From Lara – The Untold Story That Inspired Doctor Zhivago
by Anna Pasternak
‘Many years will go by. I shall then no longer be alive. There will be no return to the times of our fathers and grandfathers. This would, indeed, be both undesirable and unnecessary. But at last there will appear more things that have long lain dormant: noble, creative and great things. It will be a time of final accounting. Your life will be rich and fruitful as never before.
Think of me then.’
When I began Lara, I was secretly concerned that I would discover that Boris had used Olga. As I dug deeper into the story, I was relieved to find that this was far from the case. It was the authorities who used Olga. True, Boris did not save her by publicly ‘claiming’ her. But he loved her. I believe the depth and passion of his ardour differed from anything he felt for either of his wives. Not just out of gratitude that Olga risked her life in loving and standing by him. But because she understood him; she had a deep inner knowing that in order for him to find a resting place of fulfilment within himself, he needed to write Doctor Zhivago.
Although he did not do the one thing Olga desperately wanted – he did not leave his wife for her – from the moment he pledged himself to her, he did his utmost within the constraints of his domestic situation to honour her and her family. He supported them financially, he loved Irina as the daughter he never had, and he trusted Olga with his most precious commodity – his work. He sought her advice, her editing and typing assistance. And what is Doctor Zhivago, if not his long and heartfelt love letter to her?
As I wrote Lara, I was surprised to develop a more tolerant affection for Boris. I felt like a close friend or relative who overlooks someone’s annoying idiosyncrasies – in Boris’s case, his self-absorbed soliloquies, his false modesty, his vanity, his addiction to high-drama – due to an intrinsic and burgeoning fondness. As Boris began to write Doctor Zhivago, refusing to be crushed by the pressure of the Soviet state, I grew in admiration for him. I salute his granite defiance, I applaud his rebellious spirit, and I bow down before his monumental courage, especially his publish-and-be-damned attitude to Feltrinelli and the publication of the novel.
As I began to champion him, I mostly forgave his shortcomings, just as Olga and Irina did. I could see the complexity of the man and his situation. The inconsistency of his character. He was both hero and coward, genius and naïve fool, tortured neurotic and clinical strategist. His loyalty to Russia and her people never wavered. His loyalty to Olga was never steadfast. In spite of everything she did for him, including being prepared to die for him, she could not rely on him.
There were times when I felt immeasurably frustrated by his weakness; his letter to Olga from Tbilisi, when he rejected her desire for marriage, citing their mythical connection as more important than anything as mundane and everyday as marriage, infuriated me. Olga was right; he was wrong. If he had married her, the Soviet authorities would not have dared to treat her so cruelly and unnecessarily after his death.
Yet at other times, I ached for him. When I wrote of the savaging he received after the Nobel Prize award, his pain was palpable, his suffering agonising. If it wasn’t for Olga, he might well have committed suicide. She was his strength when his resolution was finally extinguished; she was his guiding light when all around him seemed interminably dark. When they were separated, his letters show the extent of his love, missing and need for her.
But in the end, for all his blistering brilliance, he did not save Olga. I can appreciate that at the conclusion of his life, he did not have the energy to fight any more. Every ounce of his potency was drained in defying the authorities to ensure that Doctor Zhivago was published. In this, at least, he ensured that Olga, his Lara, would never be forgotten. While she was fighting for him in the Lubyanka, he was at least exalting her in the pages of his book. She lost two of his children; the legacy of Doctor Zhivago is their only child. Both Lara and Yury gain immortality through Yury’s poems, the true fruit of their love. Pasternak intended all along to redeem himself by immortalising Olga as Lara. Perhaps on one level he was right; their love would remain everlasting. As he wrote in Doctor Zhivago:
‘It was not out of necessity that they loved each other, “enslaved by passion”, as lovers are described. They loved each other because everything around them willed it, the trees and the clouds and the sky over their heads and the earth under their feet. Perhaps their surrounding world, the strangers they met in the street, the landscapes drawn up for them to see on their walks, the rooms in which they lived or met, were even more pleased with their love than they were themselves.’