Books as weapons: Dr Zhivago and the cultural Cold War

When Boris Pasternak published Doctor Zhivago, the Soviets were furious and the CIA eager to help popularise it – and a fascinating new book uses Zhivago to examine the cultural struggle of the Cold War.

Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in David Lean’s film of Dr Zhivago, which became an unlikely locus of struggle in the Cold War. Moviestore Collection / REX
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In 1927, Vladimir Nabokov dismissed the verse of his fellow countryman Boris Pasternak as "convex, goitrous and goggle-eyed". When Pasternak's famous novel was published in the United States 31 years later, Nabokov found his prose no better than his poetry: "Doctor Zhivago is a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic." As Doctor Zhivago knocked Lolita off the top spot of The New York Times bestseller list, one wonders just how objective this critique was.

On the whole, reviews of the novel were positive and contributed to huge sales on both sides of the Atlantic. It also helped that Pasternak was making front-page headlines about his persecution at home for his supposedly defamatory anti-Soviet novel. He was denounced by the Kremlin and the Union of Writers of the USSR as both a radical and a “bourgeois individualist” who refused to toe the Party line and adhere to the demands of socialist realism.

Doctor Zhivago downplayed the glory of the October Revolution, highlighted the atrocities of the Russian Civil War and was full of sly heretical digs at the injustices of Stalinist rule. The novel was banned in the Soviet Union for not conforming to "official cultural guidelines". And yet Pasternak was determined to get it published somewhere, somehow, unlike some of his generation who wrote privately for the "drawer".

The scene-setting prologue to The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book []. the fascinating and thrilling account of the drama triggered by Pasternak's masterpiece, shows how the book avoided that stillborn fate as a forgotten manuscript in a dusty drawer and instead found a publisher and embarked on a long life as a classic work of literature. The authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvée start as they mean to go on by blending meticulous research with an engrossing, page-turning narrative.

It is 1956 and two men travel from Moscow to the outlying village of Peredelkino, home to a writers' colony where Pasternak has his dacha. One man is a burly Soviet official; the other is an Italian Communist and intermediary of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the head of a publishing house in Milan on the hunt for new Soviet literature. They meet Pasternak and the Italian asks to take away the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago with a view to having it translated and brought out in Italy after its first publication in the Soviet Union.

Pasternak hopes he can trust the man: unsanctioned publication in the decadent West before publication at home would incite charges of disloyalty to the state and endanger Pasternak and his family. He weighs up his options, calculates the risk and hands over the novel he has worked on for years and which he considers his crowning achievement, even superior to his poems. Bidding farewell to the Italian, he wryly adds: “You are hereby invited to my execution.”

From here we are taken back to Pasternak's early life and learn how his admiration of Stalin curdled into disillusionment then horror as the Great Terror of the 1930s decimated the old Bolshevik leadership and swallowed up friends and colleagues. Survival was a matter of extreme luck: "We were shuffled like a deck of cards." In the several pages devoted to a brief synopsis of Doctor Zhivago we discover just how autobiographical the novel is. Yuri Zhivago, the doctor-poet who lacks revolutionary zeal, is Pasternak's alter-ego; Zhivago's beguiling lover Lara was modelled on Pasternak's mistress Olga.

Pasternak took time out from writing Doctor Zhivago to read excerpts of it to small groups of trusted friends in private salons. The secret police were aware of its existence and hauled Olga in to the dreaded Lubyanka for questioning: Was Pasternak a British spy? What was the political nature of this book he was passing around? She was sentenced to five years in a gulag "for close contact with persons suspected of espionage".

Miraculously, Pasternak survived Stalin's show trials and purges. He finished Doctor Zhivago two years after the dictator's death, during the thaw ushered in by the new Khrushchev regime. However, any hope of publication was short-lived. When the KGB learnt about Pasternak's arrangement with Feltrinelli they made it clear that not only would the book not be published in the Soviet Union, it must never see the light of day anywhere. If the book was not returned from Italy then Pasternak would suffer "very unpleasant consequences". Pasternak refused to comply and the first edition of the book was published in Italian in 1957. It was an instant bestseller.

At this midway point of The Zhivago Affair, Finn and Couvée branch off and open up a new front. The CIA receives a copy of Pasternak's novel and is excited by its iconoclastic nature and propaganda value. "Books," the authors inform us, "were weapons." A plan is put into action to print it in Russian and distribute copies to Soviet visitors at the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. Despite teething problems concerning security violations within the CIA, the operation is a success and Pasternak's banned book is read by Soviet subjects abroad and smuggled back over its borders. As the book is published across Europe, Pasternak is overwhelmed at securing an international readership. On seeing a French edition he bursts into tears.

Finn and Couvée take us from the book’s origins to its eventual release, sketching along the way both Pasternak’s struggle to be heard and the separate agendas and machinations of two Cold War superpowers at ideological loggerheads. Pasternak emerges as a winner, a David who has faced down the Goliath of the authorities that have fought to silence him and suppress his work.

However, the last third of The Zhivago Affair depicts Pasternak's triumph as a pyrrhic victory. Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 affirms and cements his acclaim in the West but enrages the Kremlin. It accuses the Swedish Academy of seeking to exacerbate international tension but reserves its full fury for the recipient of the prize. Pasternak, once deemed duplicitous, is now branded a money-grubbing traitor. He is savaged by the media, discredited by his peers and besieged by angry letter-writers, the majority dancing to the tune set by the government. He is forced to decline the prize but the vitriol continues unabated and he remains a pariah until his final days.

The writer and critic V S Pritchett once said that in Russian novels "there seems to be no such person as a Russian alone". Finn and Couvée attest to the "torrent of characters" that pass through the pages of Doctor Zhivago, seemingly oblivious to the fact that their book also brims with "bounteous peopling". Fortunately, their cast is carefully assembled and presented, never clogging the narrative or irking the reader. The Soviets are most memorable, from major players such as the hysterical literary bureaucrat Alexei Surkov who claims that banning Nietzsche would have prevented Hitlerism, to bit-parters like "Uncle Mitya", the head of the Central Committee's culture department, who reads newspapers with a pencil in his hand and for whom "the Party came before everything, before people, including himself".

Both authors have drawn on a wealth of material to tell this story but they deserve special praise for their close readings of Pasternak’s poems and letters, and for consistently reminding the reader of the writer’s courage throughout his darkest days of loneliness and vilification.

While the book’s abundant detail is a virtue rather than a fault, there are nevertheless moments where the writers could have benefited from panning out instead of zooming in. Stalin and Pasternak, we are told, never met and only spoke once on the telephone – which prompts the question why Stalin should feature so predominantly in some of the early chapters. The same applies to intermittently redundant sections on the CIA’s post-war history.

But when Finn and Couvée rein themselves in, The Zhivago Affair grips all over again. Its closing pages are studded with sparkling nuggets of trivia, including Khrushchev's volte-face in his memoirs ("We shouldn't have banned it") and a summary of the CIA's extraordinary Cold War book-distribution programme (10 million books and catalogues were smuggled through the Iron Curtain and disseminated from the early 1950s until the disintegration of the USSR).

"This is Doctor Zhivago," Pasternak said as he handed over his manuscript for Italian publication. "May it make its way around the world." It did, but on its travels it created waves that Pasternak could surely never have envisaged. Clive James has declared that the book was "overrated on publication and is underrated now" and indeed it lies today in the shadow of David Lean's sumptuous film. With luck, The Zhivago Affair will encourage readers to go back and sample or rediscover Pasternak's epic, engaging and subtly critical novel for themselves.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.