Book editor Mary Ann Gwinn likes “books about books,” and she recommends a compelling one: “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book,” by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée.
Any good story about the power of books has a treasured spot on my shelves. Novels like “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and nonfiction such as “When Books Went to War,” a history of the free books shipped overseas to American troops during World War II, testify to the power — personal, political, even metaphysical — of a transcendent work of literature.
Currently at the tiptop of my books-about-books list: “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book,” (Pantheon, 352 pp., $26.95), a deeply researched history by Peter Finn, national-security editor for The Washington Post, and writer and translator Petra Couvée. This true account rivals any spy novel in its twists and turns, as it reveals the extent of Russian author Boris Pasternak’s trial by fire after he published his epic novel “Dr. Zhivago.”
Today, “Dr. Zhivago” is most remembered for the dazzling 1965 movie version starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. The long and passionate love affair between Dr. Yuri Zhivago and his nurse Lara Antipova, set amid the terrors of World War I, the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, moved the world. Somewhere in the deep freeze of your brain, the balalaika-played strains of its hallmark song, “Lara’s Theme,” may still tinkle away (I heard it just last week on KING-FM).
Pasternak was a talented Russian poet whose family lost everything in the Russian Revolution. He adjusted, kept writing poems, and managed to survive the Stalinist purges of writers in the 1930s. The state furnished him with a dacha in the country.
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Life was pretty good, until he decided to publish a novel.
Pasternak began creating the story of Zhivago, a doctor whose medical training thrusts him into the horrors of war and revolution, in the early 1930s. He put it aside, then returned to it in 1946, believing that in the postwar atmosphere, the Soviet authorities might allow its publication.
But the book had a problem. Like all the best literature, it aimed to tell a good story, but also to speak truth. Here’s an excerpt:
“Revolutions are made by fanatical men of action with one-track minds, men who are narrow-minded to the point of genius. They overturn the old order in a few hours or days … but for decades thereafter, for centuries, the spirit of narrowness which led to the upheaval is worshipped as holy.”
Prescient words. The authorities considered his application to publish his novel (my word, what a bureaucracy for writers existed in the Soviet Union), and then said no.
So Pasternak, a large-living man with a burning conviction that he’d written a great book, jumped into the deep end of the pool. He slipped a manuscript of “Dr. Zhivago” to the visiting representative of Italian publisher, a flagrant violation of Soviet law. “You are hereby invited to my execution,” he told the publisher’s rep.
From here, the story of Pasternak’s ordeal takes off. Noteworthy are a couple of subplots.
The first concerns Olga Ivinskaya, a young editor and translator that Pasternak fell in love with, despite having a wife and children at home. The character of Lara is partially based on Olga. Olga was arrested, thrown into prison or sent to a labor camp on multiple occasions, because of her association with Pasternak.
In “Dr. Zhivago,” Lara is permanently consigned to the Gulag. In real life, Olga, pregnant with Pasternak’s child, is flung into a morgue by her jailers, and spends the night with a bunch of corpses while pondering her fate. She didn’t betray Pasternak, but she later miscarried.
The second thread concerns the CIA’s role in distributing “Dr. Zhivago” to Soviet citizens who, naturally, were dying to read it.
The agency arranged with a Dutch publisher to have a few thousand Russian-language copies printed, and then distributed at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958 — from a backroom at the Vatican pavilion, ostensibly used to distribute religious literature. Visitors to the pavilion could pick up a copy of “Dr. Zhivago.”
Word got around, and “Soon the book’s blue linen covers were found littering the fairgrounds,” the authors write. “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 day Boris Pasternak learned he had won the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature, mainly because of “Dr. Zhivago,” was a very good and a very bad day. Good because he realized the world appreciated his novel. Bad because the authorities’ campaign of harassment and intimidation, both of himself and of his family, cranked up to epic proportions.
He ultimately had to reject the prize. Olga went back to prison and his wife died penniless. Pasternak died of lung cancer in 1960. His fans flocked to his funeral, undeterred by KGB operatives taking names.
So many lessons in this story. First and foremost: the power of a narrative. Today, who remembers the petty Soviet functionaries who tormented Boris Pasternak? But millions know the story of Dr. Zhivago and Lara, a story Pasternak paid dearly for telling.
Young people still visit the grave of Boris Pasternak, and many recite these lines from his poem “Hamlet”:
Yet the order of the acts is planned
And the end of the way inescapable.
I am alone; all drowns in the Pharisees’ hypocrisy.
To live your life is not as simple as to cross a field.