Undergrad and unofficial medievalist, current practitioner of Historical European Martial Arts.
My undergraduate professor Dr Norton described Russian history as being written by Monty Python. Nowhere is this more representative than in the multiple revolutions that first brought democracy to Russia in 1905, the downfall of Tsarist autocracy in February 1917, and the fall of the Provisional government to the Bolsheviks in October 1917. Each of these revolutions were variations on a central theme: the government of Russia failed its people. Going deeper into the question of how they failed is staggeringly complex. Its origins not only in the political and economic developments in the late 19th century, but in some ways in the very nature of Russia itself: a vast, multiethnic empire of incredible population size and natural resources, simultaneously the modern European state of Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky while also being the final European state to have an autocratic monarch whose rule was decreed by Divine Right.
Up until 1861, the vast majority of Russian subjects were serfs, tied to the land, and legally owned by the aristocracy. For centuries, Tsars and Tsarinas would attempt to guide Russia down two different paths, that of “Westernization” ie governmental, economic, and technological reforms along Western European, mostly French models, versus a “more Russian” path popular with Slavic traditionalists, of achieving a sort of Eastern-style despotism in contrast to the constitutional democracies of France and England. Cities like Moscow or Saint Petersburg were the rivals of London, Paris or Vienna, while starving serfs labored in medieval conditions in the countryside, ruled over by the communal and ancient laws of the elders. Russian culture, society, government, and indeed the people themselves were being pulled apart by this dual, contradictory, focus.
Things seemed to come into sharp focus following Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Crimean war (1553-1856). In three decades the armies that crushed Napoleon were thoroughly outclassed by their French and British adversaries, and the Russian Black Sea fleet was utterly destroyed by British steamships. As Grand Duke Constantine described, “We cannot deceive ourselves any longer; we must say that we are both weaker and poorer than the first-class powers, and furthermore poorer not only in material terms but in mental resources, especially in matters of administration.”
To wash away the shame of this defeat, Tsar Alexander II acted decisively. He first freed the serfs on private property by decree, and gained the epithet “The Liberator.” He also reformed the army, navy, and private sector, supporting private enterprise as well as some limited land reforms. Thousands of miles of railroad were built for soldiers and diplomats to cross the vastness of Russia. Alexander II also simplified the legal code, and encouraged the Finnish national assembly, the Diet, to meet for the first time in many years. (Finland had been annexed by Russia in 1809 as a result of the Finnish War. It declared independence from Russia in 1917 after the revolution). Whether or not he would have adopted a constitution is still argued in historical circles - fate would deprive him of that choice.
In 1881, the Tsar Liberator was assassinated by a member of Narodnaya Voly (People’s Will), a far left terrorist organization demanding land reform and an end to autocracy. The failure of this group would be on many revolutionary’s minds in February and October 1917 and the savage repression that followed the Tsar’s assassination would see Russia fall into the backwardness that Alexander II sought to eradicate.
Far from becoming a thriving constitutional monarchy like Britain, Russia descended into a police state described in Doesoevsky’s literature, and most political leaders fled abroad. The lack of civil society, and the underground political movements that claimed the Tsar Liberator’s life would be a constant threat. Alexander III was a reactionary pure and simple, and to allow a constitution would be anathema - as such all efforts at forming a democracy were thwarted. This new Alexander distrusted and reversed many of the reforms of his father, but the efforts to modernize the economy and the military continued. A domineering and larger-than-life figure, Alexander III personally represented the maxim that would guide the last Tsar: authority - autocracy - absolutism. This reactionary approach to government and administration would ultimately hamstring Russia as it stumbled into the 20th century, a nation of promising intellectuals, factories, and incredible natural resources, hobbled by a government actively harkening back to the days of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. Modernity would not be kept out forever.
The railroads, factories, and other modern developments transformed the economy and life of Russia. Rural peasants would supplement their meager incomes with factory work in the city. Cities grew exponentially, and the middle class grew with them, along with the desire for more political power. Humanist liberals, represented by Zhivago himself, were not uncommon in the cities, but decidedly lacking in the countryside. Well-intentioned liberal youth journeyed into the country to promote modernizing ideas, frequently at odds and outright hostility from community elders, hostile to change and reform in general.
In 1904, imperial tensions over the Far Eastern Port Arthur led to war between Japan and the Russian empire. Tsar Nicholas II (succeeded Alexander III in 1896) actively sought this conflict, because he believed that the surge in national pride associated with the all but certain (in his mind) military victory might quiet calls for political reform and revolution. This war is all but ignored in Dr. Zhivago but it was as large a disaster as the Crimean war was sixty years earlier. Again, the Black Sea Fleet was destroyed, this time off Manchuria, and after a grueling continent spanning voyage. And again, the Russian army was shown to be a poor adversary for the recently-modernized Japanese. The incredible suffering of the underequipped and undersupplied eastern Russian army, combined with wartime shortages in all areas of the Russian economy led a large group of civilians to march to the Winter Palace to present a petition for supplying Saint Petersburg and for the conduct of the war. Fearing violence, Russian soldiers started firing into the crowd. This would be the first, but certainly not the last, “Bloody Sunday” in the 20th century. For the next year, general strikes and unrest caused the entire Russian empire to screech to a halt. Nicholas’s popularity, never strong, never recovered, and he was forced to accept an elected body , the Duma, in 1906, and publish the so-called “October Manifesto,” which allowed voting assemblies and various freedoms, never guaranteed in Russian law prior, such as speech and the press.
Elections for the first democratically elected body in Russian history were heavily manipulated by Nicholas II in order to provide as much power to his political supporters as possible. Right wing protofascist organizations, such as the Black Hundreds, were openly favored by the Tsar and his administration. Liberal groups, led by the influential Prince Lvov, gained a majority but found their attempts at economic and administrative reforms undone by the Tsar. Nicholas II exacerbated political tension by using the repressive, reactionary police actions in order to maintain what he thought was control. Over the next several years, governors and political leaders were assassinated by members of the Social Revolutionaries (SR), a Marxist organization with strong ideological differences from the Bolsheviks. Future leader of the Provisional government Alexander Kerensky would be close to many SRs, and actually defend some of them in court. Meanwhile, the majority of what would become the Bolsheviks were still scattered in cafes throughout Europe (Lenin, Trotsky) or engaging in various criminal activities (Stalin was a bankrobber). Social revolutionaries, social democrats (who felt that laws and democratic processes could bring about Marxist social revolution, rather than violent overthrow of the existing order), all formed a broadly socialist bloc in the years leading to 1914.
The problems that had plagued the Russian army for nearly a century followed it onto the fields of the First World War. The first major battle on the eastern front saw two Russian armies invade East Prussia, only for both to be almost totally destroyed in the battle of Tannenberg. The Russian commander, General Alexander Samsonov, committed suicide.
The suffering of the Russian soldiers on the eastern front, combined with Tsar Nicholas’s incompetent wartime leadership, as well as the utter misalignment of wartime efforts at senior command levels, caused public opinion to finally and completely turn against the Romanovs and the Tsar. A coalition of socialist and liberal leaders, seizing power after yet another general strike in Saint Petersburg, formed the Provisional Government, and attempted to continue the war. The 1917 offensive quickly bogged down, and soldiers began disobeying their orders and leaving the war altogether. This is brilliantly, if simplistically shown in Dr. Zhivago. Support for the Provisional government, and Alexander Kerensky specifically, collapsed. Seizing the initiative, Bolsheviks led by VI Lenin, staged the October 1917 coup and gained control of the Winter Palace.
Orlando Figes’s A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891–1924. ISBN 0-224-04162-2
Richard Pipes. The Russian Revolution.
Russian film expert, Host of Russophiles Unite! A Russian & Soviet Film Podcast
10 Pasternak Facts!!
Pasternak is WAAAYYY more famous in Russia as a poet and translator than as a novelist. Fact 2 will make it pretty clear why this is. His translations of Shakespeare were (and are) highly acclaimed. They were used for Soviet film versions of Shakespeare such as Hamlet. While it’s not particularly well-known in the UK (and I’m going to assume the US too???) it would have been seen by millions of Soviet citizens. Due to household TV ownership being much lower in the USSR than the US at the time, the ‘60s and ‘70s in many ways were the heyday of Soviet cinema. DZ concludes with a series of poems, ostensibly by Yuri Zhivago. The first of these is titled ‘Hamlet’.
During the 1930s, BP wrote a poem in praise of Stalin, but it was so idiosyncratic that Soviet propagandists didn’t really know what to do with it.
It’s quite well-known DZ was banned in the USSR till Mikhail Gorbachev introduced his policy of Glasnost [‘openness’]. The story of how it came to the West is perhaps less well known.
DZ was rejected for publication in the Soviet literary journal Novy Mir [New World] on the basis that it was, according to Novy Mir’s editors, incompatible with the spirit of the Revolution and with Marxist Ideology. Pasternak gave the manuscript for DZ to the Italian Communist journalist Sergio d’Angelo, who claimed that Pasternak had said, “you are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad”, when he handed over the manuscript. D’Angelo passed it onto the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli [looking forward to Dan pronouncing his name authentically!], who published it in Italian.
Attempts were made by the Soviet authorities to dissuade Feltrinelli from publishing DZ, culminating with the head of the Soviet Writers’ Union traveling to Italy to speak to him in person. Apparently, these efforts to suppress the book resulted in something of a Streisand Effect, and the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out in a single day.
Pasternak was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union and vilified in Pravda for allowing his novel to be published abroad and he subsequently received hate mail from members of the public.
Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 for DZ. He initially accepted it, but under pressure from the Soviet authorities, he turned it down.
The CIA funded the smuggling of copies of DZ into the USSR.
Pasternak was Jewish. His parents and sister left Russia in 1921 for Berlin, where Boris visited them in the following year. It was the last time he ever saw them, although they did manage to get out of Germany when the Nazis came to power, settling in the UK.
Pasternak is the Russian word for parsnip. As Viv Groskop points out in her chapter of The Anna Karenina Fix devoted to Dr. Zhivago, a British writer saddled with a root vegetable as a surname probably would have struggled to achieve the same gravitas…
Some of Pasternak’s poetry was used in the Soviet festive classic The Irony of Fate.
Please give a shout out to the podcast Tipsy Tolstoy: Russian Literature for the Inebriated
I owe a huge thank you to Dr Cathy McAteer of the University of Exeter for her help with background on Pasternak as a translator
‘The rhythm of free speech’: Boris Pasternak translates Shakespeare
Love and Terror in Pasternak's Russia ‹ Literary Hub article by author Rafia Zakaria
On This Day in 1890 Boris Pasternak Was Born (Moscow Times article)
Rereading: Doctor Zhivago | Boris Pasternak (Guardian article)
Zhivago, Pasternak's 'Final Happiness and Madness' (Moscow Times article)
How Boris Pasternak Won and Lost the Nobel Prize (Smithsonian Magazine article)
Michael Wood · Crabby, Prickly, Bitter, Harsh: Tolstoy's Malice · LRB 22 May 2008