MOSCOW—The first Russian-made screen version of "Doctor Zhivago," the classic novel by Boris Pasternak that was banned for three decades in the Soviet Union, finally has started airing on Russian television as an 11-episode series, with its director saying the story is as valid today as it was when it was written nearly 50 years ago.
"What happened to us is a great lesson for all mankind," Alexander Proshkin said during an interview at Mosfilm studios in Moscow. "The process of self-destruction became volcanic and impossible to stop. It's the same today. There's no blood yet, but terrible poverty. We have a big gap between the very rich and very poor, which results in great tension in society."
Pasternak's tale of Yuri Zhivago is set amid the Russian civil war between Red Communist and White Czarist forces, a struggle that gave birth to the Soviet Union in 1922 and a totalitarian government that killed millions of its own citizens.
Zhivago took no side, stayed human in inhumane conditions and sought refuge in the love of two beautiful women.
Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, the same year that "Doctor Zhivago" was published outside the country. He was forced to reject the award under pressure from Soviet authorities, who banned the novel's publication until 1988, when it was printed under Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness. Pasternak died in 1960 at age 70.
Proshkin said the literary masterpiece still held keys to understanding today's Russia.
Rather than confronting past sins, too many Russians embrace the anti-democratic symbols and values of their violent 20th-century past, often "aimed at finding an enemy," the blunt and heavy-smoking Proshkin said. Without true repentance and redemption, Proshkin said, the nation never will progress.
While Russia under President Vladimir Putin more closely resembles the late 1970s stagnation of President Leonid Brezhnev rather than the 1930s terror of Stalin, Proskhin said, latent dangers remain.
"I'm talking about a mentality that came from 1920," he said. "We are still with one foot there and haven't planted the other foot and don't know where it will go."
What's lacking in Russia, Proshkin said, is the Christian essence of Pasternak's timeless message: that human life is more valuable than anything, including state power.
While Proshkin hopes he's created a film with international appeal, he doubts that Americans will be interested.
"I don't know if American audiences will want it, when they already have a favorite `Zhivago' film," Proshkin said, referring to British director David Lean's 1965 classic starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie.
Proshkin is a fan of the British "Zhivago," but called it "a beautiful melodrama" and said its treatment of Russia and of Pasternak's characters was superficial. He also liked a 2002 British TV remake, though he found it wanting too.
The Proshkin work started airing May 10, and the last episode will air May 25. Each is 44 minutes. Ratings from the first two parts show it's no blockbuster, but it's holding its own with Moscow audiences.
The series has star power, with Russia's leading actors Oleg Menshikov and Chulpan Khamatova playing Zhivago and his lover Lara, respectively. "It's a brilliant company of actors," Central Partnership producer Ruben Dishdishyan said. "We are not afraid of any comparisons." Writer Yury Arabov is winning praise for his screenplay.
But plenty has gone wrong with the $4 million Russian version. Producers wanted two episodes to be aired nightly without any ads, but the television network nixed the idea. Also, a five-month delay in broadcasting the film allowed pirated DVDs, the bane of moviemakers' pocketbooks, to circulate widely.
Even if the new telling never achieves commercial or critical success, Proshkin, whose film credits include "Russian Riot," about an 18th-century peasant uprising, and "Cold Summer of 1953," about Stalin-era repression, is glad to have brought his countryman's epic novel and poems home at last. He considers his film a more authentic interpretation than its British forerunners.
"I'm positive there had to be a Russian version," he said.
(Bonner reports for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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