The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

the zhivago affair“To drive men mad is a heroic thing.”

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

When Russian poet Boris Pasternak wrote his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, he knew that its criticism of the Soviet revolution, though mild, would be enough to ensure that the book wouldn’t get past the censors. So he decided to give it to an Italian publisher to be translated and published abroad despite knowing that this would be severely frowned upon by the authorities. However the CIA decided it would be a propaganda coup if they could have the book printed in Russian and smuggled back into the USSR. The Zhivago Affair is billed as the story of that CIA campaign and of the impact it had on the Soviet regime and on Pasternak himself.

Although the CIA campaign is given plenty of space, most of the book really takes the form of a biography of Pasternak. Already a highly regarded poet when he began writing his novel, Pasternak was also already seen as potentially dangerous to the regime and therefore his work was closely monitored, as was the work of most writers. The Soviet regime pampered its authors and intellectuals in comparison to other sectors of society, but punished any disloyalty harshly, with imprisonment in the gulags or even death on occasion. So from the moment it became known that he was writing the novel, Pasternak ran grave risks of bringing retribution down on himself and the people close to him.

Pasternak's dacha in the Soviet Writers' village of Peredelkino
Pasternak’s dacha in the Soviet Writers’ village of Peredelkino

I expected to find that I admired Pasternak – that he was a courageous man standing up for his beliefs against a regime that could crush him. Sadly, I came away from the book feeling that in fact he was an arrogant egoist, who cared little for anyone but himself and had no purpose in writing his book other than self-aggrandisement. Well, I can accept that – writers should not have to serve a higher calling any more than the rest of us, but then they shouldn’t ask for special treatment either – and oh, how Pasternak felt that his amazing, unmatched genius (as he judged it) deserved to be recognised, honoured and lauded! He also felt that he was so special that he shouldn’t be expected to live within commonly accepted standards, so kindly moved his mistress and her family in just down the road from his wife and own family and divided his time happily between them. Happily for him, that is – one felt the wife and mistress weren’t quite so thrilled by the arrangement. But I think his level of self-centeredness is best shown by the fact that when he decided the only way out of the pressure over the book was suicide, he expected his mistress to kill herself along with him. To my amusement, the devoted but almost equally self-centred Ivinskaya was having none of it! And, denied his dramatically artistic and romantic exit, Pasternak decided to live on…

Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak

The CIA operation was dogged with incompetence from the outset (no big surprise there, I’m guessing) and also paid scant attention to the problems it may cause for Pasternak inside the USSR. However, they did in the end manage to smuggle some copies of the book in and, although the readership in the USSR was limited, the book became a huge bestseller internationally. This may have provided a level of protection for Pasternak since any severe action against him would have provoked international condemnation; and by the late ’50s and early ’60’s, the Soviet regime cared a bit more about their international standing than they perhaps had a decade or two earlier. However, they did subject Pasternak to a number of restrictions and humiliations that made his life increasingly difficulty – they forced his peers to publicly condemn him and suspend him from the writers’ union, which in turn meant that he couldn’t get work. With no income, he was driven to trying to smuggle the royalties from the sale of the book in Europe into the USSR at great risk to himself and those he involved in the plan. And again Pasternak’s selfishness and egoism can be seen at play here – too afraid to collect the money himself, he gave the task to the young daughter of his mistress, a task which later resulted in her spending time in prison – something Pasternak always managed to avoid for himself.

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film of the book. Lara was based on Ivinskaya, Pasternak's long-term mistress.
Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in the film of the book. Lara was based on Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s long-term mistress.

The book is well written and gives the impression of having been thoroughly researched. Despite my lack of sympathy for Pasternak, I enjoyed the biographical strand more than the CIA story and was glad that Pasternak’s story got more space than the spy stuff. In case I’ve made it seem that the book is very critical of him, I must say that the authors’ interpretation of Pasternak is considerably more sympathetic than my own, while not making any attempt to whitewash the less appealing aspects of his personality and behaviour. Overall, the book gave a clear picture of the difficulties faced by writers trying to operate under a regime of censorship backed up by fear, and some of the more moving moments were when the authors recounted the later thoughts of Pasternak’s peers, regretting how they had allowed themselves to be manipulated into turning away from him at the height of the affair. An interesting and thought-provoking read – recommended.

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40 thoughts on “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

  1. FictionFan – Oh, this does sound a very interesting read! And extra Margot points for a book that’s solidly researched and feels accurate. Even if Pasternak doesn’t exactly come off as a nice sort of person.


    • Definitely interesting, and a good balance between giving us plenty of information while not bogging it down in unnecessary detail. And though I didn’t like Pasternak, the book certainly wasn’t a hatchett job…


  2. Stellar review, FEF! I remember watching the movie, and there was a little history given. What a bum he is! (His name suggests it, I think.) Can you imagine doing that to your wife? I bet she would have helped him with the suicide thingy! But, you know, I must say that I like his house. I’ve never seen a circular house before, have you?


    • Woohoo! A stellar!! I’ve never seen the movie and I dislike him so much now, I probably never will! *laughing lots* Yes, his wife may well have been keener on the idea – and I think she’d have been quite happy if the mistress had joined in after all. I love the house, though the idea of cleaning all those windows did make me shudder a bit. But I expect Mr Pasternak left that little job to his women…


      • You don’t want to see the movie either. Rather horrid. (As a side note, do you suppose we should ripip movies?)

        Yes, I bet you’re right. But that’s not many windows at all! I’d clean them. But you know, for me, windows always look clean. Anyway, I’d give it a go.


        • Oh good, I’ll skip it then! (*clears throat* As PEP of the PFC – (*swells with pride*) – I think that sounds like a great idea! You definitely should!)

          I wish you were my neighbour! Tommy likes to go round all my windows one by one leaving little nose prints at cat height…


          • Yes! (*laughs* But, FEF, we’d do it in a video based way…with lots of effects, voices, and…maybe me.)

            That would be fun! But then you’d probably hate me. I make a lot of noise. With music and stuff.

            We’d stick his nose to the window with super glue, that would fix the problem!


            • Oooh, sounds great! And you – how exciting!! Can’t wait – when are you thinking of starting?

              Oh if the music was good I’d just listen in. And if it was bad I’d stick on my noise-cancelling headphones… *brutally harsh face* I’m intrigued to hear the ‘stuff’ though…

              Cruel, cruel Professor! How could you? You’re just jealous because his little nose is prettier than yours… *clutches TomTom protectively and glares menacingly at C-W-W*


            • Oh dear… The things the studio does to me. Well, we must needs find a movie first. *laughs* I’m becoming shameless.

              I suppose it’s not loud at all. I’m surprised you’d be so nice about it, actually. *laughing* The stuff…anything for the PL classifies as that!

              Yes, his nose is prettier! But I’m an orc. None of the PN stuff, or I’ll growl! Does Tuppence have a nickname?


            • *laughing* Yay for the studio, then! Brave, not shameless! Hmm…I was thinking at first it’d need to be films everybody would know – but actually your rips of books no-one had read worked just as well as the blockbuster ripios…

              I’m always nice! *crosses fingers behind back* Oh well, if it’s PL stuff, I’ll definitely be eavesdropping…

              The problem with that threat is that I like it when you growl, PN! Well, she gets called Tuppy usually but I don’t really like it. You should invent a short nickname for her…


            • Good deal! Well, I think we’d be doing the newer movies…so that means I’ll have to watch a lot of garbage! *grumbles* Like the Lego Movie! Hope they don’t pick that. Thought that might be interesting. (I won’t do HP!)

              *laughs* Like Sam would! No crossing of the fingers, FEF!

              *head falls on desk and bangs it hardly hard* How about…Sweets? Or Sweet-sauce?


            • Oh, poor C-W-W! That Mic can be very cruel. (Not even if I were to wheedle? And cajole?)

              More like Sauron…bwaahaahaa!!!

              Oh, poor C-W-W! *chuckles wickedly* Funnily enough I do call her Sweets from time to time – short for sweetiepie. I shall try out Sweet-sauce and see what she thinks… *dons protective clothing*


            • He’s the most tame of the bunch, actually. (Yes! Remember it is a ripping…)

              *laughs* Sauron’s my favorite.

              Haha! Very interesting. Tell her to be nice! I’ll think up more names.


            • But he’s the puppet-master… (Yes, but secretly you usually like the things you rip…like P&P.)

              Oh he’s silly – puts all his power in a ring and then loses it? Not much of a criminal mastermind really…

              Be quick! Sweet-sauce didn’t go down very well… *staunches blood and smiles bravely*


            • Hmm…that’s not nice! (I did not! You–I don’t think–didn’t even read my ripio of P&P! Maybe I should do a sequel ripio.)

              *laughing lots* When you put it like that…rather pathetic for sure. I would have kept the ring!

              *laughs* Hold on, FEF! Be brave! How about…”beauty queen?”


            • I like puppets. (*laughing* Yes, I did, in fact! And I also read all the comments from your little group of book-haters. AND the comments from the Jane fans getting very heated about the whole thing. I just chose not to become involved… *sticks tongue out and makes that noise the Professor always makes*)

              Me too!

              I’ve remembered! She gets called Killer Kate! (I remembered this when she violently attempted to slash me for no good reason an hour ago…)


            • Puppets are scary, though. *laughs* Okay, I’ll believe you then! Book-haters? They all love books, I fear. And I love books. I admire their covers from a distance. The Jane fans getting cranky was the best part! I did take some heat. (I love that sound!)

              *laughs* I hope you gave her a good one on the rump!


      • The only Russian book I got through (and mind, it was translated to English) was Crime and Punishment. I was around 15 years old and my dad had presented it as a challenge. That was it, though. I tried Tolstoy’s War and Peace. In fact, when we lived in Portugal, I tried again to read it in Portuguese. Still not a go. My theory is that about eleven months of the year they are snow bound and have nothing better to do than write long agonizing books. I can’t prove it, of course. I did read a short story about a cobbler, but I’ve not been tempted any further.


    • I know! Actually I’m always a bit wary of reading biographies of auhtors, especially of books I love, for that very reason. It tends to put me off the book a bit.


    • I’m just sitting listening to them giving out heatwave warnings for the end of the week – bring on the snow, I say! Yes, Pasternak may not make my list of Top 5 Favourite Men…


  3. Oh, I had no idea! Very interesting, but I can’t stand the idea of reading about this guy. To send the daughter of his lover to do something he was too chicken to do himself. To me, that’s worse than moving the mistress in down the street.


  4. I agree Pasternak was no prize as a person, but can I say a word in defence of the book, which, I admit, I read when we were perhaps less critical of Russian authors than we have become – I still think it is “A” though perhaps not “THE” Great Russian novel. The film, on the other hand, I thought was a stinker at the time – too much romance and not nearly enough politics. Great music, though – oh, and Omar Sharif……


    • In retrospect, I should probably have read it first, since I’ve gone off Pasternak in a big way now. But I was expecting to like him and thought that might encourage me to read the book…

      I could never really see the attraction of Omar Sharif, to be honest…but yes, great theme!


  5. Oh I like Big Sister blowing trumpets for Russian writing (we part company on Russian, don’t we Fiction Fan!) Great review, this sounds really interesting and really ought to make my TBR list, except that I am deep in a rather magnificent novel by Scottish author Janice Galloway, whom you know I rate highly (its an OLD novel, so no freebies – I paid filthy lucre for it) Anyway, the subject of the book is Clara Schumann, and I’m afraid my blood is already boiling and I’m feeling distinctly queasy and heartsore at realising how much Clara was abused, used, stifled by dominant men in her life – her father, who as a music teacher regarded his gifted child as his life-work and pushed and controlled her career, and then her husband – Clara’s brilliance as pianist and possibly composer in her own right became subsumed in the much more important work of fostering Robert Schumann’s brilliance. I might find it hard to listen to his music in quite the same way again.

    So another great artist abusing his women folk might cause my rage to reach uncontrollable heights…


    • Yes, it’s hard not to judge them by today’s standards rather than those of their own time, but I must say I thought Pasterank was a fairly unpleasant piece of work in any generation. However, his mistress loved him and his wife…well, I think she tolerated him more than loved him really, but he seemed to treat her more like a housekeeper than his wife. The book didn’t really go into what his children felt about the whole thing but I can’t imagine they were best pleased…

      However, the book was interesting and well written so if you ever get a chance…


    • You’re right – it was a rather sad story really. No-one seemed to get much joy of the whole episode and in the end Kruschev admitted the book wasn’t really anti-Soviet after all! Thank you! 😀


  6. Another brilliant and detailed review! I think your interpretation of Pasternak is accurate if less sympathetic than the author’s particularly in light of his proposed suicide and the imprisonment of the daughter of his mistress! So next question: When are you reading Dr Zhivago?? 😉


    • Thanks, Cleo! 😀

      Yes, a particularly unpleasant specimen of mankind – not bad exactly, but just weak and selfish. Never!! Never, never, never!! And you can’t make me!! 😉


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