A high ranking Russian General has arrived at an industrial project office. It is night and this man is there on personal business: He is looking for his niece. Somehow, in the past decade, he has managed to find her, or at least someone who appears to be the daughter of his half brother
The would-be niece is skeptical, and afraid. General Yevgraf Zhivago tells her the details of the life of his half brother as he knows it. This is the movie.
Yuri Zhivago is a boy, only 8 years old, when his mother dies, somewhere in central Asia, not far from Mongolia. Yuri is adopted by very close friends of his mother, the Gromykos, an upper class family with a home in Moscow and a country estate near the Ural Mountains. The Gromykos have a daughter, Tonya, who is the same age as Yuri.
Yuri, now a young man, becomes a doctor, preferring to see "life" in General Practice rather than be a researcher. He is also an accomplished and published poet. Late one winter evening, a lonely group of socialist demonstrators is slaughtered by a Czar Cavalry Unit. Yuri witnesses the entire event from his balcony and attempts to care for the wounded. He is forced back into his home by the soldiers. He is shaken by the event.
The following winter, at a music recital, Yuri's mentor is summoned to treat a woman who has attempted suicide, possibly by drinking Iodine. Yuri accompanies his mentor and sees "life" first hand. It is at this woman's home where he first sees Lara, the daughter of the woman. He is smitten. Shortly thereafter, at a Christmas party, the engagement announcement of Yuri and Tonya is interrupted by Lara shooting Komarovsky, Lara's sometime lover and companion. Komarovsky is only slightly wounded and Lara is escorted out of the party by her fiancÚ, Pasha.
World War I erupts and Yuri is posted to a field unit far to southwest near Ukraine. Lara is a volunteer nurse in the same area. Her husband (Pasha), disappears during a battle, and is presumed dead. As the summer of 1917 ends, the October Russian Revolution occurs, changing the entire political landscape. World War I for the Russians had begun to wind down the previous summer, ending in the winter. Yuri and Lara, having worked together in an old country estate converted to a hospital, are the last to leave the now empty facility. They are clearly in love with each other, but have managed to keep their passions suppressed.
Yuri returns to his Moscow home to find his step-mother deceased, and his home (his step father's home) occupied by 13 additional families. The Bolsheviks are now in full control of the large cities, and collectivization has begun. But Moscow is in trouble; with virtually no food supplies or heating fuel (wood), the impending Russian winter will be deadly. One night, Yuri decides to steal some fence boards that can be burned. He is observed by Yevgraf (now a policeman and party official) and is followed home. Yevgraf knows this man is his half brother and rather than arrest Yuri, the two connect for the first time. But the works of Yuri Zhivago, the published poet, has fallen out of favor with the authorities putting the lives of Yuri, his wife Tonya, his son Shasha, and his step-father Alexander, in danger. Yevgraf arranges all the necessary travel papers and the family of 4 departs Moscow eastbound in a crowed boxcar. Their destination is Yuriatin, the small town near the family's country estate at Varykino.
Enroute, the train stops due to civil war activity in the area. Yuri wanders away from his train, only to stumble into the military train of a communist general. The general turns out to be the husband of Lara, Pasha. But Pasha has taken on a new name, People's Commander Strelnikov. He has become a renegade, and uses his army to fight the remaining White Russians however he can. Strelnikov and Zhivago discover they have seen each other before, at the party where Komarovsky was shot. Suspicions that Yuri is an assassin or spy are determined to be groundless and Strelnikov uncharacteristically releases Yuri. Yuri and family reach their distant estate.
It is early spring. The main house has been sealed by the local communist authorities, but the gardener's cottage remains available. The family gets the vegetable garden back in shape, and settles in for what is expected to be a multi-year stay. The family thrives, and remains in the cottage, living almost invisibly. That summer, the czar and his family are executed. The family remains in the cottage through the winter.
Finally, the next summer, Yuri takes the short trip into Yuriatin. Lara has lived in Yuriatin for about a year, having returned there in search of her husband, Pasha (Strelnikov). Yuri and Lara meet in the local library, and an affair between the two begins. But Yuri cannot live with the conflict of the affair. His pregnant wife loves him deeply, and so does Lara. Yuri rides into Yuriatin to break off the affair.
On the way home, Yuri is kidnapped by a Red Partisan unit and is drafted to be their medical officer. A year and a half later, in the dead of winter, Yuri wanders away from the Red Guard Unit, deserting. Yuri makes his way back to Yuriatin, discovering that his family has left Varykino for Moscow. He goes to the only other place he knows, Lara's small apartment. Starving and nearly dead, Lara brings him back to health. Lara gives Yuri a letter from Tonya, addressed to him care of Lara. The letter is dated 6 months earlier. Tonya had known of Yuri's affair, and Tonya and Lara had met. Yuri's family has escaped back to Moscow, and is being deported from Russia. Shortly thereafter, Komarovsky unexpectedly appears at Lara's apartment. He brings news that Lara's husband Strelnikov is "gone", Yuri is considered a deserter, and their days are numbered. Komarovsky offers help by way of transportation to the far east of Russia, Vladavastok, from which they can go anywhere in the world. Lara and Yuri refuse the offer, but know Komarovsky is right, their days are numbered.
Lara and Yuri move themselves to Varykino, and occupy a small portion of the main house. They stay there through most of the remaining winter. Again, Komarovsky finds them and tells them that Strelnikov has been arrested just 5 miles from Varykino. Lara and Yuri must now move quickly to survive. They accept Komarovsky's offer of protection and transportation to Manchuria, and leave Varykino immediately. But Yuri remains behind, ostensibly to bring his own sledge to the train station. Lara and Komarovsky wait for Yuri on the train at the Yuriatin train station, but Yuri does not arrive. The train leaves, and Lara announces to Komarovsky that she is pregnant with Yuri's child.
Eight years pass. Yuri is found in Moscow by Yevgraf, in poor health, malnourished and jobless. Yevgraf arranges for Yuri to get his old job back at the hospital and sees him off at the street car stop on his first day. On the ride, Yuri thinks he sees Lara walking in the direction of the street car. He attempts to get off the car, succeeds and collapses in the street. He dies of a heart attack.
At the memorial, huge numbers of people pay their respects, much to Yevgraf's amazement. One of those people is Lara, and Lara is searching for her daughter Tonya, lost somewhere near Mongolia during the far east civil war. Yevgraf and Lara search Moscow's orphanages, but Tonya is not found. Speaking of Lara, Yevgraf narrates: "One day she went away and didn't come back. She died or vanished somewhere in one of the labor camps; a nameless number on a list that was after-wards...mislaid. That was quite common in those days."
The story his been told, and the scene returns to the project office. Although Tonya, now a young woman of about 18, wants to believe who were her parents, but only if the fact is true. Morning has come, and Yevgraf makes a final request, that Tonya think about establishing with Yevgraf a family relationship. Neither have any relatives, and Tonya promises to think about it.
Tonya and Yevgraf part on what promises to be a beautiful day.