Hello, hello! I’ve finally gotten around to writing this introduction to Doctor Zhivago, which took a bit longer than I expected because I want you to have a better foundation than I did. First let’s take a look at the author, Boris Pasternak.
Boris Pasternak was born in Moscow to a wealthy Russian Jewish family on February 10, 1890. He was a poet, novelist, and translator of literature, and Doctor Zhivago is known as his most significant work. Due to its perceived anti-Soviet message, it was denied publication within Russia; however, an Italian publisher picked it up and released it in November of 1957. Perhaps in part because of the Soviet government’s attempts to stop its publication, it was a big success outside of Russia and was translated into multiple languages and sold throughout Western society. Unfortunately, when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958 for Doctor Zhivago, he was compelled to reject the nomination. Despite following the Soviet government’s wishes regarding the Nobel Prize, he still lived in relative exile until he died of lung cancer on May 30, 1960.
I think one thing that I was missing from my experience reading Doctor Zhivago was a good understanding of Russian history. I have to admit that even with all of the history courses that I took in high school and college, I never quite felt comfortable with the little that I learned about that part of the world. Being completely honest, I feel like most of my knowledge came from reading about the Grand Duchess Anastasia and her untimely demise. (Did anyone else absolutely adore that animated movie with Meg Ryan and John Cusack?)
Here are a few things that might be helpful to know:
- The beginning of the story is set in Imperial Russia during the Russo-Japanese War. The Romanov family still ruled the country under Tsar Nicholas II, and the people of Russia had little to no representation in government. Russia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan led to the country’s diminished worldwide influence and only increased unrest surrounding the Russian Revolution of 1905.
- When Pasha volunteers for the Imperial Russian Army and Yuri becomes a medical doctor, it is during the World War I years.
- Yuri and his family leave Moscow for the country following the October Revolution, when the Bolshevik party forced Tsar Nicholas II to abdicate, and the Russian Civil War, which took place between the Bolshevik Red Army and the opposing White Army.
- The epilogue occurs later during World War II.
If you’re into cool historical timelines, I would suggest checking out the Oxford University Press’s blog post, From communist power to political collapse: twentieth-century Russia.
I had so many questions while reading this book (many of the political/historical variety), but here are a few more literary ones that I pondered.
- What elements of “romance” did you recognize in Doctor Zhivago?
- Pasternak switches narrator seemingly randomly throughout the novel. What did you think of these changes, and how did they affect your reading experience?
- What, if anything, is the significance of the epilogue and the discovery made at the very end?
- How much of Yuri’s character is probably autobiographical?
- What did you make of the collection of poems appended to the end of the novel?
The Book Club Classics post for Doctor Zhivago will go live tomorrow, and there will be a linkup for any posts on this classic Russian masterpiece or any other classic books. I’d love for you to come back and check it out!