Russell Baker on Doctor Zhivago
Former New York Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Russell Baker has been the host of Masterpiece Theatre since 1993. Mr. Baker introduces each program episode, and his personally researched and written comments add context and background to our understanding of the film we're about to watch. His comments frequently provide a uniquely American perspective on the mores and lifestyles of the British.
More commentaries by Russell Baker, as well as commentaries by his predecessor in the hosting chair, Alistair Cooke, can be found for select programs in The Archive.
Episode 1 - Plot Revealed Below!
Tonight we're beginning a two-part adaptation of Boris Pasternak's epic novel Doctor Zhivago. If you've seen the 1965 movie with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif, this fresh look at a highly complex novel may be surprising. It emphasizes the carnal nature of the story and the adulterous betrayal of a devoted wife.
The book is much more than a love story. Boris Pasternak was a poet, and Doctor Zhivago is a poet's novel, a book open to many readings.
The saga of its publication is a story in itself. The Soviet communists banned it in Russia for thirty years, and forced Pasternak to renounce the Nobel Prize it won him.
At its simplest level, Doctor Zhivago is a story of a poet who is hounded to death by politicians. But it is also a lyric hymn to the beauty of Russia, and a philosophical meditation on human arrogance.
Sometimes it seems to be a fairy tale in the dark style of the Brothers Grimm where innocents go into the woods and meet evil in human form and vanish -- and stay vanished. Sometimes forever.
Now, before we start, a brief history note: At the beginning of the 20th century, Russia was a vast imperial state hopelessly mired in the past and on the verge of catastrophic breakdown. The cataclysm came in 1917 when the czar was overthrown and communist revolutionaries seized control of the government. As we'll see tonight, this resulted from mutinies in the Russian army that followed terrible losses in the first World War against Germany.
Now, opening episode, Doctor Zhivago.
In the 1920s Boris Pasternak was considered one of Russia's finest poets, but in the early '30s he stopped publishing -- apparently for political reasons.
Russian Communism held that art existed to serve politics. The idea was repugnant to Pasternak. He was a humanist. Stalin's dictatorship had no use for humanism. Writers who persisted in it ended up executed or slaving in Siberian camps.
Pasternak simply fell silent. Doctor Zhivago was published abroad in 1958, but not in Russia because, while Stalin by then had been long dead, his spirit still ruled in Moscow. Party flunkeys in the Communist writers union not only stopped the book's publication, but also expelled Pasternak from the union. Some called for revoking his citizenship.
Copies were smuggled out of the country and in October 1958, it was published in the United States. One month later Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. Heavy pressure from the Communist party forced him to decline the prize. He died two years later, at the age of seventy.
Doctor Zhivago was finally published in Russia in 1988 while Mikhail Gorbachev was ushering the Communist party into the dustbin of history.
I'm Russell Baker. Good night.
Episode 2 - Plot Revealed Below!
As our story resumes tonight, Yury Zhivago is coming home from war to a world turned upside down. Though he has a wife and son, he has obviously fallen in love with Lara, the nurse in his battlefield medical unit. Since Lara has gone home to her own child in the Ural Mountains far from Moscow, it seems unlikely they will meet again.
The year is 1917. The czar had been forced to yield power -- first to a feeble parliamentary government, then to increasingly radical socialists. The deported Marxist who calls himself Lenin is back in Russia, has seized power, and is preaching a ruthless utopian doctrine called Bolshevism.
Bolshevism's political strength lies in the cities -- St. Petersburg and Moscow, but an anti-revolutionary group -- a so-called White Army -- is active in the Ukraine and Siberia. The Bolsheviks have also built an army and a vicious, pitiless civil war is raging in the Ural Mountains and Siberia. This is where most of our story plays out tonight.
Yury Zhivago is scarcely back in Moscow however, when it becomes clear that he is dangerously out of step with the new politics. Bolsheviks dream of perfecting man, even if they have to kill him to do it.
Yury detests this Bolshevik devotion to a faith that exalts man over all else in nature. In the new Bolshevik world, people may be killed for such views. Concluding episode, Doctor Zhivago.
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