edith W. Clowes (no photo)

also see:

G Hodges (GLH1) | 854 comments Becky wrote: " The unforeseen is the most beautiful gift life can give us. That is what we must think of multiplying in our domain. That is what should have been talked about in this assembly, and no one has sai..."

Thank you for the excellent links! Especially the interview. I don't feel so bad about my approach to the book now.

Becky (httpsbeckylindrooswordpresscom) | 1219 comments Thank you, G! And anything else anyone could add regarding the influnces or background of Pasternak for his writing of Doctor Zhivago would likely be helpful.

message 6: by Kathy, Assisting Moderator - Health/Med/Science, Ancient History (new) - rated it 4 stars

Kathy (Kathy_H) | 2143 comments I realize that this read is long over, but here is an interesting looking book that is soon to be released:

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

The Zhivago Affair  The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn by Peter Finn (no photo)


The dramatic, never-before-told story of how a forbidden book in the Soviet Union became a secret CIA weapon in the ideological battle between East and West.

In May 1956, an Italian publishing scout took a train to the Russian countryside to visit the country’s most beloved poet, Boris Pasternak. He left concealing the original manuscript of Pasternak’s much anticipated first novel, entrusted to him with these words from the author: “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.” Pasternak knew his novel would never be published in the Soviet Union, where the authorities regarded it as an assault on the 1917 Revolution, so he allowed it to be published in translation all over the world. But in 1958, the CIA, which recognized that the Cold War was above all an ideological battle, published Doctor Zhivago in Russian and smuggled it into the Soviet Union where it was snapped up on the black market and passed surreptitiously from friend to friend. Pasternak, whose funeral in 1960 was attended by thousands of readers who stayed for hours in defiance of the watching KGB, launched the great Soviet tradition of the writer-dissident. With sole access to otherwise classified CIA files, the authors give us an irresistible portrait of the charming and passionate Pasternak and a twisty thriller that takes readers back to a fascinating period of the Cold War, to a time when literature had power to shape the world.

Becky (httpsbeckylindrooswordpresscom) | 1219 comments Wow! Looks very interesting, I'll have to put it on my "watch for" list. Thank you, Kathy!

back to top