Isaac Deutscher 1961

Pasternak and the Calendar of the Revolution

Source: Labour Review, Volume 6, no 1, Spring 1961. Scanned, prepared and annotated for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers. This essay also appeared in a modified form in the collection of Deutscher’s writings Ironies of History: Essays on Contemporary Communism (London, 1966); significant textual variations are indicated in the notes.

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960) was a poet, playwright and novelist and a leading translator of classical literature, including Shakespeare, Schiller and Goethe, into the Russian language. He was born into an artistic Russian Jewish family, his father was a university professor and artist and his mother was a musician, his parents were followers of Tolstoy. He was baptised into the Orthodox church as a child, and in later life became an active adherent of Orthodoxy. He stayed in the Soviet republic after the October Revolution and, despite his lack of sympathy with the regime and his friendship with many oppositional cultural figures, most notably the poet Osip Mandelstam, he did not fall victim to Stalin’s terror, although his mistress Olga Ivinskaya was arrested in 1949, and he was sharply criticised in the Soviet cultural journal Novi Mir. Pasternak completed Dr Zhivago in 1956. It was rejected by Novi Mir but he handed the manuscript to an Italian Communist who was searching for new Soviet literature on behalf of the publisher and fellow party member Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who published an Italian translation in late 1957. An English-language translation appeared in the summer of 1958, which rapidly became a best-seller. This immediately led to the book and its author being severely criticised by the Soviet authorities. In October 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contribution to literature, but, under mounting official pressure, he refused to accept it. This refusal did not assuage the Soviet authorities, he continued to be attacked in the Soviet press and by the Soviet Writers’ Union up to his death, and he remained a target of official condemnation until the cultural liberalisation under Gorbachev’s glasnost.

The sensation created by Doctor Zhivago has died down, and Boris Pasternak himself died in May 1960. But interest in the case, and controversy over the book, continues – particularly on the cold-war cultural front. Laudatory evaluations, accompanied by the usual political overtones, have been legion in the West. Stalinist criticism has, at best, been mealy-mouthed, as could but be expected under the Khrushchev ‘enlightenment’. Isaac Deutscher’s review of Doctor Zhivago stands out in this welter of literary output for its Marxist clarity, for the historical perspective it establishes, and for its scrupulous objectivity. Although it first appeared in English in Spring 1959 (in the American Partisan Review) it is therefore well worth reproducing for British readers who have had no acquaintance with this point of view. For the distortion of the Pasternak issue has served political ends here as well as in the USA. (It is reprinted here by permission of the author.)


The most striking characteristic of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago is its archaism, the archaism of the idea and of the artistic style alike. The book has been received, in the West, as part of the recent Russian revulsion against Stalinism and as its most consummate literary expression. Yet, Doctor Zhivago is nothing less than that – it is utterly [1] unrelated to the Russia of the 1950s and to the experiences, troubles and heart-searchings of the present Soviet generation. It is a parable about a vanished generation. Pasternak, now approaching his seventieth year – his formative period fell in the last decade before the October Revolution – might have written this book in 1921 or 1922. It is as if his mind had stopped at that time, after the traumatic shock of the revolution; and as if nearly all that his country has since gone through had remained a blank. His sensitivity has remained unaffected, almost untouched, by the great and grim, yet not unhopeful drama of Russia’s last three decades. The actual story of Doctor Zhivago ends in 1922. Pasternak brings it artificially ‘up to date’ in two brief and hurried postscripts, ‘Conclusion’ and ‘Epilogue’, the first covering thinly the years from 1922 to 1929, till Zhivago’s death, and the second jumping straight into the 1950s. The postscripts have almost none of the better qualities of the work but show all its weaknesses and incongruities absurdly magnified. [2]

Much of the climate and the local colour of Doctor Zhivago and many of its ideas can indeed be found in the poems and prose of Andrei Belyi, Zinaida Gippius, Yevgenii Zamyatin, Marietta Shaginian [3] and other writers of the 1920s, who were once polemically described as ‘internal émigrés’. They were so called because they lived, worked (and published their works) under the Soviet regime, but in some measure shared the ideas and moods of the actual anti-Bolshevik émigrés. Some, like Gippius and Zamyatin, eventually went abroad and there voiced their opposition to the revolution without inhibition. Others adjusted themselves, assumed the postures of ‘fellow-travellers’, and eventually became Stalin’s court poets – Shaginian, for instance, was a Stalin Prize Winner. It is with the voice of that original, authentic ‘internal émigré’ that Pasternak has now spoken, equally unshaken in his hostility towards Bolshevism and his deep, physical and poetic, attachment to Russia. [4] It is as if, in the course of nearly four decades, he had managed to preserve his identity intact. [5] His perception, his emotions and his imagination have remained as if closed to the many deep changes that have transformed his country beyond recognition and to some of the storms that have raged over it in the meantime. This testifies to the organic strength of his character but also to an extraordinary rigidity and limitation of his sensitivity. Doctor Zhivago is indeed an act of resurrection. But risen from the dead, Pasternak speaks the language of the dead, not of the living. [6]


Doctor Zhivago is a political novel par excellence; and so its appraisal must start with the [7] analysis of its political message. The author puts the message into the mouth of his chief character, who is largely his own projection, and into the mouths of the other figures who all talk at great length about their attitude towards the revolution. They dwell on the revolution’s failure, on its inability to solve any problems, on the violence it has done to the human personality, and on the disillusionment it has brought in its wake. The plot is designed to bear out this critique. Nearly all the characters are driven to misery, despair and death; and love and humanity are defeated and destroyed by the ‘politics of revolution’. In the background there is Russia, shown as senselessly [8] convulsed and tormented to no purpose, unless in mystical expiation of sin. Christianity remains the hope and refuge, a Christianity which need not be clearly defined but is recognisable in its humanitarian outlook, its humility, its acceptance of history, and its refusal to try and remake man’s earthly destiny. It is from this quasi-fatalistic Christianity that finally springs Pasternak’s ethereal note of reconciliation even with the revolution, the unexpectedly optimistic note on which the novel ends. It may be, the author suggests, that the great expiation has been accomplished and the deluge is over: its few survivors can already sense a ‘presage of freedom in the air’ and a ‘silent music of happiness'; and they ‘feel a peaceful joy for this holy city’ of Moscow.

A message of this kind is a matter of faith and hardly lends itself to rational discussion. Nor is it likely to be fruitful artistically. [9] With nothing but these beliefs and convictions, Pasternak’s characters are from the beginning outsiders to the revolution, lacking all point of contact with it, and psychologically static. The author evidently feels this and seeks to animate them, to take them ‘inside’ the revolution, and invest them with something like dilemmas. He presents Doctor Zhivago as almost a revolutionary at first, or, at any rate, a man sympathetic to the revolution, who suffers disillusionment and disintegrates in despair. In the same way he tries to complicate other characters like Strelnikov, the Red commander, and Lara, Strelnikov’s wife and Zhivago’s mistress. In every case, however, he fails. He tried to square a circle. From Christian rejection of the October revolution it might be possible for a Russian writer to produce perhaps a new version of Chateaubriand’s Génie du Christianisme, [10] but not a true, coherent and convincing image of the revolution and of the human beings who have made it or experienced it.

How does Pasternak arrive at the rejection? Is his (and Zhivago’s) profession of sympathy with the origins of the revolution mere pretence? Certainly not. He is the victim of a genuine and in a sense tragic confusion. He himself reveals this when he describes Zhivago’s, that is his own, state of mind shortly before October 1917: ‘Here too were his loyalty to the revolution and his admiration for it, the revolution in the sense in which it was accepted by the middle classes and in which it had been understood by the students, followers of Blok, [11] in 1905.’ The revolution accepted by the middle classes in 1905, it should be recalled, had as its ideals either a Tsardom reformed into a constitutional monarchy or, as an extreme, a Liberal-Radical bourgeois republic. That abortive bourgeois revolution was implicitly opposed to the proletarian revolution of 1917. Pasternak – Zhivago is unaware that his ‘admiration and loyalty’ to the former must necessarily bring him in conflict with the latter.

The confusion goes even deeper: the Zhivago of 1917 is as if unaware that even this, his ‘loyalty to the ideas of 1905’, is by now only a fading memory. ‘This familiar circle’, Pasternak goes on, ‘also contained the foretaste of new things. In it were those omens and promises which before the war, between 1912 and 1914, had appeared in Russian thought, art and life, in the destiny of Russia as a whole and in his own, Zhivago’s.’ The allusive reminiscence would convey to a Russian, if he could read it, far more than it can possibly convey to a Western reader. ‘Between 1912 and 1914’ Russia’s middle classes, the bourgeoisie, had definitely turned their backs on their own radicalism of 1905, had taken their distance from the revolutionary underground movement, and were seeking salvation exclusively in a liberalised Tsardom. The mildly socialistic and radical intelligentsia, encouraged by a slight softening of the autocracy, spoke of the ‘liquidation of the illusions and methods of 1905'; and the Bolsheviks were already virtually alone in upholding the tradition of revolutionary action – outside their ranks only Plekhanov and Trotsky, and their very few followers, did the same. This then is the climate of opinion which Pasternak – Zhivago recalls in 1917, reflecting that ‘it would be good to go back to that climate once the war was over, to see its renewal and continuation, just as it was good to be going home’. Thus, even at this stage, on the eve of the October insurrection and well before his disillusionment had begun, Zhivago’s ‘loyalty and admiration for the revolution’ is nothing but a transfigured and glorified nostalgia for pre-revolutionary Russia.

Latent and unconscious at the beginning, this nostalgia comes into its own and bursts to the surface later. ‘I can still remember a time when we all accepted the peaceful outlook of the last century’, says Lara to Zhivago. ‘It was taken for granted that you listened to reason, that it was right and natural to do what your conscience told you...’ she adds (as if Russia had not lived in serfdom for most of that golden age, ‘the last century’, and in semi-serfdom for the rest of it!). ‘And then there was the jump from this calm, innocent, measured way of living to blood and tears, to mass insanity... You must remember better than I do the beginning of disintegration, how everything began to break down all at once – trains and food supplies in towns, and the foundations of home life and conscious moral standards.’ ‘Go on’, Zhivago interjects. ‘I know what you will say next. What good sense you make of it all! It’s a joy to listen to you.’

Pasternak’s recital of the broken pledges of October is thus based on a false premise: the October revolution had never promised to satisfy his nostalgia and to ‘go back to the climate’ of 1912-14, let alone to that of the nineteenth century. He rests his case on the fact that the October revolution was not a bourgeois revolution or rather that it did not content itself with a mildly reformed version of the ancien régime. Of all the charges that have ever been levelled against Bolshevism, this is surely the most archaic one. When it was voiced around 1921 it was still the echo of a fresh controversy. In 1958 it comes to us like a voice from the grave.


Comme La Guerre et La Paix, le Docteur Jivago [writes François Mauriac], ne restitue pas seulement des destineés particulières, mais l'histoire politique qui nait d'elles et qui, à son tour, les infléchit et leur donne une signification.

Mauriac [12] naturally finds himself in the warmest sympathy with Pasternak’s Christianity. But has he also based his opinion on a consideration of Doctor Zhivago’s merits as a novel? Even though Pasternak himself, through various imitative details of composition and style, evokes War and Peace, it is difficult to see how any novelist can make the comparison seriously. Tolstoy’s huge canvas is alive and crowded with a magnificently full-blooded, richly individualised yet organically integrated, social milieu. In Doctor Zhivago a mere fragment of a milieu comes only partly alive, and this only in the opening chapters – the milieu of the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia, Platonically faithful to ‘the ideas of 1905’ but well adjusted in fact to the ancien régime, and leading a smug existence on the fringes of the upper and middle bourgeoisie and of the Tsarist bureaucracy. After 1917 this milieu disintegrates and disperses, as it was bound to do; and – as nothing takes its place – its membra disjecta, [13] as individuals, are whirled furiously into a social vacuum, from which they hark back to their lost felicity. No histoire politique emerges therefore from their private destinies, certainly not any histoire politique of the Bolshevik epoch.

Tolstoy takes the characters of War and Peace straight into the centre of the great events of their time. He throws them right into the stream of history, which carries them until they are overwhelmed or come on top. Pasternak places his characters in the backwoods and backwaters. They do not participate in any single important event; nor do they even witness any such event. Yet, what would War and Peace have been without Austerlitz and Borodino, without the fire of Moscow, without the Tsar’s Court and Kutuzov’s headquarters, and without the retreat of the Grande Armée, all reproduced by Tolstoy’s epic genius? What significance would have had the destinées particulières of Pierre Bezukhov and André Bolkonsky without their deep and active involvement in these events? The drama of 1917-21 was at least as great as that of 1812; and it is far more momentous in its consequences. Yet Pasternak never manages to give us a single glimpse of its main theme, of its central occurrences, and of its significant actors. It is not only that he lacks the gift of epic narration and has no eye for the historic scene. He runs away from history, just as all the time his chief characters flee from the scourge of revolution.

We barely hear in Doctor Zhivago a grotesquely remote echo of the stormy prelude of 1905. Then, during the World War until September 1917, Zhivago serves as an army doctor in a God-forsaken Carpathian village and a Galician townlet on the Hungarian frontier, hundreds and hundreds of miles away from the centres of the revolutionary upheaval. He returns to Moscow almost on the eve of the October insurrection and stays there during the insurrection. What he sees, experiences and has to say about it consists of a few flat and meaningless sentences which do not add up to half a page. Throughout the rising, which in Moscow lasted much longer and was much bloodier than in Petrograd, he stays in his rooms. His child has a cold, his friends come, talk about the fighting outside, get stuck at the Zhivagos’ for three days, after which they go home at last. ‘Yuri had been glad of their presence during Sasha’s illness and Tonya forgave them for adding to the general disorder. But they had felt obliged to repay the kindness of their hosts by entertaining them with ceaseless chatter; Yuri felt exhausted by it and was glad to see them go.’ This is all we hear or learn of the upheaval: not a single person appears that participates in it. On the next page we are told abruptly that Zhivago was ‘shaken and overwhelmed by the greatness of the moment and the thought of its significance for centuries to come’. We must believe the author upon his word; we have seen no one ‘shaken and overwhelmed’. Zhivago did not even look at the event, so full of ‘significance for centuries to come’ through the window of his flat or even through the chinks of his shutters. The revolution had only added to the ‘general disorder’ in his household and exposed him to the ‘ceaseless chatter’ of his friends. What curious lack of artistic sense the author shows here, and what intellectual infantilism! [14]

There follow a few thin and incoherent pages in which we are shown how the revolution adds further to the ‘general disorder’ in the household. Then, Moscow succumbs to starvation, epidemics, cold; Zhivago himself falls ill with typhus and recovers. By now the author and his hero have begun to brood over the breakdown of civilised life and the calamitous deterioration of human nature:

In the meantime the Zhivagos were tried to the limits of endurance. They had nothing and they were starving. Yuri went to see the party member he had once saved, the one who had been the victim of a robbery. This man helped him as far as he could, but the civil war was beginning and he was hardly ever in Moscow; besides he regarded the privations people were suffering in those days as only natural, and himself went hungry, though he concealed it.

And so the Zhivagos pack up and leave for the Urals, hoping to recoup there and to enjoy some quiet well-being on what used to be their family estate.

Thus we have left behind the famished, tense and severe Moscow of the early months of civil war, without getting even as much as a hint of the issues agitating it: war and peace, Brest Litovsk, the German threat to Petrograd, the move of Lenin’s government from Petrograd to Moscow, the attempts of the counter-revolution to rally, the hopes for the spread of revolution in Europe, the uprising of the Left Social Revolutionaries, the final dissolution of the old army, the emergence of the new one, not to speak of the distribution of land among the peasants, workers’ control over industry, the beginnings of socialisation, the attempt on Lenin’s life, the first outbreaks of the Red Terror, etc, all occurring during the months of Zhivago’s stay in Moscow. We get no inkling of the severe pathos of these months, of the mass enthusiasms and the soaring hopes, without which the shocks to the hopes remain meaningless. We are hardly able to guess that Moscow is already being cut off by the Whites from food and fuel bases in the south: and so famine and chaos appear as the results of an apocalyptic breakdown of moral standards.

By coincidence I have read simultaneously with Doctor Zhivago the manuscript of memoirs written by an old worker who, himself an anarchist, took part in the Bolshevik uprising in Moscow. Without literary pretensions, very plainly, he describes the same period with which Pasternak deals; and he too is now bitterly disillusioned with the outcome of the revolution. But what a difference between the two pictures of the same city (even the same streets!) seen at the same time. Both writers describe the famine and the sufferings. But the old anarchist draws also unforgettable scenes of streets which, as far as he could see from a crossroads, were filled with Red workers, hastily arming themselves, and even with war cripples begging for arms; and then – the same streets changed into a battlefield; and he brings alive the inspired and tense heroism of Moscow’s working class, an atmosphere of which Pasternak conveys not even a whiff. Again, it is as if Tolstoy had brought Pierre Bezukhov to burning Moscow only to let him bemoan the hunger and the ruins, without letting him (and us) feel how the great and tragic conflagration illumines Russia’s past and present. To Tolstoy the fire of Moscow and the cruel deeds and sufferings of 1812 are no mere atrocities – if they had been, Tolstoy would not be himself, and War and Peace would not be what it is. To Pasternak the revolution is primarily an atrocity.

Zhivago’s resentment swells in him during his long and weary journey to the Urals. He travels in an overcrowded goods train, packed with human misery. Here are some of Pasternak’s best descriptive pages. The scenes and episodes are true to life – the literature of the 1920s is full of similar descriptions. Zhivago’s chief preoccupation is still with his and his family’s well-being, although he tries to ‘defend the revolution’ in a brief and rather lifeless dialogue with a deported anti-Bolshevik politician. He is finally overcome by disgust with the new regime, and with his time at large, in the Urals, when his expectation of satiety and quietude on the old family estate is disappointed, when he is torn between loyalty to his wife and love for Lara; and when eventually the Red partisans trap him on a highway, abduct him to their forest camp, and force him to serve them as doctor.

The picture of the Forest Brotherhood is forcefully drawn. There is in it a sense of space, Siberian space, of the cruelty and mercy of nature and man, and of the primordial savagery of the fight. Still, we touch here only a remote periphery of the civil war, a forlorn and icy corner of Mother Russia. (Pasternak himself spent those years in the Urals, though not in any Forest Brotherhood.) [15] The types or rather situations he depicts here are convincing, and at times (for instance the doings of the witch in the Forest Brotherhood) even fascinating; but they are only [16] marginal. They represent the anarchic fringe of the Red Army which by now fights its battles against Kolchak, Denikin, Yudenich and Wrangel – elsewhere, mostly far to the West, in European Russia. There the human element, the problems and the situations were different from those encountered in this Forest Brotherhood, although the civil war was savage and cruel everywhere. The Forest Brotherhood, at any rate, forms, even in fiction, too slender a basis for any histoire politique of this period.

It is there, in the partisans’ camp, that Zhivago’s final ‘break’ with the revolution occurs. Abducted from the highway, he explodes in anger over the violation of his rights as an individual, the insult to his human dignity, and the breakdown of all moral standards. After 18 months in captivity, during which at moments he feels almost closer to the Whites than to the Reds, he manages to escape. If this were all, one could say that the story has its psychological and artistic logic and that the author has ‘taken it from life’. But Pasternak does not content himself with this. Not relying on objective [17] narrative and portrayal, he incessantly idealises his hero, his own projection, and leaves us in no doubt that he shares Zhivago’s thoughts and emotions and all his indignation. (Nearly all his characters do the same, because the author does not manage to set up any real contrast or counter-balance to Zhivago!) Politically and artistically Pasternak thus involves himself in a self-revealing inconsistency. Zhivago, we know, had, as doctor, spent several years in the Tsarist army; and all those years he behaved extremely meekly, never making any fuss over his sacred rights as individual and his offended dignity. Implicitly, he thus acknowledges the right of the ancien régime to press him into service – he denies that right only to the Red partisans. Yet they do exactly what the old army had done: they make the doctor look after the wounded. Unlike the Tsarist army, they had not sent him call-up papers by mail but had kidnapped him – they had not yet had the time to build up a military machine which would mobilise doctors and others in a ‘civilised’ manner. Surely from the angle of Pasternak – Zhivago’s morality this should have been an irrelevant detail: at any rate, it should not have made so great a moral difference to the idealistic and humanitarian doctor whose wounded soldiers he cured, those of the Tsar, of the Whites or the Reds. Why then does he only now feel so deeply insulted in his human dignity?

The juxtaposition of these two situations in Zhivago’s life is significant in other respects as well. Near the Carpathian front, that cemetery of the Tsarist army, Zhivago had seen blood, suffering, death and countless atrocities. Pasternak sparingly describes a few of these but he does not dwell on that side of Zhivago’s early experience. He presents as an almost uninterrupted atrocity only that part of the story which begins with the revolution. Nostalgia for the ancien régime here too colours his entire vision, determines for him his horizon, and dictates even the composition of the novel.

Unintentionally, Pasternak portrays his hero, the sensitive poet and moralist, as the epitome of callousness and egotism – unintentionally, because otherwise he could hardly have so insistently identified himself with Zhivago and lavished on him all the lachrymose love with which the novel overflows. The egotism is physical as well as intellectual, Zhivago is the descendant not of Pierre Bezukhov but of Oblomov, Goncharov’s character who, though not worthless, had spent all life in bed, as symbol of the indolence and immobility of old Russia. [18] Here is Oblomov in revolt against the inhumanity of a revolution that has dragged him out of bed. Goncharov, however, conceived Oblomov as a grand satirical figure; Pasternak makes of him a martyr and the object of an apotheosis.

Willy-nilly one thinks of a fierce and ruthless, yet historically just passage in Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution, written in 1923, which appears to anticipate Zhivago. In truth, however, Trotsky did not anticipate him; he merely summed up a certain type that belonged to that time:

When a certain Constitutional Democratic aesthete, having made a long journey in a stove-heated goods wagon, tells you, muttering between his teeth, how he, a most refined European, with a set of superb false teeth, the best in the world, and with a minute knowledge of Egyptian ballet techniques, was reduced by this boorish revolution to travelling with despicable lice-ridden bagmen, [19] then you feel rising up in your throat a physical nausea with his dentures, ballet techniques, and generally with all his ‘culture’ pilfered from Europe’s market stalls; and the conviction grows upon you that the very last louse of the most uncouth of our bagmen is more important in the mechanics of history and more, so to speak, necessary than this thoroughly ‘cultured’ and in every respect sterile egotist. [20]

We recognise at once the ‘Constitutional Democratic aesthete’ – it was to him that the ‘omens and promises of 1912-14’ had been the most congenial – and we have some idea even of his long journey in a goods wagon, with despicable lice-ridden bagmen. True, his specialty now is not Egyptian ballet techniques but the Old Slavonic Prayer Book; and his culture comes from native stores as well as from Europe’s market stalls. Perhaps so many years after the revolution our throats at his sight are less susceptible than Trotsky’s was to violent physical nausea. All the same we cannot help identify the same sterile egotist in Zhivago the moralist and humanitarian. [21]


With the archaism of the idea goes the archaism of the artistic style. Doctor Zhivago is extremely old-fashioned by any standards of the contemporary novel; and the standards by which, being what it is, it has to be judged are those of the old-fashioned realistic novel. The texture of its prose is pre-Proust, nay, pre-Maupassant. [22] It has nothing in it of the experimental modernity of Pilniak, Babel [23] and other Russian writers of the 1920s. Obsolescence of style is not a fault in itself. The point is that Pasternak chooses deliberately his mode of expression which is the mode proper to the laudator temporis acti. [24]

In his diary Pasternak – Zhivago thus expresses his artistic programme:

Progress in science follows the laws of repulsion – every step forward is made by reaction against the delusions and false theories prevailing at the time... Forward steps in art are made by attraction, through the artist’s admiration and desire to follow the example of the predecessors he admires most.

Nothing is further from the truth. [25] In art as well as in science progress is achieved by a combination of ‘repulsion’ and ‘attraction’ and the tension between these two forces. Every step forward, as Hegel knew, is a continuation of tradition and at the same time a reaction against tradition. The innovator transcends the heritage of the past by rejecting some of its elements and developing others. However, Zhivago’s reflections have some relevance to Pasternak’s literary conservatism.

This is Pasternak’s first novel, written at the age of about 65, after he had been a poet all his life. His main formative influences had been the Russian Symbolist school, which flourished early in the century, then for a short time the pre-revolutionary Futurism, and finally, the ‘Formalism’ of the early 1920s. These schools enriched the idiom and refined the techniques of Russian poetry, but often they also weakened its élan and narrowed its imaginative range. Within the Symbolist and the Formalist traditions Pasternak has achieved almost perfection. His virtuosity of form has made of him Russia’s most eminent translator of Shakespeare and Goethe. As far as I can judge from his poems, of which some are not easily accessible and others have remained unpublished, virtuosity rather than vigorous, inventive and creative mastery distinguishes Pasternak. Yet as a poet too he is curiously antiquated compared with Mayakovsky and Yessenin, [26] his contemporaries.

What prompted him to write his first novel at so advanced an age was the feeling that his poetry, or poetry at large, could not express adequately the experience of his generation. There is a touch of greatness in this admission and in the poet’s effort to transcend his limitations. However, for any writer whose gifts had, for nearly half a century, been attuned exclusively to lyrical poetry, it would, in any case, have been risky to try his hand at a realistic and political novel. Pasternak’s poetic tradition has proved an insuperable obstacle to his literary metamorphosis. He has not been able to jump the gulf between lyrical symbolism and prose narrative.

This accounts for the incongruity between the various elements that make up Doctor Zhivago: on the one side lyrical passages, noble, richly imaginative, refined and fastidiously polished; and on the other the core of the novel itself, flat, clumsy, laboured and embarrassingly crude. It is as if the book had been written by two hands: the virtuoso-poet of 65 and a beginning novelist of 16.

Scattered like jewels over the pages of Doctor Zhivago are Pasternak’s exquisite descriptions of nature or rather of mood in nature which serve him as keys to the moods and destinies of his hero. The method, with a long tradition behind it, is familiar; but Pasternak excels at it. [27] There is richness and delicacy in his images of forest, field, river, country road, sunrise and sunset, and of the season of the year. The realistically painted landscape is shot through with a mystical symbolism, which selects a bush torn by a storm or a frozen tree as omen or token. The writing on the wall is the writing on the face of nature itself. Even in these passages, which would by themselves make an impressive anthology of Pasternak’s poetry in prose, his range is limited – he rarely succeeds, for instance, in the drawing of an urban scene; and not infrequently there is a note of affection and preciosity in his manner of pressing on the reader the symbolical meanings ‘hidden’ in landscape or mood. All the same, Pasternak the image-maker and word-polisher shows himself at his best.

Unfortunately, a novel aspiring to the large and realistic scale cannot be built around such lyrical fragments. The author’s evident attempt to do so has only shown up the perplexing contrast between his sophisticated word-mastery and his ineptitude as a novelist. His plot is, from beginning to end, a jumble of absurd and assiduously concocted coincidences, such as would have discredited a novelist even in Stendhal’s days. [28] The deus ex machina [29] jumps incessantly before our eyes. Without his help the author simply does not manage to establish any connection between the characters, to bring them together, to separate them, and to evolve and resolve their conflicts. He fails in this because he does not manage to develop and bring alive the characters themselves. Even Zhivago is little more than a blurred shadow. The psychological motivation of his behaviour is incoherent. The author substitutes for it exalted lyrical and symbolic allusions; and he speaks for Zhivago and on his behalf instead of letting the personality speak for itself:

Everything in Yuri’s mind was mixed up together and misplaced and everything was sharply his own – his views, his habits, and his inclinations. He was unusually impressionable and the freshness and novelty of his vision were remarkable.

The vigour and the originality of his poems made Yuri forgive himself what he regarded as the sin of their conception for he believed that originality and vigour alone could give reality to a work of art...

Shyness and lack of simplicity were entirely alien to his nature.

The superlatives which the author heaps on his hero and the subtle poetic aura by which he surrounds him cannot give reality or depth to the figure. Zhivago’s attitudes towards his wife and mistress, and towards his many children born of three women, are strained or never assume verisimilitude: not for a single moment does the father come alive in him (and none of his children has any individuality). Not only the author sings his hero’s praises – nearly all the characters do the same. Nearly all are in love with Yuri, adore him, approve his ideas, echo his deep reflections, and nod their heads at whatever he says.

The other characters are altogether puppet-like or papier mâché, much though the author exerts himself to make them move of their own accord, or to make them look ‘unusual’, enigmatic or romantic. Even more than in the case of Zhivago, lyrical patches, naive and stilted dialogues, and affected superlatives have to stand for the portrayal of character and of actual relationships. This, for instance, is how the intimate concord between Lara and Zhivago is described:

Their low-voiced talk, however unimportant, was as full of meanings as the Dialogue of Plato.

Even more than by what they had in common, they were united by what separated them from the rest of the world...

They loved each other greatly. Most people experience love, without noticing that there is anything remarkable about it. To them – and this made them unusual – the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of timelessness were moments of revelation, or of even greater understanding of life and of themselves.

In this histoire politique of the epoch the author makes no attempt to draw a single Bolshevik figure – the makers of the revolution are an alien and inaccessible world to him. He underlines that his revolutionaries are not party men. They are primitively picaresque types or wholly incredible eccentrics, like Klintsov-Pogorevshikh, the deaf-mute instigator of rebellions in the Tsarist army, Liberius, the chieftain of the Forest Brotherhood, and the most important of them, Strelnikov, Lara’s husband. Of Strelnikov we learn that he ‘had an unusual power [how Pasternak loves this adjective!] of clear and logical reasoning, and he was endowed with great moral purity and sense of justice; he was ardent and honourable’. From disappointment in family life – apparently his only motive – he plunges into revolution, becomes a legendary Red commander, the scourge of the Whites and of the people at large; but eventually falls foul of the Bolsheviks – we do not know why and how but presumably because of his ‘moral purity and sense of justice'; and he commits suicide. A few workers appear fleetingly in pale episodes, and are either half-wits or servile post-seekers. We do not see the Whites at all, apart from one remote and evanescent apparition. One could not even guess from this grand cross-section of the epoch who were the men who made the revolution, who were those who fought the civil war on either side, and why and how they lost or won. Artistically as well as politically the epoch-making upheaval remains a vacuum.


Yet despite this void, and the unctuous moralising and all the falsettos, there is in Doctor Zhivago a note of genuine conviction. The suggestive indictment of the revolution must make its impression on the reader who is unfamiliar with the background of the years 1917-22 but is vaguely aware of the horrors of the Stalin era. Confusing the calendar of the revolution, Pasternak projects those horrors back into the early and earliest phases of the Bolshevik rule. The anachronism runs through the entire novel. In the years 1918-21 Zhivago and Lara are already revolted by the tyranny of the monolithic regime which in fact was not formed until a decade later:

They were both equally repelled by what was tragically typical of modern man, his shrill text-book admirations, his forced enthusiasms, and the deadly dullness conscientiously preached and practised by countless workers in the fields of art and science in order that genius should remain extremely rare.

It was then that falsehood came into our Russian land [Zhivago and Lara agree]. The great misfortune, the root of all the evil to come was the loss of faith in the value of personal opinions. People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must sing the same tune in chorus, and live by other people’s notions, the notions which are being crammed down everybody’s throat.

I do not know [says Zhivago] of any teaching more self-centred and farther from the facts than Marxism. Ordinarily, people are anxious to test their theories, to learn from experience, but those who wield power are so anxious to establish the myth of their own infallibility that they turn their back on truth as squarely as they can. Politics mean nothing to me. I do not like people who are indifferent to the truth.

Zhivago – Pasternak goes on in this vein without any substantial contradiction from any other character. Yet, the ‘forced enthusiasms’, the deadly uniformity in art and science, the ‘singing of the same tune in chorus’, and the degradation of Marxism to an infallible Church – all this fits the fully-fledged Stalin era but not the years in which these words are spoken. Those were years of Sturm und Drang, of bold intellectual and artistic experimentation in Russia, and of almost permanent public controversy within the Bolshevik camp. Does Pasternak – Zhivago confuse the calendar of the revolution or is he confused by it? Whatever the truth, only this confusion enables him to make his case. He could not have actually argued in 1921 the way he does. Yet readers familiar only with the atmosphere of the latter-day Stalinism are all too likely to believe that he could. It may be objected that the author need not concern himself with historical chronology, and that he has the right to compress or ‘telescope’ various periods and so reveal the evil embedded in the thing itself. Where then are the limits of the compression? And does not historical and artistic truth came out mangled? Pasternak, at any rate, establishes most carefully, almost pedantically, the chronology of the events which form the background to Zhivago’s fortunes; and so he should be expected to demonstrate the ‘spirit of the time’, on which he dwells so much, in accordance with the time.

To be sure, the deadly uniformity in art and science, the disregard and contempt of personal opinion, the infallibility of the ruler, and so many other features of the Stalin era evolved from germs which had been present in the early phase of the revolution; but they evolved in continuous and inexorable conflict with that phase. No great artist could possibly have missed, as Pasternak has, the colossal tragedy inherent in this chain of cause and effect and in the tension between the early and the late phases of the revolution and of Bolshevism. What Pasternak does is not merely to blur the contours of the time – he pulverises all the real aspects of the revolution and dissolves them into a bloody and repulsive fog. Art and history alike, however, will re-establish the contours and make their distinction between the revolution’s creative and its irrationally destructive acts, no matter how entangled these may have been, just as, in the case of the French Revolution, posterity, with the exception of extreme reactionaries, has drawn its distinction between the storming of the Bastille, the proclamation of the Rights of Man, and the rise of the new and modern, be it only bourgeois, France, on the one hand, and the nightmares of revolution and the gods that were athirst, on the other.

Pasternak hardly ever alludes (even in his ‘Conclusion’ and ‘Epilogue’) to the great purges of the 1930s. Yet he constantly uses their black hue for his picture of the earlier period – this indeed is the only respect in which he draws for his writing on any significant social experience of the last three decades. His silence about the great holocaust of the 1930s is not accidental. This was tragedy within the revolution; and as such it does not concern the outsider, let alone the internal émigré. What is striking here is the contrast between Pasternak and writers like Kaverin, Galina Nikolaeva, Zorin and others, [30] whose post-Stalinist novels and plays (unknown in the West and some of them virtually suppressed in the Soviet Union) have centred precisely on the tragedy within the revolution, the tragedy which they also see from within. In Pasternak’s pages the transposed horrors of the Stalin era exist mainly as the source of his own moral self-confidence, the self-confidence he needs for his critique of the revolution at large. We have said that he might have written Doctor Zhivago in the early 1920s; but he could not have written it then with his present self-confidence. At that time, with the ‘heroic’ phase of the revolution still fresh, the internal émigré laboured under the sense of his moral defeat. After all the experiences of the Stalin era, he now feels that he has morally recovered; and he flaunts his self-righteousness. This is a spurious recovery, however; and it is helped along by a suggestio falsi. [31]

Pasternak traces back Zhivago’s ideas and his Christianity to Alexander Blok. In Blok’s Twelve, Christ walked at the head of armed workmen, tramps and prostitutes, leading them, in the blood-red dawn of October, towards a greater future. There was a certain artistic and even historic authenticity in this daring symbol. In it were merged the primitive Christianity and the elemental revolutionary élan of the Russia of the muzhiks who, chanting Prayer Book psalms, burned the mansions of the aristocracy. The Christ who blessed that Russia was also the Christ of primitive Christianity, the hope of the enslaved and the oppressed, St Matthew’s Son of Man, who would sooner let the camel go through the eye of a needle than the rich man enter into the Kingdom of God. Pasternak’s Christ turns his back on the rough mob he had led in October and parts company with them. He is the pre-revolutionary self-sufficient Russian intellectual, ‘refined’, futile and full of grudge and resentment at the abomination of a proletarian revolution.


Pasternak has been hailed in the West for his moral courage; and much is written about his poetry as a ‘challenge to tyranny’ and his stubbornly nonconformist attitude throughout the Stalin era. Let us try and disentangle facts from fiction. It is true that Pasternak has never been among Stalin’s versifying sycophants. He has never bowed to the official cult and observance; and he has never surrendered his literary integrity to powerful taskmasters. This alone would have been enough to earn him respect and to make of his writing a startling phenomenon. [32] His poetry stands out sharply against the grey background of the official literature of the last 30 years. Against that lifeless and unendurably monotonous background even the old-fashioned quality of his lyricism could appear and has appeared as a thrilling innovation. One may therefore speak of him as of a great and even heroic poet in that semi-ironical sense in which the Bible speaks of Noah as a just man ‘in his generation’, a generation of vice. Pasternak stands indeed head and shoulders above the poetasters of the Stalin era.

However, his courage has been of a peculiar kind – the courage of passive resistance. His poetry has been his flight from tyranny, not his challenge to it. To this he has owed his survival, in a generation in which the greatest poets, Mayakovsky and Yessenin, committed suicide, and most of the best writers and artists, Babel, Pilniak, Mandelstam, Kluyev, Voronsky, Meyerhold and Eisenstein, [33] to mention only these, were deported, imprisoned and driven to death. Stalin did not allow many of Pasternak’s poems to be published; but he spared their author and, by the despot’s benevolent whim, even surrounded him with care, protecting his safety and well-being. The poet did nothing to gain these favours; but Stalin knew that he had little to fear from his poetry. [34] He sensed a threat to himself not in the archaic message of the man who harked back to pre-revolutionary times, but in the work of those writers and artists who, each in his own way, expressed the ethos, the Sturm und Drang, and the non-conformity of the early years of the revolution – there Stalin sensed the genuine challenge to his infallibility. With those writers and their message Pasternak has been in implicit conflict; and it would be unjust to their memory to hail him as the most heroic and authentic spokesman of his generation. Moreover, their message, even though it, too, belongs to its time and can hardly meet the needs of our day, has certainly far more relevance to the experience and the aspirations of the new Russia than have the ideas of Doctor Zhivago.

When all this has been said, one cannot react otherwise than with indignation and disgust to the suppression of Doctor Zhivago in the Soviet Union, and to the spectacle of Pasternak’s condemnation. There exists no justification and no excuse for the ban on his book and the outcry against it, or for the pressure exercised on Pasternak to make him resign the Nobel award, the threat of his expulsion from the country, and the continuing witch-hunt. The Writers’ Union of Moscow and its official instigators or accomplices have achieved nothing except that they have given proof of their own obtuseness and stupidity.

What are Pasternak’s censors afraid of? His Christianity? But the Soviet State Publishers print in millions of copies the works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, every page of which breathes a Christianity far more authentic than Pasternak’s. His nostalgia for the ancien régime? But who, apart from a few survivors of the old intelligentsia and bourgeoisie, people of Pasternak’s age, can share that nostalgia in the Soviet Union today? And even if younger people were to experience it vicariously – what possibly could the Soviet Union fear from that? It cannot and it will not go back to the past, anyhow. The work of the revolution can no longer be undone or reversed: the huge, formidable and ever growing structure of the new Soviet society will hardly stop growing. Can perhaps a poet’s eye, turned inwards and backwards, and wandering over the wastes of his memory, cast an evil spell? Zhivago still represents a powerful force, frequently felt and heard, in Poland, Hungary, Eastern Germany and elsewhere in Eastern Europe; but in the Soviet Union he is the survivor of a lost tribe. In the fifth decade of the revolution it is time to view him with detachment and tolerance and to let him mourn his dead.

Pasternak’s censors, too, are evidently confusing the calendar of the revolution. They have broken away from the Stalin era, or have been wrenched out of it; but somehow they still imagine themselves to be living in it. They are still superstitiously seized by old and habitual fears and resort to the customary charms and exorcisms. Above all, they distrust their own, modern and educated, society which is growing mightily above their heads as well as Pasternak’s.

Time does not stand still, however. Ten years ago l'affaire Pasternak would not have been possible. Pasternak would not have dared to write this novel, to offer it for publication in Russia, and to have it published abroad. If he had done this, Stalin’s frown would have sent him to a concentration camp or to death. Despite all the present witch-hunting in Moscow, however, Pasternak’s personal freedom and well-being have so far remained undisturbed; let us hope that they will remain so to the end. He might have gone abroad and in the West enjoyed fame, wealth and honour; but he has refused to ‘choose freedom’ in that way. Perhaps he does indeed hear that ‘silent music of happiness’, of which he says, in the last sentences of Doctor Zhivago, that it spreads over his country, even if he does not quite understand that music. Slowly yet rapidly, painfully yet hopefully, the Soviet Union has moved into a new epoch, in which the mass of its people is seizing anew the sense of socialism. And perhaps in 10 years’ time another affaire Pasternak will also be impossible, because by then the fears and the superstitions of Stalinism will have long been forgotten. [35]


Notes provided by the Marxist Internet Archive except where noted.

1. The Ironies... version substitutes ‘scarcely’ for ‘utterly’.

2. The Ironies... version deletes the words ‘absurdly magnified’.

3. Andrei Bely, real name Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev (1880-1934), was a Russian novelist, poet and literary critic; prominent in the symbolist movement, he remained in the Soviet republic after the October Revolution. Zinaida Nikolaevna Gippius (1869-1945) was a Russian symbolist poet, playwright, editor, short-story writer and religious thinker; hostile to Bolshevism, she and her husband, the symbolist poet and novelist Dmitry Sergeyevich Merezhkovsky, went into exile in late 1919, living mainly in France and Italy. Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin (1884-1937) was a Russian author of science fiction and political satire; a supporter of the October Revolution, he gradually became more critical of the Soviet regime, which he satirised in his novel We, and left the Soviet Union in 1931. Marietta Sergeevna Shaginian (1888-1982) was a Soviet writer and poet of Armenian descent; she was one of the ‘fellow-travellers’ of the 1920s and later one of the most prolific communist writers experimenting in satirico-fantastic fiction, although her work was officially criticised during the 1930s.

4. In the Ironies... version the preceding sentence is replaced with: ‘Pasternak was not an “internal émigré” – he was one of the genuine “fellow-travellers” of the revolution. Yet in Doctor Zhivago it is as if he had spoken with the voice of an original, authentic “internal émigré,” equally unshaken in his hostility towards Bolshevism and his deep, physical and poetic, attachment to Russia.’

5. The Ironies... version deletes the preceding sentence.

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7. The Ironies... version substitutes ‘include an’ for ‘start with the’.

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10. François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand (1768-1848) was a French writer, politician, diplomat and historian. He was a royalist and during his exile in Britain in the 1790s in the aftermath of the French Revolution wrote a defence of the Roman Catholic Church, Génie du Christianisme (The Genius of Christianity), which was published in France in 1802 after his return under Napoleon’s amnesty of émigrés.

11. Alexander Alexandrovich Blok (1880-1921) was a Russian lyrical poet. An exponent of apocalyptic imagery and a believer in the messianic destiny of Russia, he supported the October Revolution as the manifestation of that destiny, although by the time of his death he had become disillusioned with the Soviet regime.

12. François Charles Mauriac (1885-1970) was a French novelist, dramatist, critic, poet and journalist, and a lifelong Roman Catholic.

13. Membra disjecta – scattered remains.

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15. The Ironies... version deletes the words ‘though not in any Forest Brotherhood’.

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18. Ivan Alexandrovich Goncharov (1812-1891) was a Russian novelist best known for writing the popular novel Oblomov (1859), about a young nobleman who is incapable of making decisions or doing anything significant, and which is often considered to be a satire of the Russian nobility as a parasitic and superfluous social class.

19. Meshochniki, those who travelled with their bags in search of food or trading food – Author’s note.

20. LD Trotsky, Literature and Revolution, available at < >.

21. The Ironies... version deletes the preceding two paragraphs and the quotation from Trotsky.

22. Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was a French novelist, critic and essayist best known for his gigantic novel À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), which was published in seven parts between 1913 and 1927. Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant (1850-1893) was a French writer, widely considered to be a pioneer of the modern short story.

23. Boris Pilniak (1894-1938) was a Russian writer and a critic of urban society. Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel (1894-1940) was a Russian journalist, playwright, literary translator and short-story writer, best known for Red Cavalry, Story of My Dovecote and Tales of Odessa. Both were arrested, falsely accused of treason and executed under Stalin’s Terror.

24. Laudator temporis acti – one who praises past times, that is, a person who is discontented with the present and instead prefers things of the past.

25. In the Ironies... version the preceding sentence is replaced with: ‘This is not quite the truth.’

26. Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a Russian poet, playwright, artist and stage and film actor, and was among the foremost representatives of Russian Futurism; he produced many famous Soviet posters, was a leading member of the Left Art Front and co-edited the journal LEF; he was dismayed by the rise of Stalinism, and committed suicide. Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin (1895-1925) was a Russian lyrical poet; he supported the October Revolution but became disillusioned with the Soviet regime, and committed suicide.

27. The Ironies... version deletes the preceding sentence.

28. The Ironies... version deletes the words ‘such as would have discredited a novelist even in Stendhal’s days’. Marie-Henri Beyle, pen-name Standhal (1783-1842) was a French writer who is considered to be one of the earliest and foremost practitioners of realism.

29. Deus ex machine – a god from a machine, that is, a contrived or artificial solution, usually to a literary plot.

30. Galina Yevgenevna Nikolayeva (Volyanskaya, 1911-1963) was a Russian writer, best known for Zhatva (Harvest, 1950) and Bitva v Puti (The Battle Road, 1957), and was a member of the Executive of the Writers’ Union from 1954 up to her death. Venyamin Alexandrovich Kaverin (Zilber, 1902-1989) was a Russian writer, best known for Dva Kapitana (Two Captains, 1944), which won the USSR State Prize for 1946. Leonid Genrikhovich Zorin (1924-?) was a Russian dramatist, best known for Gosti (The Guests, 1954), one of the first plays of the post-Stalin thaw, portraying a conflict between an honest Old Bolshevik and his corrupt bureaucrat son.

31. Suggestio falsi – a suggestion of something that is untrue.

32. A note in the Ironies... version states: ‘In asserting this I had forgotten that Pasternak did pay his poetic tribute to Stalin in the 1930s.’

33. Osip Emilevich Mandelstam (1891-1938) was a Russian poet and essayist and one of the foremost members of the Acmeist school of poets. His reading of his poem attacking Stalin led to his arrest in 1934, and he was sent into internal exile. He returned from exile and praised Stalin in his poetry, but was arrested in 1938 and died that year in a transit camp. Nikolai Alekseevich Kluyev (1884-1937) was a Russian poet who was influenced by the symbolist movement, intense nationalism and a love of Russian folklore, and was the leading member of the ‘peasant poets'; he was arrested in 1933 and shot in 1937. Aleksandr Konstantinovich Voronsky (1884-1937) joined the Bolsheviks in 1904, helped lead the Bolsheviks in seizing power in Odessa in 1917, helped set up Krasnaya Nov (Red Virgin Soil) in June 1921, set up the Krug (Circle) publishing house in 1923, later sided with Trotsky, was expelled from the party in February 1928 and arrested in January 1929, recanted and was readmitted to the party, was expelled in 1935, arrested in 1937 and executed. Vsevolod Emilevich Meyerhold (1874-1940) was a leading Soviet theatre director, actor and theatrical producer; he opposed Socialist Realism, fell out of official favour and was subsequently arrested, forced to confess to false charges and was executed. Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein (1898-1948) was a pioneering Soviet Russian film director and film theorist, most noted for his silent films Strike (1924), Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October (1927), and historical epics Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (1944).

34. The Ironies... version deletes the words ‘The poet did nothing to gain these favours; but’.

35. The Ironies... version substitutes ‘been dispelled’ for ‘long been forgotten’.