Study Guide

Doctor Zhivago

By Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago Introduction

In 1958, Boris Pasternak became only the second writer (after Jean-Paul Sartre) to ever refuse the Nobel Prize for Literature. The thing is that while Sartre turned down the prize for philosophical reasons, Pasternak turned it down because the Soviet government would have given him some serious trouble if he'd dared to accept it.

Wait, why?

Well, it was only one year earlier, in 1957, that Pasternak published his masterpiece Doctor Zhivago. He wrote the book in Russian, but since the book criticized Communism, the Soviets banned it from publication. It was only after Pasternak smuggled a copy out of the country that he was able to publish the book in Italian. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize the next year, he both humiliated and enraged the rulers of his home country.

Now to be fair, there's a lot more to Doctor Zhivago than a critique of Communism. Much like George Orwell's Animal Farm, Pasternak's book admits that the capitalist system that existed before Communism was totally awful and nearly just as bad as Communism turned out to be.

But the thing about Communism that never sits well with Pasternak's main character, Yuri Zhivago, is the way that this mode of thinking completely ignores and condemns the power of the individual human being to think for him- or herself. And for a great writer like Pasternak, anything that condemns the power of the individual mind is an enemy of all that is good and beautiful in the world.

Yeah, the stakes are pretty high in this book, and there ain't a lot of lighthearted comedy in it. Enjoy.

What is Doctor Zhivago About and Why Should I Care?

For a lot of people, Doctor Zhivago is a love story about the affair that Yuri Zhivago (a married man) has with Lara Antipova (a married woman). But the book is way too long and epic for this to be the only thing going on in it. At its heart, the book is about the history of Russia in the early twentieth century, told through the perspective of a man who refuses to compromise his independent mind for the sake of fitting into a ruthless, heartless political system.

And yes, there's a love story, too, for all you fans of the classic 1965 movie. But it's a love story against the backdrop of massive historical change.

We might take it for granted sometimes that we can think for ourselves. After all, we don't live in Soviet Russia, right? But when you stop to really think about it, you might also want to ask how much you do think for yourself. Do TV commercials convince you that you'll die ugly and alone if you don't use the right kind of face wash? Do you think that the only way to make people like you is to accomplish something great or make a lot of money? If so, you might be letting society tell you what to think a lot more than you thought.

Thinking for yourself is pretty much one of the biggest themes you'll find in modern literature, and that's because it's one of the biggest themes in modern life. The reason it's such a big deal is that it can be really tough sometimes to tell which things you really believe and which things you've been told to believe by the society around you.

At the end of the day, Doctor Zhivago is a story about a man who refuses to compromise in any way when it comes to his individuality. He can't stand the way that his friends have been brainwashed by his country's Communist regime, and while he admits that he's stubborn, he'll never let society break him down. All he wants is to write poetry about love, religion, and nature... and to be left alone while he's doing it.

Yuri Zhivago's a peaceful man, but peaceful isn't good enough in a world that demands total conformity from everyone—no exceptions. So if you value your ability to think freely and to challenge the world around you, whether it's capitalist, Communist, or anything in between, Doctor Zhivago will give you a pretty solid example of how to stay true to yourself.

Doctor Zhivago Resources


Pasternak in Black-and-White
This stylish website starts us off with a few awesome quotations and takes off from there. If you want a chic, readable intro to the life of Pasternak, check out this link.
Even though the guy was forced by his home government to decline the Nobel Prize, Pasternak still has a home in the bio section of the Nobel website.

Encyclopedic Pasternak
The folks at the Encyclopedia Britannica have prepared a neat and tidy little bio of Pasternak for your enjoyment. So let's have a cup of tea and take a looksee, shall we?


1965 Film Version
Ask anyone who was around in 1965, and they'll tell you that Doctor Zhivago was one of the biggest movies ever made. It won six Academy Awards and made half the world fall in love with Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, who played Zhivago and Lara.

2002 Film
Yeah, it's got Keira Knightley and British accents and everything (if that's your thing), but most purists will tell you it's not as good as the original.

2006 TV Mini-Series
People just can't seem to get enough of the Zhiv, so in 2006, the Russians released it via a TV mini-series, which might have been the best way to go when you're dealing with a story as long as this one. Stars Oleg Menshikov and Chulpan Khamatova are way popular in Russia.


Pasternak's New York Times Obituary
Not only does this article do a great job of honoring Pasternak, it also gives us a ton of insight into the guy's life.

Interview with Pasternak in The Paris Review
Why not hear it from the horse's mouth? Here's a great interview with big bad Boris himself.

Pasternak's Last Interview
It's not the easiest thing to read, but be sure to check out this article for an insight into Pasternak's mindset during his final days. For a guy who won the Nobel Prize and helped liberate his country, he doesn't come across as the most optimistic of dudes.


Short Bio
Take a look at this YouTube video to find out more about what made Pasternak such an unforgettable writer for millions of people.

Doctor Zhivago 2002 Film
Yup, they've got the whole thing up on YouTube if you'd like to watch.

Clip from Iconic 1965 Film
This film is a really big deal, but also really long. Still, you should watch it if you get the chance.


Doctor Zhivago on Audiobook
Let's hope they gave their readers lots of breaks and plenty of water for reading through this beast of a book out loud.


Dashing Young Man
Just look at those great features.

Intense Thinker
It's hard not to be an independent thinker when you're this intense about everything you hear.

A Determined Man
Pasternak published Doctor Zhivago even though it got him in trouble with the Russian authorities. This doesn't look like the face of a man who likes to back down about that sort of thing.