Doctor Zhivago: a political review

It’s been a long time since I watched Dr Zhivago, all the way through; most of the time when it comes on television, I don’t have either the time or the inclination to sit through the whole thing. But I have a 42 inch LCD high-definition television, and HD Net was presenting it, commercial free, last night, so, other than a break to get yet another can of Mountain Dew, I watched the whole thing. HDNet presented it in wide screen, with the black bars at the top and bottom, so I was able to make up for my poor hearing by using the closed captioning, without interfering with the picture.

I had actually thought about the film earlier in the day, after watching a show on World War I on the Military Channel, so when I saw that Dr Zhivago was coming on, I was more interested in watching. The film won five Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography, and I can see why: some of the visuals are striking.

In some ways, I found the movie a bit trite. Director David Lean liked to use obviously changing seasons to indicate the passage of time, but I noticed a couple of them seemed odd: a twenty-day rail passage from Moscow, from which Yuri Andreievich1 and his family are escaping (due to permits arranged by his half-brother, Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago) to Varykino, east of the Urals, was depicted as beginning in the deat of winter, but it was a brilliant spring at the end of the journey. Another scene, with Dr Zhivago and Lara Antipova, was shown as beginning in the spring, after a harsh Siberian winter, but concluded with them sitting on a bench with autumn leaves blowing about them.

But, in this viewing, I picked up on some political points I’m not sure that the director wanted to make. Dr Zhivago left for the Ukrainian front in World War I when Tsar Nikolai II was still firmly in charge, and he left from a mansion in Moscow. By the time he returns, after the October Revolution2, the mansion has been subdivided, and the local Residents’ Committee, run by caricatures of Bolshevik revolutionaries, is allotting space and food and fuel. When the Bolsheviks inform Dr Zhivago of what has happened, and that there was room for thirteen families in that one house, he replies that, yes, this is better, more just.

Initially, Dr Zhivago’s response seeks like mockery, but as soon as he is behind closed doors with his family — only a few seconds later — he says, “But it is more just; why does it sound so funny?”3

Maybe because what is better, more just, is a sharing not of wealth, but of poverty. Or perhaps because the notion that people ought to have what they didn’t earn themselves is ridiculous. At any rate, Dr Zhivago’s responses indicate some sympathy with the overall ideas of Communism, but a distaste for how they are enacted.

In the film, Dr Zhivago’s brother, a general in the secret police, is depicted as caring about his brother’s fate, and knowing that his published poetry and thinking are too “personal,” too petit bourgeois, and that his attitudes were not sufficiently properly revolutionary; that’s why his half-brother arranges for the family to escape Moscow to the old estate in Varykino, to get away from the rigid thought police in the city. Later, safe in Varykino, Petya, the old groundskeeper for Varykino who still clings to the old ways, brings a newspaper from nearby Yuriatin, which announced that the Bolsheviks has shot the Tsar and his entire family. Aleksandr Gromeko, Dr Zhivago’s father-in-law, laments the uselessness and savagery of that deed, but Yuri Andreievich said that it was inevitable, a message to the people that there was no going back from the Communist revolution. In 1965, when the movie was filmed, and earlier, when Boris Leonidovich Pasternak was writing the novel4, perhaps it seemed so, but as I watched it again in 2010, with the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history, it occurred to me that while the Romanov dynasty and the monarchy had not been restored, Russia had indeed gone back, to a time where the government was not trying to control every thought and stifle all expression.

Watching the movie, there was an underlying theme of individual freedom and separation of the personal from the state. Yuri Andreievich’s poetry is not approved by the state because it is self-indulgent and overly personal, while characters like People’s Commissar Strelnikov said things like “the personal life is dead in Russia.”

Dr Zhivago is semi-autobiographical. Boris Leonidovich’s early work was, like his main character’s, not approved by the Soviet government. He changed his tune and his tone, prompting Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov to proclaim him to be a “weeping Bolshevik” and “Emily Dickinson in trousers.” Of course, Vladimir Vladimirovich and his family has escaped the Soviet Union; he could write what he wished without being thrown into a concentration camp. Supposedly, Josef Stalin personally intervened to keep Boris Leonidovich off or arrest lists during the purges.

During the 1920s and 1930s, there was great admiration for the Soviet Union amongst more leftist intellectuals in the West, in part because they believed the propaganda that the Soviets put out concerning the end of capitalism and the creation of a more just “worker’s state,” and in part because they really didn’t know — or chose not to know — of the horrors of the purges and the brutal, totalitarian repression on any deviations from the Communist Party line. The ideals of socialism that we see today, ideals which want to spread the wealth to everyone, to have everyone working together for the common good, were the ideals that led so many to admire the Soviets.

But the reality of Communism is that it cannot tolerate dissent. Karl Marx was a second-rate economist (at best), but he knew virtually nothing of psychology and sociology; he actually seems to have believed that, once capitalist productivity had reached a level in which everyone could be satisfied economically, everybody would see the great virtues in simply sharing everything. That there would be more than a handful of people who would retain ideas concerning personal property or who were the type to seek greater power and greater rewards didn’t really fit in well with his economic theories. Herr Marx did envision a “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a transitional stage from capitalism (replacing what he saw as a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”), but believed that the dictatorship of the proletariat would extend only to measures to prevent counter-revolution and provide education to bring everyone else along to Communist ideals; once those purposes had been served, the need for state power and the dictatorship of the proletariat would disappear, and a new, classless society would exist. It was, in a strange way, the notion of anarchy, or no governing power whatsoever, combined with a so-thoroughly-homogeneous way of thinking that everyone would do what was right and everyone would get along, so that no government was needed.

That was Herr Marx’ way around the problem that our friends on the left don’t like to face: for people to behave as they believe they should behave, and as socialism would require them to behave, the compulsory force of government must be used, and individual liberty must be restricted. A social and economic system dependent upon people jointly owning more and more of the means of production and sharing more and more of the rewards of the economy simply cannot allow people to compete with each other for greater rewards or to own more property than their neighbors.

Naturally, such discussions don’t take place in the framework of a movie. Rather, we are shown the results when Yuri Andreievich returns home after Russia’s surrender in the World War (via the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk), and his family home (actually the home of his father-in-law, Aleksandr Gromeko) has been carved into apartments, and trashed, by the local soviet5. The Gromeko’s town mansion was depicted as light and air and comfortable before the war, and grey and dirty and trashed when Dr Zhivago returns. After Yuri Andreievich is corrected by the soviet leader, that there is no typhus in Moscow, the doctor informs him that someone had died from another disease they don’t have in Moscow: starvation. The caricature of a soviet leader yells at Yuri Andreievich that his attitude is noticed, clearly an intended threat, because the doctor dared to do something really radical, and tell the truth. When Yuri Andreievich and his family finally make it to the Gromeko’s estate at Varykino, what was once obviously a dacha of considerable style has been boarded up and is overgrown and untended. The family decides to use the small guest cottage rather than expose themselves to punishment as counter-revolutionaries by breaking into the main house which was boarded up by the local soviet. When they open the cottage, Yuri Andreievich declares that it will be adequate for their needs.

The director also uses color to, very dramatically, illustrate the difference between individual freedom and the oppression of Communism and the Bolsheviks. The guest cottage is dirty and grey when the family first opens it up, but they clean it up and color begins to be seen. Great yellow blossoms of some flower I’m too ignorant of plants to be able to identify, but which is used throughout the film, in very different locations, are used to bring color both inside and out, to make the places of individual living away from Bolshevik control look happy and lively. The small apartment of Lara Antipova, Yuri Andreievich’s eventual mistress, though a walk up from a dreary, grey, unheated hallway, again has color used, as it is a refuge from oppressive political control. The single departure from this is when, after Dr Zhivago escapes two years of being drafted by a Red partisan brigade, Lara and he move into the boarded up dacha. To bring a pall of numbered days over the couple and her daughter Katya, the dacha is shown only in winter, with wolves howling outside, and no real color or light brought to the couple of rooms of the dacha they occupy. Wherever Bolshevik control is either obvious or hovering nearby, director David Lean, has muted the colors.

By the time Dr Zhivago was made, the flirtations of liberal Western intellectuals with admiration for the Soviet Union were pretty well over. The Cold War was well on, the subjugation of the Eastern European captive satellite nations — including the invasion of Hungary when that nation attempted to seek more freedom — and the oppressive, brutal and deadly nature of the purges and the GULag was known.6 That Mr Lean would so film the movie was perfectly understandable, but, to me, it epitomizes the essential greyness and sameness that socialism must enforce: serious dissent cannot be tolerated, and conformity must be enforced.

For our friends on the left, this presents a serious conundrum. Many of them truly despise the unequal results and rewards of capitalism, and some indulge in the class-warfare ideas Karl Marx promulgated, of attacking the successful as too wealthy and too greedy. But they also defend individual liberty, especially the freedom of speech7, and, in the end, the exercise of individual freedom and the required societal and individual controls that socialism must impose are diametrically opposed; the more we have of one, the less we can have of the other. Dr Zhivago points that out in a most dramatic way.

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Footnotes:

  1. In Russian, although there is a word for “Mister,” Gospodin, formal reference is made to a person by using the person’s given name and his patronymic, the middle name derived from his father’s first name. Yuri Andreievich Zhivago would be the son of Andrei Zhivago, and is properly referred to as Yuri Andreievich. “Evich” is the extension to the father’s first name meaning “son of,” while daughters would have the extension “evna” or “ovna.” [back]
  2. The film takes no distinctions between the two Russian revolutions, the February Revolution which resulted in the abdication of the Tsar and the establishment of the Provisional Government, and the October Revolution, in which the Bolsheviks seized power. To someone who has studied Russian history, this is annoying. [back]
  3. I have reconstructed the dialogue from memory; the gist is correct, but it is possible that I don’t have the words exactly as spoken. [back]
  4. Boris Leonidovich Pasternak worked on the novel for decades, with some passages being written in the 1910s and 1920s, but the book wasn’t completed until 1956. [back]
  5. This refers to the local soviet. Whenever the lower case “soviet” is used in this article, that is the reference. [back]
  6. Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn’s most famous work, The Gulag Archipelago, had not been published yet, so the term GULag was not well known in the West, but his short book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich had been, as well as many other public works describing the nature of Soviet oppression and the concentration camp system. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia to reimpose control after the “Prague Spring” had not yet occurred. [back]
  7. The right to keep and bear arms, not so much. [back]

16 Comments

  1. Dr Zhivago left for the Ukrainian front in World War I when Tsar Nikolai II was still firmly in charge, and he left from a mansion in Moscow. By the time he returns, after the October Revolution2, the mansion has been subdivided, and the local Residents’ Committee, run by caricatures of Bolshevik revolutionaries, is allotting space and food and fuel. When the Bolsheviks inform Dr Zhivago of what has happened, and that there was room for thirteen families in that one house, he replies that, yes, this is better, more just. [...] Watching the movie, there was an underlying theme of individual freedom and separation of the personal from the state.

    Uh-huh.

    Where and how were those thirteen families living prior to the Revolution?

  2. Are you attempting to say, Phoe, that the power of the state should be used to “collectivize” private property and redistribute it to those living less well?

  3. Phoenician in a time of Romans:
    Uh-huh.
    Where and how were those thirteen families living prior to the Revolution?

    So the collective, Progressive, Redistribute the Wealth (Poverty) of Pho is truly manifested here. Do believe all are equal, just some are more equal than others Pho? If you lost your domicile, do you believe you have a right to your neighbor’s home? Do you believe the benefit of your work is you, or does it belong to the State? Because your comment is the State has first rights to your work over you!

  4. Are you attempting to say, Phoe, that the power of the state should be used to “collectivize” private property and redistribute it to those living less well?

    Not as such. I’m stating that the movie sounds biased by viewpoint. The correct comparison is not post-Revolutionary Russia with an airbrushed version of the West; the correct comparison is with pre-Revolutionary Russia, which was not that much fun. Further, by looking at how it affected one upper-class Russian, you’re ignoring the effects on the majority of the Russians.

    Communism sucked. But what you are ignoring is that Tsarism sucked worse for the majority.

    It’s like talking about how great the South was by going on and on about Southern mansions and belles, while ignoring those of darker hue and their unfortunate woring arrangements. Or, for that matter, idolising Sparta due to what wonderful warriors they were while never mentioning the word “helot”. Both of which I’ve seen wingnuts do.

  5. It seems to me that you have missed the point, Phoe. It isn’t that the economy was worse for pre-revolutionary upper-class Russians, but that freedom disappeared for everyone. This wasn’t a post about economic success or failure — though socialism certainly does mean failure — but about freedom.

    Now, freedom under the tsars was certainly nothing like what we enjoy now, but there was no huge system of concentration camps for political opponents. Opponents of the tsarist government could be exiled to Siberia, but that meant being resettled in a village somewhere, but having freedom and the ability to work there; opponents of the Communist government could also be exiled to Siberia, and they, too, would have the freedom to work, but somehow it wasn’t quite the same.

    You work in a library; I’d guess that there’s probably a copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich available. It’s actually pretty short; allow me to suggest that you read it.

    What would have happened under the Tsar?

    On 7 December 1895, Lenin was arrested for plotting against Tsar Alexander III, and was then imprisoned for fourteen months in solitary confinement Cell 193 of the St Petersburg Remand Prison. In February 1897, he was exiled to eastern Siberia, to the village Shushenskoye in the Minusinsky District, Yenisei Gubernia.

    His exile ended in 1900.

  6. The film for the most part was filmed in Spain. The town was built to resemble Moscow and it was said the farmers in the area sort of paid attention when the Nationale, Workers Song was played.

  7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doctor_Zhivago_(film)
    Since the book was banned in the Soviet Union, the movie was filmed largely in Spain over ten months,[2] with the entire Moscow set being built from scratch outside of Madrid. Most of the scenes covering Zhivago and Lara’s service in World War I were filmed in Soria, as was the Varykino estate. Due to uncooperative weather in Spain, some of the winter sequences were filmed in Finland, mostly landscape scenes, and Yuri’s escape from the Partisans. Winter scenes of the family travelling to Yuriatin by rail were filmed in Canada.
    The “ice-palace” at Varykino was filmed in Soria as well, a house filled with frozen beeswax. The charge of the Partisans across the frozen lake was filmed in Spain as well; a cast iron sheet was placed over a dried river-bed, and fake snow (mostly marble dust) was added on top. Most of the winter scenes were filmed in warm temperatures, sometimes of up to 30 °C (90 °F).

  8. Dana, remember when I said you needed to make your reviews short, sharp, and pithy?

    Well, after reading this review, I take it back!

  9. Where and how were those thirteen families living prior to the Revolution?

    Where were they living? Like their own homes, maybe?

    For a real life example – Ayn Rand’s family were forced from their home and business as well, turning them into vagabonds. Their sin against the Soviet state? Running a small family pharmacy. I guess as small businessmen, they weren’t “Prole” enough …

  10. Since the book was banned in the Soviet Union, the movie was filmed largely in Spain over ten months,[2] with the entire Moscow set being built from scratch outside of Madrid. Most of the scenes covering Zhivago and Lara’s service in World War I were filmed in Soria, as was the Varykino estate. Due to uncooperative weather in Spain, some of the winter sequences were filmed in Finland, mostly landscape scenes, and Yuri’s escape from the Partisans. Winter scenes of the family travelling to Yuriatin by rail were filmed in Canada.

    That’s amazing, York! Filmmaking’s a vastly different enterprise than mere writing. The writer never has to leave his house, though may do some travelling for research. A good filmmaker has to travel to do different scenes where the weather and lighting are always variable, the locals sometimes uncooperable, and then assure that all the stars and supporting actors are ready to perform at their peak. And that’s not even including all the logistics that have be brought there, like cameras and lights, with the occasional snow or rain machine as well.

    That Lawrence of Arabia ever got made is a miracle!

  11. Eric:
    That’s amazing, York! Filmmaking’s a vastly different enterprise than mere writing. The writer never has to leave his house, though may do some travelling for research. A good filmmaker has to travel to do different scenes where the weather and lighting are always variable, the locals sometimes uncooperable, and then assure that all the stars and supporting actors are ready to perform at their peak. And that’s not even including all the logistics that have be brought there, like cameras and lights, with the occasional snow or rain machine as well.

    That Lawrence of Arabia ever got made is a miracle!

    When I think about both of Lean’s films, I thought Dr. Z. was a love story wrapped around a history lesson, and Larry was a purely perspective historical film. If anything, Larry has set the stage for the problems of the Muddled East was a lot of Europpean in making. The way the nations were carved out of WW1 made for today’s issues of Sunni vs. Shiite, with a mix of splinter groups of Islam all vying for Supremacy of Islam. It left the House of Faud in charge of Mecca and Medina.

    I think what emphasized the 7th century mentality was in the opening scenes when Lawrence was coming to this one area and the Turks had planes which scared the hell out of the 7th century thinkers. A vast majority weren’t even ready to face the Industry of the early 20th Century.

    Whereas in Russia, the mix was of the 19th and 20th century.

  12. Lawrence of Arabia is such a magnificent film it would have great even if there were no dialogue at all …

  13. When I think about both of Lean’s films, I thought Dr. Z. was a love story wrapped around a history lesson, and Larry was a purely perspective historical film. If anything, Larry has set the stage for the problems of the Muddled East was a lot of Europpean in making. The way the nations were carved out of WW1 made for today’s issues of Sunni vs. Shiite, with a mix of splinter groups of Islam all vying for Supremacy of Islam. It left the House of Faud in charge of Mecca and Medina.
    I think what emphasized the 7th century mentality was in the opening scenes when Lawrence was coming to this one area and the Turks had planes which scared the hell out of the 7th century thinkers. A vast majority weren’t even ready to face the Industry of the early 20th Century.
    Whereas in Russia, the mix was of the 19th and 20th century.

    I’,m amazed you learned so much history, wheras I was simply immersed in the amazing scenery and getting into the culture of the Arabs living there.

  14. Larry was a purely perspective historical film.

    I was impressed with the sheer artistry of the film. And also amazed I could buy it for $10 at best buy, the same price they charge for stuff like Death Wish 3, once descriped as the Citizen Kane of bad movies. Needless to say, I bought both movies and loved them both equally.

    Some people question my tastes in movies, but I can’t imagine why!

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