Love Can Be a Revolution: Doctor Zhivago

Recreating history has always been a draw for every storytelling medium but this is particularly true of cinema. The events of the past can be inherently dramatic, and nothing encapsulates conflict like a revolution. When a group of people stand up against a powerful government or oppressive regime to achieve better lives, their story can evoke emotions in unique ways. When a piece of fiction uses such a situation as a backdrop for a successful narrative like a love story, the result can be special. Doctor Zhivago is a perfect example. Its scope and intimacy illustrates parallels between history and emotion.

Doctor Zhivago began as a novel by Boris Pasternak. It was refused publication in the USSR, so he smuggled the work to Italy and published it in 1957. The next year, the CIA realized its propaganda value and printed and distributed Russian editions at the Brussels World’s Fair. When Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Russian government pressured him to refuse the award. In 1965, Hollywood released a film adaptation directed by David Lean and starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Alec Guinness, Rod Steiger, and Tom Courtenay. The Academy nominated it for 10 Academy Awards. It won 5, including one for Maurice Jarre’s timeless score. (You will recognize “Lara’s Theme” even if you’ve never seen the film.)


The film focuses on the love story between Dr. Yuri Zhivago, and Lara. Since his father abandoned them long ago, Zhivago becomes an orphan after his mother dies. His mother’s close friends the Gromekos raise him. As a young adult, he trains as a physician and writes poetry. Something draws Zhivago to Lara when he crosses her path. He assists a doctor to save her mother from a suicide attempt. Though attracted to her, he is expected to marry the Gromeko’s daughter Tonya. Lara is also having an affair with the soulless businessman Komarovsky.

Lara later marries student-turned-revolutionary Pasha. She and Zhivago each have children with their respective spouses. They reconnect when the First World War brings them together as a doctor and nurse; Lara searches for her presumed-dead husband. Their love story is long and involved. I won’t spoil all the details for you.


The Russian Revolution serves as the chaotic milieu for this romance, but a few more dramatic situations do surround the couple. The Revolution comprised two parts, both taking place in 1917. In February, the Tsarist monarchy fell; in October, the Bolshevik Communists gained power. Soon, there was less Socialist and more democratic opposition to the Bolshevik Red Army, known as the White Army. This led to fighting between the two groups for years.

The story in Doctor Zhivago takes full advantage of this setting, and the film visualizes it to the hilt. A demonstration turns violent early in the film, razing towns to the ground. The most striking moment comes when characters mention the feared Bolshevik commander Strelnikov, whom they discover is (SPOILER!) Lara’s “dead” husband Pasha. The political situation influences events up to the end. The viewer feels by its conclusion that their love is something they have tried to protect against outside forces, like people fighting for the best for their country.

Doctor Zhivago is epic but also intimate in its portrayal of emotion within history.  A love story besieged by uncontrollable events provides a uniquely affecting experience for an audience, and this novel (and its film version) is one of the best-known examples. Doctor Zhivago leaves you knowing a revolution can take place for an entire country, but may also occur in the human heart.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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