Socialist Worker

Backdrop to Dr Zhivago

Issue No. 1827

THE PETER and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg was once a prison but is now a museum. You can wander round its cells and see grainy photographs of its former occupants, political prisoners under the old Russian Tsars 100 years ago. A large number are women-revolutionaries usually from middle class backgrounds who braved torture and exile for their cause.

Women of this class had access to equal education earlier than they did in Britain, and many yearned for an exciting and fulfilling life. Yet the overall position of women in Russian society was terrible. Women factory workers were routinely sexually harassed at work, and domestic violence was commonplace.

Lara Guishar, the heroine of Boris Pasternak's novel Dr Zhivago, now adapted for television by Andrew Davies, manages to combine both aspects of women's lives in pre-revolutionary Russia. She is an intelligent and aware young woman who likes her education and who is caught up in the social unrest of the time.

But her mother is an impoverished middle class widow who pushes Lara into the arms of her own lover, the manipulative and scheming lawyer Komarovsky. Lara repeatedly tries to escape this effective prostitution in the only ways she knows - first as a governess and then through marriage to the revolutionary Antipov.

The story centres on the frustrated love affair between Lara and the young doctor and poet Yuri Zhivago. Both are married to others, and their lives cross first in Moscow, and then on the front of the First World War where Lara is a nurse. They meet again against a backdrop of raging civil war.

The Reds (including Lara's husband) are fighting to defend the revolution of 1917 and the Whites - Russian counter-revolutionaries and their invading allies from the West - are determined to crush it and restore the old inequalities.

The melodrama in the novel is only heightened in this adaptation which cuts out, and sometimes confuses, some of the political background. The second and third episodes promise to be highly critical of the revolution, which will no doubt be portrayed as having been drowned in blood. The general message seems to be, why let war and revolution get in the way of a good love story?

Yet the interest in the characters lies precisely in their relationship to wider society. Dr Zhivago shows us the textile workers in their sweatshops, the plush restaurant where Lara is seduced, the Cossacks cutting down demonstrators, the slaughter of the First World War.

Revolution came, first in 1905 and then in 1917, because millions of people could see no way out of this society other than overthrowing the factory owners, generals and aristocracy, and running society for themselves. That they eventually failed was to do with the lack of international revolution, with the famine and civil war that wrecked the economy and the revolutionary working class.

Dr Zhivago deals with these questions only as background - and then not very well. The TV adaptation has lines such as, 'The revolution has begun,' which explain the crowds rushing around with flags and leaflets. It is watchable enough, with a good cast which will keep you entertained on a Sunday night.

But if you want a deeper understanding of Russian history look elsewhere. The novel paints a more detailed picture and asks questions about its oppression, brutality and corruption to which only the revolution could provide answers.

Dr Zhivago, a three-part serial, continues on Sunday at 9pm on ITV.

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Sat 23 Nov 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1827
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