The Dr. Zhivago Controversy: How One Story Caused Unrest Around the Globe

What is Dr. Zhivago?

Published in Italy in 1957, Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago is a novel centered around the life of one Yury Zhivago, a Russian doctor and writer. It is separated into fifteen parts, not including the epilogue, and chronicles the individual struggles of Zhivago as he moves through Russian history, from the first Russian revolution of 1905 all the way to WWII. A highly romantic and intricate tale, Dr. Zhivago spends its nearly 600 pages taking the readers through Zhivago’s ultimately tragic life, marked by love hidden and lost, families exiled and forced to suffer, and a Russian society that evolves into something almost unforgiving.

A film adaptation was released in 1966 by distributors in Italy and the United Kingdom. It was available practically worldwide following its initial release. Although it is obviously a condensed version of Pasternak’s story, it maintains the same spirit in the form of romanticized tragedy. It is still one of the highest-grossing films of all time across the globe. [1]

Who is the man behind the story?

By the time Dr. Zhivago was published, Boris Pasternak had already established himself as a worthy and successful Russian poet.  He grew up during the tail-end of the 19th century to a family of Bourgeois Russian artists–a painter father and a pianist mother–who ran in an exclusive social circle of many highly prominent Russian artists, including “premier novelist Leo Tolstoy and composers Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Anton Rubinstein.” [2] As a young boy, he was encouraged to pursue similar artistic endeavors. The “fourteen-year-old Pasternak” thus “eagerly embraced the study of music at the Moscow Conservatory…under composer Reinhold Glier but completely renounced his chosen vocation six years later.” [2] His subsequent disassociation with music was a radical decision that speaks to the pressures of ultimate precision and perfection that the Russian ideology pushed in its arts, but a musical quality was still retained in Pasternak’s lyrical poetry and style of writing overall, which he pursued after his failings at the Conservatory [2]

He was even “left largely alone because, it was rumored, Stalin liked some of his poetry.” [3] This, however, did not mean he had immunity–especially upon Stalin’s seize of power, Pasternak faced some rather grueling consequences for his behavior as an artist not entirely convinced by the Soviet regime. An instance of trying to get a friend published in 1934 resulted in a cold reprimand from Stalin himself and the three-year-sentence of his “friend and lover Olga Ivinskaya” to the gulag. [4] It was around this time that Pasternak began to focus on translation rather than writing, feeling constricted by the regime. [2] However, the Great Terror and the subsequent political climate afterwards worked to “increasingly disillusion” him, resulting in the beginnings of his work on the novel. [5]

Why was it rejected?

Boris Pasternak was not necessarily a stranger to rejection, but the submission to and subsequent rejection from a number of Soviet journals was frustrating for him. The editors of Russian literary journal Novyi Mir took particular offense to the novel, rejecting him on the basis of what they saw as a divergence from socialist realism:

“The spirit of your novel is the spirit of nonacceptance of the socialist revolution. The pathos of your novel is the pathos of the assertion that the October Revolution and Civil War and the social changes that followed them brought the people nothing but suffering and destroyed the Russian intelligentsia either physically or morally. The author’s views on our country’s past and, above all, on the first decade after the October Revolution (since, if one emits the epilogue, the end of the novel coincides precisely with the end of that decade) which emerge in systematic form from the novel boil down to the statement that the October Revolution was a mistake, that participation in it by that segment of the intelligentsia that supported it was an irreparable disaster, and that everything that followed from it was evil.” [6]

Among their other critiques were the ways in which Pasternak subtly worked in criticisms of Stalinism as a whole, as well as other markers of early-twentieth-Russian history. As a scholar of Dr. Zhivago notes: “It wasn’t an overtly political book, but he realized that he wasn’t celebrating the revolution, and when the Soviet literary bureaucrats came to read it, that was their biggest criticism.” [5] Others note this avoidance of the political, as well: “Despite the implications of its plot, Doctor Zhivago is not ordinarily viewed as a political novel or an attack on the Soviet regime. (Pasternak proclaimed in My Sister, Life that he greatly “disliked” writers who “commit themselves to political causes,” especially those “who make a career out of being Communists.”) Rather, the book is judged by most critics as an affirmation of the virtues of individuality and the human spirit.” [2]

How, then, was it published?

After being rejected, a copy of the Dr. Zhivago manuscript was read by an Italian scout who saw a load of potential in the novel. After a little cajoling, Pasternak agreed to have it distributed in Italy. [4] From here, the CIA, who had been operating and reading books out of the Soviet Union as a larger project for several years now, helped publish Dr. Zhivago in what is now referred to as the Zhivago project. [7] This was a covert operation that worked to radically but secretly undermine communist efforts in the Soviet Union by making anti-communist works–in any degree–more widely available, both across the globe and in the Soviet Union. The book was to be used as a tool of propaganda, not only for already anti-communist sentiment in the West but also “to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.” [8] This operation was very successful in infuriating the Soviet government but less successful in actually encouraging and accelerating dissent among Soviet citizens. [3]

How was it received by the general public?

Readers and viewers, especially outside of the USSR, were eager to read and watch such an untold Russian story unfold. Readers within the USSR, as the novel was circulated through Moscow and other major cities as a part of the CIA propaganda effort, were also in large parts titillated by the prospect of it, but had to be much sneakier about their consumption of the media. The Soviet government and die-hard communists were obviously furious, outraged like the editors were for the ways in which Dr. Zhivago undermined the communist regime and proposed individualistic lifestyle pursuits. [4] Pasternak, who had been nominated for the Nobel peace prize before based on his endeavors in poetry, was nominated again upon the publication of Dr. Zhivago and won. This win highlights the widespread and rapidly proliferating popularity and critical acclaim of the novel at the time–and into today, too. Unfortunately, Pasternak was forced to give up the prize amidst harsh Soviet pressures–with the Soviet government forcing other writers to denounce him and even going so far as to propose an ultimatum: “if he went to Oslo to accept the prize, he would never be allowed back into the Soviet Union.”[4] Pasternak thus rejected the prize, despite his right to it. 


[1] Guinness World Records. 60 (2015 ed.). pp. 160–161. ISBN 978-1-908843-70-8. 

[2] “Boris Pasternak.” Poetry Foundation. Accessed March 29, 2021.

[3] Ted Koppel, “A Writer Who Defied The System In ‘The Zhivago Affair,’”All Things Considered, National Public Radio, July 2, 2014. Accessed March 29, 2021.

[4] Ben Panko, “How Boris Pasternak Won and Lost the Nobel Prize,” Smithsonian Magazine, October 23, 2017. Accessed March 29, 2021.

[5] Jeffrey Brown. Interview with Peter Finn. “Why Dr. Zhivago Was Dangerous,” PBS News Hour, July 8, 2014. Accessed March 29, 2021.

[6] “”Doctor Zhivago”: Letter to Boris Pasternak from the Editors of “Novyi Mir”.” Daedalus 89, no. 3 (1960): 648-68. Accessed March 29, 2021. Pg. 649.

[7] “CIA Publishes Doctor Zhivago in Russian and Exposes Life in USSR under Communism,” CIA, Accessed March 29, 2021.

[8] Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, “During Cold War, CIA used ‘Doctor Zhivago’ as a tool to undermine Soviet Union,” Washington Post, April 5, 2014. Accessed March 29, 2021.

“Doctor Zhivago (1965) Original Trailer – Omar Sharif Movie,” Youtube, September 20, 2016, Accessed March 29, 2021.