Monday, June 13, 2011

Zhivago's Private Life

"No doubt they will sing in tune AFTER the Revolution."

"Farewell pleasures of the flesh."

"You're attitude has been noticed. Oh yes, it's been noticed."

"Besides, I've executed better men than me with a small pistol."

I first saw the film version of Doctor Zhivago many years ago. Aside from the snow and Omar Sharif's magnificent eyes, I remember only one detail from the film, and that is that, upon returning from service as a doctor at the front, Zhivago was obliged to share his home with several other families. It's strange that a housing crisis disturbed me more than a dozen scences of blizzard, military revolt, refugees in overcrowded trains, and Civil War. The house, or at least most of it, had been requisitioned by the Bolshevik government. Zhivago, although a liberal man, perhaps originally even a fellow traveler, is prepared to adapt to the new environment. He knows the old regime was deeply flawed, and sympathizes with the egalitarian spirit of the times. But when he arrives home to find strangers in his home, and obligingly welcomes these families, he's curtly told that the welcome isn't appropriate since the communal home no longer belongs to him.

The scence captures the banal side of the Soviet tragedy. Apart from war, famine, and strife, ordinary Russians lost their privacy. My only comparable experience with sharing a communal house occurred when I was a teenager. At this time, my father married a second time and, like the Brady Bunch, two very different families--my dad had three children, my stepmother two of her own--suddenly found themselves eyeball to eyeball in a single living space. Who were these strangers? They were good people, but they were aliens. They had their own words, customs, foibles, and material preferences.

We encounter difference everywhere we go, but we can almost always escape this difference when it threatens to pierce or overwhelm our fragile identities. Not so with stepfamilies. They encounter us everywhere we go: in the kitchen, watching t.v., playing ping pong in the basement, speaking with our parents, or hanging out with friends. Living with a stepfamily, for all of its social benefits, is akin to embarking on a foreign exchange experience, but one that never, ever ends. How hard was it for the bourgeoisie to share their homes with strangers? It can't have been easy for men and women who had been accustomed to a large amount of privilege and privacy before the Revolution. Indeed, it turned out that even the lower classes hated the absence of private life that remained the hallmark of the Soviet Union for most if not all of its seventy year existence.

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