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Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | Book 1, Part 6 : The Moscow Encampment | Summary



Moscow has changed since Yuri left for the war. The once-thriving market near his home now specializes in the trading of junk, and Tonya has leased the downstairs of their house to the Agricultural Academy. To save money, she has also let go of all the servants except Nyusha, the new nanny. All of Yuri's friends have "become strangely dull and colorless" with the loss of money and position. Even Misha's forced witticisms have an air of desperation and sadness.

Yuri finds comfort in his family, particularly Nikolai Nikolaevich, who is passing through town. Nikolai is now a Bolshevik, which bothers Tonya, but Yuri looks past politics and sees a kindred spirit in his uncle. Their reunion "was a meeting of two creative characters, bound by family ties." They talk for hours about the past, the present, and art, delighted to have such strong "mutual understanding."

The Zhivagos host a small and disappointing dinner party. Yuri is unable to enjoy the luxurious fat duck from Pogorevishkih because he knows his neighbors might not have anything on their own tables for dinner. Misha is not himself, and Shura Schlesinger has morphed into a staunch revolutionary. At the end of the evening, Yuri gives an impromptu speech about the war, the revolution, and the future of socialism in Russia. He speaks from a place of sadness, but everyone else applauds, mistaking his worry for wit.

Yuri goes back to work at the hospital, which has also changed. He seems neither White nor Red enough for anyone's liking and feels adrift between the two factions, convinced that formerly upper-middle-class people like him are doomed. He latches onto basic comforts: "[h]is wife, his child, the need to earn money."

By the middle of October, he is hanging on the best he can. Nikolai and Misha bring news about revolution, and soon the streets are impassable because of all the gunfire. Days later Yuri goes for a walk during a snowstorm and buys a newspaper; its headline announces that the Soviet of People's Commissars is now in control. He ducks into a building so he can keep reading and notices a young man staring at him. Yuri scares him away, unaware that the man is Evgraf, his half-brother.

Winter is brutal. The Zhivagos "lived in want," and Yuri is one of the few doctors who stay on at the hospital. He makes a house call to a woman with typhus. While trying to find transportation for her, he talks to the caretaker of the house, which used to belong to Tiverzin. The caretaker is none other than Yusup's mother, Marfa Galiullina, who says her son has "gone bad." Yuri also meets Olya Demina, Lara's old friend. He can't believe he's in the building Lara used to visit so often. Before they part, Olya tells him Lara "married Pashka with her head, not her heart."

Weeks later Yuri collapses in the street from typhus. Sick and delirious for two weeks, he dreams about writing a poem, being occasionally "hindered by a boy with narrow Kirghiz eyes, in an unbuttoned reindeer coat." Yuri thinks the boy is the "spirit of his death," but it's actually Evgraf, who visits the Zhivagos during Yuri's illness, bringing them white flour, sugar, coffee, and butter. Evgraf convinces Tonya the family should leave the city and live on Tonya's grandfather's former estate, Varykino, near Yuriatin.


Yuri's displeasure with life in Moscow stems from the decreasing value of independent thought. Most, if not all, of Yuri's friends are middle class or higher, and he realizes, "as the lower strata arose and the privileges of the upper strata were abolished, how quickly everyone faded." Given that he's just back from the war, Yuri doesn't yet realize how dangerous independent thought is in the current political climate. People who don't toe the party line are punished, exiled, or even killed. It is safer to put on a false front and keep your opinions to yourself, which is what Misha does at the dinner party. This speaks to the larger theme of how people change during times of political instability. The formerly morose Misha now forces himself to be jolly and genial, and Nika Dudorov, known before as an "unstable and extravagant featherbrain," is now a serious scholar. Evan Shura Schlesinger, the late Anna Ivanova's best friend, has turned over a new leaf by championing the causes of the working class.

The only people who don't change, it seems, are the Zhivagos. Tonya is just as Yuri remembers her, although thinner and more worried. She still takes care of the family, still talks a mile a minute, and still identifies with the upper-middle class. Yuri also holds on to his pre-war ideals, even when his refusal to align with a political party—any political party—threatens both his livelihood and the survival of his family. Yuri's conscious decision to remain neutral negatively impacts his family's finances and comfort. His idealistic belief that changes can be made without a complete dismantling of the political system doesn't falter even when he's faced with hunger, cold, and a sick child.

Yuri's reentry into civilian life takes place on the eve of the October Revolution of 1917, the "fighting in the streets" about which Nikolai Nikolaevich and Misha bring word. On October 24 and 25, the Bolsheviks and their allies, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, overtake government buildings and other important Moscow landmarks in a near-bloodless coup. A new government, led almost entirely by Bolshevik commissars, immediately replaces the Provisional Government. Communism is suddenly the law in Moscow. People who didn't support communism are categorized as enemies, which is why Marfa Galiullina says Yusup, who is leading a regiment of Whites, has "gone bad." It's also why the Zhivagos decide to leave Moscow. Their upper-middle-class roots and white-collar jobs make them immediate targets for Bolsheviks looking to make a point.

Soviet leaders were furious with Pasternak for his critical description of life in Russia during the revolution and the ensuing civil war. Pasternak knew he was on thin ice when he was writing; one Russian publisher rejected Doctor Zhivago because of the "libelous manner" of the chapters about the October Revolution. Communism didn't allow for freedom of speech or freedom of the press, and Pasternak was severely punished for what would become his most well known (and Nobel Prize–winning) work. His bleak and unflattering depiction of communism, and the Bolsheviks in particular, got him kicked out of the Writers' Guild, stripping him of his only means to earn a living. He told the truth, but he suffered greatly for it.
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