Ethnicity and History in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago
The “Nationalities question” is of considerable importance in the pages of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, both in terms of the novel’s representation of the events of the first third of the twentieth century, and in terms of its years of composition at the end of the 1940s and the start of the 1950s. On one hand, problems of confessional and ethnic identity played a significant role in the social life of the Russian Empire’s final years, becoming especially pronounced in the years of the First World War, the Revolution and the Russian Civil War (as has been extensively discussed in the works of contemporary historians, including Oleg Budnitsky, Alexei Miller, Yuri Slezkine, Zvi Gitelman, William Fuller and others). On the other hand, Pasternak’s novel was composed at the height of the Soviet anti-Semitic campaign under the banner of “the struggle with rootless cosmopolitans” and “kowtowing to the West.”
The characteristic principles of Pasternak’s use of sources and embodiment of his philosophy of history are distinctly evident in Doctor Zhivago’s treatment of the nationalities question. For instance, in the episode of Zhivago’s meeting at the front with Gordon, Pasternak makes use of fragments of the book Letters of an Artillery Ensign [Iz pisem praporshchika-artillerista], by Fedor A. Stepun, a direct participant in WWI, in which the author describes the victimization of Jews in the front zone. This is in fact the only episode of the novel that directly presents situations and scene of the war. And it is precisely in this episode that, via Gordon, Pasternak presents the idea of the necessity of rejecting all conceptions of national belonging in the Christian world.
The work goes on to trace the linkages of various characters’ discussions of the “nationalities question” to conceptions of philosophers and literary figures of the turn of the century and of its first decades, including Hermann Cohen, Vladimir Solovev, Andrey Bely, Nicholas Berdyaev, Fedor Stepun and others.