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'Dr. Zhivago': The Classic Book That Was Almost Never Published

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Andrei Zvyagintsev's movie "Leviathan" will likely be banned in Russia under a new blasphemy law that comes into effect July 1. The highly praised, ambitious arthouse film was awarded best screenplay and nominated for the Palme d'Or at the recent 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

Variety called the auteur's film "cause for celebration ... his most accessible and naturalistic film, using everyday characters to test how well modern-day Russia is maintaining the social contract with its citizens."

There is a fair amount of gutter language -- expletives and epithets -- all of them authentic, just as the stunning and provocative scenes of rural Russia are genuine. However the Russian Federation's Minister of Culture, Andrei Medinsky, suggested to the filmmaker that he clean up his dialogue in compliance with the coming law. As the film community expected, Zvyagintsev, who is used to making movies in a climate of relative freedom, refused.

There has been a crackdown on artistic freedom in Russia, and the blasphemy laws are at least in part a response to the Pussy Riot action, arrest and trial in 2012. The feminist punk group performed about 40 seconds of their anti-Putin "prayer" song at the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, the center of Orthodoxy, highly charged with symbols of the new Russia. Before one activist could get her guitar out of the case, the protest performance was shut down. Two members of Pussy Riot were imprisoned in penal colonies for two years.

Russian authorities and artists have engaged in a long and at times terrifying love-hate relationship. Ironically, the machinery of coercion and censorship assisted in making works of arts into classics, and their makers into larger-than-life heroes. This new controversy will certainly draw new audiences to Zvyagintsev's work. In Russia, censorship has frequently guaranteed ultimate success.

The epic novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak is among Russia's most famous forbidden books. The passionate life of the doctor-poet Yuri Zhivago, Pasternak's alter-ego, is set against the background of the turbulent events of the 20th century. In the novel, Zhivago leaves behind a collection of poetry, which forms the novel's last chapter and serves as his artistic legacy and life credo.

Pasternak finished his novel in 1955 with the hope he could publish it following Stalin's death in 1953. But his editors rejected it unanimously, and when Pasternak decided to give his manuscript to a Westerner in the spring of 1956, the authorities panicked.

The publication in the West of the uncensored manuscript, and the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Pasternak against the will of the Soviet authorities in 1958, triggered one of the great cultural storms of the Cold War. Amid the chaos, the CIA had the novel printed in Russian (produced undercover in the Netherlands) only to smuggle it back into the Soviet Union.

And it was a lot more than swearing that doomed Doctor Zhivago's Soviet publication. Its apolitical stance was regarded as blasphemy in a society where all literature was a critical instrument of mass propaganda. The novel's religiosity was "an anachronism from a reactionary renegade" in a communist society striving towards atheism. But the true heresy was the book's philosophy of individual expression over collectivism and uniformity.

Pasternak recoiled from the groupthink of many of his fellow writers. "Don't yell at me," he said to his peers at one public meeting, where he was heckled for asserting that writers should not be given orders. "But if you must yell, at least don't do it in unison."

Pasternak felt no need to tailor his art to the political demands of the state; to sacrifice his novel, he believed, would be a sin against his own genius."

Doctor Zhivago was catapulted into the canon of modern fiction, helped in no small part by the Soviet ban and the 1965 David Lean film of the same name. These days, the novel has its devotees and its detractors, but it is safe to say that the story of the truth-seeker Yuri Zhivago was more enthusiastically read in Soviet Russia, in its forbidden form, than now.

Pasternak succeeded in writing a novel of timeless ideas: "Every herd is a refuge for giftlessness, whether it's faith in Solovyov, or Kant, or Marx. Only the solitary seek the truth, and they break with all of those who don't love it sufficiently."

Doctor Zhivago is a plea for artistic integrity, freedom of the individual and respect for the dissident view--all hot buttons that shock and alienate censors everywhere. Today, Russia finds itself stifled by a new tightening grip of conservative laws inspired by the Russian Orthodox Church. The ministry of culture has announced it will continue to sponsor films, but only those that support the state and traditional "family values." Doctor Zhivago is a great remedy against the fear of being different, and the idea that we will fit into a single mold.

Petra Couvée is the co-author of The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (Pantheon, $26.95).