Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Dr. Zhivago - Some thoughts - On freedom

I started reading Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago a few days ago.
Set in the early 1900s, this novel has the backdrop of a tumultuous period in Russian history - the start of the Bolshevik revolution that transformed the country into the world's largest, (probably the first?) and most dreaded Communist regime. I am reading the version translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
First of all, this is not a novel you can read casually while the radio is belting out your favorite songs and you have other things on your mind. The book has so many details that to truly grasp the era in which it was set, you have to give it all, mind, body and soul.

The novel started me thinking very deeply about individual freedom, political and economic freedom, socialism, communism, democracy, capitalism, the Cold War and America's role in promoting democracy around the world. I did a Wikipedia search on democracy and was astounded at the sheer volume of data on this subject. I knew that the ancient Greeks had pioneered this concept and that there were some ancient/medieval kingdoms in India that had some form of democracy, too.

America did not invent democracy; rather, it was one of the first governments to implement a direct democracy (voting by the people) and do away with the monarchy completely.
This is what other people should realize when they feel that America is imposing their way of life on the world or when they are bristling with a mix of anger and envy at the U.S. branding of democracy.

The concepts of individual freedom, welfare and human rights were espoused by Jesus, too, in a slightly different fashion and perhaps by many ancient faiths such as Buddhism. The Indian emperor, Asoka, who was a violent and over-ambitious warrior, embraced Buddhism and repented for his ways, then transformed into a peacemaker and defender of compassion.

Individual freedom and rights got translated into the political sphere gradually with the introduction of democratic practices. Some city states had councils elected by a portion of the general public and slowly, over the ages, through the landmark document of Magna Carta and violent revolutions such as the French Revolution, every individual has come to matter in decision making. There were local village councils and tribal societies where some form of popular consensus was involved if not direct voting. Even the U.S. gradually granted suffrage to non-white people and women. In short, democracy has been and continues to be a "work in progress" (do see this post on 'work in progress' by one of my favorite bloggers). All the above information is gleaned from Wikipedia although I must credit my old school history books and other sources of information on the Internet, too.

I was thinking - what contributes to some societies descending into totalitarianism and some others making it as free societies with good law and order? Imagine if India were not led by Gandhi and Nehru but by some over-enthusiastic communist revolutionaries ready to take the law into their own hands. Would India have (shudder) descended into a despotic dictatorship or communist regime like China, the former Soviet Union or Vietnam or Pol Pot's Cambodia? For all their shortcomings, India was lucky to have leaders with the humanitarianism and insight of Gandhi, Nehru, Sardar Patel and others.

I felt terribly sad for Russia, for all those lost souls who were too afraid to speak up against a cruel regime, for those who lost their lives and families in opposing it, for their lost ideals and potential.
From what I read and have seen in the past, Russia was a land of  poets and intellectuals such as Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, of ballet dancers, music composers, great thinkers and romantics, men and women of peace, justice and idealism.

[I am loving Wikipedia! I learnt a lot more about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (also spelled as Dostoevsky) than before. I did not know that Tolstoy was instrumental to Gandhi's principle of non-violence and other ideas directly although I knew that they were friends.]

Classical proverb: The pen is mightier than the sword.

Coincidentally, I am reading this novel during the Banned Books Week. Doctor Zhivago was banned in the Soviet Union for a really long time and the author, Boris Pasternak, had to even turn down the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I have come to realize that one's understanding of literature, the characters, the milieu and even views on romance, marriage, family life and world views as espoused in a novel, can only be truly fully grasped when you know the socio-economic and political background of the author. This is even more so in the case of certain novels, such as Doctor Zhivago.
I had read somewhere (can't find this resource now) that a work of art is so unique that the loss of an author/artist is irreplaceable. In science, however, the discovery of a principle or law of the universe or anything that exists can be done by subsequent generations, even if the scientist were not there. As a student of science, I remember feeling a little riled up about this piece but I know know that this does not mean that the contributions of Newton or Einstein or Pasteur are to be devalued. It is just that art is ultimately the world view and even the soul of the artist whereas science's discoveries belong to the universe itself.
They should teach courses in school that are holistic, that involve history, contemporary literature and art, science and economics, religion, all rolled together into a delicious intellectual stew so that students appreciate how different ingredients blend together. More on that later...

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