Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Deconstructing Yuri Zhivago


It was interesting to read Yuri Slezkine's impressions of Boris Pasternak and the growing number of Soviet Jewish dissidents in the 1950s, as a result of Stalin's purges.  I had seen Zhivago's "nihilism" as anachronistic, referring back to the 19th century nihilists which tended to characterize Russian novels, such as Turgenev's Bazarov.  But, the way Slezkine describes the growing despondency among Soviet Jews in the 1950s as Stalin's purges struck to the heart of a people that had contributed heavily to the Bolshevik Revolution, I get the sense that Zhivago more expressed Pasternak's views at the time of his writing, than they did views in the 1920s, which saw so many Russian Jews embrace the Bolshevik Revolution as expressed in Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry.

Slezkine provides a fascinating psychological analysis and history of the Jewish influence on the Bolshevik Revolution in The Jewish Century.  He argues that the generation born of the revolution turned its backs on its Jewish fathers and embraced the new Soviet society that emerged after the Russian Civil War.  Of course, I imagine there were a few dissidents, which could have served as a model for Yuri Zhivago, but the overwhelming amount of  Russian literature at the time praised the Red Army, with many Jews taking their service as a right of passage into the Soviet Union.  Many young Jews completely renounced their heritage, assuming Russian hybrids and acronyms of Soviet leaders, and wanting nothing to do with their Yiddish past.

Pasternak's dissidence seems to have greatly affected the way he chose to characterize Zhivago's "profound ambivalence."  Pasternak had not been the most agreeable Soviet citizen, often coming up against the literary censors, but from what I've read Pasternak embraced the modernism that suffused the early Soviet Union.  It wasn't until Stalin imposed his sense of neo-realism that writers like Pasternak, Mandelstam and Akhmatova found themnselves on the outside looking in.  Stalin and his successors wanted the Soviet Union described, painted, sculpted and built in heroic terms, and it was obvious that Yuri Zhivago didn't fit the definition of a "model citizen" anymore than Pasternak did himself, which is why Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy, and became an international sensation, having been rebuffed by Soviet censors.

This kind of reflectivity came to characterize the Russian dissident of the 50s and 60s.  Writers like Pasternak and Achmatova were a major influence on Joseph Brodsky and "the magic chorus" that arose at this time, which no longer saw the Soviet Union as a socialist paradise.  Still, Slezkine notes, Soviet Jews couldn't dispel their love for Russian culture, particularly their love for Pushkin, and found it difficult to fully embrace the new State of Israel or the capitalist panacea that the United States represented.  Those who did emigrate to America and Israel had a very hard time reconciling their feelings, as Khrzhanovsky depicted Brodsky in Room and a Half.

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