Doctor Zhivago and the Modern Covid Left: A Film Re-Analysis

 By Justin Aukema

August 2022

Figure 1: Film poster for Doctor Zhivago; fair use, Wiki commons

I recently watched David Lean’s 1965 Doctor Zhivago based on Boris Pasternak’s book of the same name. Because, hey, why not. It’s famous; I had time; and there was no excuse not to. I have never read Pasternak’s novel, so I can’t comment on that. But strictly in regards to the film, which I greatly enjoyed and highly recommend, I was surprised that it contained much that was contrary to my expectations. Now, if you’re a former lefty like me, you probably grew up assuming, along with many reviewers, that Doctor Zhivago trivializes the Russian Revolution at best, and is anti-communist, pro-capitalist propaganda at worst. Perhaps in this regard its reputation is somewhat like that of Gone With the Wind (1939) which is, most definitely mistakenly, criticized for being pro-South apologia. So, if this is your default assumption, you probably wouldn’t feel any pressing need to engage with the film.

However, since the Great Covid Madness, which has brought much of the hypocrisy of the Left to the fore, I have undergone a complete re-evaluation of my previously held political beliefs and worldview. I suspect that this may be the case for some reading this as well. Put simply, Covid showed that up is actually down, black is really white, and the Left most certainly does not stand for what many people assume it does. But personally speaking, if one good thing has come out of this milieu, it is that Covid has provided the impetus to question all kinds of other long-standing beliefs and assumptions as well. So, it is in this frame of mind that I approached my first watch of Doctor Zhivago. And, lo and behold, it was indeed much different than I had assumed. In fact, I arrived at a provisional interpretation of the film which I feel sheds important light on, or at least reflects some of what is happening in, our current Covid world. Below I explain this briefly.

Character analysis

The biggest potential for re-interpretation of this film and its message lies in an analysis of the main characters and who they stand for or what they metaphorically represent. Since this film is almost entirely character driven anyway, this is a logical place to start.

So, let’s being with the main character, Yuri Zhivago. Above all, Yuri is a universalist-humanist. At first glance, it seems he embodies most of the characteristics of liberalism, and thus it is apparent why Cold War capitalist regimes would have embraced the film. He is less interested in politics or who is ruling, and is instead mostly focused on helping all people, regardless of affiliation. Yuri rejects advice to become a researcher in favor of going into general practice, instead. And in some of the first scenes when he puts his medical knowledge to use, he attends to protesting workers who had been attacked by the Czar’s forces. But throughout the film, he regularly gives medical attention to any and all who require it: white or red forces; bourgeois or worker. This again attests to his liberal humanist ideals.

Or so it seems, because on the other hand Yuri also professes that he agrees with the ideals of the Revolution but not always how it is being carried out. Moreover, he claims ignorance of politics throughout the film, and instead seems to operate according to higher moral principles. But the interesting point is how these principles, in theory, actually should overlap somewhat with those of the revolution, or at least Communist thought. And this is where I want to make one of my central claims about this film and about Yuri. I realize that this may seem laughable, and I acknowledge that this reading is only cursory, perhaps even mistaken. But I see Yuri as in fact representing a kind of Marx-like figure. He is the doctor who attempts to identify, analyze, and to treat societal ills and the fundamental sickness caused by capitalism. And in true dialectical fashion, he is also not afraid to criticize the direction of the revolution or the subsequent regime if it has deleterious material effects for average people. Now, I realize that this association might be somewhat of a stretch. There are certainly places where this reading can be countered. Yet in light of the other characters, the position of Yuri as offering the best way forward becomes more clearly established.

The next main character to highlight is Lara. To cut right to the chase, I see Lara as representative of an ideal rather than an actual person per se. Her’s seems to be the least fleshed out and most static or superficial character, thus indicating her idealized quality. And in my mind this ideal is none other than Communism itself. It is the ideal toward which all of the parties (other characters) in the film strive to obtain but which always seems slightly out of grasp. Each male character in the film, Yuri, Pasha/Strelnikov, and Komarovsky, all struggle to obtain Lara’s affection. Her interaction with each of these characters reveals another facet of her idealistic qualities. For instance, at first, she is abused and victimized by Komarovsky. Komarovsky is the easiest character to interpret in the film, since he is routinely portrayed as a villain. In this sense, he represents the bourgeois and aristocratic influences and everything that is negative about those groups. His abuse of Lara, then, indicates how the bourgeois-capitalist class attempted to crush Communism but ultimately failed. Then there is Pasha/Strelnikov. Pasha and Lara are initially engaged in the film when Pasha is still a young, idealistic revolutionary. The attraction here is mutual, although Lara seems more like Pasha’s muse than a co-collaborator. But post Revolution, Pasha becomes Strelnikov and abandons his wife. This illustrates the abandonment of revolutionary communist ideals by the ruling Soviet class. (I realize tankies will already object to this, but this is the kind of Marxist-Communist I am, so if you want Maoist-Stalinist stuff, you’ll have to turn elsewhere than this blog). Strelnikov remains bitter about the loss of his wife throughout the film until his untimely death, which itself is a reflection of the further Stalinist purges of the young revolutionaries anyway.

Finally, we arrive at Lara’s relationship with Yuri. Here Communism and Marxism are united. And perhaps accordingly, they are persecuted from all sides and their relationship remains fleeting and transient. Now, I realize there is also much torment involved in their relationship, since it is in fact an affair. I don’t have any brilliant interpretation of this at the moment. But even Yuri’s wife Tanya admits that Lara is a “wonderful person,” which tends to give their brief relationship some legitimization. The three times that Yuri and Lara are actually together for any extended period are A) during the 1917 Revolution, B) in Yuriatin, and C) in Varykino. In the first, they are assisting the revolutionary forces. In the second, they are in hiding from the new government in Moscow. This in itself is interesting. Yuri must go into hiding because his ideals of human emancipation and beauty ironically contradict the Soviet regime. Meanwhile, Lara is in danger because she is married to Strelnikov who’s growing power seems to threaten Soviet leadership. And in the third scenario, in Varykino, the couple tries to have a life, but are ultimately thwarted by the world that rejects them. Instead, during this time, Lara acts as muse again, this time for Yuri, who writes what is probably his best book of poetry.

Ironically, Lara is “saved” at the end by Komarovsky. This, too, is fascinating, because it indicates that many former bourgeois in fact integrated themselves seamlessly into the new Soviet leadership simply through their unique skills of opportunism and shape shifting. The continuity between one regime to the next is a damning critique of post Revolution Russia. I am not a Russian history expert, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of this. But if the script writers/author were aware of how dialectical materialism works, which I am certain they were, then this indicates that the revolution was not the rupture in continuity necessary for the historical transformation to socialism. In any case, much could be said about Lara’s abduction by Komarovsky at the end. But considering his position of leadership, I will assume simply that this represents an appropriation of the ideals of the revolution but only in form and not in content.

Then there is another interesting character, Yuri’s half brother, Yevgraf. Put simply, Yevgraf represents the past and contemporary Left. He cooperates with the regime but without ever really understanding its ideals himself. He is simply a rule follower and enforcer; he is the model bureaucrat and lackey for the regime. He is the embodiment of power structure that has completely lost its revolutionary content and is simply going through the motions. In this regard, the progression of history just goes back to its default mode of production, which in this case is capitalism. In the end, there is really no difference between Yevgraf and other kinds of military bureaucracy in the West. Perhaps this explains the temporal-narrative shift which portrays Yevgraf only in the present, and why, in fact, he actually serves as narrator at many points. Because he is the most “contemporary” character that modern audiences can supposedly sympathize with. However, it should be remembered that he is almost totally devoid of feeling, content, and ideals. He illustrates what happens when society simply goes through the motions. And in this regard, he is the most apt allegory for the Left today.

The Dialectics of Zhivago

There is one final point I would like to touch on. This is the dialectics of Zhivago. The script writers and author, perhaps unintentionally, but I think perhaps intentionally, utilize various instances of dialectical thought in the film. Let’s look at some examples.

First, in the scene on the train where Yuri meets Strelnikov, Strelnikov comments on the knife that Yuri had stowed away on his person. A knife seems innocuous, he says, when it is laying on a dinner table beside a fork and a spoon. But, he notes, it also has another use, and this is, obviously, its potential to harm someone by stabbing. This gives it multiple, dialectical, uses; its benign utilities may at any moment be transformed into something more dangerous. Now, anyone familiar with Lenin’s writings on dialectics will instantly recognize this example as being almost identical to his example of the glass on the table (Lenin, “Once Again on the Trade Unions”). So, this demonstrates that at least someone involved in the production of the film knew fairly well what they were talking about. And it contradicts claims by bourgeois pundits and film critics that the film trivializes the revolution. Even on a cursory glance, and being unaware of dialectics, it is clear to see that the film is highly sympathetic to the ideals of the revolution itself.
This perhaps relates to the second example. I do not have this so fleshed out as the first, but I can assume that it relates to the negation of negation. In this case, the 1917 revolution transformed Russia from a feudal czarist nation to a modern socialist one. But depending on your view of the revolution and subsequent Russian history, it is possible to view many of the ideals themselves as later being abandoned. What was created was not simply an evolution therefore but instead something new and transformed. This entity which was supposed to be socialism, itself mutated into something else, which then negated the very ideals that theoretically brought it to power and which it itself should have professed. Now, I am not such a sophist as to deny the tremendous knowledge that even Stalin and other Soviet leaders and thinkers possessed. But as Yuri says in the film, there is a difference between the power to do something and the right to do something. In other words, just because a regime is in power, doesn’t mean that this gives them the right to do whatever they please, especially if this power is not obtained through democratic means or with worker support. To concur with this interpretation of the films dual negation, however, I realize one has to accept the notion that Soviet Russia at some point abandoned its revolutionary ideals, and this remains contested today.

Conclusion: Zhivago in the Covid world

So, how does Zhivago relate to our Covid world? Well, put simply, I think the film can be read as a metaphor for the abandonment of the original, revolutionary ideals of the Left, and the subsequent disintegration of society into the inevitable outcome of this. Perhaps at one time the Left, or at least so some on the Left may have thought, claimed to stand for basic human rights and liberal-universal principles. In this regard, it might have been like Yuri, chasing after Lara/Communism. It also may have earnestly believed much of the Marxist and revolutionary thought proclaimed similarly by young idealists like Pasha. But over time, the Left came simply to parrot the language of Marx and Communism that was totally devoid of its original contents. Of course, this "selling-out" by the social democratic Left has been a trend that has existed since the formation of the Left itself, and it has been one of the main objects of critique by Marxist-Leninists throughout history. But apparently we occasionally need to be reminded time and time again that the Left no longer stands for what many people may have thought it did. 

Today the Left instead has devolved into a kind of Komarovsky at best or a Yevgraf at worst. Perhaps it is a combination of both. Komarovsky represents the bourgeois infiltrators and armchair socialists, the real leaders of the Leftist movement. They spout high minded ideals, but are really only concerned with increasing their own power and prestige. Then there are the gullible lackeys like Yevgraf, the rank-in-file voters who go along with whatever dictums emanate from the top, no matter how contradictory or nonsensical. Like Yevgraf, they are constantly trying to piece together a complete image of the past, to determine how they arrived in their undesirable situation today. But similarly like that character, they remain unable to do so without a dialectical understanding of history and class. So, instead, we are left in the situation we find ourselves in today, where the Left as authority figure crushes real attempts for human emancipation, and looks longingly at the past (the balalaika in the film) while rushing blindly into an unforeseeable future.

Popular Posts