The fulcrum around which Dr. Zhivago turns occurs about 3/4 of the way through the novel. Yurii Zhivago is holed up in Varykino, a rural Ural estate where his family has onetime lived. He is on the run from the Bolsheviks, who are seeking to kill him, and hiding out in the Ural mountains with a woman who is not his wife and a girl who is not his daughter, though he loves them as if they were. There, in the dark cold fastness of the mountains sharing one room weatherproofed against the winter and listening to the wolves howling, Zhivago has his epiphany. His moment of lucidity on life and love and beauty. On writing.
Then it is gone. That moment of amber clarity frozen in time even as the suffering returns; the perfection of that vision lending meaning to all that came before and all that was to come after.
Russians revel in suffering. They even have a name for it, Passionarity, coined by Lev Gumilev son of Anna Akhmatova a Soviet poet who was a friend of Boris Pasternak, who wrote Zhivago. Passionarity is literally the Russian people’s ability to endure suffering and the understanding that their role in world civilization and the preservation of order comes through their tremendous capacity for suffering. A suffering that purifies, like a smelter burning out the impurities in the iron making it unbreakable.
This is why all their great writers’ stories are full of hardship and depravation. Does life imitate art or does art imitate life or is it more complicated than that, one feeding off the other reinforcing tendencies and philosophies and highlighting that which already is resonant in the souls of men? That’s what I think.
Boris Pasternak was Russia’s greatest novelist. Dr. Zhivago, the singular work of his talent, is a book of such power that the Soviets banned it from publication. Pasternak had to smuggle it abroad, to Europe, to have it first published. It was not published in Russia in his lifetime. In 1958 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for this signature achievement, an honor which the Soviet Union Writers Union pressured him to reject (but which he was awarded anyways). Pasternak died in 1960.
Dr. Zhivago is a story with a story. Suffering superimposed upon a story of suffering. It is a unique contribution to the world of man, and for that we are grateful. It is also by far the greatest Russian novel written.