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The Problem with Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago (1965)

Problem #6: Yuri Zhivago is as Big a Scumbag as Komarovsky

Something that never ceases to amaze me is how so few people don’t get that Yuri Zhivago is no less a “cad” than Komarovsky. Keep in mind that I’m not on Komarovsky’s side whatsoever. He is an evil, despicable rapist and craven opportunist. However, that Komarovsky is the villain of the movie and a terrible human being has no bearing on the fact that Zhivago abandoned his loving wife, kids and father-in-law for no other reason than getting all hot and bothered over a hot piece of ass.

Not only that, he abandoned this family for the exact same reason that Komarovsky propositioned Lara–he became sexually obsessed with an incredibly attractive woman and decided to turn her into a sexual conquest at any cost. I know that this take on Zhivago’s pursuit of Lara seems unduly cynical, but there are two scenes that show in no uncertain terms that he saw her as a missed sexual opportunity and not much else.

The first scene is when Zhivago finally dumps her. When he breaks up with Lara, he doesn’t do it in a way suggesting that he’s torn between her and his family because he loves her. For instance, we don’t see him say something like, “Lara, I love you so much and this is killing me inside, but I have to go back to my family now, especially now that my wife is pregnant. You understand. Things are getting complicated.” Instead, Zhivago marches right back over to her place and talks to her in the way you would shoo away a stray dog when it starts to follow you home from the park–literally. (“I’m not coming back! Do you understand? Bad Lara! Bad Lara!”)

In addition to this scene of Zhivago abruptly breaking up with Lara, there’s another one that strips bare his less-than-honorable intentions with her. It’s one that’s very easy to miss under the seventeen layers of wedding cake that is the score, costume and cinematography of Doctor Zhivago, but luckily for us, the brilliant film critic Roger Ebert was astute enough to single out a key piece of dialogue from that scene in his review:

Zhivago is cold to Komarovsky: “What happens to a girl like that when a man like you is finished with her?” The response is colder: “Interested? I give her to you – as a wedding present.” This sets up Zhivago’s romantic obsession, which finds its moral justification when the doctor meets Lara, now a nurse, behaving heroically on a battlefield. 


Let’s take a deeper look into this interesting exchange between the two men to show what I mean about Lara being no less of a sexual trophy to Zhivago than to Komarovsky.

On the surface, his comments to Komarovsky sound noble and righteous; he is coming across as a chivalrous guy calling a disgusting cad out for his treatment of Lara. But look at what happens later in the film. After this entire sordid affair with Komarovsky, Lara gets married. Once that happens, that chapter of her life is closed as far as everyone is concerned. So, when Zhivago asks Komarovsky, “What happens to a girl like that when a man like you is finished with her?” he eventually gets his answer. If she’s unlucky, she’ll live the rest of her life in disgrace. However, if she’s lucky, a girl like Lara gets a man like Pasha, who hears the horrible truth but loves her enough to marry her anyway. If she’s strong, she’ll survive on her own, even without a man in the picture.

In spite of Lara eventually marrying Pasha and making an admirable effort to support herself and her daughter after he disappears, Yuri is not satisfied with this answer. He is so dissatisfied, in fact, that he actively pursues Lara years after she had put the Komarovsky affair behind her and rejected his advances when they worked together during the war. Being that Zhivago is painted as a white knight in the movie, it’s very easy to chalk his persistence up to being a clueless romantic oblivious to how well Lara has done for herself. But the truth is that Zhivago refuses to accept the answer to the Lara question because it was always purely motivated by prurient self-interest and nothing else.

To explain what I mean by prurient self-interest, we have to backtrack a little. In the scene right before Lara is raped, Komarovsky sneers that there are two kinds of women, and she is the last kind–a slut. To modern ears, it might sound that Komarovsky is being demeaning because he is the villain; therefore, when he puts her down as a slut, we should ignore the insult. But believe it or not, the movie is using this scene to establish that Lara is indeed a slut and therefore “damaged goods.” By damaged goods, this means that her reputation has become so trashed she is now tainted in the eyes of respectable members of society. As a consequence, no decent man will ever love her or even want to sleep with her, because she’s as good as a whore in their eyes. This damaged goods status is why Komarovsky says she can’t marry Pasha, an idealistic young university student; she’s simply too good for him. She’s only good for one thing now–being a whore to despicable lechers like him.

When Zhivago sees her for the first time (on the night of her mother’s attempted suicide), he knows that this is exactly what she is. That is why, when he later throws the Lara Question to Komarovsky on the night she shoots him, he refers to her as “a girl like that.” But his question isn’t so much an expression of genuine curiosity. This is really a rhetorical one that expresses an awareness of what happens to “girls like that”. Girls like that get thrown into a proverbial scrap heap into society as “damaged” goods by guys like Komarovsky, where they spend the rest of their lives as hookers, nuns or old maids.

Zhivago knows that this is what happens to girls like that. So, if he knows that, why would he ask the Lara Question in the first place? At first blush, it would seem as if he was morally grandstanding. In other words, it would seem as if he was asking that question rhetorically to call out Komarovsky’s treatment of Lara. But that’s not what he was really doing. What he was doing was masking his own sexual interest in Lara with a rhetorical question designed to come across as moral righteousness when it was anything but.

Why would he do that? Simple. When Zhivago first saw Lara, he became sexually interested in her himself. However, he was in a bind. Not only was Lara not his (and was being “kept” by Komarovsky), he was engaged to be married and, being a respectable member of society, couldn’t sleep with her. On top of that, Lara–being a “girl like that”–was set to be cast out as “damaged goods” as soon as Komarovsky was done with her.

So, this is why Zhivago put the Lara Question to Komarovsky–he was sending some feelers out, trying to find out whether or not she was available as sloppy seconds. You see, Lara was simply too hot (and fuckable) to go to waste as damaged goods, so Zhivago–eager to fuck her himself–was really wondering out loud two things: whether Komarovsky was willing to let her go and whether or not, in spite of her trashed reputation, there was a way he–a respectable member of society–could still sleep with her.

This agenda on the part of Zhivago is precisely why Komarovsky angrily hissed back, “Interested?” Smelling Zhivago’s disingenuousness a mile away, he ignored the sanctimonious bullshit, got right down to brass tacks, and basically said in so many words, “I see you want her. But it’s okay. I don’t want her anymore, so here–take her. Don’t worry about whether you can have her or not because of her reputation. She’s graduated from run-of-the-mill whore for despicable guys like me to discreet mistress for self-righteous, respectable guys like you. So, I’ll pass her from me to you.”

Zhivago, the morally upstanding protagonist, becomes offended by Komarovsky’s snide response. However, he vindicates Komarovsky in the worst way possible. Not being able to bang Lara during this phase in her life, Zhivago becomes consumed by a life-long compulsion to salvage her long after she no longer needed salvaging, to such an extent that he abandoned his otherwise perfect family to do it. Ebert called this all-consuming passion “romantic obsession,” but let’s be brutally honest–this was nothing more than a sexual fixation based on her history with Komarovsky, one that Zhivago acts upon when the villain gives him his blessing with his “interested” crack.

What’s particularly bad about all this isn’t just that Zhivago’s interest in Lara was purely motivated by bagging her as a sexual trophy or that he abandoned his family to do so. It’s that he wouldn’t allow a woman trying desperately to break away from a shameful past as “disposable piece of ass” to finally move on. He decided–based on a gentleman’s agreement that he’d made with his arch enemy years ago–that he would accept Lara as a wedding present. Meanwhile, Lara, who was none the wiser, got to be passed from Komarovsky to Zhivago without her consent years later. Not only was she passed, she was tricked into it.

Again, it amazes me how this movie has people not seeing the plain truth of what Zhivago is, even as it’s staring them in the face, but let’s try to explain, this time from a different angle, how he is no better than Komarovsky.

Let’s go back to the plot point when he sees his heavily pregnant wife toiling in the fields and decides that he has to end the affair with Lara. The movie plays his breaking up with Lara as Zhivago doing the noble thing by choosing his family over her. However, what he was doing was making her to live up to Komarovsky’s condemnation of her as a slut in spite of her doing everything she could not to live the rest of her life as a woman of ill repute.

How? Well, remember when Lara and Yuri were working together as doctor and nurse on the battlefield years before? Lara rejected his advances, citing the fact that he was married. Going by the story’s logic, it makes sense why she would do that. Years and years ago, she had decided to engage in this terrible sexual arrangement with Komarovsky and paid the ultimate price–she was raped. The reason why she was raped was that she decided to stand up for herself and live a life of respectability with Pasha. Komarovsky then raped her to get the last word (to reaffirm her status as slut), but then she got in the last word herself by shooting him and marrying Pasha.

Later on in the film, when Zhivago made the moves on Lara during World War I, it was obvious she was a little taken by him. However, she firmly turned him down, citing his marriage. The reason why is that she wanted to live the rest of her life as a respectable woman–not the slut that Komarovsky pegged her as. It’s why, even though Pasha had clearly abandoned her, she remained faithful to him for years after he disappeared. She waited for him less out of hope that he’d return than out of principle.

Years later, Lara is off in a new town and is simply minding her own business when along comes Zhivago, who tracked her down and did everything he could to worm his way into her life, even going so far as to play surrogate daddy to her child. Then he dropped her like a hot potato as soon as convenient.

As you can imagine, when Zhivago dumped Lara, she was distraught, which we see in that “I’m not coming back!” scene. But keep in mind that there were two reasons why she was crying her eyes out. The first most obvious reason is that she was heartbroken. Not only did she love Zhivago, he filled a void left behind by Pasha and gave her hope that she can be loved by a decent man. He also gave her daughter a father figure, so she was devastated on her kid’s behalf.

Most significantly, though, Lara was distraught because in being pumped and dumped, Zhivago had officially turned her into the very thing she’d been trying to avoid all these years. In other words, he had turned her into a woman of ill repute. However, instead of getting the last word on the matter by raping her like Komarovsky did, he seduced her into the role of mistress by playing the gallant hero rescuing her from her sordid past, then walked away the noble family man dumping a homewrecker for the sake of his wife and kids.

All of these issues–from Zhivago making good on Komarovsky’s offer to have Lara passed on to him, to him abandoning a beautiful, loving family in the process–are why I scoff at the notion of him being the polar opposite of Komarovsky. He was no less a womanizing skunk than Komarovsky; the difference is that his womanizing was disguised as chivalrous and noble.


  1. I had a similar reaction to Zhivago when I saw it as a teenager. I could never have explored it in such lucid detail or examined so many facets of it, but I had the distinct sense that the “love story” was offensive nonsense — selfish, adulterous, and based on virtually nothing. I was unaware of the sexist exploitation that you articulate so well, and I couldn’t contextualize all of it historically, but my raw impression was that the plot was pretentious and preposterous.

  2. George Campbell

    You have purloined to yourself the intention of the producer and director.
    Dr Zhivago (68) still works for millions including me. That was their intention. It seems close to the intention of Louise Pasternak. And even if not, so what? Contrivance is not the opposite of truth. More so when historical drama is being portrayed. Whether in revolutions or wars or at an Elvis concert love is malleable. Think not that you know the best course it should have taken. I have 5 Academy Awards in my suit. What do you hold? Stop intellectualizing yourself out of enjoyment.

    • Comment by post author

      I didn’t think you read a word of this essay.

      When you tell me to “stop intellectualizing,” what you’re telling me is to leave my brain at the door, so I can accept the movie’s subtext without question.

      The Academy Awards have been meaningless for a very long time, so I’m not sure what bragging about having won five is supposed to mean. Assuming you’re an “insider,” you know very well that the entire thing has always been driven by politics, quid pro quo, campaigning and pandering. You have five under your suit, but Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock received none for their work.

      • Christine

        I saw Zhivago for the 1st time a few months back. I thought what a cheater and a selfless fool. Slow moving and pretty but no real depth there.

  3. George Campbell

    Yes! I did read as far as the relevant trope. It threw me to the point that I even renamed Boris🤣. However, I certainly respect disagreement. But before I do go back and read the full article answer my perplexity. Will it invalidate my comment?

  4. RM

    thank goodness!!! i thought i was losing my mind!!! i just watched this for the 1st time a week ago expecting a ‘Gone With The Wind’ epic romantic movie and was sorely disappointed. so….i agree 100%!!! 🙂

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