Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dr. Z

When I was in fifth grade my parents went away for the weekend leaving me with the next door neighbors.  When they returned home my mother asked me how it had gone and what did I end up doing.  I told her I went to a movie.  "Oh?" she said, "Which one?" "Doctor Zhivago," I proudly answered.  My mother was livid.

I've read Pasternak's novel three times since those formative years, and seen the movie countless more times.  Tonight I screened Dr. Z for my daughter and my wife.  My daughter liked it, but didn't like the ending; my wife still loathes the film, and I suspect she always will. I don't blame her, really; one can only like a few of the characters in the tale, such as Tonya, her mother, and father, and perhaps a handful of others; all of whom have limited air time.  I typically don't like stories where I can't like a main character; so I should agree with my wife on this one.  But I don't, and I will explain why in a minute.

In college I took two history courses as part of my humanities requirement: Russian History, and Soviet history.  They were both taught by a professor who had defected from the Soviet Union with his parents and siblings after WWII.  His lectures were riveting; he made history, not just Russian history come alive with his anecdotes, perspectives, and analyses.  He also smoked these jet-black Russian cigars while he lectured; actually, he inhaled them as I and the rest of his students looked on aghast.

There are two things relevant to the present discussion I would like to relate from those Russian history lectures.  Firstly, he told us how maybe only 20% of the Soviet population actually believed what was published in the newspaper, Pravda.  This was quite ironic, of course, because Pravda means truth.  There was nothing the Russian people could do about it at that point, being under Brezhnev's thumb. My professor went on to say about 70% of Americans believed what they read in American newspapers.  And for 1977 this was a reasonable position for people to take because by and large American journalism was trustworthy then.

Secondly, when our professor had been called to Washington to assist our diplomats with visitors from the Soviet Union, some young professors from Colorado College stood in for him.  They spoke glibly about all the arguments they had had with our professor as they extolled the virtues of Bolshevism.  They as much as said our professor was quite naive in his repudiation of communism.  I thought at the time these guys, who had probably grown up in upper middle class homes and attended Harvard or some other Ivy League school, had a lot of nerve to challenge our professor who had actually lived under the Soviet system.  But even though the communist systems have proven themselves to be political and economic failures, after butchering millions upon millions of people in the bargain, I still know some who believe communism is a viable social option.  And if given the chance, they would embrace communism with open arms.

This is why I like Doctor Zhivago so much.

The critics might be right in downgrading Dr. Z for its over-inflated romanticism, but they miss the point.  It is a fairly accurate and true depiction of a society in self-destruction.  It is a slice of history.  And all history needs to be seen--whether dramatized or not-- lest we forget and live through it again.

Dr. Z is a cautionary tale.  It warns us of at least two factors that play into destroying a society.  The first is the cold indifference of those who have resources towards those who do not.  When I watch the dragoons slaughter the poor peaceful demonstrators near the beginning of the story, I think how those wealthy who looked on from their lavish parties in their ivory palaces instead of interceding to bring justice, brought certain irreversible calamity to both themselves and those poor people--that is, those who had it in their power to make positive changes to Russia, for the benefit of all, didn't, and so left the door open for the opportunists.

The second warning from this great epic, then, is how easily wolves in sheep's clothing can infiltrate a flock of complacent sheep.  When Evgrav, Yuri Zhivago's Bolshevik brother, spoke how the Bolsheviks would win when the boots of the Russian soldiers finally wore out in WWI, he told the truth.  But the truth was not that they would usher in a system in which everyone would prosper and live as brothers, as the Bolshevik propaganda spewed in Pravda and elsewhere, rather a small group of opportunists would take advantage of a bad situation to wrest power and wealth for themselves at the expense of everyone else.  And they accomplished this by publishing a steady stream of lies through control of the press and the liberal use of mob tactics.  And the people let the thugs lead the people to the slaughter house--like the Morlocks did the Eloi in H.G. Wells' Time Machine--because the initial subtle incursions by the thugs didn't immediately and intimately affect most of the people, while the rest remained afraid or in desperate want.

Unlike the 1970s, the American press is no longer trustworthy.  There have been too many distortions of the facts by the press exposed in recent days to believe otherwise.  And it is when you see a cockroach, you need to start worrying about an infestation.  Yet the American public has been largely silent to these glaring breaches of trust.  Why?  I'll let you answer that question.

The press or certain political figures might challenge me at this juncture in the same way the Bolshevik commissar did Yuri when Yuri rebuked him for not admitting there was typhus and starvation in the city: "Why is it so important to you that I admit it?"  And I would answer along with Yuri, "Because it is so."

Jesus teaches us that it is truth that sets us free.  We haven't been getting much truth lately. But what is even more frightening is we don't seem to care.

We need to watch stories such as Dr. Z, even if we don't particularly like them or the characters in them, because they remind us of what has happened before and therefore awaken us to what might be happening now.  As has been said many times, if we don't learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.


Anonymous said...

J and I like this film too, but have never been able to put into words so eloquently why! My favorite "un-favorite" truth from your thoughts today: "We haven't been getting much truth lately. But what is even more frightening is we don't seem to care." Well said. S :)

Jeff said...

Not sure if I "like" Dr. Z. (way too sad) but I do find it compelling. The basic world view of communists is that people are basically good and can be "perfected" under the proper system of laws and coercion. Contrast that with the truth of God - we are all lost sheep and can only be "perfected" by the love of God and the blood of Jesus. One system leads to death and the other to life!