Review: The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, once noted a “remarkable feature” common to Soviet leaders: “their boundless, almost superstitious respect for poetry.”

Indeed, as Peter Finn, a former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, and his co-author Petra Couvée point out in their new book The Zhivago Affair, in the Soviet Union a bad review could have lethal consequences. Some 1,500 writers were killed during the Stalin era.

In the United States, on the other hand, nobody takes poetry or any kind of literature that seriously. Here, Kurt Vonnegut’s observation seems more appropriate: “I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.”

The Zhivago Affair reveals that there was a time when Americans—or the CIA, at least—took literature very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the agency believed a novel about a Russian doctor tormented by his love for two women could be deployed as an ideological weapon.

The novel was Doctor Zhivago, which its author, Boris Pasternak, wrote in late middle age after a literary career dedicated to poetry and translation. Pasternak was convinced that Zhivago was a masterpiece, but he also knew that due to its religiosity and total indifference to prevailing Soviet literary norms, it was unpublishable in his homeland. So when an Italian literary scout visited him at his country residence outside Moscow in 1956, Pasternak handed over the manuscript so that it might be published abroad.

The next part of the story is quite well-known. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 but rejected it under heavy pressure from the Soviet leadership. The book became an international best-seller, and in 1965, David Lean’s immensely popular cinematic adaptation was released, winning five Oscars.

But there is another aspect to the story, untold until now. Since 1956, the CIA had been smuggling books into the Soviet Union. Indeed, the heads of the CIA had immense faith in the power of literature: According to Finn and Couvée, as many as 10 million books and magazines were smuggled into the Soviet Union before the end of the Cold War in the hope that illicit words would hasten the evil empire’s demise.

As for Doctor Zhivago, a CIA memo praised it for its “great propaganda value … not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: 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 in his own language for his own people to read.”

And so, with the aid of some dubious characters and the Vatican, the CIA printed 15,000 copies of the book and started getting Doctor Zhivago into the hands of Soviet visitors to the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. It is a great story, and Finn and Couvée tell it well. You don’t need to have read Doctor Zhivago to appreciate their book, either.

Just as interesting, however, is the detail Finn and Couvée provide on Pasternak and his persecution at the hands of the Soviet regime. We encounter such odious characters as the party’s cultural supremo Dmitri Polikarpov, and the critic David Zaslavsky, a slavish literary attack dog whose scathing review of Zhivago was read aloud on the radio to the entire Soviet Union — even though nobody could read the novel.

It was a weird time. How the Soviets feared the power of the book, and how strange that can seem to us now! After all, the Soviet Union endured a good 34 years after the publication of Doctor Zhivago. CIA plots notwithstanding, Pasternak’s novel had little to do with Soviet demise.

Yet it would be wrong to view that Cold War reverence for a work of fiction as entirely alien. For today, even if nobody much cares about historical novels, people are murdered over cartoons and YouTube clips, while heresy hunts proceed apace via social media, and so on.

As they say: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

First published in the Dallas Morning News July 12, 2014

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