Saturday, 16 July 2011
The Loneliness of the Individual in the Collective Society - Doctor Zhivago and The Russian Revolution and Civil War
Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago is an epic in the style of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi. It encompasses a difficult and controversial moment in Russian history - the Russian revolution of the 1917 and the subsequent Russian Civil War - and most importantly how this period affects the individual. In the center of the story is Doctor Yury Zhivago - an orphan, whose father kills himself when he is just a boy. Yury grows up in a friendly family, where he meets his future wife-to-be, he starts a family, and he becomes a successful and respected doctor. However, he has the unfortunate chance of living in one of the most turbulent years in Russia.
In this period of changes it is of extreme importance to whom you are loyal - to the Red Army (the leftish pro-revolutionary groups) or to the White Army (the anti-bolshevik forces). Russia is devastated by war and fighting, blood and terror, torture and betrayal. People are starving, the son kills the father, the servant betrays his master, families are separated, children are left orphans. In this brutality the character of Yury Zhivago vividly stands out. Zhivago is sensitive, poetic, and idealistic. His principles contrast the brutality and the terror of the Russian uprisings. In his mind, Zhivago understands and supports the ideas of the Bolsheviks although he comes from the upper classes. Nevertheless, he condemns their methods of acting and eventually becomes disappointed with the whole ideology of marxism, which uses power, control, and coercion to artificially create a new world order.
Despite his will, Zhivago becomes embroiled in the war as a doctor in the Red Army. He spends several years apart from his family, fighting for a cause he doesn't believe in. He is not part of neither party - the Bolsheviks condemn him because he is royalty and the royals don't accept him because he fought (involuntarily) on the side of the communists. In his love life Zhivago is also bifurcated. Married to his child friend Tonia, his great love remains Lara. They meet numerous times in their early days, but eventually the war and the subsequent revolution glues them strongly together. One of the greatest love stories ever told, their life together is impossible in the new world order. Zhivago is not accepted by neither political party and Lara is also persecuted because of her husband, the infamous fearsome Red Army general, who later is considered to be a traitor to the communist idea.
In this unstable political situation individual choice and thought are suppressed, loneliness is common, and control over one's personal life is impossible. Zhivago and Lara's husband are both in love with the same woman and they long for a stable and secure family life. Unfortunately, they are embroiled in a civil war, which ideas soon become corrupted and misguided. Pasternak's epic novel is about the honorable Russian man faced with impossible choices, which contradict his ethics and beliefs. In such a situation even the sensible Zhivago is forced to kill other people, to abandon his family, and to even leave Lara behind. This is a period of great suffering, of personal sacrifices, and of unbearable terror. A novel that must be read not only because of Pasternak's unmistakable talent to depict the conflicts in the human mind, the suffering of doing something that largely contradicts your personal ethical norms, and the great love between two souls, but also because it questions the validity of the communist revolution. At first it was a struggle for social equality and justice. Politically, this became a perverse struggle for power and control over the body, mind, and soul.