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Pain, Betrayal and Love in Old Russia

Fifty years ago this September, Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago, which was banned in the Soviet Union, was published in America, and that October, I received it as a gift for my 28th birthday. It bowled me over.

We had no perspective on Soviet Russia then — the Cold War muddied everybody's mind-- and I didn't really grasp the political stance of the book. But even so, it's a book you can — and must — understand emotionally.

Pasternak was a mystical realist, able to tell us about a strange and tremendous time in human history. His book offers a day-by-day portrait of the lives of ordinary Russians through the great Revolution of 1917. It's a huge chaos of ideas and ideals: everything changed; the familiar in ruins; a new order brutality established and suddenly knocked apart again; endless factional war; murder; destruction; and, throughout it all, the endless spiritual resilience of common people somehow getting through it.

What joy to come again to Pasternak's great passages, unforgettable images and terrifying sentences. We accompany Yuri Zhivago on his long train trip with his wife and child from Moscow to the Urals, crammed with other refugees in a freight car. We see the trains stretching on the tracks in the snow in Siberia, black and empty. And, as Yuri makes his way back from the Urals to Moscow, on foot and alone, we witness ripe grain fields heaving and rustling, not with wind, but with mice, because the villagers are dead, the grain is uncut and the mice are breeding in it by the millions.

It's all journeys, partings and meetings. Dozens of characters disappear and reappear. They bond together in passionate love but can't hold on to one another. Passionate hatred unites them as close as love. They meet and part and weep, then meet again and don't know it. It's not disorder, so much as a wild complexity of interconnection, like the tracks in a great train station — all these crisscrossing destinies, all these souls full of earnest intention, all of them helpless as dust blown on the great wind of the Revolution.

Only now do I realize how much I learned about writing a novel from Pasternak — the way a writer can leap across miles and years, so long as you land in the right place; the way accuracy of detail embodies emotion; the way that leaving more out allows you to get more in.

This beautiful, noble document from a terrible century may be the last of the great Russian novels. It's a huge and vast book, but 500 pages isn't long to contain all of Russia, 40 years of history and a man's life and dreams. Like a human soul, it holds immensities of pain, betrayal and love.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ursula Le Guin