Doctor Zhivago follows the lives of Yuri Zhivago and Lara Guichard from the first Russian revolution of 1905 until World War II. The novel tells the story of Yuri and Lara's love affair and the numerous characters whose lives become entangled during World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Civil War that followed. In the end of the novel, Yuri dies of a heart attack and, upon returning to Russia, Lara is arrested during Stalin's purges and sent to the Gulag, where she also dies.
The plot of Doctor Zhivago is long and intricate. It can be difficult to follow for two main reasons: first, Pasternak employs many characters, who interact with each other throughout the book in unpredictable ways, and second, he frequently introduces a character by one of his/her three names, then subsequently refers to that character by another of the three names or a nickname, without expressly stating that he is referring to the same character. To avoid this confusion, the summary below uses a character's full name when the character is first introduced.
Imperial Russia, 1903. The novel opens during a Russian Orthodox funeral liturgy, or panikhida, for Yuri's mother, Marya Nikolaevna Zhivago. Having long ago been abandoned by his father, Yuri is taken in by his maternal uncle, Nikolai Nikolaevich Vedenyapin, a philosopher and former Orthodox priest who now works for the publisher of a progressive newspaper in a provincial capital on the Volga River. Yuri's father, Andrei Zhivago, was once a wealthy member of Moscow's merchant gentry, but has squandered the family's millions in Siberia through debauchery and carousing.
That summer, Yuri (who is 11 years old) and Nikolai Nikolaevich travel to Duplyanka, the estate of Lavrenty Mikhailovich Kologrivov, a wealthy silk merchant. They are there not to visit Kologrivov, who is abroad with his wife, but to visit a mutual friend, Ivan Ivanovich Voskoboinikov, an intellectual who lives in the steward's cottage. Kologrivov's daughters, Nadya (who is 15 years old) and Lipa (who is younger), are also living at the estate with a governess and servants. Innokenty (Nika) Dudorov, a 13-year-old boy who is the son of a convicted terrorist has been placed with Ivan Ivanovich by his mother and lives with him in the cottage. As Nikolai Nikolavich and Ivan Ivanovich are strolling in the garden and discussing philosophy, they notice that a train passing in the distance has come to a stop in an unexpected place, indicating that something is wrong. On the train, an 11-year-old boy named Misha Grigorievich Gordon is traveling with his father. They have been on the train for three days. During that time, a kind man had given Misha small gifts and had talked for hours with his father, Grigory Osipovich Gordon. However, encouraged by his attorney, who was traveling with him, the man had become drunk. Eventually, the man had rushed to the vestibule of the moving train car, pushed aside the boy's father, opened the door and thrown himself out, killing himself. Misha's father had then pulled the emergency brake, bringing the train to a halt. The passengers detrain and view the corpse while the police are called. The deceased's lawyer stands near the body and blames the suicide on alcoholism.
During the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Amalia Karlovna Guichard arrives in Moscow from the Urals with her two children: Rodion (Rodya) and Larissa (Lara). Mme. Guichard's late husband was a Belgian who had been working as an engineer for the railroad. Mme. Guichard's late husband had been friends with Victor Ippolitovich Komarovsky, a lawyer and "cold-blooded businessman." Komarovsky sets them up in rooms at the seedy Montenegro hotel, enrolls Rodion in the Cadet Corps and enrolls Lara in a girls' high school. The girls' school is the same school that Nadya Kologrivov attends. On Komarovsky's advice, Amalia invests in a small dress shop. Amalia and her children live at the Montenegro for about a month before moving into the apartment over the dress shop. Despite an ongoing affair with Amalia, Komarovsky begins to court Lara behind her mother's back.
In early October, the workers of the Moscow-Brest railroad line go on strike. The foreman of the station is Pavel Ferapontovich Antipov. His friend Kiprian Savelyevich Tiverzin is called into one of the railroad workshops and stops a workman from beating his apprentice (whose name is Osip (Yusupka) Gimazetdinovich Galiullin). The police arrest Pavel Ferapontovich for his role in the strike. Pavel Ferapontovich's boy, Patulya (or Pasha or Pashka) Pavlovich Antipov, comes to live with Tiverzin and his mother. Tiverzin's mother and Patulya attend a demonstration which is attacked by dragoons, but they survive and return home. As the protestors flee the dragoons, Nikolai Nikolaevich (Yuri's uncle) is standing inside a Moscow apartment, at the window, watching the people flee. Some time ago, he moved from the Volga region to Petersburg, and at the same time moved Yuri to Moscow to live at the Gromeko household. Nikolai Nikolaevich had then come to Moscow from Petersburg earlier in the Fall, and is staying with the Sventitskys, who were distant relations. The Gromeko household consists of Alexander Alexandrovich Gromeko, his wife Anna Ivanovna, and his bachelor brother Nikolai Alexandrovich. Anna is the daughter of a wealthy steel magnate, now deceased, from the Yuryatin region in the Urals. They have a daughter Tonya.
In January 1906, the Gromekos host a chamber music recital at their home one night. One of the performers is a cellist who is a friend of Amalia's, and her next-door neighbor at the Montenegro. Midway through the performance, the cellist is recalled to the Montenegro because, he is told, someone there is dying. Alexander Alexandrovich, Yuri and Misha come along with the cellist. At the Montenegro, the boys stand in a public corridor outside one of the rooms, embarrassed, while Amalia, who has taken poison, is treated with an emetic. Eventually they are shooed into the room by the boarding house employees who are using the corridor. The boys are assured that Amalia is out of danger and, once inside the room, see her, half-naked and sweaty, talking with the cellist; she tells him that she had "suspicions" but "fortunately it all turned out to be foolishness." The boys then notice, in a dark part of the room, a girl (it is Lara) asleep on a chair. Unexpectedly, Komarovsky emerges from behind a curtain and brings a lamp to the table next to Lara's chair. The light wakes her up and she, unaware that Yuri and Misha are watching, shares a private moment with Komarovsky, "as if he were a puppeteer and she a puppet, obedient to the movements of his hand." They exchange conspiratorial glances, pleased that their secret was not discovered and that Amalia did not die. This is the first time Yuri sees Lara, and he is fascinated by the scene. Misha then whispers to Yuri that the man he is watching is the same one who got his father drunk on the train shortly before his father's suicide.
In November 1911, Anna Ivanovna Gromeko becomes seriously ill with pneumonia. At this time, Yuri, Misha, and Tonya are studying to be a doctor, philosopher, and lawyer respectively. Yuri learns that his father had a child, a boy named Evgraf, by Princess Stolbunova-Enrizzi.
The narrative returns to the Spring of 1906. Lara is increasingly tormented by her affair with Komarovsky, which has now been going on for six months. In order to get away from him, she asks her classmate and friend Nadya Laurentovna Kologrivov to help her find work as a tutor. Nadya says she can work for Nadya's own family because her parents happen to be looking for a tutor for her sister Lipa. Lara spends more than three years working as a governess for the Kologrivovs. Lara admires the Kologrivovs, and they love her as if she were their own child. In her fourth year with the Kologrivovs, Lara is visited by her brother Rodya. He needs 700 rubles to cover a debt. Lara says she will try to get the money, and in exchange demands Rodya's cadet revolver along with some cartridges. She obtains the money from Kologrivov. She does not pay the money back, because she uses her wages to help support her boyfriend Pasha Antipov (see above) and his father (who lives in exile), without Pasha's knowledge.
We move forward to 1911. Lara visits the Kologrivovs' country estate with them for the last time. She is becoming discontented with her situation, but she enjoys the pastimes of the estate anyway, and she becomes an excellent shot with Rodya's revolver. When she and the family return to Moscow, her discontent grows. Around Christmas time, she resolves to part from the Kologrivovs, and to ask Komarovsky for the money necessary to do that. She plans to kill him with Rodya's revolver should he refuse her. On 27 December, the date of the Sventitsky's Christmas party, she goes to Komarovsky's home but is informed that he is at a Christmas party. She gets the address of the party and starts toward it, but relents and pays Pasha a visit instead. She tells him that they should get married right away, and he agrees. At the same moment that Lara and Pasha are having this discussion, Yuri and Tonya are passing by Pasha's apartment in the street, on their way to the Sventitskys. They arrive at the party and enjoy the festivities. Later, Lara arrives at the party. She knows no one there other than Komarovsky, and is not dressed for a ball. She tries to get Komarovsky to notice her, but he is playing cards and either does not notice her or pretends not to. Through some quick inferences, she realizes that one of the men playing cards with Komarovsky is Kornakov, a prosecutor of the Moscow court. He prosecuted a group of railway workers that included Kiprian Tiverzin, Pasha's foster father. Later, while Yuri and Tonya are dancing, a shot rings out. There is a great commotion and it is discovered that Lara has shot Kornakov (not Komarovsky) and Kornakov has received only a minor wound. Lara has fainted and is being dragged by some guests to a chair; Yuri recognizes her with amazement. Yuri goes to render medical attention to Lara, but then changes course to Kornakov because he is the nominal victim. He pronounces Kornakov's wound to be "a trifle", and is about to tend to Lara when Mrs. Sventitsky and Tonya urgently tell him that he must return home because something had gone wrong with Anna Ivanovna. When Yuri and Tonya return home, they find that Anna Ivanovna has died.
Komarovsky uses his political connections to shield Lara from prosecution. Lara and Pasha marry, graduate from university, and depart by train for Yuriatin.
The narrative moves to the second autumn of the First World War. Yuri has married Tonya and is working as a doctor at a hospital in Moscow. Tonya gives birth to their first child, a son. Back in Yuriatin, the Antipovs also have their first child, a girl named Katenka. Although he loves Lara deeply, Pasha feels increasingly stifled by her love for him. In order to escape, he volunteers for the Imperial Russian Army. Lara starts to work as a teacher in Yuriatin. Some time later, she leaves Yuriatin and goes to a town in Galicia, to look for Pasha. The town happens to be where Yuri is now working as a military doctor. Elsewhere, Lt. Antipov is taken prisoner by the Austro-Hungarian Army, but is erroneously declared missing in action. Wounded by artillery fire, Yuri is sent to a battlefield hospital in the town of Meliuzeevo, where Lara is his nurse. Galiullin (the apprentice who was beaten in Part 2) is also in Lara's ward, recovering from injuries. He is now a lieutenant in Pasha's unit; he informs Lara that Pasha is alive, but she doubts him. Lara gets to know Yuri better but is not impressed with him. At the very end of this Part, it is announced in the hospital that there has been a revolution.
After his recovery, Zhivago stays on at the hospital as a physician. This puts him at close quarters with Lara. They are both (along with Galiullin) trying to get permission to leave and return to their homes.
In Meliuzeevo, a newly arrived commissar for the Provisional Government, whose name is Gintz, is informed that a local military unit has deserted and is camped in a nearby cleared forest. Gintz decides to accompany a troop of Cossacks who have been summoned to surround and disarm the deserters. He believes he can appeal to the deserters' pride as "soldiers in the world's first revolutionary army." A train of mounted Cossacks arrives and the Cossacks quickly surround the deserters. Gintz enters the circle of horsemen and makes a speech to the deserters. His speech backfires so badly that the Cossacks who are there to support him gradually sheath their sabres, dismount and start to fraternize with the deserters. The Cossack officers advise Gintz to flee; he does; but he is pursued by the deserters and brutally murdered by them at the railroad station.
Shortly before he leaves, Yuri says goodbye to Lara. He starts by expressing his excitement over the fact that "the roof over the whole of Russia has been torn off, and we and all the people find ourselves under the open sky" with true freedom for the first time. Despite himself, he then starts to clumsily tell Lara that he has feelings for her. Lara stops him and they part. A week later, they leave by different trains, she to Yuriatin and he to Moscow. On the train to Moscow, Yuri reflects on how different the world has become, and on his "honest trying with all his might not to love [Lara]."
Following the October Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, Yuri and his family decide to flee by train to Tonya's family's former estate (called Varykino), located near the town of Yuriatin in the Ural Mountains. During the journey, he has an encounter with Army Commissar Strelnikov ("The Executioner"), a fearsome commander who summarily executes both captured Whites and many civilians. Yuri and his family settle in an abandoned house on the estate. Over the winter, they read books to each other and Yuri writes poetry and journal entries. Spring comes and the family prepares for farm work. Yuri visits Yuriatin to use the public library, and during one of these visits sees Lara at the library. He decides to talk with her, but finishes up some work first, and when he looks up she is gone. He gets her home address from a request slip she had given the librarian. On another visit to town, he visits her at her apartment (which she shares with her daughter). She informs him that Strelnikov is indeed Pasha, her husband. During one of Yuri's subsequent visits to Yuriatin they consummate their relationship. They meet at her apartment regularly for more than two months, but then Yuri, while returning from one of their trysts to his house on the estate, is abducted by men loyal to Liberius, commander of the "Forest Brotherhood", the Bolshevik guerrilla band.
Liberius is a dedicated Old Bolshevik and highly effective leader of his men. However, Liberius is also a cocaine addict, loud-mouthed and narcissistic. He repeatedly bores Yuri with his long-winded lectures about the glories of socialism and the inevitability of its victory. Yuri spends more than two years with Liberius and his partisans, then finally manages to escape. After a grueling journey back to Yuriatin, made largely on foot, Yuri goes into town to see Lara first, rather than to Varykino to see his family. In town, he learns that his wife, children, and father-in-law fled the estate and returned to Moscow. From Lara, he learns that Tonya delivered a daughter after he left. Lara assisted at the birth and she and Tonya became close friends. Yuri gets a job and stays with Lara and her daughter for a few months. Eventually, a townsperson delivers a letter to Yuri from Tonya, which Tonya wrote five months before and which has passed through innumerable hands to reach Yuri. In the letter, Tonya informs him that she, the children, and her father are being deported, probably to Paris. She says "The whole trouble is that I love you and you do not love me," and "We will never, ever see each other again." When Yuri finishes reading the letter, he has chest pains and faints.
Komarovsky reappears. Having used his influence within the CPSU, Komarovsky has been appointed Minister of Justice of the Far Eastern Republic, a Soviet puppet state in Siberia. He offers to smuggle Yuri and Lara outside Soviet soil. They initially refuse, but Komarovsky states, falsely, that Pasha Antipov is dead, having fallen from favor with the Party. Stating that this will place Lara in the Cheka's crosshairs, he persuades Yuri that it is in her best interests to leave for the East. Yuri convinces Lara to go with Komarovsky, telling her that he will follow her shortly. Meanwhile, the hunted General Strelnikov (Pasha) returns for Lara. Lara, however, has already left with Komarovsky. After expressing regret over the pain he has caused his country and loved ones, Pasha commits suicide. Yuri finds his body the following morning.
After returning to Moscow, Zhivago's health declines; he cohabits with another woman and fathers two children with her. He also plans numerous writing projects which he never finishes. Yuri leaves his new family and his friends to live alone in Moscow and work on his writing. However, after living on his own for a short time, he dies of a heart attack while riding the tram. Meanwhile, Lara returns to Russia to learn of her dead husband and ends up attending Yuri Zhivago's funeral. She persuades Yuri's half-brother, NKVD General Yevgraf Zhivago, to assist her in her search for a daughter that she had conceived with Yuri, but had abandoned in the Urals. Ultimately, however, Lara is arrested during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge and dies in the Gulag.
During World War II, Zhivago's old friends Nika Dudorov and Misha Gordon meet up. One of their discussions revolves around a local laundress named Tanya, a bezprizornaya , or war orphan, and her resemblance to both Yuri and Lara. Tanya tells both men of the difficult childhood she has had due to her mother abandoning her in order to marry Komarovsky. Much later, the two men meet over the first edition of Yuri Zhivago's poems.