Doctor Zhivago: Defiance to a Godless State.


The Soviet Union was not a nation who cared too much for dissenters of its engineered state philosophy of communism. In fact, when Boris Pasternak attempted to get his book Doctor Zhivago published by Novy Mir they rejected the title claiming that the “author’s point of view was incompatible with the spirit of the revolution and the Marxist ideology that was the theoretical foundation of the state.”[1] Pasternak was not surprised by the rejection and even expected some sort of retaliation from the Soviet authorities; however, in 1957, he was able to get his book published in Italian.[2] The book is filled with many characteristics that would be highly critical of the Soviet way of life; several passages on the subject of religion will be outlined to illustrate why the Soviet authorities would have rejected such a book.

Pasternak’s work employs several types of religious imagery or insinuations of religion, resurrection, or rebirth. The Soviet philosophy created by the Bolsheviks to progress Russia forward with Prometheanism–the ideology where mankind becomes God– sought to modernize Russia away from what they saw as superstition and myth and instead promote scientific empiricism.[3] (Sound familiar?) After the Russian Civil War, the new ruling class as described in A History of Russia,  “The government ordered the seizure of all Church valuables, temporarily imprisoned Patriarch Tikhon.”[4] In effect, outlawing religion within the borders of Russia.

The Soviet philosophy would have been threatened by any objection to their approved philosophy of atheism, which is why when Pasternak wrote about Yuri Andreevich, the main protagonist of his novel, relying on intuition rather than empiricism in Part Four chapter five of Dr. Zhivago it would be viewed as a direct assault on Soviet principles. A strange interpretation of the text to modern Western minds the scene that would be seen as nothing out of the ordinary to most people today in the western world,Pasternak writes, “Yuri Andreevich turned his back to the window and yawned from fatigue. He had nothing to think about. Suddenly he remembered. In the surgical section of the Krestovozdvizhensky Hospital, where he worked, a woman patient had died a couple of days ago. Yuri Andreevich had insisted she had Echinococcus of the liver. Everyone disagreed with him…The autopsy would reveal the truth.”[5] The text would appear harmless to any who never had lived in such an environment; however, what it reveals is a dangerous knowledge or truth that exists outside of empirical evidence and the Soviet philosophy. The text was a direct affront to the Soviet way of life–and presently any secular empiricist.

Pasternak goes on to criticize the modern secular utopia that the Soviet Union was attempting to create and its failure to do so in Part Six chapter nine writing, “Winter came, precisely as had been predicted. It was not yet as scary as the two that followed it, but was already of their kind, dark, hungry, and cold, all a breaking up of the habitual and a rebuilding of the foundations of existence, all an inhuman effort to hold on to life as it slipped away.”[6] Of course, Pasternak is creating a commentary on the false Soviet principles of creating a temporal utopia because of its fleeting nature. He indicates this later on in Part Six chapter fifteen writing, “Hell, and decay, and decomposition, and death are glad to take up, and yet, together with them, spring, and Mary Magdalene, and life are also glad to take up. And—have to wake up. He has to wake up and rise. He has to resurrect.”[7] The reason why Pasternak focuses on the imagery of Mary Magdalene and resurrection is its critique of the Soviet way of life. Mary Magdalene was the first to witness of the resurrected  Christ, “15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rab-bo′ni!”[8]

Early in Dr. Zhivago Pasternak creates a scene of Yuri riding a train, as Yuri looks out the window he sees the Cathedral of Christ the Savior appearing in the distance as he is arriving at Moscow. Pasternak’s image of focusing on a building that was destroyed by the Soviets December 5th, 1931 would have disturbed many within the party who wished to promote Soviet philosophy among the citizenry.[9] However, it appears that Pasternak, focusing on religion and resurrection as a theme in Dr. Zhivago, had been seeing the foundations of a movement that would occur from the 1960s to 1980s interested in the former Cathedral.[10] It appears that Pasternak hoped that everyone—like Mary Magdalene—would witness the resurrection of faith in Soviet Russia. The Soviets were not interested in the spread of such hope as it could not be tolerated by the state, not even in fiction, to their engineered philosophy.

[1] Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), viii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark Steinberg, A History of Russia, 8th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 614.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Pasternak, 91.

[6] Ibid, 173.

[7] Ibid, 184.

[8] John 20:11-16 RSV

[9] Konstantin Akinsha, Sylvia  Hochfield, and Grigorij Kozlov The Holy Place: Architecture, Ideology, and History in Russia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), 124.


[10] Ibid, 145.

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