Thursday, May 24, 2018

"Doctor Zhivago": An Orthodox Perspective

By Fr. Andrew Phillips

My first conscious exposure to Orthodox culture was through Doctor Zhivago, the novel by Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), the Russian poet, writer and translator of Shakespeare. This was when I was aged nine. The story overwhelmed me with its sense of destiny. I felt deeply at home in the culture portrayed. It came to influence me deeply and in my teens I knew many of its wholly Orthodox Christian poems by heart, feeling completely at home in their ethos. Later I was able to speak of this to Pasternak’s sister, Lydia Slater, in Oxford.

Although Doctor Zhivago first appeared in English translation in 1958, after which the CIA and British Intelligence adopted it in Cold War intrigues in order to win for it a Nobel Prize and although it was later greatly popularised by a Hollywood romance, none of these events could suppress the Orthodox content of the book. Hopefully, one day the very faithful and excellent 2006 Russian TV version of the book will be screened in Western countries.

Doctor Zhivago is about life. Indeed, the name ‘Zhivago’ is not a Russian name at all. It is a Church Slavonic (not Russian) word which means ‘the living’. It is this word which is sung at Sunday Matins in the Orthodox Church, when the angel addresses the myrrhbearers with the words: ‘Why seek ye the living (‘zhivago’) among the dead?’ As Zhivago says: ‘Man is born to live, not to prepare for life. Life itself – the gift of life – is such a breathtakingly serious thing’ (1). ‘Oh, how sweet it was to be alive! How good to be alive and to love life! (2).

In this way Doctor Zhivago runs in the line of Russian literature, so clearly expressed in the character of Dmitri in Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. This eldest of three brothers represents the oldest force in Russia, pagan, spontaneous, elemental, earthy vitality (hence the name Dmitri, named after the earth), which does not know which way to choose, to follow Christ like Alexis, the youngest of the three brothers, or to follow the middle brother, the atheist Ivan.

Dr Zhivago himself is full of life, he is a fickle serial adulterer, with five children by three women. He is the Russian soul, full of untamed emotions and expansive passions, the result of which is the disaster of his personal life: ‘The expanse is Russia, his incomparable mother; famed far and wide, martyred, stubborn, extravagant, crazy, irresponsible, adored, Russia with her eternally splendid, disastrous and unpredictable gestures’ (3).

Dr Zhivago represents the ruling class, fallen away from the Church since Peter I, but still surrounded by popular Church culture and in fact dependent on it for its quality of life. Once the source of that culture, the Church, would be overthrown, then the ruling class and everyone else would lose everything, as in fact they did after 1917. In this sense, Doctor Zhivago is about culture and faith. It is one thing to live off culture, but what happens when the wellsprings of that culture, faith, run dry, because there has been no spiritual input? The answer we know from history – it is crisis and revolution. As Lara says:

‘I remember quite well how it was in my childhood. I can still remember a time when we all accepted the peaceful outlook of the last century. It was taken for granted that you listened to reason, that it was right and natural to do what your conscience told you…And then there came the jump from this calm, innocent, measured way of living to blood and tears, to mass insanity and to the savagery of daily, hourly, legalised, rewarded slaughter…It was then that falsehood came into our Russian land. The great misfortune, the root of all the evil to come, was the loss of faith in the value of personal opinions’ (4).

And as a minor character, Galuzina, also says:

'How different it had been in her father’s time!…Everything in those days had been fine and rich and seemly – church services and dances and people and manners - everything had rejoiced her heart...’ ( 5).

Thus, this book is a portrait of an ex-Orthodox society. The well-to-do are on a suicidal path, as symbolised by Zhivago’s father, a suicide, and his mother who dies young of consumption. Doctor Zhivago is an orphan clinging to life. Russia’s mother, faith, also dies prematurely and also kills its little father, the Tsar. As for Tonia, Zhivago’s legitimate wife, from whom he is separated but not divorced on account of his adultery, she lives in exile in Paris with her two children by Zhivago.

In the novel the Revolution itself is seen for what it was, a movement of pagan anarchy following the war, when mutiny was rife not only among Russians, but among Germans, French and British also. However, the anarchy in Russia meant Russia without Orthodoxy, without the Tsar, without order, the return of pagan Russia, as presaged before the Revolution by the pagan music of Stravinsky’s Firebird. As for the Bolsheviks, they were sordid bandits - but also cunning opportunists amid the chaos, hiding behind their pseudo-science of imported foreign Marxism.

However, there is also much optimism in Doctor Zhivago, a looking forward to a better future. One of the constant Orthodox themes, reflected also in the profoundly Orthodox poetry, is that of ‘coincidences’, that is, of heaven-made Providence, the interwovenness of human destinies, how we are all dependent on one another, how our destinies are intertwined, how we all meet up with one another.

This is the case when we find that Zhivago dies in the very flat where years before Lara had spoken to her future husband, Antipov, and by which Zhivago had passed, noticing a candle at the window. As Pasternak describes it: ‘…the comforting awareness of the interwovenness of all human lives, the sense of their flowing into one another, the happy assurance that all that happened in the world took place not only on the earth which buried the dead but also in some other dimension known to some as the Kingdom of God…’ (6).

The last page of the novel, set in ‘this holy city’ of post-war Moscow, rings out with hope for a better life at some point in the future. We must recall that Pasternak himself, like millions of others, was a ’half-way man’, he did not live to see the bright day of resurrection. He returned to the faith only during the war years, as he described in his poem Daybreak: ‘You meant everything in my destiny. Then came the war, the disaster. For a long, long time, No trace, no news of you. After all these years, Again your voice has disturbed me. At night I read your testament. It was like reviving from a faint’. Pasternak died before hopes for the restoration of Orthodoxy could be fulfilled. But he leaves us these words as his own testament:

‘How many things in the world deserve our loyalty? Very few indeed. I think one should be loyal to immortality, which is another word for life, a stronger word for it. One must be true to immortality – true to Christ’ (7).

Life was indeed Pasternak’s belief, but he knew that Life is nothing without immortality and that the only Immortal One is Christ, Who is the only Doctor of the Living, the only real Doctor Zhivago.

Fr Andrew
8 May 2009


The page references below are taken from the 1971 Fontana thirtieth impression of the translation by Max Hayward and Manya Harari. As an anecdote, I may add that when the main translator, Max Hayward, was living in Moscow, he was naturally always followed by a KGB man. However, Max was a Yorkshireman who loved rambling in the Yorkshire dales and a walk of 20 miles per afternoon was nothing to him. One day, feeling sorry for his by then exhausted KGB shadower, he turned to him and came to an agreement. The KGB man would sit discreetly and restfully at a cafe, leaving Max free to roam all over Moscow, its dacha suburbs and surrounding villages, on condition that he would always turn up at the café at the agreed time. This Max did unfailingly, for which his KGB shadower was immensely grateful.

1. P. 328. Chapter 9, 14
2. P. 430. Chapter 13, 7
3. P. 430. Chapter 13, 7
4. P. 444. Chapter 13, 14
5. P. 342. Chapter 10, 3
6. P. 22. Chapter 1, 6
7. P. 18. Chapter 1, 5