Tag Archives: Boris Pasternak

Banned Books Week: Doctor Zhivago

I’ve written before about the banning of Doctor Zhivago but I thought it would be good to kick off Really Banned Books Week with this article, and another imperative to anyone who hasn’t read it yet. This truly is one of the greats of Russian literature. Boris Pasternak was a poet first, and the language of this novel, even in English, flows and resonates in a way few other novelists can manage. Also, I’ve always been a fan of being able to do things despite oppressors (whether in my country or others) desperately wanting us not to. It’s practice and preparation in case something really does get banned in this country.

Here is another article about how the CIA, working with the Samizdat (the Russian word for a unofficial publishing and distribution network… an early dark network, if you will) managed to get an important book critical of the Russian Revolution to Russians. And here is a link to its Goodreads page along with a few reviews (not by me… mine would be even more hagiographic than these) that discuss the book itself and not just its impact. Because really, that is still the best reason to read this. The story moved me to tears in places. (N.B.:  You may wish to find the original translation. I’ve not compared the two,  but Mr Pasternak’s widow, and many other reviewers, claim that the recent anniversary translation robbed the book of a lot of its power.)

Rating: 5/5. It does take a while to really get going, and if you’ve seen the movie, you’re going to be confronted with some of the changes they made right off the bat. Still, this is my favourite book about the Revolution, and one of the best written about that tumultuous period in our history.


The Book as Weapon: Доктор Живаго

Around the time that Banned Books Week rolls around, you might see me getting a little snippy about the whole thing, at least how it’s observed in the US. It’s not that I am in any way pro-censorship. (I am pro-find-out-what-the-hell-your-kids-are-reading-and-talk-to-them-about-it-if-you-don’t-like-it. My Mom and Dad both took the time to explain why they didn’t like certain things I read but they also did this really weird thing where they would tell me ‘why’ and respect my opinion, as long as I could articulate it beyond “You Suck and I Hate You.” So yeah, except when I was 13, they were able to talk to me about books.) I’ve lived and traveled in countries where books are, indeed, banned… meaning, if you’re caught with one, you would be arrested, jailed, and possibly killed. That’s what a banned book is, and trust me, I’ll be highlighting that kind of thing in September. Saying a kid has to go to a city library or request a book through interlibrary loan, and may sometimes still not be able to find the book. (I grew up in a one-mile-square town where the library was in roughly half of an old gas station… not a large one… so I understand how much of an inconvenience it can sometimes be even with a friendly and awesome librarian (hats off to you Mrs Goward and the other librarians at the Vernon Public Library… thanks for not thinking I was too horribly weird…) helping you get the books you want.) I don’t think book banning is the answer in just about any of the cases on the US list of books frequently challenged… but still, inconvenience does not equal banned. When Amazon.Com gets shut down by the government for shipping a certain book, then we can call it banned.

Anyway, all of that rant is just to preface this story about how the CIA secretly published Doctor Zhivago and shipped copies to the USSR, back when that book was banned in its home country. And during the time it was banned, the book became so big that it netted Boris Pasternak the Nobel Prize. If you haven’t read it, I’d suggest you do. It’s truly one of the good ones, and while the movie is a masterwork as well, it doesn’t come close to the majesty and awe of the novel.

And while you’re reading it, remember that it wasn’t banned because someone was upset at the existence of (*gasp!*) homosexuals, or because a teenage kid swore, something teenage kids of course never ever do in real life. It was banned because it was considered dangerous.

Doctor Zhivago and the Cold War