Doctor Zhivago (Russian Miniseries)


Oleg Menshikov (left) and Chulpan Khamatova (right) as Yuri Zhivago and Lara in the 2006 Russian series adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

Original Title: Доктор Живаго

Russia has taken back what is theirs with a serialized version of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago at the hand of Aleksandr Proshkin. It lasts 11 episodes, clocking in at a little bit over eight hours of running time, making it the most faithful adaptation of Pasternak’s novel, which had been popularized by the Academy Award winning 1965 Hollywood film adaptation and the 2002 BBC miniseries.

I had never watched Russian television, and I actually haven’t watched (let alone read) any Doctor Zhivago material, so I had very little idea of what I was going to encounter with this one. However, I really couldn’t resist watching this version, co-starring my favorite Russian actress, Chulpan Khamatova, in the role of Lara… who apparently is a key part in the romance of the story and is way more important in the BBC adaptation where the character is played by none other than Keira Knightley.

From what I’ve read about the novel, this 2006 adaptation seems to follow the book as closely as it is humanly possible, only applying minor changes (cities, giving things that happened to other characters, etc.) and following Doctor Yuri Zhivago (Menshikov) in his misadventures through the pains of his motherland (three revolutions and two wars) and his messed up love life up until his passing. The series ends before Lara even finds out about Zhivago after her departure — in short: Doctor Zhivago is a really, REALLY depressing series. I loved it.

For those who’ve got no idea, the story is set in the early 1900s and follows a group of people living through the Ruso-Japanese War (1904-05), the Eastern Front (for World War I, 1914-18), the February Revolution (1917), the October Revolution (1917) and the Russian Civil War (1917-22) as they meet and encounter each other again and again due to cruel fate. People formed families, died or killed for their country, left loved ones, and suffered… a lot.

The first four episodes of Doctor Zhivago set up the characters so viewers get to know them, barely touching upon the war with Japan, but setting a solid foundation for the story to take root… especially in Lara’s case. For a moment there, I could barely notice Zhivago as a character as the focus (or my bias)  seems to be on Lara and her relationship with the damn lucky Victor Komarovsky (Oleg Yankovskiy) and the idealistic Pavel Antipov (Sergey Gorobchenko). The pacing in those episodes seems to be almost painfully slow, or I needed to get used to it. After those nearly four hours, the connection with the characters was established, and I was in for the painful ride.

The acting is quite formidable, especially from Yankovskiy, whose Komarovsky had… a lot of charisma, perfect for the character and a fitting explanation as to why he was able to survive that long despite the changes going through the country. I’m still uncertain as to why people refer to Doctor Zhivago as a “great love story,” as Zhivago was anything but a romantic hero. He’s a poet doctor haunted by his own demons, always in search of his great love (or adventure)… when he’s with his wife Tonya (Varvara Andreeva), his greatest love is Lara and when he’s with Lara, his devotion seemed to be with Tonya, even though we get very little time with Tonya and the rest of the family.

Having said that, I did love Chulpan Khamatova in this one. Even more so than I thought I was going to. I don’t know what I’m gonna do with other interpretations of Lara after watching this, I might as well not watch the Hollywood version now. The settings, mood and exteriors in this adaptation seem perfect for the story — who would be better to put Russian sentiments on screen than Russians? Doctor Zhivago is at times crude and shows all sides of social revolution and war romanticism. No one is a hero, everyone has their dreams and ideals to a fault, which is exasperating, heartbreaking and real.

Proshkin and writer Yuri Arabov never underestimate their audience, and, sadly, I was so confused at times, but I blame my own lack of familiarity with Russian history, its settings and Proshkin’s material. Sometimes it took me a few minutes to connect one character to the other. However, overall, Doctor Zhivago is a very well put together series that deserves more attention, especially if Russian embassies around the globe were interested in popularizing Russian cultural material.

Rating: ★★★¾☆ 


YAM Magazine editor, photographer, blogger, translator and part-time web designer. Film junkie, music junkie… and lately series (a.k.a. TV) junkie.

12 Responses

  1. Oleg Menshikov! that’s the only actor I know here, but he was very good in the other films I saw him in.
    I haven’t read the book, but the Hollywood version was my grandma’s favorite movie. I watched it last year, and while the cast is good and some of the visual moments are poetic, the script is stilted in that particular Old Hollywood color period epic way.

    I know that around 2011 or 2012 the Russian culture ministry began a big promotion campaign of their classic and modern literature, with new printed editions and various tours. I’m not sure if that included Russian-made film and TV adaptations.

    • amy says:

      @Diandra Rodriguez, I’m null in Russian names xD I don’t think I’ve seen many of Russian films… before trying to get hold of Khamatova’s filmography, I had only seen Night Watch and The Russian Ark xD

      I think except for big Hollywood films, it’s always hard to watch anything that’s outside that blockbuster idea. Small distributors always struggle because they tend to lean towards arthouse films that don’t necessarily play well in cinemas. In that sense, I think it’s important for consulates and embassies to do showings of their films. The French embassy does it yearly, though they do bring a pretty dated collection of “new films” that could be between 5 or 3 years. But haven’t really heard of events like that for other countries.

      • @amy, yeah, that would be awesome! The main reason I’ve watched movies from so many different countries is because the local libraries here carry a variety of materials.

      • Keri says:

        I wonder if anybody who wrote reviews about this movie actually has read “Doctor Zhivago”. To me this is a disaster. Mr. Proshkin sliced and diced the novel to his tasting without leaving any respect to Russian culture, literature and the author. He just used the famous novel name for his advantage. Other than a stolen name the movie has absolutely nothing to do with the original. I say it as a person who just recently re-read the novel and as a Russian immigrant familiar with Russian culture and literature.
        Mr. Proshkin used Pasternak’s creation to build a monument to him and “NEW RUSSIAN pop-culture” changing most of the facts and picturing love story of a crazy shallow girl and a guy (doctor), who was ignored by his wife and was dreaming about another woman. Wrong. The book is about lost souls, destroyed country, innocence surviving disaster, killed culture, love to people and land. Zhivago was loved by his wife and always loved her. He was blaming himself for the attraction, fought for happiness but, as many others, was destroyed. This love story is in the centre but absolutely not a core of the book. It was just a way to create a frame to show the country’s catastrophic events.
        And if this affair story is not enough for you, Mr. Proshkin spiced it up with details of cut human flash, dogs eating it, swearing and rapes. Bravo!
        At the same time original poetry, love to nature and grieving destroyed lives, everything that led to the Nobel Prize, were omitted by Mr. Proshkin as unnecessary details. Well, I understand that… Unlike poetry, screening sex and blood is brings money. And that is all what this is about – profit for “new Russians”. As always, does not matter what the cost is….. Again, money doesn’t smell… If we need to flip over the facts and make Pasternak crying looking at the insult of his work from his grave, let it be…..
        Truly, if that works, this country does not stand a chance.

        Boris Pasternak did not get the Nobel Prize for a cheap story of love affair.

        • amy says:

          @Keri, like I said above – the key elements about things that happened are there. I haven’t read the novel, but a lot of what you point out seems more to do with interpretation. It seems all adaptations have been reduced to the love story…

          BUT, I do think the miniseries is about lost souls and a country that’s destroyed, the love for the people and the land- it’s all war romanticism, and it’s there. It’s not the focus, but it’s shown with a layer of that “love story” that I thought wasn’t such a great love story. In my view, Zhivago did show his love for his wife (when he was with Lara), to Lara (when he was with his wife)- I truly feel his greatest love was Russia. To me, it’s close to what you describe. It may lack the subtlety and the development that was in the book as you describe it, but it stills miles better to other adaptations that only focus on the love story.

  2. Keri says:

    Thank you, Amy. Unfortunately, when we talk about adaptation it has something to do with the original and maybe representing somewhat differently some points of the book.

    However, in this case, this is not an adaptation at all. This is a complete misinterpretation. The movie is filled in every scene with the facts that were not in the book, what was in the book was either missed or flipped over. E.g., when they left Moscow Tonya never asked Zhivago “where we are going? why?” like she does in Proshkin’s creation. Instead, Tonya and her father fought with Zhivago forcing him to move from Moscow so they would be able to work with land and feed their family. In Proshkin’s movie it looks like he took his family and left Moscow with hidden agenda to meet Lara. This is just one example. I can give hundreds. Crazy.

    Continuing like this, Proshkin can create an “adaptation” of “Anna Karenina”. For example, make her a prostitute, her lover a pimp, her husband a pirate. Will be sold. Guaranteed.

    It would be Okay if Proshkin created movie with the name “Doctor Proshkin”. Would not get too much attention though….

    Taking the famous novel’s name, disrespectfully to the author destroying everything that he worked on for many years and making money pretending that this is adaptation…..

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