The film takes place mostly against a backdrop of the pre-
World War I years, World War I itself, the
Russian Revolution of 1917, and the
Russian Civil War. A narrative
framing device, set in the late 1940s or early 1950s, involves
Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago (
Alec Guinness) searching for the daughter of his half brother, Doctor Yuri Andreyevich Zhivago (
Omar Sharif), and Larissa ("Lara") Antipova (
Julie Christie). Yevgraf believes a young woman, Tanya Komarova (
Rita Tushingham), may be his niece and tells her the story of her father's life.
When Yuri Zhivago is orphaned after his mother's death in rural Russia, he is taken in by his mother's friends, Alexander (
Ralph Richardson) and Anna Gromeko (
Siobhán McKenna), and grows up with their daughter Tonya (
Geraldine Chaplin) in
attack a peaceful demonstration.
In 1913, Zhivago, as a medical student in training, but a poet at heart, meets Tonya as she returns to Moscow after a long trip to Paris. Lara, only 17, is involved in an affair with the older and well-connected Victor Ipolitovich Komarovsky (
Rod Steiger), a friend of her mother's (
Adrienne Corri). One night, the idealistic reformer Pavel Pavlovich ("Pasha") Antipov (
Tom Courtenay) drifts into left-wing extremism after being wounded by sabre-wielding
Cossacks during a peaceful demonstration. Pasha runs to Lara, whom he wants to marry, to treat his wound. He asks her to hide a gun he picked up at the demonstration. Lara's mother discovers her affair with Komarovsky and attempts suicide. Komarovsky summons help from his physician (
Geoffrey Keen), Zhivago's former professor, whom he accompanies back to Lara's home to treat her mother. When Komarovsky learns of Lara's intentions to marry Pasha, he tries to dissuade Lara, and then rapes her. In revenge, the humiliated Lara takes the pistol she has been hiding for Pasha and shoots Komarovsky at a Christmas Eve party, wounding him. Komarovsky insists no action be taken against Lara, who is escorted out by Pasha. Zhivago tends Komarovsky's wound. Although enraged and devastated by Lara's affair with Komarovsky, Pasha marries Lara, and they have a daughter named Katya.
World War I, Yevgraf Zhivago is sent by the
Bolsheviks to subvert the
Imperial Russian Army. Pasha is reported
missing in action following a daring charge attack on
German forces. Lara enlists as a nurse to search for him. Yuri Zhivago is drafted and becomes a battlefield doctor.
February Revolution in 1917, Zhivago enlists Lara's help to tend to the wounded. Together they run a field hospital for six months, during which time radical changes ensue throughout Russia as
Vladimir Lenin arrives in Moscow. Before their departure, Yuri and Lara fall in love, but Yuri remains true to Tonya, who is now his wife.
After the war, Yuri returns to his wife Tonya, son Sasha, and Alexander (Anna has since died), whose house in Moscow has been divided into
tenements by the new Soviet government. Yevgraf, now a member of the
CHEKA, informs him his poems have been condemned by Soviet censors as antagonistic to
Communism. Yevgraf arranges for passes and documents in order for Yuri and his family to escape from the new political capital of Moscow to the far-away Gromeko estate at Varykino, in the
Ural Mountains. Zhivago, Tonya, Sasha, and Alexander board a heavily guarded cattle train, at which time they are informed that they will be travelling through contested territory, which is being secured by the infamous Bolshevik commander named Strelnikov.
While the train is stopped early one morning, Zhivago wanders away. He stumbles across the
armoured train of Strelnikov sitting on a hidden siding. Yuri is summoned before Strelnikov, whom he recognizes as the former Pasha Antipov. During a tense interview, Strelnikov informs Yuri that his estranged wife Lara is now living in the town of Yuriatin, then occupied by the anti-Communist
White Army forces. He permits Zhivago to return to his family, although it is hinted by Strelnikov's right-hand man that most people interrogated by Strelnikov end up being shot.
The family lives a peaceful life in a cottage at the Varykino estate until Zhivago finds Lara in nearby Yuriatin, at which point they surrender to their long-repressed feelings. When Tonya becomes pregnant, Yuri breaks off with Lara, only to be abducted and conscripted into service by Communist
After two years, Zhivago at last deserts and trudges through the deep snow to Yuriatin where he finds Lara. Lara tells Yuri that Tonya had discovered her while searching for him, and that his family is now in Moscow. She reveals a sealed letter Tonya had mailed to Lara 6 months ago to give to Yuri: Tonya, her father, and their children are being deported and will live in
Paris. Yuri and Lara renew their relationship.
One night, Komarovsky arrives and informs them they are being watched by the CHEKA due to Lara's connection by marriage to Strelnikov and Yuri's "counter-revolutionary" poetry and desertion. Komarovsky offers Yuri and Lara his help in leaving Russia. They refuse. Instead, they return to the abandoned Varykino estate, taking up residence in the banned main house, where Yuri begins writing the "Lara" poems. These will later make him famous but also incur government displeasure. Komarovsky reappears and tells Yuri that Strelnikov was captured only five miles away while apparently returning to Lara, but then committed suicide en route to his own execution. Therefore, Lara is in immediate danger of execution herself, as the CHEKA had only left her free to lure Strelnikov out of hiding. Zhivago sends Lara and Katya away with Komarovsky, who has been appointed a government official in the nominally independent
Far Eastern Republic of the early 1920s. Refusing to accompany a man he despises, Yuri remains behind to face his fate.
Years later, Yevgraf finds a sick and destitute Yuri in Moscow during the
Stalinist era and gives him a new suit and a job. While riding a tram, Yuri spots a woman he surely thinks is Lara walking on a nearby street. Unable to call her from the tram, Yuri struggles to get off at the next stop. Yuri runs after her but suffers a fatal heart attack before he can even signal to her, and the woman walks away oblivious to Yuri's presence. Yuri's funeral is well attended, a surprise to Yevgraf as Yuri's poetry was officially "unattainable at the time". Lara approaches Yevgraf at the funeral and reveals she had given birth to Yuri's daughter, but lost her in the collapse of the
White-controlled government in Mongolia. After vainly looking over hundreds of orphans with Yevgraf's help, Lara disappears during
Great Purge of the late 1930s, and "died or vanished somewhere...in one of the
labour camps," according to Yevgraf.
While Yevgraf strongly feels that Tanya Komarova is Yuri and Lara's daughter, he is still not convinced. But as Tanya leaves, Yevgraf notices that she carries a
balalaika, an instrument that Yuri's mother was especially gifted at playing. Questioning her further, he learns that Tanya is self-taught — in fact, her fiancé proclaims her an 'artist' with the balalaika. Yevgraf smiles, "Ah. Then it's a gift," thereby implying she truly must be Yuri and Lara's daughter after all.