Three Lessons from Doctor Zhivago

Doctor Zhivago is an epic historical drama and romance film with beautiful scenery, themes, and music. Besides being an entertaining movie to watch and enjoy, Doctor Zhivago is also ripe with lessons for us to consider. Let’s look at three important lessons that we can take away from the story.

First, let’s examine the obvious lesson of the movie—communism is a terrible form of government. I love the scene where Yuri Zhivago returns from World War I and arrives home in Moscow only to find that the Soviet government has divided his house into tenements. The idea of private party has been abolished by the Bolsheviks, and the people living in Yuri’s house begin to steal his personal belongings.

Now it is important to recognize that there were people starving and suffering in the country before the Russian Revolution. We can all agree that there was great inequality between the rich and poor, but the movie does a great job of showing that Communism only made a bad situation worse. Students of history know that there were multiple factors at play in the origin of the Revolution, such as economic inequality, technological backwardness, and a lack of confidence in Tsar Nicholas II’s ability to govern. But whatever the causes, the cure was worse than the disease.

Now granted, film critics have criticized the movie for what they think is a trivialization of the Revolution. But I think that the viewer must realize that the movie is basically a love story set against the backdrop of the Revolution. As film critic, Roger Ebert said, Doctor Zhivago “seems political in the same sense Gone with the Wind is political, as spectacle and backdrop, without ideology.” But perhaps one of the unintended consequences of the film is that it does a superb job of showing the horrors of Communism and the Soviet government without being preachy about it.

After Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in the October Revolution, Yuri and his family have to flee the city to a countryside estate in Varykino because his poetry is considered seditious by the government. Yuri soon discovers that his former love interest, Lara, lives nearby in Yuriatin. He and Lara begin an affair, which eventually causes him to be separated from his family. He is forced into service as a medic by Communist partisans in the Russian Civil War. Yuri finally deserts after two years and reunites with Lara, only to find out that his family is in Moscow and will soon be deported to Paris.

This brings us to the second lesson we can learn from the film–our choices have consequences. Yuri’s decision to have an affair with Lara is what led him to be conscripted into the war, and it eventually prevents him from reuniting with his family. He loses Lara, as well, and he dies a lonely, broken-hearted man. Obviously, Yuri made a poor choice in regard to his adulterous affair with Lara, and few movies do a better job than Doctor Zhivago of showing a man suffering for his infidelities.

The third lesson for us is that sometimes events beyond our control can shape our destinies. One of the themes in the film is how the Revolution affects the lives of all of the characters in the story. Obviously, Yuri’s life is greatly affected by political realities. Because of the government’s reaction to his poems, Yuri is forced to take his family and move to the Ural Mountains. And if not for his move out of Moscow, he likely would not have met up with Lara again. Lara was tied to the Revolution through her marriage to Pasha. She enlists as a nurse in order to look for her husband and ends up working with Yuri at a hospital in the war, where they fall in love. Cynical Victor Ippolitovich Komarovsky is probably the most skillful at adapting to the ever-changing political situation, but even he has to move to the Far East when he takes up a position in the nominally independent Far Eastern Republic. He takes Lara and her child with him as Yuri stays behind.

The characters in Doctor Zhivago could not change the events that shaped their lives, but they could adjust how they responded to them—either for good or bad. Perhaps that is why Doctor Zhivago is such a classic movie. All of us can find a character in the movie to which we can relate. Although the setting and events are different in every person’s life, human nature is a constant. We all deal with many of the same desires, challenges, and hardships, albeit on a smaller scale. And it is how we react to these problems that help determine the course we take, both as a nation and as individuals.

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