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Dr. Zhivago | Context

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Doctor Zhivago takes place during one of the most tumultuous periods of Russia's long history. The story begins in 1901. At that time Russia was an autocracy ruled by Tsar Nicholas II, a member of the Romanov family that had been in power for nearly 300 years. Although the growing working class and peasantry were dissatisfied, Nicholas refused to listen to demands for political change. Numerous uprisings occurred in 1905 and culminated in a general strike of workers in the railways, industry, and banks in October. Soviets, or councils, formed in major cities; their members represented the people and pushed for revolution.

At the end of October, Nicholas II announced Russia would become a constitutional monarchy. Among other things, he promised the formation of an elected legislative body called the Duma and a constitution to protect the rights of Russian citizens. His October Manifesto caused the revolution to fizzle out.

World War I

When Russia entered World War I in 1914, it ruled one-sixth of the world's land and boasted a population of 150 million people from 100 different nationalities. But Russia's downfall was its army, which sent untrained troops into battle without adequate arms and ammunition, and was no match for the German army. By 1917 a total of 1.7 million Russian soldiers had given their lives to the cause and 5 million more had been wounded.

Besides the loss of life on the war's front lines, civilians were facing rapidly deteriorating living conditions at home. Food shortages were widespread, and the militarization of industry meant there were fewer goods for sale. The economy plummeted. The people of Russia became desperate for a change.

Russian Revolution of 1917

In February 1917 armed forces stationed in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) rioted. Nicholas II abdicated his throne. His brother, Grand Duke Michael, was next in line for the job but didn't want it. Thus the Provisional Government, led by liberal and moderate socialists, took over, and a new era in Russian government and politics began.

But this didn't satisfy the Bolsheviks (Russian for "One of the Majority") from the Russian Social-Democratic Workers' Party. While the Mensheviks ("One of the Minority") advocated socialism, the Bolsheviks pushed for its radical cousin, communism. Both political ideologies aim to create a classless society in which the government owns all property—especially income-producing property, such as farms, factories, mills, and mines—and distributes all profits equally among the people. In socialism workers are paid according to the work they do, while in communism, all workers are paid similar wages, with doctors earning the same as simple laborers.

After the February Revolution of 1917, workers and soldiers, who were at the bottom of the Russian class system, joined the Bolshevik cause. Riots took place all over Russia as the Bolsheviks grew stronger. By the fall, soldiers were deserting the front lines of World War I to join the cause. In October the new Bolshevik government took over Russia just as revolutionaries gained control of Moscow.

Civil War

Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin called for the end of World War I, hoping the other countries involved would keep fighting and reveal their capitalistic intentions. To his surprise all parties involved in the war agreed. The Bolsheviks stalled for a time, eventually proposing to leave the war without an agreement to uphold peace. In response the Germans reinvaded. Lenin, who realized his new government was too weak to continue fighting, accepted the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918, which ceded a lot of Russian territory to Germany.

Not everyone in Russia was happy with Lenin's decision to end the war. The Whites, a group composed of the non-Bolshevik left wing and conservatives, wanted to take back the country from Bolshevik rule. From 1918 to 1920, the White Army fought the Bolsheviks' Red Army. It was an unfair fight. The Reds had five million soldiers; the Whites never had any more than 250,000 at one time. The Red campaign focused on terror, which included shooting hostages and letting the political police execute anyone suspected of supporting the Whites. This included the Romanovs, who were all murdered in 1918. Hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens who supported the White cause were forced to emigrate and leave their country for another.

Communist Rule

The country that emerged from the Russian Civil War was officially called the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic, but the individual soviets had little to do with ruling it. Instead the all-powerful Communist Party, which occupied every level of government, controlled everything. It dictated what people could do, own, and even write. Many writers, particularly those who had enjoyed open discourse about philosophy and religion at the beginning of the 20th century, were unwilling to conform to the restrictions placed on artists by the Communist Party. Pasternak couldn't publish any of his work between 1933 and 1943 because he didn't portray socialism in a positive light. Doctor Zhivago's questioning of socialism and the Communist Party all but destroyed his career.

Blurring of History

Boris Pasternak was 65 when he wrote Doctor Zhivago, his first novel. Prior to that he had been a very successful poet and literary translator known throughout Russia. His translations of Georgian literature are actually what may have saved him from Stalin's purges during the 1930s. Stalin himself was a native of Georgia and a great fan of Pasternak's work.

This is all to say that Doctor Zhivago is the work of an amateur novelist, for Pasternak had more facility with poetry than prose. As Michael Scammell of The New York Review of Books writes, the critic Vladimir Nabokov called Doctor Zhivago "a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic." Scammell added, "Pasternak himself acknowledged this novel's deficiencies." Pasternak took great liberties in cultivating a sense of oppression in his narrative that didn't exist until many years later. For example, Yuri and Lara are disgusted by the effects of Bolshevik rule in 1918–21. In reality it was at least another decade until Bolshevik tyranny was in full effect.

But "content, rather than art," Schammel writes, was the key to the novel's significance, as well as the fact that Pasternak wrote it while living under totalitarian rule. It is a novel about wars and their legacies, both on the front lines and behind them. As Professor Stephen M. Norris offers, "In its description of the violence inflicted on men's bodies [in war], Doctor Zhivago is very much a Great War work," despite its being seen primarily as a love story in the West.

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