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Doctor Zhivago: Yury Fires on the Whites

by John Cobley

Thursday Apr 13th, 2023




This passage in Part 15 describes how Yury Zhivago participated in a battle, how he came to fire on the White enemy. In order to focus on Yury’s atypical action, some parts of this passage have been omitted.


They were close now, and getting closer. The doctor could see them clearly, even their faces. They were youths and young men from the non-military strata of metropolitan society as well as older men mobilized from the reserves. But the young ones set the tone—first-year university students and high-school boys who had recently volunteered. The doctor didn’t know any of them, but half of them seemed perfectly normal and reminded him of his former schoolmates. They could well be their younger brothers. Others he could have once met at the theatre or in crowds on the street. Their attractive and expressive faces seemed to belong to people of his own kind. 

They were doing their duty as they saw it, animated by a youthful bravado that was pointless and defiant. They advanced in a loose thin line, outdoing the regular guardsmen in their bearing and braving danger; they did not succumb to running or to lying flat on the field, although the ground was uneven with mounds and tussocks that could have provided protection. The Partisan bullets were mowing them down almost to a man.

In the middle of a wide clearing, across which the Whites were advancing, there stood a dead tree. It had been charred by lightning or a bonfire, or perhaps singed and shattered in a previous battle. Every one of the volunteer riflemen glanced at it, fighting the temptation to hide behind its trunk for a safer and more accurate aim. But they overcame the temptation and continued.

The partisans had limited ammunition. They were under orders established by mutual agreement to shoot only at close visible targets.

The doctor lay in the grass, watching the developments of the battle. All his sympathy was with the young soldiers, who were dying heroically. With all his heart he wished them success. They came from families that were likely close to him in spirit, upbringing, morality and ideas.

In order to save the situation, he thought of running out into the middle of the field and surrendering. But that would have been much too dangerous.


Yet merely watching and doing nothing amid this life and death struggle was not humanly possible. It was not a matter of loyalty to his own side, which was holding him prisoner, nor of self-protection. It was following the rules of what was happening in front and around him. It was against the rules to remain indifferent. He had to do what everyone else was doing. There was a battle. He and his comrades were under fire. He had to fire back.

So when the telephonist beside him in the line jerked convulsively and then lay motionless on the ground, Yury Andreevich crawled over to him, removed his pouch, took his rifle, went back to his position and began firing shot after shot.  

His feelings wouldn’t allow him to aim at the young people whom he admired and sympathized with. But it was pointless to shoot in the air like an idiot; It wasn’t what he wanted to do. So he chose the moments when there were no attackers in the way and started to fire at the burnt tree, shooting off its dry lower branches….

But how horrible! Careful as the doctor was not to hit anyone, first one and then another attacker moved at the crucial moment between him and the tree, crossing his line of fire just as he fired a shot. He had hit and wounded two men and now a third unfortunate one had fallen not far from the tree and appeared dead.

Eventually, the White command realised the attack was hopeless, ordered a retreat.


Leaving the [dead] telephonist, Yury crossed the clearing to reach the body of the young White Guard he had killed. The young man’s face expressed innocence, complete forgiveness and suffering. “Why did I kill him?” thought the doctor.

He unbuttoned the dead man’s overcoat and opened it up. On the lining was some calligraphic lettering, probably sewn in by a careful and loving mother’s hand: Seryoza Rantsevich—the dead man’s name….

Then Seryoza suddenly groaned and stretched. He was alive. It turned out that he had been stunned by a light concussion. A stray bullet had hit the face of his mother’s amulet, and that had saved him. But what was the doctor to do now with the unconscious man?


Yury and his assistant nursed the young man back to health.  When Rantsevich had fully recovered, they released him, although he did not hide his intention to return to Kolchak’s army and continue fighting the Reds.     



 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.                                                                                        




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