Aleksandr Proshkin: Doctor Zhivago (TV, 2006)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2007

The Third Time is a Charm:
Aleksandr Proshkin's Doctor Zhivago (2006) on Russia's Small Screen

Aleksandr Proshkin's serialized adaptation of Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago follows two Western screen versions, David Lean's 1965 film and Giacomo Campiotti's 2002 British mini-series. It took thirty years for Doctor Zhivago to be published in the Soviet Union and it took almost fifty years to release the first Russian screen adaptation of the novel. Produced by the Central Partnership company (producer Ruben Dishdishian), the series aired on channel NTV in May 2006. What does the release of this eight hour, eleven-part television version of the famous novel mean in the context of contemporary Russian culture?

New York Times reviewer, Steven Lee Myers, called the release of Proshkin's big budget adaptation, “part of a cinematic counterrevolution under way in today's Russia, largely waged on television.” [1] The newly state-controlled channels are reclaiming the Russian literary canon in order to restore Russians' self-image as a spiritual community with a world-historical mission. These phantom pains of a nation—with a removed messianic sting—explain, in part, the recent proliferation of quasi-high culture serials, which have successfully replaced the equally melodramatic but less quality-aspiring Latin American soap operas and domestic gangster sagas. Most importantly, productions, like Doctor Zhivago, Master and Margarita (dir. Vladimir Bortko, 2005), The First Circle (V kruge pervom; dir.Gleb Panfilov, 2005), and of course the one that initiated the trend, Vladimir Bortko's adaptation of Fedor Dostoevskii's Idiot (2003), visualize the shift in cultural values that followed the rise of oil prices and the new authoritarian regime. Russian viewers appreciate their collective, at times terrifying, but undoubtedly epic past, which confirms the restoration of communal greatness in the present. What can provide better evidence of being a great power and a spiritual community than a big budget adaptation of a literary novel written by one of Russia's numerous prophetic writers?

In this time of so-called new stability, Russian television provides quality escapist entertainment and Doctor Zhivago is a very successful commodity, fine-tuned to its consumers' tastes. Iurii Arabov, a renowned poet and a scriptwriter for Russia's premier living auteur filmmaker, Aleksandr Sokurov, deserves special praise for creating an original interpretation of Pasternak's novel. On the one hand, the scriptwriter has produced a popular Russian melodrama with a weak—read kenotic [2] —male protagonist, strong female lead, and the inevitable Russian ending; on the other, Arabov explores several important themes of Pasternak's novel that are interesting to the contemporary viewer. This viewer, who survived the fall of the Soviet Union and gangster street wars of the 1990s, is particularly attuned to the experience of survival in the times of trouble. Arabov converts the story of the poet-doctor living in the age of the Soviet revolution into a heart-breaking family melodrama about Doctor Zhivago being able to procreate both spiritually and biologically in a time when everyone else has lost this ability. Zhivago eventually sacrifices himself for the survival of his three families: the Gromekos, the Antipovs, and Markel's family. According to the mini-series, the two former families enriched European civilization, while the latter is the people-minded (if somewhat retarded) ancestors of television viewers.

For the buffs of Pasternak's life and works, the film evokes the poet's biography, full of difficult choices determined by the well-being of the people depending on him. For those less familiar with Pasternak's life, the film enacts similar experiences during the troubled decade after the fall of the Soviet Union. While bringing the story of the poet-doctor home to the contemporary Russian viewer, Arabov carefully, without any high culture snobbery, links the melodramatic story of the families' survival with a Bergsonian notion of the life force, central for Pasternak's novel, thus creating a television version of a philosophical parable. [3]

Proshkin and Arabov's parable owes much of its success with viewers to its star cast. Oleg Men'shikov plays Iurii Zhivago, Chulpan Khamatova—Lara Gishar-Antipova, and Oleg Iankovskii steals the performance by his powerful screen interpretation of Viktor Komarovskii. Perhaps influenced by Arabov's parallel television project (an adaptation of Nikolai Gogol''s Dead Souls), [4] the scriptwriter gave his Komarovskii a persona similar to Petr Chichikov, a macabre trickster riding around Russia and buying human souls that “turned bad.” The filmmakers' great success is the scene of Komarovskii's arrival in Varykino in an armored car, an iconic image linked to Lenin leading the October revolution. The famous scene of the abduction of Lara by Komarovskii turns into a scene connecting the Gogolian trickster story with Soviet revolutionary mythology. Again, Arabov here is operating on two levels: on the one hand, the image of Komarovskii in the armored car creates complex cultural associations harking back to the idea that the 19th-century intelligentsia itself is to be blamed for the October revolution;[5] on the other hand, the script brings back memories of the recent Russian past and caresses the populist nerve of an average viewer. When Zhivago sees Komarovskii enjoying a life of luxury and power amidst everyone's misery, he asks him a question every domestic viewer, I suppose, cannot wait to ask Komarovskii as well: “How come neither famine, cold, nor bullets can destroy creatures like Komarovskii? Why are you always successful? Under the tsar, under the dictatorship of the proletariat, under the socialist utopia, even if someone could imagine the most unimaginable government for Russia? Where is God then? Where is his punishing hand?” The series' authors play an intricate balancing act, paying homage to the age-old intelligentsia's debate of “Who is to blame?” while simultaneously catering to popular phobias of a television viewer living amidst Russia's corruption, poverty, and oligarch capitalism.

Men'shikov's performance is impeccable, albeit somewhat one dimensional. The opening lines of the First Psalm summarize the persona of Iurii Zhivago pretty succinctly: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the path of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!” Men'shikov plays the suffering and “self-emptying” protagonist, continuing the television gallery of Russia's self-emptying males, including Aleksandr Galibin's Master and Sergei Bezrukov's Ieshua from Master and Margarita; Evgenii Mironov's Prince Myshkin from The Idiot; and Gleb Nerzhin from The First Circle.

A great success of the series is the role of Lara, played by Chulpan Khamatova. In David Lean's orientalist melodrama, Julie Christie played the exotic Slavic beauty, while Proshkin sought to make Lara an exotic European woman (her mother is French, her father is Belgian, according to the novel), enchanting to Russian male characters. In addition and possibly in contradiction to what both Arabov and Proshkin claim, I would also note that Khamatova plays a strong female protagonist who evokes the canonical strong women of classical Russian literature, from Pushkin's Tat'iana Larina to Dostoevskii's infernal beauties of The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. Moreover, perhaps the red-haired Lara, as performed by Khamatova, stirs up in the minds of Russians some associations with the red-haired beauties of Renaissance paintings. From the expatriate's point of view of the author of this review, Khamatova creates a Eurasian Lara whose Western family origins are in direct contradiction with her Asiatic features. By choosing an actress with Oriental features to play the pan-European beauty, Proshkin articulates Russians' infatuation with their Eurasian fate.

The film ends with Zhivago observing the appearance of a new human type, the Stalinist heirs of the revolution, whose facial features would enrich the collection of criminal types for any follower of Professor Lombroso, yet look painfully familiar to any domestic viewer following Russia's television news. The faces in the final scenes of the mini-series provide a vivid contrast to the portraits in the shots opening every episode—the collection of photographic prints of Zhivago, his relatives and friends from pre-revolutionary Russia. The faces on the photographs possess spiritual features and seem to belong to a different species if compared to the ones inhabiting Stalinist Russia in the last episode of Proshkin's Doctor Zhivago. The only nexus point between these two worlds and the only hope for the viewer is the poet-doctor reading his “Hamlet” amidst the Elsinoric labyrinth of a Soviet communal apartment.

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary

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1] “Time to Come Home, Zhivago” (12 February 2006): section 4, page 16.

2] Kenosis is a Christian concept of the self-emptying on one's own will in order to be receptive to God's perfect will.

3] The exploitation of a quasi-religious philosophical parable as a narrative form has become a common device in contemporary Russian cinema and television. See, for example, Bortko's The Idiot or Pavel Lungin's recent art house film The Island (Ostrov, 2006). Critics and viewers praised the latter—in my view an exploitation vehicle—as a long-awaited parable about faith and salvation coming out of new Russia.

4] Arabov wrote the screenplay for the eight part, 364 minute mini-series The Case of the Dead Souls (Delo o mertvykh dushakh; dir. Pavel Lungin, 2005) for NTV-Profit Film Company.

5] See Nikolai Berdiaev's essay “Spirits of the Russian Revolution” (“Dukhi russkoi revoliutsii”).

Doctor Zhivago, Russia 2006
Color, 484 minutes, 11 parts
Director: Aleksandr Proshkin
Scriptwriter: Iurii Arabov
Cinematography: Gennadii Kariuk
Composer: Eduard Artem'ev
Cast: Oleg Men'shikov, Chulpan Khamatova, Oleg Iankovskii
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian
Production: Central Partnership

Aleksandr Proshkin: Doctor Zhivago (TV, 2006)

reviewed by Alexander Prokhorov© 2007

Updated: 15 Oct 07