Pasternak’s Christianity in Doctor Zhivago
By Dr. Lucio F. Teoxon Jr.
At a time when Marxism is no longer in vogue in its home country like it used to be; when its decline as a political ideology has reached rock bottom with the Communist Party in the parliament of the Russian Federation no longer in dominant control, it may seem unfashionable or even out-of-date to take up Doctor Zhivago as a topic for serious discussion. But this fictional work is not a period piece that has outlasted its significance. It has enough elements of universality in it to justify our interest in it this early in the 21st century.
Its publication in the late fifties caught the attention of the global community. Explosive events surrounded its appearance. It was banned in the then Soviet Union and had to be smuggled from Russia and translated from the original Russian to English and other languages before it reached the Western countries and the rest of the world. Its author, Boris Pasternak, was pressured into rejecting the Nobel Prize for Literature that was awarded to him in 1958 by the Swedish Academy. He was prevented from leaving his country in order to receive it. Against his will, he budged. (A similar story happened in 1970 when another Russian novelist was given the same prize but declined to receive it for fear of reprisal. Alexander Solzhenitsyn--of The Gulag Archipelago fame--was expelled from the Soviet Union four years later and lived in exile in the United States).
In the judgment of the Soviet authorities, Doctor Zhivago was anti-communist and highly critical of the totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union. Definitely, it was not expressly a political tract disguised as fiction designedly written as a diatribe directed against the failures of Marxism. Nor is it an apologia for Western liberalism. It is simply an artistic work embodying Boris Pasternak’s worldview. But what the repressive Soviet censors must have found offensive in the book is its undisguised religious allegiance to Christianity and its all too frank criticism of the ideas peddled by the Bolsheviks. We will then train our critical eye mainly on these ideational aspects of the novel more than its other novelistic elements.
In this work, the author looks at the world through the eyes of Dr. Yuri Zhivago, its protagonist. But Zhivago is not a saint, much less a perfect hero. As Tonia herself, his wife, told him in a letter, “I love all that is unusual in you…your great gifts and intelligence which, as it were, have taken place of the will that is lacking.” (p. 347)* He is weak-willed. His greatness though consists in his power of intuition and depth of spirituality. He is the intellectual and contemplative type. He is a poet and also a doctor. In a larger sense Zhivago may be said to be Pasternak’s alter ego as the former, like the author himself, is a deeply committed Christian. His Christianity is one born in a country where religion is persecuted, where atheism is a qualification for party membership and a passport to advancement in the bureaucracy. Pasternak is a Christian witness in a world ruled by crass materialism. His revolt is not one of existentialist nihilism but the protest of life crushed by repression and intolerance. He is all for an out-and-out change from the inhuman world of unfeeling ideologues into an ideal socio-political order where Christian values prevail. However—
…you cannot advance in this direction without a certain faith. You can’t make such discoveries without spiritual equipment. And the basic elements of this equipment are in the Gospels. What are they? To begin with, love of one’s neighbor, which is the supreme form of vital energy. Once it fills the heart of man it has to overflow and expand itself. And then the two basic ideals of modern man—without them he is unthinkable—the idea of life as sacrifice….There was no history in this sense among the ancients. They had blood and beastliness and pockmarked Caligulas who had no idea of how inferior the system of slavery is….It was not until after the coming of Christ that time and man could breathe freely….Man does not die in a ditch like a dog, but at home in history, while the work toward the conquest of death is full swing, he dies sharing this work….(p. 13)
Pasternak does not of course have in mind enlisting police or military force in bringing about this new humanism, this transformation of the mechanical world into a humanized one. The prescription he recommends is love, not hate; peace, not war; amelioration, not destruction. If there should truly be a regeneration of this earth to make it more habitable, the change must commence with every single individual himself. He stresses the supreme importance of this transformation in the attitude the individual adopts in relation to his fellowmen. Pasternak’s Christianity sounds a bit individualistic as he is of the belief that the individual stands above the herd or the “people” in the totalitarian sense. Gordon, commenting on the scene in the novel in which a young Cossack torments an old Jew in the war-torn field, and speaking the author’s mind, comes to discuss with Zhivago the question of what constitutes a nation:
What is a nation? …And who does more for a nation—the one who makes a fuss about it or the one who, without thinking of it, raises it to universality by the beauty and greatness of his actions, and gives it fame and immortality?
When the Gospel says that in the Kingdom of God there are neither Jews nor Gentiles, does it merely mean that all are equal in the sight of God? …In that new way of living and new form of society, which is born of the heart, and which is called the Kingdom of Heaven, there are no nations, there are only individuals. (p.104)
Pasternak’s preoccupation with the question of the individual’s worth, the concept being essentially Christian, makes of him a true Christian humanist. Each individual created in the image of God has inherent dignity and freedom as a guarantee of such dignity. So, no man should hand himself over to any superior structure or force other than his Maker. The state exists for man, not vice versa. Pasternak then lashes at communism which stands for all that Christianity is not. For communism strips the individual of his freedom and human dignity. While this ideology appears to be on the side of his economic well-being, full of pity for him after the manner of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, it is in fact his enemy because in exchange for the material comfort it offers, he forfeits his liberty which is sacrificed to the higher interests of the collectivity. The bird flutters away from its golden cage as only the open air can give it the freedom to fly. Those who hearken to the song of Marx’s sirens cannot but be reduced to mere cogs in the vast totalitarian machinery, appendages, as it were, that are easily discarded once they outlive their usefulness to the Politburo or Presidium or the Soviet state in general. And those who stubbornly refuse to toe the official line are herded like cattle in concentration camps or else summarily liquidated without compunction.
Lara, the novel’s heroine, ruefully talks about her husband, Strelnikov (Pavel Antipov) who is a victim to his own ideals:
…He is a doomed man. I believe that he’ll come to a bad end. He will atone for the evil he has done. Revolutionaries who take the law into their own hands are horrifying not because they are criminals, but because they are like machines that have gone out of control, like a runaway trains….His alliance with the Bolsheviks is accidental. So long as they need him, they put up with him, and he happens to be going their way. The moment they don’t need him they’ll throw him overboard with no regret; and crush him, as they have done with other military experts. (p.247)
It is Pasternak’s religious philosophy that cannot understandably make him come to terms with atheistic communism. This, of course, does not necessarily mean that he repudiates his countrymen as a whole. There is always a dichotomy between an ideology and those who profess it. What he decries is not his own people but communism, not the patient but the disease. He is not against all revolutions either. His position in this matter is clearly seen in the scene when Lara explains to her panic-stricken mother, Amelia Guishar, at the outbreak of the 1905 Revolution that “All that’s being done now is done in the name of humanity, in defense of the weak, for the good of women and children….” (p.14) The success of the Russians in forcing down the Czar from his throne was really the dawn of freedom in the land of Russia. But the 1917 counter-revolution of the Bolsheviks was history’s fatal accident which reversed the destinies of the Russians. This is what Pasternak deplores because:
The main misfortune, the root of all evil to come, was the loss of confidence in the value of one’s own opinion. People imagined that it was out of date to follow their own moral sense, that they must all sing in chorus, and live by other people’s notions; notions that were being crammed down on everybody’s throat….The social evil became an epidemic. It was catching. And it affected everything; nothing was left untouched by it. Our home too became infected….Instead of being natural and spontaneous as we had always been, we began to be idiotically pompous with each other. Something showy, artificial, forced, crept into our conversation—you felt you had to be clever in a certain way about certain world-important things. (p.336)
What he finds unacceptable about communism is its materialistic interpretation of reality. In its view, man is only what he eats so that when Christ declared that man does not live by bread alone, the Galilean carpenter was preaching a lie. When Christians yearn for the heavenly bread, they forget the earthly thing. In hugging the illusion of an afterlife, they neglect to improve their earthly lot. Religion is an opium, as Marx put it, which alienates man from himself by subordinating him to a non-existent God. Christianity is a religion of beaten resignation, which, unable to cope with the realities of the present, falls back on the thought of the sunshine tomorrow. Such wistful attitude is the morality of the weaklings. The apologists of Marx take it upon themselves to liberate man from the thralldom of this illusion and deliver them to a temporal order where practical people dwell in equality, “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need.”
But Pasternak finds it impossible to say yeah to the panacea designed by the communists who are wont to mouth democratic rhetoric and phraseology but do quite the opposite. In a dialogue with the Bolshevik commander Liberius, he made Zhivago rant in righteous indignation of his enforced imprisonment:
The people you worship go in for proverbs, but they’ve forgotten one proverb—“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”—and they’ve got into the habit of liberating and showering benefits on just those people who haven’t asked for them. I suppose you think I can’t imagine anything in the world more pleasant than your camp and your company. I suppose I have to bless you for keeping me a prisoner and thank you for liberating me from my life, my son, my home, my work, from everything I hold dear and that makes life worth living for me! (p.283)
The "classless society" peddled by the communists is no less an illusion. Pasternak sees communism as offering but another utopia. He knows all too well that the Tower of Babel failed because it attempted the impossible—that of bringing heaven to earth by dispensing with God. A world without God becomes a confused arena where might is right, where the powerful rule through violence or brute force and give their subjects their material needs at the price of their freedom. To live without God is a temporal provincialism that reduces humans to the level of the beast. The question of the existence of God, which the communists deny, is actually the question of life and its larger meaning. Exclusion of the transcendent reality leaves man no way to go in the face of the ultimate questions like that of death. A tormented communist who feels the Grim Reaper with its scythe close in upon him may do well to listen to Zhivago with his idea of life and resurrection:
Resurrection. In the crude form in which it is preached to console the weak, it is alien to me. I have always understood Christ’s words about the living and the dead in a different sense. Where could you find room for all these hordes of people accumulated over thousands of years? The universe isn’t big enough for them. God, the good, and meaningful purpose would be crowded out. They’d be crushed merely by animal life.
But all the time, life, one, immense, identical throughout its innumerable combinations and transformations, fills the universe and is continually reborn. You are anxious whether you will rise from the dead or not, but you rose from the dead when you were born and you didn’t notice it….
There will be no death, says St. John. His reasoning is quite simple. There will be no death because the past is over; that’s almost like saying there will be no death because it is already done with, it’s old and we are bored with it. What we need is something new, and that new thing is life eternal. (p.59-60)
Nowhere in the novel do we notice Pasternak try to pose as a learned theologian well-versed with the intricacies of the discipline. His religious convictions stem from his own deep spirituality and personal insights as a poet. He is but an ordinary believer like you and me, but in his capacity as a literary artist he successfully integrated his religious views in his novel’s framework and thereby gave it a good measure of multivalence. One more thing need to be said about Doctor Zhivago. It is not a historical novel, although in a sense it is history enacted in the lives of fictional characters that come to grips with the moral, political and human dilemmas during the stormy period of Russia’s history as a nation. The hero dies of heart attack. The heroine disappears without a trace in the Gulag. This may all suggest a tragic end to the story. But the prevailing sentiment conveyed in the novel is that life goes on after the storm and stress of socio-political upheaval. With Tanya surviving her parents Yuri and Lara and carrying along with her the balalaika which she has learned to play well, then we know that things are bound to turn out alright.
*All page references are to Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. by Max Hayward, Manya Harari, Bernard Guerney (New York: New American Library, 1958).