Moscow (Reuters): Repressed by the Soviet Union, feted by Nobel judges, glammed up by Hollywood Doctor Zhivago is one of Russia's stand-out 20th-century novels. Today, Russian audiences size up the first homegrown screen version of Boris Pasternak's classic with the launch of a television series starring some of the country's best-known actors. The story follows Yuri Zhivago, the poetically-minded doctor, as he struggles through the 1917 Russian revolution and on into the strange new world that followed tortured by his conflicting feelings for two very different women. It is a potent tale that got the full Hollywood treatment in David Lean's 1965 hit, a study in snowflakes and sleighbells, immortalised by Maurice Jarre's score and Omar Sharif's brooding, markedly un-Slavic, good looks.
Russians are inclined to dismiss that film as an exotic melodrama, a romanticised outsider's view. It remains to be seen whether they will warm to the latest adaptation of a book once denounced by the Communist Party establishment as unfit to print. For Zhivago is both bourgeois and intellectual a moral man but no Marxist dialectician. The birth of the Soviet Union, for him, was not a glorious chance to cast off his chains. Instead it shattered any chance he might have had of happiness.
''I became acquainted with Doctor Zhivago when I read 900 pages of flimsy paper in one day,'' said the series director, Alexander Proshkin, recalling the time when unapproved books had to be passed round secretly in homemade ''samizdat'' copies. ''I got given it on one condition: that I didn't leave the house. I had to read it all and bring it straight back.'' Doctor Zhivago was eventually published abroad in 1957 and won the Nobel Prize a year later. Pasternak turned it down, fearing repercussions. By 1960 he was dead.
But despite the chaos that dogged the lives of the generation that came of age in 1917, there was also room for dreams of a better future, Proshkin told Reuters. ''There was hope that the old way of life would be broken and that things would be new and good. ''That is exactly the state we find ourselves in at the start of the 21st century. It is all the same. People don't change. Mentally we haven't changed at all.'' This is only the latest in a series of Soviet-era classics to hit the small screen. Versions of books that once had to be hidden from official view are now advertised on giant billboards and aired at prime time on state television.
In the last six months Russia's newly-confident television industry has offered up Mikhail Bulgakov's ''The Master and Margarita'' and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's ''The First Circle'' to sizeable audiences and largely positive reviews. Despite the totally different genres the Master and his Margarita live in a world that is by turns fantastical and farcical, whereas Solzhenitsyn's strength is unfaltering realism both stories ask how people should confront abusive power. Pasternak's heroes and heroines face similar problems but his son, Yevgeny, does not think the television series manages to capture his father's voice. ''The author's main thought was that even in the most terrible of circumstances, mankind holds onto its faith, its love of life,'' he said. ''In this film, that atmosphere of love has disappeared.'