Monday 19 February 2018

Book Review: 'Doctor Zhivago' and the Cold War

The Zhivago Affair Peter Finn and Petra Couvée Harvil Secker, hdbk, £30, 352 pages, available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Julie Christie and Omar Sharif
Julie Christie and Omar Sharif

Duncan White

The 1958 Expo in Brussels drew 40 million visitors, including tourists from the Soviet Union. As such, it was the ideal venue for Cold War propaganda. In their pavilion, the Americans staged fashion shows and square-dancing, showed off colour television and fed visitors hot-dogs. The Russians were less playful: a 50ft statue of Lenin, feats of agricultural engineering, and, the coup de grace, a full-sized replica of Sputnik.

The real action, though, was in the Vatican pavilion, where priests and Catholic activists were handing out copies of a book, bound in blue linen covers, to curious Soviet visitors. This was a Russian-language edition of Boris Pasternak's suppressed novel Doctor Zhivago, published in Holland at the instigation of the CIA. This was literature as black op.

In the Zhivago Affair, Peter Finn, a journalist with the Washington Post, and Petra Couvée, a scholar and translator of Russian literature, use declassified CIA documents to show exactly how Doctor Zhivago became a weapon in the cultural Cold War.

Rumours of CIA involvement started in 1958; Finn and Couvée deliver the smoking gun. It was, as they reveal, an operation that went to the top, "monitored by CIA director Allen Dulles, and sanctioned by President Eisenhower's Operations Co-ordinations Board, which reported to the National Security Council at the White House".

Not only did the Soviet Russian Division of the agency arrange for the distribution of 365 copies at Expo 58, but the following year, after Pasternak had won the Nobel Prize, they also published 9,000 miniature paperback copies – the idea was they would be easy to conceal.

As Finn and Couvée point out, the CIA's belief in literature as a weapon seems "almost quaint" now. The agency's investment in cultural propaganda was extensive, however, as front organisations were created to fund journals, exhibitions and concerts. The publication of Zhivago was part of a larger programme through which anti-communist texts were smuggled into the Soviet Union. Hard to imagine: the same agency that pursues its targets with drones used to spend money tying books to balloons and floating them over the Iron Curtain.

In taking literature seriously, the CIA took their cue from the Russians. The poet Osip Mandelstam famously declared that, "Only in Russia is poetry respected – it gets people killed". Mandelstam died in a forced labour camp, to which he had been sentenced for recklessly declaiming a poem mocking Stalin.

Pasternak was an initial enthusiast of the revolution but never bought into the Party's cultural policies. He survived the purges of the late thirties but his poetry was considered seditious and he was denied publication, prevented from giving public readings, and his long-time mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, was sent to the gulag in an attempt to bring him into line. Yet Pasternak was not for breaking: he had an unshakeable belief in his own artistic destiny and in Doctor Zhivago. When he tried to get it published in the most liberal of Moscow's literary magazines, it was rejected for its "non-acceptance of the socialist revolution" and its celebration of Zhivago's "hypertrophied individualism". In 1956 he gave the manuscript to an Italian communist, Sergio D'Angelo, who was working as a literary scout for Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a publisher of independent means and mind. When the Central Committee discovered what Pasternak had done, they sent their pet writer Alexei Surkov to bully the Italians into pulling the plug. Feltrinelli refused. Surkov, he said, was like a "hyena dipped in syrup".

Published across the West, Doctor Zhivago became a huge bestseller and a Hollywood film. Its value as anti-communist propaganda went through the roof when Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize. The Soviets were furious and took out their anger on Pasternak. He was forced to reject the award and was denounced by people he had previously considered friends, kicked out of the writers' union, harassed by the KGB and denied treatment when his health deteriorated. He was threatened with exile and contemplated suicide. Only a direct appeal to Khrushchev reduced his persecution. He died of lung cancer in 1960.

While the revelations about the CIA's involvement in publishing Doctor Zhivago are fascinating, the strength of Finn and Couvée's meticulously researched book is the placing of the revelations into the context of a compelling human drama.

As the authors point out, there was "something of the caper" about the CIA's operation, but for Pasternak the publication was an act of martyrdom. He knew he would suffer. Yet he was certainly no Cold Warrior. Yes, he was naive in believing his novel would not be exploited to ideological ends, but that was Pasternak: an idealist among the cynics.

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