Ten-year-old Yurii Zhivago, the son of a wealthy profligate who had deserted his family, attended his mother’s funeral in the company of his Uncle Kolia. They stayed that night at a nearby monastery. To the boy, waking in the darkness, the snow-covered landscape beyond his window suggested an empty, alien world. Young Misha Gordon, traveling with his father, saw the older Zhivago kill himself in a leap from a moving train. Nika Dudorov, whose parents were a nihilistic terrorist and a Georgian princess, was being brought up in the household of Kilogrigov, a philanthropic industrialist. After his father, a revolutionary and a railway worker, had been exiled to Siberia, Pasha Antipov was taken in by the Tiverzin family, also revolutionaries. Amalia Guishar, the French widow of a Russian engineer, arrived in Moscow and opened a dressmaking establishment; her protector was Victor Komarovsky, an unscrupulous lawyer who eventually succeeded in seducing her daughter Lara.
Before long, these lives began to crisscross. During their school days, Yurii Zhivago and Misha Gordon lived in the home of Alexander Gromeko, a professor of chemistry; their companion was Tonia, daughter of Gromeko and his ailing wife, Anna Ivanovna. Pasha and Nika took part in student riots. One night, by chance, after Madame Guishar had attempted suicide, Yurii saw Lara looking at her betrayer and guessed their secret. Lara, following an unsuccessful attempt to shoot Komarovsky, became a governess in the Kilogrigov household; later, she married Pasha and went to live with him in a hamlet beyond the Urals. Yurii discovered his vocation as a poet but instead chose a career in medicine because he believed that art was not a vocation, any more than melancholy or cheerfulness was a profession. For him, most choices were as simple as that. During his student years, he revealed an almost Dostoevskian gift of innocence which he never lost and which made him vulnerable, in the end, to forces beyond his power to order or control. This trait was part of the greater, enveloping mystique, which in the novel threw over much that was brutal and sordid a radiance of goodness and truth, symbolized by the light seen briefly in a strange house as Yurii and Tonia drove by to a Christmas party. He married Tonia, and their first child was born shortly before World War I.
With the outbreak of the war, the tempo of events quickened abruptly. Yurii Zhivago served in a hospital unit on the front lines of battle. Wounded, he was nursed by Lara Antipov, who was to become the great love of his life.
He found himself married to a wife whom he sincerely respected and loved, but at the same time, he was pulled toward Lara by a tide of passion which swept him along into the unsettled years ahead. The Moscow to which he returned after the October Revolution was a city ravaged by riots and disease, from which he fled with his family to an estate, the property of Tonia’s grandfather, in the Urals. All Russia was on the move—restless, threatening, violent. In the village where the Zhivagos settled, Yurii met Lara again and was once more drawn to her until he was seized by a band of Red partisans and forced into service as their doctor during a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the White partisans in Siberia. After his escape, he returned to find that his family had gone back to Moscow. He and Lara lived together in an abandoned farmhouse for a brief period of perfect happiness. Then, about to be arrested because they had become politically suspect, he sent her to safety with Komarovsky, who had become an official of the new regime. Another great scene of the novel is that in which Zhivago encountered Pasha for the last time. Pasha, now called Strelnikov—"The Shooter"—had been a feared and hated commissar of the civil war, but he himself was in flight from Red authorities who had denounced him as he had denounced others. His suicide after a night of wild accusation and abject confession pointed eloquently to the revolutionary madness of the period.
Back in Moscow, Zhivago found his life empty and meaningless. His family had found refuge in Paris. He married a younger woman, the daughter of a former porter in the Gromeko house, practiced medicine, and wrote a few scientific papers. In the end, he was befriended by his strange half-brother, Evgraf, an ambiguous figure whose relationship with Yurii remained shadowy and symbolic. After Yurii died of a heart attack, Evgraf arranged for the publication of a collection of Yurii’s poems. During World War II, he also discovered Tania, the daughter of Yurii and Lara, and provided for her future.