"The private life is dead. History has killed it in Russia."
Who did not thrill to these words, uttered in his tense and taut style by Tom Courtney, the young revolutionary? Marxist and non-Marxist alike felt a frisson at the sheer imperiousness of this pronouncement, magnificent in its sentiment and terrible in its implications.
It takes some time to understand Sir David Lean's "Dr. Zhivago". Unlike his other epics "Bridge on the River Kwai", "Lawrence of Arabia" "Dr.Zhivago" was more "opaque". While "Kwai" and "Lawrence" had slender story-lines, "Zhivago" was much more intricate and convoluted in its plot. And while the other films were devoid of glamour and romance and chock-full of adventure the Russian epic surfeited the viewer with both. The beauty and figure of Larissa and the handsome demeanour of Zhivago overshadowed all else. But then, wasn't that what the film was all about the private life, private love? And the haunting melody of Lara's theme, Maurice Jarre's superb composition that runs like a unifying thread through every scene, inspires horripilation even as we recall the notes!
Not that the poet was against the revolution. In a brief scene he explains his subtle reasons for going on writing his "bourgeois" poetry to his half-brother. He likens the revolution to a surgical operation undertaken to remove a tumour. Poetry serves as a sort of "anaesthesia", keeping the body alive. Somebody has to keep the body politic alive by "living". This explains the doomed romance of Lara and Zhivago, and the poetry inspired by that romance against the backdrop of revolution.
Russia has since then done a hundred-and-eighty-degree turn. It would appear that rumours about the death of the private life had been greatly exaggerated by Pasha Antipov, alias Strelnikov. However, if any advertisement of the evils of the private life were needed one need not look beyond present-day Russia. Law and order appears to have been the foremost items to have been privatised. Accountability at every level has also been privatised. It does not seem to be the case, though, that people are reading more poetry. In fact, the consumption of literary trash and the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes serve the same purpose to numb the mind. A concomitant renaissance of religious life underscores the thorough privatisation and desocialisation of the individual. Not only Strelnikov, even Zhivago was in error.
A friend of mine was in Russia in the early eighties. On his periodic visit to the motherland, he would recount the good life the students from the motherland were enjoying in Russia: the easy trips to Europe, the smuggled goods that helped pay for those easy trips, the girls, the romance, the culture (he was the only one at the Bolshoi in a pair of jeans!)....It all seemed like a fairy-tale here, to me. Besides, it wasn't supposed to be true. Russia was supposed to be running out of everything, from cabbages to toilet paper. Yes, he did mention the bread-queues, but everyone (except apparatchiki) had to join the queues, and everyone ultimately got the bread. There was something totally democratic about a supposedly totalitarian system.
Now, of course, Russia is really democratic, much as we are. There's a ballot-box ritual, and there are political parties. Never mind that a few people have made fortunes, and the rest are cold and drunk (not necessarily at the same time). There's even a thriving civil society there are, apparently, several thousand NGOs.
And where are the dissidents? Well, so long as they had a system or a person to hate and direct their poems and plays against, they were relevant, even heroic. Who can blame them, if, today, they have cashed in on that goodwill? The Czech dissident has been exemplary in this regard. And none more so than Vladimir Zelezny, once a vehement critic of communism, and now co-owner of TV Nova, the most popular TV channel. Allow me a little digression. When the BBC first started broadcasting here, the weather report was, well, like a fresh breath after the musty weather forecasts at the f*g-end of the news on national TV. But one would be very surprised if anyone in the Czech republic watches the BBC or CNN weather forecasts; for TV Nova predicts sunshine and rain using (no, I'm not inventing this) naked weather girls. "We just show what the market wants," explains Mr. Zelezny. If opera were as popular as guns and naked women, he says, we would show opera.
Of course, Mr. Zelezny!
And how have our dissidents fared in Bangladesh? The intellectual who does not run his own NGO and drive around in a Pajero and live in a swanky apartment needs to be ferreted out from among those who do. There are the frequent junkets abroad impressive-sounding seminars, conferences, workshops. Even the environment a classic case of market failure has been turned into a marketable commodity. Well, if Mr. Zelezny can sell the weather, why can't we?
And to think that at one time heroic people had sacrificed their lives and well-being for an idea that today is nothing but a commodity. Take the Czech Republic, again. On January 16, 1969 Jan Palach burned himself to death in public, in protest against loss of national independence. When a correspondent from an international newspaper interviewed modern Czech youths, one of them recalled him vaguely. "The guy who did that Buddhist thing, right?" inquired one of them. As Mrs. Thatcher famously observed, "There is no such thing as society". Kids today are more familiar with Nike and McDonalds then the memory of Jan Palach, who had done the Buddhist thing.
Why? The answer again can be found in "Dr.Zhivago". And the answer lies in marriage and love. Zhivago's "arranged" marriage with his cousin fails; the "spontaneous" love for Lara, on the other hand nearly succeeds. Nearly, because it was too volatile, too disorderly, too passionate to be contained within human limits. The film glorifies the individual, in her love, and downplays the role of all third parties the state, the family, society. These are seen as creating artificial emotions, fictitious passions. The Russian, Czech, and indeed our own experience have shown that the absence of a third party can be disastrous.