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Boris Pasternak: Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago)

This is one of the great love stories of the twentieth century and deservedly recognised as one of the great novels. The famous Lara poems only enhance this view. The story is of a young doctor – Yuri Zhivago – who marries and has a child. He serves as a medic during the First World War, where he meets a young nurse, Lara. Lara had been sexually assaulted by Komarovsky before the war. She had shot at him but missed. She later married her childhood sweetheart, who subsequently joined the army but is now missing. Lara had joined the army to look for him. While Lara and Yuri are attracted to one another, nothing happens. Yuri returns to Moscow but is starting to be disillusioned with the Revolution and takes his family to the remote Urals.

While there, he meets Lara, who is working as a librarian. They start an affair but, as Yuri is about to tell his wife of the affair, he is kidnapped by an outlaw group and made to serve as their doctor. He manages to escape and finds Lara again. Her husband has now turned up and is a major figure in the Soviet government. Lara and Yuri start to live together in an old farmhouse but Komarovsky, also a key figure in the Soviet government, warns them that they are in danger and offers to help them escape. Yuri does not want Komarovsky’s help but tricks Lara into going. Yuri returns to Moscow but dies of a heart attack.

For Pasternak, beauty – poetry, love, nature – are far more important than revolution and social justice and this is made very clear in this novel and is, of course, why the Soviets banned it. At times it can be mawkish but Pasternak’s writing is so good that the novel rises above it and leaves us with a major literary work.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Feltrinelli
First published in English in 1958 by Collins and Harvill Press
Translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari (Collins). Later editions by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky