The story of Doctor Zhivago

In 1958 Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel Doctor Zhivago. He initially intended to travel to Sweden to receive it and wrote to the committee that he was “immensely grateful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed”. Unfortunately Pasternak lived in the Soviet Union and the KGB forced him to refuse the prize.

Soviet censorship

Why was the Soviet government so opposed against the idea of Pasternak receiving the Nobel Prize? The whole affair embarrassed them; Doctor Zhivago had not made it through the strict censorship and was not published in the Soviet Union. But it had been smuggled abroad and was widely published in several countries, causing a worldwide sensation. In the novel Pasternak expresses some criticism, but mostly disappointment, with the outcome of the Russian Revolution.

At the time Pasternak was an extremely popular poet, he enjoyed a rather privileged position in the Soviet Union. Writers were employed by the government. They were expected to help spread communistic ideologies. In return they received a government salary and were able to live in Peredelkino, a quiet town outside of Moscow where most writers lived.

“This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.”

Pasternak spent years writing Doctor Zhivago. It was to be his life’s work, something like Tolstoy ‘s War and Peace. He knew very well that it would never make it through the strict censorship. Once it was finished he was so proud of his brainchild, that he could not resist the temptation to have it published abroad, knowing that this would endanger himself and his family.

Love triangles

However, Doctor Zhivago is much more than a controversial complaint against the communistic regime. That merely forms the background of this beautiful love story. A love triangle even! Yuri (Zhivago) is married to Tonya. During World War I he meets a friend from his youth, Lara. He feels very attracted to her, can’t choose between two his loves and has a lenghty affair with her. Pasternak describes the love between Yuri and Lara in the most beautiful words. For instance: “They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet.”

In reality Pasternak found himself in a similar situation. He was married to Zinaida, and had a family with her, but at the same time he openly had a relationship with Olga. The KGB even used Olga to ‘convince’ Pasternak that he’d better refuse the Nobel Prize. In 1960 Pasternak died at his dacha in Peredelkino. Both his wife Zinaida and his mistress Olga cried over his coffin. Against the government’s wishes hundreds of people came to the funeral, throwing flowers on the casket and reciting Pasternak’s poems.

“To be a woman is a great adventure; To drive men mad is a heroic thing.”


Additional reading suggestions:

-Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

-The Zhivago Affair, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée; very interesting, nicely written. I found it at least as enjoyable as the novel itself.

Or why not watch the 1965 film that won six Oscars, starring Omar Shariff, Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin?

And for those planning to visit New York later this year, there is now also Doctor Zhivago, the Broadway musical.