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Dr. Zhivago | Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

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Dr. Zhivago | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak's epic novel of Russian history, love, and the suffering of the human spirit, was first published in Italy in 1957. The novel follows Yuri Zhivago through the Russian Revolution as he falls hopelessly in love with a nurse named Lara. The story was seen by many as a condemnation of the Soviet regime. As a result, Pasternak was persecuted by the Soviet press and government and nearly forced into exile.

He wrote to Premier Nikita Khrushchev, "Leaving the motherland will equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work," and he was permitted to stay. While Doctor Zhivago was considered a masterpiece in the West, it was banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, during the period of glasnost implemented by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

1. The relationships in Doctor Zhivago were based on Pasternak's own love triangle.

In love letters that came to light in 1996, Pasternak confirmed that his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, was the model for Lara. Though Olga and Boris never lived together, Olga had a house near Pasternak's summer home, and he would spend nights with his wife at their house and days with Olga at hers.

2. Ivinskaya betrayed Pasternak to the Soviet government over Doctor Zhivago.

Boris Pasternak's mistress and assistant, Olga Ivinskaya, was sentenced to four years of hard labor in 1949 because of her relationship with Pasternak—and she miscarried their child while in prison. After Pasternak's death she was arrested for smuggling foreign currency. She sent a letter to Premier Khrushchev asking for mercy, reminding him that she had been instrumental in delaying publication of Doctor Zhivago and canceling meetings between Pasternak and Westerners. The letter, which only came to light in the 1990s, proved her betrayal.

3. The manuscript for Doctor Zhivago was rejected for publication in the Soviet Union.

Pasternak sent Doctor Zhivago to the Soviet literary journal Novyi Mir in 1956. The editorial board rejected it, and their letter back to him indicated the editors were concerned with "the very spirit of the novel" and "the author's view of life," statements that hinted they didn't like the politics of the book.

4. The CIA helped Pasternak publish Doctor Zhivago.

When publishers turned down Doctor Zhivago in the Soviet Union, Pasternak arranged to have the manuscript smuggled out of Russia to Italy: "You are hereby invited to my execution," he told the representative of the Italian publisher. The CIA got hold of the manuscript and noted, "This book has great propaganda value." Helped by Dutch intelligence services, they printed a Russian edition and distributed the book at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels.

5. Pasternak had to turn down the Nobel Prize.

After Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, he sent the Nobel committee a telegram saying, "Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed." However, Soviet officials were embarrassed by the attitude Pasternak expressed toward government in Doctor Zhivago and wanted him to turn down the prize. They began an anti-Pasternak campaign. Finally, Pasternak sent a second telegram stating, "Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it." However, in 1989 Pasternak's son Yevgeny accepted the prize in his father's name.

6. The film version of Doctor Zhivago won five Academy Awards.

Starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, the movie adaptation of Doctor Zhivago won Oscars for Best Music Score; Best Cinematography; Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium; Best Art Direction-Set Direction, Color; and Best Costume Design, Color—though not for Best Picture. Reviews were mixed, calling the film "literate," "romantic," "soul-filling," "old-fashioned," and "an honest failure."

7. Fearing for his life, Pasternak destroyed his first attempt at Doctor Zhivago.

Pasternak started work on Doctor Zhivago in 1932. However, when Stalin's Great Purge began a few years later, and it was clear that what he had written would endanger him if it were found, Pasternak destroyed much of what he'd completed. He began writing again in 1946 and finally finished the book in 1954.

8. Pasternak published several poems "written" by Doctor Zhivago.

Pasternak was a poet as well as a novelist. When he realized he would not be able to publish his novel in the Soviet Union, he did the next best thing. In 1954 he published 10 poems by his main character, Doctor Zhivago, who was a poet as well as a doctor. They appeared in a Russian journal. When the novel was finally smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published, Zhivago's poetry was included in an appendix.

9. Pasternak worshiped writer Leo Tolstoy.

Pasternak first met Russian author Leo Tolstoy when he was four years old. His family and Tolstoy were intimately linked; Pasternak's father, Leonid, an artist, illustrated some of Tolstoy's works, and they moved in the same social circles. Pasternak wanted to write something similar to Tolstoy's great epic War and Peace. Doctor Zhivago attempts the same historical sweep as War and Peace and grapples with similar questions about human life and freedom.

10. Author Vladimir Nabokov detested Doctor Zhivago.

When asked to review Doctor Zhivago, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov refused because he didn't want to do harm to Pasternak. (Nabokov at the time was living in New York, while Pasternak was in the Soviet Union.) However, Nabokov wrote to the editor who had asked for the review, "I regard the book as a sorry thing, clumsy, trivial, and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, and trite coincidences." He did, however, think Pasternak was a great poet.

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