Russia From Within: Boris Pasternak's First Novel

For an evaluation of the most important novel to come out of Russia in many years, the ATLANTIC has turned to ERNEST J. SIMMONS, the author of LEO TOLSTOY and RUSSIAN FICTION AND SOVIET IDEOLOGY. Mr. Simmons was engaged in research work in Russia before World War II. He laught at Harvard and Cornell, and in 1946 he became chairman of the department of Slavic languages at Columbia, where he is also professor of Russian literature at the Russian Institute.


IN A modest house not far from Moscow lives a gray-haired poet of sixty-eight by the name of Boris Pasternak. Visitors are struck by the serenity of his face, distinguished by high cheekbones and deep-set eyes. He appears to dwell in a spiritual world of his own, where as a creative artist he refuses to distort the voice of life and condemns the waste and destruction of beauty as it comes into contact with the vulgarity of materialism. For Pasternak is neither a Communist in his political philosophy nor a socialist realist in art. He loves his country and he sees Russia in its totality, in the grand sweep and rhythm of its destiny, in which the Bolshevik Revolution is just a passing phase. It is little wonder then that Doctor Zhivago (Pantheon, $5.00), the first novel of this foremost living Russian poet, should be anticipated as an important revelation of Soviet life and a prophecy of things to come.

Soviet Russia has had very few writers who could be compared favorably with the best in Western Europe and America over the last forty years. Pasternak is among these few, and objective literary historians of the future will probably esteem him as one of the great men of letters of our time. For years, to be sure, it has been bad taste to praise him in the official Soviet press. But native critics who are competent and unafraid — and there have been a number of them — regard Pasternak’s concentrated poetry, with its free association of ideas and human experience and its extraordinary images, as the highest achievement of Soviet verse.

Pasternak began Doctor Zhivago before Stalin’s death in 1953 and finished it by the end of 1955. When he began writing his novel, he was known for his nine thin volumes of difficult poetry and for a few short stories and autobiographical fragments. In the twenties and early thirties, when literary originality was possible and often much appreciated in Soviet intellectual circles, Pasternak’s revolt against the classical forms of lyricism and his brilliant use of imagery which embodied deeply felt personal experiences won him much acclaim as well as the kind of criticism initially leveled against the verse of T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas. Like his hero, the poet and physician Zhivago, Pasternak believes that “art always serves beauty, and beauty is delight in form, and form is the key to organic life, since no living things can exist without it; so that every work of art, including tragedy, expresses the joy of existence.”

This would never do as an approach to art in the Soviet Union once Stalinist terror had muted creative individualism and exacted conformity to party dictates from all writers. Pasternak fell silent. Perhaps the very obscurity of his verse protected him from the excesses of the purge years. When official party literary critics deigned to notice him at all, it was to condemn him for his failure to reach the masses with his poetry and for cutting himself off from the people. Today Soviet youths know Pasternak largely as a translator, for over the last fifteen years he has been devoting himself to outstanding renderings of the works of Shakespeare, Goethe, Shelley, and other great authors of the past.

No doubt the “thaw” that followed Stalin’s death encouraged Pasternak to write Doctor Zhivago and also led him to hope that it would be published in the Soviet Union. Any knowledge of the complete text indicates how quixotic that hope must have been, for the novel is the most sincere, honest, and revelatory fictional treatment of the Soviet epoch to come out of Russia.

It appears that Pasternak sent the manuscript on the rounds of Soviet publishers. After a number of rejections, publication was hinted as possible if various cuts could be made. Pasternak, it is reported, agreed, and on the strength of this expectation allowed a copy of the manuscript to find its way into the hands of a Milan publisher for Italian translation. Officials of the Union of Soviet Writers persuaded Pasternak to send a telegram to the Italian publisher requesting the return of the manuscript for revision, and even the Soviet embassy in Italy interceded. But to no avail. The Italian translation appeared, and shortly thereafter German, French, and English versions. The international fame so long and unfairly denied Pasternak has at last been achieved in spite of Soviet neglect and controls.

Doctor Zhivago is not a political novel, nor is it an attempt to expose the iniquities of the Soviet regime. Rather it is the story of Russians from all walks of life who lived, loved, fought, and died during the momentous events from 1903 to 1929 (aii epilogue carries the action into and beyond World War II). And the beloved, ineradicable symbol of their existence is Russia.

The epic sweep and perhaps the fact that Zhivago is partial to Tolstoy’s theory of history have already suggested to some commentators the influence of War and Peace. But there is little of Tolstoy here, either in style or atmosphere. Tolstoy is concerned with the harmony of life, Pasternak— at least in this novel — with its disharmony. One detects rather flashes of Dostoevsky. The beautiful, ambivalent Larisa Fcodorovna, the lover of Zhivago, recalls vividly that “infernal woman” type of Nastasya Filipovna in The Idiot. Like her, Larisa undergoes a traumatic experience as a young girl; her self-dedication to purity is crushed by the seduction of the lecherous old Komarovsky, a devitalized Svidrigailov.

But literary influences are of no consequence in Doctor Zhivago. After years of silence and, one suspects, long and thoughtful preparation, Pasternak has written a Soviet novel which at last revives the noble tradition of the Russian past that literature is the conscience of the nation. For the work throbs with the truth of the indictment of forty tragic years of Russian history, an unspoken indictment that emerges from the swarms of workers, peasants, idealistic intellectuals, bourgeois entrepreneurs, Red commissars, and White officers, all of them caught up in the fury of strikes, war, revolution, civil war, massacres, executions, wanton acts of sadism, the cold terror of the Cheka, and wrecked family life. Many of these characters are fleeting figures in the involved web of the fable as the action traverses the whole of Russia from the Ukraine to Siberia, yet each contributes something to the tormented voice of conscience that demands to know what universal good can possibly justify this wholesale crucifixion of the human spirit.

THE central figure of the novel, Doctor Zhivago, personifies this voice of conscience in his proud conviction that no ruler, no political party should have power over the conscience of man in his struggle to work out his own destiny. Besides Gregor Melekhov in Sholokhov’s masterpiece, The Quiett Don, Doctor Zhivago is perhaps the only hero in Soviet fiction who in the end fails to identify himself with the “virtues” of Communism. Pasternak denies that there is anything autobiographical in his hero, but one senses a common philosophical perception of life, a community of ideas, that goes beyond their mutual devotion to poetry and their similar theories of art.

Zhivago is an orphan when the story begins just before the 1905 revolution. His parents had been wealthy, and he is brought up in a cultured Moscow family. Concurrently with the development of the sensitive, thoughtful Zhivago through his school years, his study to become a physician, and his first timid efforts in writing poetry, Pasternak introduces numerous other characters from various social levels and the events in which they participate, in order to present a comprehensive picture of Russian society. The method has drawbacks as well as merits, for the artistic aim of creating living people is often sacrificed to the expansive design of the social historian.

But always the spotlight returns to Zhivago, and in its white glare he epitomizes man’s quenchless thirst for sanity and survival in a time of madness and death. We follow him through his marriage to Tonia, a girl of his class, the birth of his child, his hospital experiences, and then his grueling service at the front as a doctor. Like so many members of the intelligentsia, he welcomes the revolution when it comes, because he believes that Russia desperately needs to be purged of the accumulated dross of centuries of oppression and misrule. And in the bitter days of starvation in Moscow in the first year of the revolution, Zhivago learns that a life similar to the life of the people is a true life, that solitary happiness is not true happiness.

Pasternak portrays the vast panorama of events and people over these years not so much as an accomplished novelist would do it, but as an objective historian would chronicle events that he has lived through and recollected in tranquillity. With some notable exceptions, there is no patient lingering over details and rounding out of characters, no effort to compel the reader to identify himself with the immediacy of life lived and not merely described. Perhaps this is the fault of a poet who has not mastered the novelist’s special art in his first full-length work of fiction.

Pasternak’s particular approach to his material, however, may be intentional. The picture he provides of these years is a truthful one, but he gives the impression of looking back from some remote vantage point in order to extract from these fateful events the grim lesson of the spiritual agony of those who endured them. It is man against history that enthralls him, man’s infinite capacity to oppose the malevolence of events and triumph over them. The epilogue suggests that the hope of the Russian people, in the future as in the past, is bound up with this opposition; and the character of Zhivago is a superb symbol of this spiritual struggle against the evil forces of history.

It is not the incredible cruelty and suffering of the civil war, which Zhivago experiences when compelled to serve as a physician in a Red partisan band in the Urals, that undermines his faith in the revolution, but the preposterous claims of its leaders that only they possess the secret of earthly happiness and are determined to whip everybody into it. Turning on one of his Bolshevik friends who praises Marxism as a science, Zhivago declares:

Marxism is too uncertain of its ground to be a science. Sciences are more balanced, more objective. I don’t know a movement more self-centered and further removed from the facts than Marxism. Everyone is worried only about proving himself in practical matters, and as for the men in power, they are so anxious to establish the myth of their infallibility, that they do their utmost to ignore the truth.

In many such frank passages toward the middle and end of the novel, Zhivago reveals his growing belief that these “bringers of a new life” really deny life and repudiate the human personality. Zhivago loves life in all its aspects. This love wells up in him when he contemplates the terrible beauty of the world. A deep religious, almost mystical, feeling comes over him in the presence of the majesty of nature. He yearns to savor life, not to solve it. The relentless probing of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy into the ultimate purpose of mankind leaves him unmoved; lie prefers the modest reticence of Pushkin and Chekhov, who thought it presumptuous to deal with such high-sounding matters.

It is this capacity to give himself to life, to attune himself to its rhythm, that draws Zhivago into his poignant and beautifully narrated love affair with Larisa. However, as a character in one of the stereotyped Soviet novels put it, “The age of socialism is not well suited to adultery,” nor can Zhivago stomach the intellectual antipasto of the Marxian theoreticians who surround his Ural retreat. Eventually, revolutionary terrorism forces a separation of the lovers. After weeks of suffering and privations during the long journey, Zhivago finally arrives in Moscow at the beginning of “the most ambiguous and hypocritical of all Soviet periods,” that of the New Economic Policy.

In living through its years of crass vulgarity, Zhivago slowly loses his zest for life. He comes to loathe the political mysticism of the Soviet intelligentsia, which now encourages his own former intellectual friends to make a virtue of their experiences in Soviet prisons and to rationalize their willing submission to the conformity demanded of all. “Men who are not free always idealize their bondage,” he thinks. “I found it painful to listen to you,” he remarks to one of these friends, “when you told us how you were re-educated and became mature in jail. It was like listening to a horse describing how it broke itself in.” Not the cudgel, but an inner music, has placed man above the beast, and its sweet sounds are heard in many unforgettable pages of the novel.

THE extraordinary frankness, if not the design, of the epilogue to the novel suggests that it was written or revised by Pasternak possibly after Khrushchev’s famous debunking speech on Stalin in 1956. In the first part of the epilogue, two of Zhivago’s old friends, Dudorov and Gordon, now officers in the war in 1943, talk with complete freedom — perhaps for the first time in any Soviet novel — of the colossal lie that the people had been compelled to live. Dudorov declares;

I think that collectivization was an erroneous and unsuccessful measure and it was impossible to admit that error. To conceal the failure people had to be cured, by every means of terrorism, of the habit of thinking and judging for themselves and forced to see what didn’t exist, to assert the very opposite of what their eyes told them. This accounts for the unexampled cruelty of the Yezhov period, the promulgation of a constitution that was never meant to be applied, and the introduction of elections that violated the very principles of free choice.

The two friends continue their conversation, this time about their own brutal experiences in concentration camps, and Dudorov advances the plausible theory that when the war broke out, its horrors, dangers, and menace of death “were a blessing compared with the inhuman reign of the lie.” Here the lesson brought home to the friends is that of Zhivago’s prophetic soul.

In the second part of the epilogue, dated some time after the war, the same two friends are represented as just having finished a posthumous volume of Zhivago’s writings, and they find hope in its pages for the future of Russia. Pasternak concludes: “Although victory had not brought the relief and freedom that were expected at the end of the war, nevertheless the portents of freedom filled the air throughout the postwar period, and they alone defined its historical significance.”

Indeed, the anguished cry of the human spirit for freedom in all its manifestations runs through the pages of this remarkable Soviet novel. We hear it in the poetic imagery of the beautiful nature descriptions; in the creative individualism of the hero’s theory of art; in the wonderful religious faith of the seeress Sima, who believes that Christianity will overcome “the duty, imposed by armed forces, to live unanimously as a people, as a whole nation” and will replace it by “the doctrine of individuality and freedom”; and we hear it constantly in Zhivago’s conviction that man’s Faustlike longing to grasp and experience everything is an expression of the law of his nature and must not be suppressed.

This cry for the freedom that alone can restore the human dignity of man needs to be heard in the Soviet Union, where, unhappily, Doctor Zhivago will probably never be allowed to appear as Pasternak originally wrote it.