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'The Zhivago Affair': The cultural Cold War

"The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book" by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.
"The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book" by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.
"The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book" by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee. Gallery: 'The Zhivago Affair': The cultural Cold War

The Zhivago Affair

The Kremlin, the CIA
and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

By Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

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  • Pantheon. 352 pp. $26.96


    Reviewed by Bob Hoover

     


    For many people, the term "Cold War" holds little relevance today, so it's difficult to imagine how the publication of a single novel in 1957 could create a major international controversy.

    In an era when the superpowers built bigger nuclear weapons even while they heralded their way of life as the best, Doctor Zhivago, by the popular Russian poet Boris Pasternak, threatened the Soviet Union's firm repression of culture and offered the United States an opportunity to embarrass the Kremlin.

    Coauthors Peter Finn, former Moscow bureau chief of the Washington Post and now the newspaper's national security editor, and Petra Couvée, who teaches at St. Petersburg (Russia) State University, thoroughly map the complicated and often tortuous route of Doctor Zhivago from a smuggled manuscript to the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, an honor Pasternak was forced to refuse.

    The novel fueled the paranoia of the Soviet government all the way to its leader, Nikita Khrushchev, because its criticism of post-revolutionary Russia and its praise of individualism highlighted the bloody history and current failures of Communism. U.S. foreign policy professionals such as George Kennan seized on Doctor Zhivago as a weapon of public relations and urged the government to use it against the Soviets.

    Working with recently declassified files from the Central Intelligence Agency, Finn and Couvée detail the extreme efforts of the spy agency to publish Doctor Zhivago in various forms and get it circulating inside the U.S.S.R. as a Cold War coup. The authors believe that the CIA published 10 million books and magazines for distribution in the Soviet bloc during the 1950s and secretly funded many literary and arts organizations, even those with a so-called "liberal" stance, to provide the material.

    While the CIA was active in military coups as well during the 1950s, from Iran to Guatemala, the agency employed a handful of staffers with literary interests in a cultural war against communism.

    The late Peter Matthiessen, a three-time National Book Award winner and cofounder of the Paris Review, was also on the CIA payroll. It's now believed the literary magazine sold its interviews for reprinting through a CIA front called the Congress for Cultural Freedom which distributed material including works by American writers aimed at Iron Curtain countries.

    While the CIA's cultural activities during the Cold War are old news, The Zhivago Affair adds a wider view of the agency's strenuous campaign to reach Soviet Union's hearts and minds using a book written by a patriotic Russian.

    In an era marked by illegal and often deadly battles between the West and East, the Zhivago episode might have done more to undermine the Soviet government than double agents and assassinations. Finn and Couvée dig thoroughly into the affair through newly opened files and interviews with some of the surviving participants. The writing, although dry, draws a rounded picture of both sides' reaction to the novel as well as Pasternak's troubled life after publication.

    After two Soviet publications rejected Doctor Zhivago in 1956, Pasternak arranged to sneak the manuscript to two members of the Italian Communist Party including publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who printed the novel late in 1957. The next year, the book was published in the United States and Europe to popular acclaim, with this notable exception:

    "Doctor Zhivago is a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic . . . ," said Vladimir Nabokov, a countryman of Pasternak's. Later, this "sorry thing" would replace Nabokov's Lolita as No. 1 on the best-seller lists.

    After a series of missteps, the CIA produced a version of Doctor Zhivago in Russian as a giveaway at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, which many Soviets attended. The Vatican booth distributed the book from a hidden room.

    "Soon the book's blue linen covers were found littering the fairgrounds," the authors report. "Some who got the novel were ripping off the cover, dividing the pages and stuffing them in their pockets to make the book easier to hide."

    The agency also published about 10,000 miniature versions of Doctor Zhivago, using lightweight paper for covert distribution.

    Pasternak was overjoyed at the wide appeal of his novel, but paid dearly for affronting the Soviet authorities. He was expelled from the Soviet writers' organization and was the target of humiliating attacks in the government-controlled press, yet he refused the chance to emigrate.

    Khrushchev himself doctored a speech by a Communist official slamming Pasternak on television and radio, and while the Soviet press applauded the attack, the outcry deploring the novelist's treatment was worldwide, report Finn and Couvée. Khrushchev would eventually protect Pasternak from arrest and renounce his attacks.

    The harsh treatment backfired, drawing further attention to Doctor Zhivago and increasing sales. Pasternak was a rich man, but without access to his earnings while he stayed in the U.S.S.R. He died May 30, 1960 at 70. Soon after his death, his mistress and her daughter were jailed for smuggling cash from the book's profits for Pasternak.

    While Doctor Zhivago lives on as a well-made 1965 film by David Lean (the Soviet Union banned the movie), the book is best-remembered as a symbol of the fight against repression and inspiration to the Russian writers who followed Pasternak rather than a literary masterpiece, write the authors.

    It was the CIA's extensive - and expensive - efforts to use the novel as propaganda in a distant struggle that adds a new twist to the storied lore of how Doctor Zhivago slipped around the Iron Curtain.

     


    Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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