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19 November 2018

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The Zhivago Affair

The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book
By Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
(Pantheon, $26.95)

In April of this year, the CIA declassified 99 documents detailing the agency’s role in publishing Russian language versions (and attempting to smuggle them into the USSR) of Doctor Zhivago, a novel that Soviet authorities had decided, in their infinitesimal wisdom, to ban.

In a memo dated April 24, 1958, a senior CIA officer wrote: “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country [and] in his own language for his people to read.”

The agency quickly printed up copies of the novel for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, handing out 355 copies. Thousands more were later smuggled into the Eastern Bloc, and a year later a smaller, lightweight paperback version, designed to be surreptitiously fit into a jacket pocket, was printed.

Pasternak rocketed to world fame, winning the 1958 Nobel Prize thanks to the CIA’s literary intervention. It led to a tempest in the Soviet samovar that surely made leaders wish they had just allowed the quiet publication of Doctor Zhivago by some obscure Novosibirsk publishing house.

I recall a friend in Moscow saying how he had been eager to read a copy of the book when it first came out in the post-Soviet era. He said he had devoured it, only to be left wondering “what the fuss was about.” But of course this was a Russian living in the maelstrom of the 1990s, and it can be difficult to project oneself back into the fear-ridden 1950s to understand all that was at stake.

Finn and Couvée provide that context by telling far more than just the story of the CIA’s conspiracy. For it is the larger story of Boris Pasternak – the entwining of his life with Stalin, his uncharacteristically (for the Soviet 1930s and 40s) stiff spine, and his bold egotism – that created this perfect storm of tamizdat, Cold War espionage and publishing sensationalism.

It is a tale worthy of Le Carré, and, frankly, one that deserves close reading in our times, when Russia’s media and literature, while not subject to Stalinist censorship, are under increasing attack. The vitriol of personal and professional attacks on Pasternak have an eerily familiar ring to them, as does the rock-and-hard-placing of dissidents between the high politics of East and West.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2014