Generation Y

‘Doctor Zhivago’, An Old Acquaintance Opens In Cuba

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Screenshot of ‘Doctor Zhivago’, inspired by Boris Pasternak’s novel. (CC)

Yoani Sanchez, Generation Y, 25 January 2018 — The book was part of the private collection of a writer who went into exile and even though the title did not appeal I chanced it, bored in the midst of the publishing drought of the ‘90s. Its pages narrated a country I knew, but described a different place, convulsed, unjust and harsh. Doctor Zhivago came into my hands when the Soviet Union had disappeared and in it I found a part of the answers to explain that disaster.

A quarter of a century later, Cuban television finally broadcast the well-known film inspired by the novel, directed by British director David Lean. Released in that long ago 1965, the movie was absent from the screens of the island until 22 January of this year, though before the airing the program’s commentator warned about the picture’s ideological distortions.

An unnecessary clarification, because the story of Yuri Zhivago is well known on this island thanks to the infallible formula “there is nothing more attractive than the forbidden.” For decades, the work written by Boris Pasternak circulated from hand to hand – its cover wrapped in the boring state newspaper Granma to avoid indiscreet eyes – or, in recent years, in that elusive digital format that easily mocks the thought police.

Unlike George Orwell’s 1984Doctor Zhivago was not banned for predicting a totalitarian future that lined up along many points with our socialist Cuba, but because it described an uncomfortable past for those who wanted to present Russia as a country where the proletarians had achieved a Parnassian state of equality, comradeship and justice.

Instead of the Manichean vision taught in Cuban schools, Pasternak’s work focused on a tormented individual, shaken by social vagaries and more concerned with emerging unscathed from his circumstances than in sacrificing himself for a cause. He was an antihero far-removed from the “New Man” and the Soviet ideal.

The adventures the book had to circumvent also served as an argument to those who wielded the scissors at the Island’s publishers. Its publication in Italy 1957, the Nobel Prize it won Pasternak and the official pressures that forced him to reject the award contributed to the denial of Cubans’ right to read it.

The “camaraderie” in the Communist Bloc was filled such actions. An author censored in one of the countries that made up the vast red geography also made the blacklist in the other nations orbiting the Kremlin. Havana did not ignore that maxim and was faithful to its national stepmother, depriving its citizens of one of the twentieth century’s anthological works.

They censored it in Cuba not only out of ideological complicity with the country that economically sustained all the eccentricities of Fidel Castro, but because in its pages the Great October Socialist Revolution came out badly; it was a mass of informers, police, pressures of all kinds and lies. A suffocating scenario where the individual could barely protect her privacy and herself.

They say that when he was expelled from power, in 1964, Nikita Khrushchev read Pasternak’s novel. “We should not have banned it. I should have read it. There is nothing anti-Soviet in it,” he acknowledged then.

The Cuban censors, however, have not drafted an apology, nor is it necessary. History sounded the vigorous trumpet: the country they tried to protect from the supposed calumnies of the writer ceased to exist almost three decades ago; but Doctor Zhivago remains a vibrant and unforgettable novel.

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