THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: THE KREMLIN, THE CIA, AND THE BATTLE FOR A FORBIDDEN BOOK by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

I remember years ago when I saw David Lean’s film “Dr. Zhivago,” leaving the theater with the name Lara rebounding in my psyche.  This led me to read the novel that just floored me.  Now so many years later I have read Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s monograph THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: THE KREMLIN, THE CIA, AND THE BATTLE OVER A FORBIDDEN BOOK that choreographs Boris Pasternak’s journey from poetry to fiction, the Kremlin’s attempt to prevent its dissemination within and outside the Soviet Union, and the role of the CIA in trying to weaponize the novel as a vehicle in the Cold War.  The book itself appears professionally researched but there are a number of gaps, i.e., Pasternak’s experience during World War II is covered in a page or two, among others.  Overall, the book is well conceived, but I believe the authors could have done more with the topic.

The authors have written a segmented narrative which begins with a biographical profile of Pasternak including his professional relationships, marriages, affairs, which were many, and his poetic development.  They then move on to the evolution of Pasternak’s work from his poetry to his life’s work, DR. ZHIVAGO, a novel that he himself argued brought personal closure and satisfaction.  The authors offer an important dissection of the intellectual community under Joseph Stalin focusing on the purges and show trials of the 1930s which produced 24,138,799 books that were deemed “political damaging…and of no value to the Soviet reader” by the state censor resulting that these works were turned into pulp. World War II appears as an afterthought, but to their credit Finn and Couvee dissect the relationship between Stalin and Pasternak and explain why the novelist was able to survive while over 1500 of his compatriots perished.  They concluded it was because of his international status but more so by “Stalin’s interested observation of the poet’s unique and sometimes eccentric talent.”  Pasternak himself could never figure out why he survived.

(Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak)

An interesting aspect of the narrative revolves around the completion of the novel and its publication in the west.  Relying on communications between Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a young Milanese publisher, and Pasternak; Feltrinelli and Soviet officials; the Kremlin and Pasternak; internal Kremlin debate, and other western sources the reader is presented with a reasonably clear picture as to how the book was published.  What emerges is a nasty campaign waged by the Kremlin to deny publication in the west despite the “cultural thaw” that evolved after the death of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization  speech of February 20, 1956 (though the book states it was February 25th).

Another component of the narrative centers on the role of the CIA in publishing the novel and distributing it throughout Europe and the Soviet Union.  Finn and Couvee describe how the CIA was engaged in relentless global political warfare with the Kremlin throughout the 1950s.  To counter Soviet propaganda, and challenge Soviet influence the CIA believed in the power of ideas – news, art, music, and literature that could slowly erode the authority of the Soviet state and its influence in its Eastern European satellites.  The authors trace surreptitious CIA activity focusing on the dissemination of western materials to the Russian people through Radio Free Europe; the American Committee for Liberation; the Free Europe Committee and others.  The CIA purchased books and rights from numerous publishers and did its best to make them available throughout the Soviet bloc.  In 1956 it would create its own publishing company, the Bedford Publishing Company to translate Western literary works and publish them in Russian.  Further it became involved in obtaining an original of Pasternak’s manuscript, making it available inside Russia through the Brussel’s World’s Fair in 1958.  It is a fascinating story in that the novel would be distributed by the Vatican exhibit to 500 Russian visitors who would transport it home.  The program had the full support of the Eisenhower White House and by 1970 the Bedford Company would distribute over one million books to Russian readers.

TIME Magazine Cover: Boris Pasternak -- Dec. 15, 1958

Finn and Couvee correctly point out that Soviet authorities created their own “monster” because if they had allowed the novels publication inside the Soviet Union it would have probably attracted a small literary audience, but by pursuing a strategy of repression it fostered worldwide surreptitious distribution creating a massive readership.  The Kremlin’s pressure on Pasternak almost drove him to suicide as they even went as far as to deprive him of his Nobel Prize which was awarded more for his poetry than DR. ZHIVAGO.  After accepting the prize Pasternak was subjected to a coordinated attack by newspapers, magazines, and radio, a loss of friends and colleagues, overt surveillance by the KGB, resulting in his decision to decline the award.  The Soviet literary tradition was clear, literature could either serve the revolution or the perceived enemies of the state.  One of the authors best descriptions of literature under Stalin was “formulaic drek,” which in Yiddish means “shit.”

The authors do a wonderful job discussing the numerous characters that impacted Pasternak’s life.  Relationships with his lover Olga Ivinskaya, discussions with Stalin himself and other Soviet officials, the work of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Dulles Brothers, and numerous others read like its own novel.  The authors take a story that has many moveable parts and turned into somewhat of an intellectual thriller which is hard for us to relate to under our system of government where it seems everything whether true or not can be published on social media.  If there is a tragic character it is Ivinskaya, who was harassed, tried, and imprisoned after Pasternak’s death. If the authorities failed to get Pasternak, they sought revenge against his lover who they accused of currency fraud and being the real author of DR. ZHIVAGO.  In the end DR. ZHIVAGO was not a great piece of literature and perhaps the authors should have spent more time evaluating the literary value of the novel as opposed to its propaganda value.

Boris Pasternak
(Boris Pasternak)

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