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Cold War Ping-Pong


It’s bad enough what governments often do to their citizens while they are alive.  Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book demonstrates that even after the Soviet government had driven Boris Pasternak to his death, it couldn’t stop defiling his memory. Pasternak died May 30, 1960, after Dr. Zhivago had been a bestseller in the United States (thanks to the CIA), selling 850,000 copies. He had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October of 1958 and was immediately told by his government to renounce the prize. Eventually, after being coerced, he did that, but numerous machinations occurred first.

He was called a Judas, who had betrayed his country, a money-grubber who wrote for economic profit. At his funeral, both his wife, Zinaida, and his long-time mistress, Olga Ivinskaya (the model for Lara in Doctor Zhivago) were eyeing one another. “The Soviet press did not report” his death for two days. He had already been made into a pariah figure. Later that summer, Ivinskaya was arrested and charged with illegal currency trading. Pasternak was rich but his money was outside of the Soviet Union, so during the final years of his life elaborate schemes had to be designed to get his royalties to him, often by using foreigners who were visiting the country. Ivinskaya had been involved in those schemes. At the trial in December, she was given eight years of hard labor in Siberia and her daughter three.

Another huge amount of money came from the film rights, but Pasternak was long gone. His Italian agent, Feltrinelli, who had held all the foreign rights to Dr. Zhivago, suffered his own indignities from the Italian Communist Party. He had become radicalized and, much later, was killed when a bomb accidentally went off. To add insult to irony, Nikita Khrushchev, who had been the source of all of Pasternak’s difficulties, had been disposed during a change of government. When he wrote his memoirs, Khrushchev (“a virtual prisoner [by then] in his own home,” said he was “truly sorry for the way [he] behaved toward Pasternak.”  Only the CIA appears to have won.  In their compelling account of all these incidents, Finn and Couvée describe the novel as “one of the first efforts by the CIA to leverage books as instruments of political warfare.”  Another example of the CIA always getting its man?

Much earlier, before Pasternak wrote his novel, he had been a revered Soviet poet, living inside the safe cocoon Stalin had set up for writers who followed the party line.  But those poems were a-political (as poetry tends to be), so it wasn’t until he wrote Dr. Zhivago that things began to get truly controversial.  He knew that the novel had a few critical passages of the Soviet system, even told a friend, “You are hereby invited to my execution.”  zhivagoaffairThere were reasons for his concern.  After the 1917 revolution, “nearly 1500 writers in the Soviet Union were executed or died in labor camps for various alleged infractions.”  Using Feltrinelli as his foreign agent, he decided to let the novel be published in various translations.  The CIA funded the printing of a Russian version of the novel and attempted to smuggle as many copies into the Soviet Union as possible.  It was all designed to embarrass the Soviet government.  Finn and Couvée refer to the novel as “A weapon in the ideological battles between East and West….”

Much earlier, Pasternak had “welcomed the fall of the monarchy,” grown up in a cultured family, and attended Moscow University, studying law and philosophy.  For a time he considered becoming a musician, but then he discovered poetry.  It wasn’t until 1945 that he started writing Dr. Zhivago.  The following year the censors burned a collection of his poems—his first run-in with the authorities.  He met Ivinskaya (“Lara”) about the same time; she was twenty years his junior and already twice married (as was Pasternak).  The KBG got wind of his novel, probably because of his communications with Feltrinelli.  “The book was described as a hostile attack on the October Revolution and a malicious libel of the Bolshevik revolutionaries by an author who was labeled a ‘bourgeois individualist.’”

The rest was fairly predictable.  There was the Italian version published November 15, 1957, followed by translations into other languages.  The American and the British versions were published in September of the following year, roughly a month before the Nobel Prize.  The novel had become a political ping-pong ball. Pasternak was expelled from the Union of Writers of the USSR, followed around by KBG agents, even considered committing suicide jointly with Ivinskaya.  First, he accepted the prize, then he rejected it (with pressure from Ivinskaya).  United States secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was delighted by all the negative publicity for the Soviets.  Dulles observed, “The system of international communism…insists on conformity not only in deed but in thought.  Anything a little out of line, they try to stamp out.” For all his riches, Pasternak had little access to his royalties that were accruing exponentially outside of the Soviet Union. He was also pretty much worn out.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée have written an exhaustive study of the entire “affair.”  They are not literary critics so it is perhaps unfair to wish they had provided a contemporary evaluation of Pasternak’s novel.  Did all of these skirmishes between the West (particularly the Americans) and the Soviets occur solely because of the several hundred words critical of the Soviet system in a novel that was hundreds of pages long?  Would Dr. Zhivago have been so widely read without those few critical passages or would it have been ignored?  Who reads the novel today?  Is it widely taught in literature courses?  How many copies does the novel currently sell each year?

Still, in spite of these questions, I was totally engrossed in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book.

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

Pantheon, 368 pp., $26.95

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University in Washington, D.C.  Email:

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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