Boris Pasternak was one of Russia’s most beloved poets before he began to write Dr. Zhivago in 1945. His decision to turn away from verse and create a novel dedicated to the individual rather than a Kremlin-approved protagonist faithful to the cause and the collective was life altering. Pasternak’s fate, the book’s tortured path to publication, and how the CIA used it to combat the Cold War is meticulously chronicled in The Zhivago Affair, important new nonfiction by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee. The writers’ research efforts and storytelling gifts are not to be missed, especially if you’ve read and enjoyed the novel or are interested in Soviet culture, crime, punishment and espionage.
So yea, there’s a lot going on here, and yes, Pasternak, his wife, his mistress and her family paid dearly for the defiance, but more on that later.
Pasternak lived in a writers’ colony outside Moscow and wrote in a quiet room inside the dacha he shared with his second wife Zinaida. In another part of town lived his mistress Olga Ivinskaya and her daughter Irina. Ivinskaya became Pasternak’s literary agent as well as the inspiration for the character Lara in Dr. Zhivago.
It took Pasternak more than 10 years to finish the novel, which eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. The book was a sensation throughout much of the world but banned in the USSR. Yet, here’s an interesting turn—the folks at the CIA were big fans and believed it could be used as an intellectual weapon against communism during the Cold War. In fact, the CIA used that tactic frequently and believed “if a piece of literature was unavailable or banned in the USSR or Eastern Europe, and the work might challenge or contrast with Soviet reality, the agency wanted it in the hands of citizens in the Eastern Bloc.”
Once completed, Pasternak wasn’t keen on changing a word of it, even though he was under pressure from the Kremlin. While the Soviets had a long history of executing writers for far lesser “crimes,” Pasternak was able to play the game and make just enough concessions and confessions to stay alive and keep his masterpiece in tact for an Italian publisher.
After the Nobel Prize announcement, Pasternak was ousted from the Union of Soviet Writers and forced to reject the prize and write letters of apology to Khrushchev and Pravda. The Kremlin even considered exile, and Pasternak struggled to find work to support his family. Finn and Couvee say that “the Soviet Union’s widely reported hostility to Doctor Zhivago ensured that a novel that might otherwise have had a small elite readership became an international best seller.”
That’s some small comfort, but Pasternak wasn’t able to bask in the international spotlight. He died a few years afterward, and the book profits being held in the West and reserved for Ivinskaya got her in trouble. When the foreign currency–now in rubles–came into her hands she and her daughter were sentenced to several years hard labor.
The Zhivago Affair scrutinizes the artist’s life in an authoritarian society, and I came away shaken for the prospects of any writer or poet or playwright who had to self-censor or perish or be sentenced to a Siberian gulag. While detailing Pasternak’s troubles, the introductory chapters reported on writers’ lives lost during the post-Revolutionary period with Stalin at the helm. Many were plucked randomly for execution, and the ones left behind produced second-rate, party-approved literature. Hundreds of voices silenced; important stories never written. Pasternak was just the tip of the iceberg.