a site by John Cobley

a coppice gate

Doctor Zhivago: Portrait of a Revolutionary Fanatic

by John Cobley

Thursday Apr 6th, 2023


In this extract Pasternak explains how a fundamentally good man can become the most zealous of revolutionaries. In the early parts of the novel, Pasha Antipov is portrayed as a passionate but good young man, a good enough man for the heroine of the novel to marry. Years later Yury Zhivago is arrested and brought before this man who is now, as a Red Army general, terrorizing the people with extreme revolutionary fanaticism. However, Pasha Antipov, now know as Strelnikov, treats Zhivago courteously after he realizes that the doctor had been wrongly wrongly arrested.


This passage immediately precedes Yury Zhivago’s encounter with Strelnikov.




So who was this man? It was remarkable that as a non-party man he had risen to such a position and had held on to it when no one knew of him. Born in Moscow, he had left after graduating to teach in the provinces. He had been captured in the war, listed as missing and presumed dead. 

            The progressive railway worker Tiverzin, in whose family Strelnikov had been brought up, had recommended him and vouched for him. At that time, Tiverzin was trusted by people who fixed appointments. In those days of immoderate zeal and extreme views, Strelnikov’s  revolutionary spirit, which stopped at nothing, stood out for an authenticity and fanaticism that was unique, having been prepared for by his whole life and not by chance.

            Strelnikov had justified the trust placed in him.

            His recent service record included operations at Ust-Nemda and Nizhni Kelmes, the action against the Gubasovo peasants who had attacked a food detachment, and the operation against the looting of a supply train by the 14th Regiment at the Mdevezhaya Poima. He was also known for his action against the Razinsky soldiers who had rebelled at Turkatuy and defected with their weapons to the White Guard, as well as against the mutiny at the Chirkin Us wharf, when a commander loyal to the Soviet authorities was murdered.

            Each time he came like a bolt from the blue, judged, sentenced and then carried out these sentences quickly, severely and fearlessly.

            Riding around in his armoured train, he had curtailed the mass desertion in the area. His reorganization of recruitment had changed everything, especially in the Red Army. The commission for admission was now working at a fever pitch.

            Finally, more recently, when the Whites had begun to press from the north and the situation was seen as threatening, Strelnikov was given new military, strategic and operational assignments. He soon made his mark.

            Strelnikov was aware that he had a new nickname: The Executioner (Rasstrelnikov). He took this in his stride, fearing nothing.

            He was a Moscow native and the son of a worker who had taken part in the 1905 revolution and had suffered for it. He had not been involved in the revolutionary movement initially because of his age and because, as a young man from a poor home, when he had obtained a place in higher education, he valued it more than the children of the rich. The ferment among richer students did not affect him. He left university with a vast amount of knowledge. And he had managed to supplement this historico-philological education with mathematics.

            Although he was not required by law to enlist, he nevertheless volunteered. As a lieutenant he was taken prisoner, but escaped home at the end of 1917 when he heard about the Revolution.

            He had two distinguishing traits, two passions. He had a particularly clear and logical mind. And as a man of warm and noble feelings, he possessed exceptional moral purity and fairness.

            But for academic activities that paved new paths, his mind lacked the gift of randomness, that ability to make the unexpected discoveries that upset the sterile harmony of empty foresight.

            And for doing good this principled man lacked the type of unprincipled heart that does not know general cases but only individual ones and that is great because it deals with small things.

            From an early age, Strelnikov had aimed for the highest and brightest. He considered life to be a huge arena where people competed to attain perfection while honestly following the rules.

            When he realized that life was not like this, it never occurred to him that he was wrong in simplifying the world order. For a long time he suppressed his resentment and reached the idea of becoming an arbiter between life and the dark principles that spoil it. He would enter life to defend it and avenge it. 

            Disappointment had hardened him. Revolution armed him.


The translations from the Russian are mine, but I benefitted from consulting the three translations of Doctor Zhivago by Hayward and Harari, Pevear and Volokhonsky, and Pasternak Slater.


Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.