Lawyers in Revolutionary Times: Doctor Zhivago - LawNow Magazine

Lawyers in Revolutionary Times: Doctor Zhivago

 Law and Literature ColumnA remarkable manuscript was bundled out of the Soviet Union in the late spring of 1956. An Italian Communist journalist named Sergio d’Angelo had visited Boris Pasternak to discuss possible publication of his latest work. Pasternak was the famed Russian poet and survivor of the various purges and show trials of the Great Terror that had gripped Russia since the 1930s, to discuss possible publication of his latest work. The novel was Doctor Zhivago (the new translation by Richard Peavear and Larissa Volokhonsky is recommended). Pasternak’s long-time project would finally be submitted for approval by the state publisher in the fall. The result would be biting criticism, followed by ongoing hostile attacks on Pasternak as a counter-revolutionary, decadent and ungrateful author, who had dared to challenge the dominant narrative of a glorious revolution that continued to achieve great things on behalf of the proletariat.

Earlier in the year Pasternak had obviously anticipated difficulties with publication in his native land. When he handed over a copy of the manuscript to d’Angelo, as agent for the Milanese publisher Feltrinelli, he stated in a resigned voice that: “you are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad.” Nonetheless, courageously Pasternak assented to foreign publication and the world was able to read one of Russia’s great epic tales, a work that harkens back to the great nineteenth century tradition introduced by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Doctor Zhivago is well known to lovers of world literature, as is its film adaptation, the romantic epic directed by David Lean in 1962. The film stars Omar Sharif as Yuri Zhivago, Julie Christie as Lara, Tom Courtenay as Lara’s husband –to –be turned revolutionary commander operating as “Strelnikov” and Rod Steiger, as the decadent lawyer and dandy, Victor Ippolitovich Komarovsky.

Rather than offer a review of the novel as a whole, I want to concentrate on key scenes where lawyer Komarovsky plays a critical role, as well as scenes where quite different lawyers are described. It is rather inspiring to consider the prominent role that Pasternak assigns in the early chapters  to progressive lawyers, who are quite willing to engage in what we would today refer to as human rights work, including taking on contentious labour cases on behalf of vulnerable workers. For instance, the hero Yuri (or Yura) travels in the opening section with his Uncle Nikolai Nikolaevich by carriage to visit a friend at his estate. A recurring theme is introduced – that there are characters who can act as a force for good and who share a hopeful idealism, no matter how bleak events may get. We learn that Yuri’s uncle is an important writer and that the two are travelling by carriage over lush wheat fields during the feast of the Kazan Mother of God.  The year is 1903. Their destination is the estate of the wealthy silk merchant, Kologivov, patron of the arts in a fertile period, and financial supporter of various human rights and other enlightened causes. Nikolai will present his manuscript on land reform to assist the poor. The man is a committed “Tolstoyan” who is committed to revolution and nonviolent social transformation. He advocates a compassionate Christianity, with a desire to resist the corruption of the narrow-minded authorities who represent stagnation and a failed society.

Lara, determined to break with the aging sensualist, tucks a revolver into her coat and trudges over to the party, debating in her mind as to how best to deal with her pent-up anger and fear. An important aspect of the Kologivov circle of idealists and activists is the belief that the rule of law and the commitment to seeking justice in the courts will spear head the needed breakthrough in social relations, overcoming the shocking inequality of the times. The Christian humanist ideals of this group have much in common with the liberal ideals of the 19th century writers and thinkers like Tolstoy and Alexander Herzen, but find new relevance in the 20th century as the society senses the prospects for a successful revolution. Accordingly, we learn of the financial support they offer to lawyers who defend the accused in political trials and who represent workers who have been exploited and injured. The narrator explains to us that Kologivov hates the “moribund order” and has vowed to bring about reform or revolution, hides fugitives from the law, funds humanitarian projects and cooperates with and pays for lawyers in what are anticipated to be landmark trials.

Some of these details about the philanthropist and activist are provided to us as the narrator describes how Lara is taken as a teenager to stay with the Kologivov family as a tutor. She had been desperate to break away from her mother’s home, given that the Lawyer Komarovsky had abused his position as friend and advisor to commence an affair with the high school student. The relationship between Lara and Komarovsky is recounted with greater depth and subtlety in the novel than is the case in the film, where it is played out in a rather melodramatic fashion.

Lara is depicted as maturing during her time with the Kologivovs and acquiring a keenly attuned social conscience. She hears the jokes about the merchant’s efforts as involving an attempt to “overthrow himself” by subsidizing revolution and organizing strikes at his own factory. In his presence she recognizes the superficiality of the upper classes, as most clearly exemplified by Victor Komarovsky. As a young woman she gradually learns to recognize the true worth of Pasha, an idealist prepared to dedicate his life to the fight for freedom and equality. A memorable scene in the novel is the Christmas Party at a wealthy socialite’s house. Lara, determined to break with the aging sensualist, tucks a revolver into her coat and trudges over to the party, debating in her mind as to how best to deal with her pent-up anger and fear. We witness the various guests at the party, as they play cards and waltz in the large ballroom. The scene’s conclusion reveals much about the essential character of those thirsting for a better world.

Doctor Zhivago follows the trials and tribulations, but also the loves and acts of kindness of the main characters during the turbulent years of the Russian Civil War, which pitted the Reds – the Bolsheviks, against the White Army, which was loyal to the previous regime and its values.

Late in the novel Yuri has found his way to the isolated estate of Varykino and spends time with the valiant, hard-working Lara. She has been raising her daughter Katya alone. Viktor visits them at what will turn out to be the end of their idyll, with news that they must leave the place as the Soviet police will soon arrive to arrest and quite likely execute her. The lawyer has somehow landed on his feet and survived the turbulent times to be appointed Minister of Justice of a far-off Eastern republic. He does in fact rescue Lara and her daughter, revealing that there are mysteries in the human heart and even a rogue like Komarovsky possesses unexpected depths and is capable of moral action.

It occurs to me in considering Pasternak’s contrasting of the initial days of the Russian Revolution and its promise of a better future – the February Revolution with the later, October Revolution in which the Bolsheviks seize power with the help of various militias and irregular armed groups, one might focus on the leader of the Provisional Government. Alexander Kerensky, had he been able to assert control and lead the revolution in a democratic manner, respecting the fundamental rights of citizens, may well have been able to help fulfill the aspirations of Yuri Zhivago and the many romantic dreamers. These are individuals who would see their hopes crushed by the relentless drive of Lenin and his Bolsheviks to root out all dissent, deny freedom of thought and speech and other rights, and commence the descent into the utter darkness of Communist Russia. Kerensky was an extremely talented lawyer, who participated in a number of significant trials on behalf of the vulnerable and persecuted in the waning days of the old regime and as parliamentarian championing important legal reforms, such as abolishing the death penalty and restoring free speech and building a basis for democratic rights. Alas, he was to be pushed into exile, his days numbered had he remained in Russia like others in the Provisional government who would meet a sad fate in the new society, lacking all semblance of the rule of law.


Rob Normey
Rob Normey is a lawyer who has practised in Edmonton for many years and is a long-standing member of several human rights organizations.

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