Cold War publishing: The Zhivago Affair

A recent library visit found me as usual scanning the ‘New Titles’ and ‘Just Returned’ shelves for any likely contenders for a bedside table slot. Sometimes I have a deal with myself that I won’t take yet another book home (to distract me from the TBR Pile) if I can get out of the building without anything on the two aforementioned shelves catching my eye. Well, dear reader, as is so often the case something did catch my eye, thus pushing another book back a notch in the reading order. I should really ban myself from libraries until I have nothing left to read on The Landing.


The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée was the title that grabbed my attention and threatened the status of the bedside table pile. The subtitle: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book at first made me assume that the book was fiction. It sounded like a literary caper that would be right up my street. As it happens, the book is a real life literary caper that indeed proved to be right up my street. One of those ‘the truth is stranger than fiction’ or you ‘couldn’t make it up’ reading experiences. It really was like reading a Cold War spy novel but with added poetical asides and royalty disagreements to add piquancy.

The Zhivago Affair

My library find…

Finn and Couvée’s book tells the story of the battle to get Doctor Zhivago published and in particular reveals the CIA involvement in publishing and distributing a Russian language edition in 1958. As might be supposed, the CIA involvement had as much, if not more to do with propaganda than literature. According to one of Pasternak’s sons, Yevgeni, the author wasn’t at all happy about his work being used for Cold War propaganda purposes. Over the course of several years of research, Finn and Couvée uncovered the complicated saga of Doctor Zhivago with the help of previously classified CIA files. I could not help feeling that releasing the files was in itself yet another propaganda act. This is the CIA saying, ‘look it’s not all guns, we’re really nice guys and we love culture, and books and stuff’. It’s hard to judge whether the people in the organisation actually cared about the book or Pasternak, or whether they just cynically used a golden opportunity to poke the USSR. In these days of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the idea of a novel being such a powerful propaganda tool may seem quaint but it truly was that important in the West’s campaign against Communist ideology.

As you might recall, I read Pasternak’s book last year, many years after I first saw the film version and fell in love with Omar Sharif and the wonderful Russian scenery (which of course wasn’t Russian at all). The first edition of Doctor Zhivago was published in 1957 in Italy, as Pasternak was unable to get his first and only novel published in his own country. Pasternak told Italian publishing agent Sergio D’Angelo that ‘In the USSR, the novel will not come out. It doesn’t conform to official cultural guidelines’. Literature was very important in Soviet Russia, however the chilling fact was that it had to be the correct sort, as was made clear by Stalin in a 1932 speech at a gathering of writers to launch the ‘new literature’,

The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks…Here someone said that a writer must not sit still, that a writer must know the life of a country. And that is correct. Man is remade by life itself. But you, too, will assist in remaking his souls. This is important, the production of souls. And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.

Doctor Zhivago: First Edition

Italian First Edition

If Golslitizdat, the state literary publisher did not consider a writer’s work suitable (not sufficiently productive of souls), then it would not see the light of day. There may also be serious consequences for the unfortunate author, despite the apparent thaw since Stalin’s death. As Doctor Zhivago had no merit in the eyes of the state publisher, Pasternak’s manuscript was smuggled out of Russia by D’Angelo. He was acting on behalf of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a Milanese publisher (a member of the Italian Communist party). Pasternak handed the manuscript over knowing that he was potentially putting his life at risk, as well as those of his family. He rather theatrically said to D’Angelo, ‘You are hereby invited to my execution’ after handing over his work with the words ‘This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world’. I wonder if he had rehearsed those lines?

Having read the book, I would now like to read a straightforward biography of Pasternak, as this book obviously focuses on the Zhivago story. From what I have gleaned from this book, Boris Pasternak’s character was contradictory and he was probably not the easiest person to live with (whether his second wife Zinaida or his lover Olga). He had an unshakeable belief in his own talents yet was also unassuming, modest and personally engaging. It is hard to get to grips with, and understand Pasternak’s character. He seems to have been selfish enough to pursue publication even knowing that it could rebound badly upon his family. In fact, his mistress Olga Ivinskaya was twice imprisoned for her part in the affair, the second time after his death in 1960. Yet, according to the evidence, Pasternak was courageous enough to support the family members of those writers sent to the Gulag when others kept a distance.

Reading The Zhivago Affair has given me more leads to follow, not only on discovering more about Pasternak and his family but also about other writers mentioned in the text such as Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. One book that I did read a few years ago was a fictionalised account of Isaac Babel’s imprisonment in the Lubyanka, The Archivist by Travis Holland which I would highly recommend. It’s not a happy read as you might expect, but there is still a bit of hope for humanity and the written word in it. Which brings us back to Pasternak’s work making its way around the world despite the repressive regime under which he lived.

If anyone has got any related recommendations, I would love to hear them…

Picture credit for the Italian First Edition : Wikipedia, with thanks.


Leskov and Shostakovich on The Landing

Following on from the Landing Book Shelves foray into Russian literature, with Tolstoy and Pasternak, we have Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895) with The Enchanted Wanderer (first serialised in Russkiy Mir, St Petersburg, 1873) which was translated by Ian Dreiblatt. Technically this isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a Landing book, since I only bought it this year and it has sat on my bedside table more or less ever since. I have been reading it over the last week or so in between a couple of the inevitable library finds (I must do a library books blog post soon with a few ‘recommends’).

I had been browsing in the Rathfarnham Map and Bookshop but I was about to leave empty handed when this smart Melville House edition (2012) of the Leskov caught my eye. Melville House is another of those publishers that has had the smart idea of publishing lesser known classics (Hesperus  and Persephone are also publishers of forgotten classics) and in particular Melville specialises in novellas. The blurb on the back jacket says that many of the titles published have never been seen in book form before. I’m already lusting after more books from the publishing list, but they will have to join the mental book queue.

The Enchanted Wanderer

Simple and Elegant…

I hadn’t heard of Leskov before, but when I read the back jacket for some biographical details, I let out a small cry of delight. At this point you should be warned that I am about to digress somewhat from the topic of The Enchanted Wanderer. The reason for that unseemly public outburst was my discovering that Leskov had written a novella called Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (first published in 1865). The significance of that piece of information is that it provoked in me a burst of nostalgia. I went to see the operatic adaptation of Lady Macbeth by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) on an Art College trip to London with my sister several years ago. The production was an English National Opera piece at the Coliseum. Our night at the opera was the final item in a packed day of sightseeing. I remember being in the bar of the coliseum feeling tired, footsore and too scruffy for the wonderful surroundings. Strangely enough, I don’t recall that anyone else batted an eyelid even though everyone seemed much smarter than we were.

I have been trying to pin down the date of the London trip because unusually for me, I don’t have a programme saved. As far as I can tell from my friend Google, it was the spring of 1987 though I don’t know the exact date as I’m not sure how long the  opera ran. This was to be my first opera and a dramatic start to opera going it proved to be indeed. Our seats were up the Gods, for the princely sum of £5 if my memory serves me correctly. It still amazes me that you could go to a production of such quality for so little cost at that time and of course, in such a fabulous building.

Leskov’s book ticks all the dramatic boxes for passion, murder and jealousy and it was turned into a four act opera with some changes in the action. I’ll just briefly set the scene so as not to spoil the plot too much. The plot of Lady Macbeth tells the story of  provincial merchant’s wife Katerina Ismailova, who is unhappily married to Zinovy Ismailov. She is Zinovy’s second wife and is  constantly berated by her father in law Boris for not producing an heir for the estate. Enter a new farmhand called Sergei who is attracted to Katerina and the plot thickens.  Set against the background of provincial life, Leskov tackles the themes of adultery, the subservient role of women and murder. Here’s a plot summary of the book if you want to know who dun what and to whom.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Programme from 2001 revival

Shostakovich’s opera was written in 1932 and first performed in 1934, but fell foul of Stalin in 1936 and disappeared from the public eye until the 1960s. I discovered from an article in the Guardian from 2004 that the sex and violence in the opera didn’t go down too well with the party leadership, though Lady M had been a great success with audiences in Moscow and St Petersburg. When it first re-surfaced, the opera was produced in a bowdlerised form but later staging of the opera returned to the original version. Here’s a review that I dug up from The Spectator of 5 June 1987:

No problems whatsoever with David Pountney’s shattering production of Shostakovich’s second opera. The tragedy is that it should have been his last: Stalin’s notorious denunciation of 1936 effectively silenced a 27-year-old opera composer of genius. For this reason if no other, Pountney’s updating the work to the 1930s and setting it in an abattoir is an act of neat gallows-humour revenge. Brimming with pole-axing coups de theatre, brilliantly conducted by Mark Elder and graced with a central performance by Josephine Barstow [Katerina]that is remarkable even by that singing actress’s own Himalayan standards, this is without doubt the best show in the West End, and to miss it would be sheer insanity. Oh, and it was absolutely ready on the first night.

I remember that the whole production, from the music to the singing, to the spectacular set design absolutely overwhelmed me. It probably wouldn’t have been the opera that anyone would recommend as beginner’s choice, but for me it was a brilliant way to start. You were picked up by the scruff of the neck and flung in at the deep end. And it was sung in English, which helped considerably. I think it was also the first time that I heard Willard White (Boris) sing and though I can’t claim to be an operatic expert, even I can tell that he had (and probably still does have) a wonderful voice and a charismatic stage presence.

We might have been high up in the theatre, but the opening bars of the music made an immediate impact on us. You should have seen weary students (and me), preparing to settle down in the comfortable seats and recover from the day’s exertions, jerk upright at the first dramatic notes of Shostakovich’s score. This is the first time I’ve thought about that trip for years and even now I can remember the excitement and the shocking action of the plot. I don’t think it will surprise anyone too much if I mention that Katerina (Lady Macbeth) comes to a sad and sticky end, as tragedy seems to be a staple ingredient of operatic stories. I was reading about the later revival of the opera by ENO  a few years ago and I’ve included a picture of the programme as I can’t locate one from 1987. Maybe sometime I’ll get to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk again, but I’ll certainly look out for a copy of the book.

All this was quite a digression from The Enchanted Wanderer, so I may have to return to him in another blog post. Meanwhile, I hope you are all enjoying your summer reading. Any recommendations?

Boris Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago

As I mentioned previously I’m continuing with my Russian theme by reading Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak) which I had for Christmas (it seems ages ago now!) In keeping with my usual mode of practice, the good doctor has had to give way to a couple of other reads, including Nancy Mitford, Andrés Neuman and Kader Abdolah but I do keep returning to him after straying.

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

Finally, I have reached the home straight in Doctor Zhivago, the penultimate chapter, at which point the revolution has the country in its tenacious grip. Life is ruled by committees and many, many regulations which it is not safe to ignore. Yuri Zhivago, now living once more in Moscow has seen his life change immeasurably by war and revolution. He has suffered hunger, violence and fear as well as experiencing great passion, as he became caught up in his nation’s struggle to throw off centuries of Tsarist rule. Given that Putin‘s Russia is so much in the news lately it has proved to be an appropriate time to read about the course of events that would eventually lead to the present political landscape.

As usual in my posts, I am trying to avoid plot spoilers but in this case, I think it is highly likely that many of you will have at least seen the film version (possibly more than once) so the broad outline of the plot will already be familiar. To many people I’m sure, Omar Sharif will always be Yuri and Julie Christie, Lara (Larissa) no matter how many times they may read the book. Apart from ‘Lara’s Theme’ and Sharif’s melting eyes my abiding memories of the film are the ambiguous personalities of Strelnikov (Lara’s husband Antipov) and Yevgraf (Yuri’s half brother) played by Tom Courtney and Alec Guinness respectively. And lots and lots of snow covering the Russian landscape against which Yuri’s wife Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin) appears luxuriously swathed in furs.

The strap line on the cover of my edition of the novel declares that Doctor Zhivago is ‘One of the greatest love stories ever told’ but there is much more to the book than that. The novel spans a period of intense upheaval in Russian history, as experienced by Yuri Zhivago, his family and friends. There is a huge cast of characters apart from those I’ve mentioned above, who participate in the momentous events described in the book. Yuri encounters people from different factions during the course of the book, some of whom he meets more than once during his various ordeals. Sometimes it seems to stretch credibility that so many coincidences of meeting seem to occur to Yuri, but overall I didn’t find that this detracted from the novel. Rather it created a sense of life not being lived in a neatly linear way; links between people who are not always apparent on the surface that affect our lives.

Doctor Zhivago: First Edition

Italian First Edition

The plot teems with life and death and it gives the reader a fascinating insight to the terrible realities of the struggle between the Whites and the Bolsheviks after the carnage of World War I. Pasternak was writing from a position of uncertain safety since he had fallen foul of Stalin’s regime to the extent that his book could not be published in his own country. The manuscript was eventually smuggled to Italy for publication. The translators of my edition, Max Hayward and Manya Harari (1958) pay tribute to Pasternak’s poetic prose style fearing that they haven’t done justice to his use of language.

Here is a passage from early on in the novel when Yuri’s wife Tonya has just given birth to their first child:

Raised higher, closer to the ceiling than is usual with ordinary mortals, Tonya lay exhausted in the cloud of her spent pain. To Yuri she seemed like a barque lying at rest in the middle of a harbour after putting in and being unloaded, a barque which plied between an unknown country and the continent of life across the waters of death with a cargo of new immigrant souls. One such soul had just landed, and the ship now lay at anchor, resting in the lightness of her empty flanks. The whole of her was resting, her strained masts and hull, and her memory washed clean of the image of the other shore, the crossing and the landing. 

I think the translators certainly did justice to one of the most moving passages on childbirth that I have ever read. Having said that, my grammar checker insists that the first sentence is a fragment and needs revising…proof if it is needed, that it’s not always wise to listen to machines…

I’ll be finishing Doctor Zhivago in a day or so (provided that I can pass the ‘Quick Pick’ shelf in the library without looking) and I will need to make a decision about the next Landing Book Shelves read.

More on that soon but meanwhile do drop me a line below or on Twitter if you have any challenging suggestions…

When Omar Met Julie: Doctor Zhivago on Film

I’m still reading Doctor Zhivago, having been side tracked by a couple of other books along the way. As I was getting further into the book, I realised that even though it is years since I last saw David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago, I still see Omar Sharif and Julie Christie in my mind’s eye as I read.

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

That’s my excuse for this quick post featuring a lovely sequence of clips from the film. I hope you enjoy it; I’m just off to read a little more of ‘One of the greatest love stories ever told’.

I’ll post up more on Doctor Zhivago soon.

Credit: Uploaded to YouTube on 17 Dec 2009 by IluvKenji (with thanks)

Doctor Zhivago: More Russian Literature

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

This reading year is beginning briskly with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (Vintage Books) which is a new resident on the Landing Book Shelves. Pasternak’s epic novel was a Christmas present from He Who Put The Shelves Up to enable me to continue my Russian reading period after finishing War and Peace. I just managed to finish the latter on the cusp of the New Year and I can still feel a modest glow of success at that achievement. Now that I’ve finally read War and Peace I would like to go on to read more of Tolstoy’s work, so perhaps that might be a possibility for later this year.

I haven’t yet set any aims for this reading year but my broad plan will be to continue to tackle long neglected novels (and perhaps auto/biographies too). I was interested to come across a similar challenge on Twitter where writer Lynn Shepherd is inviting people to join her in reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa beginning tomorrow. A mammoth literary task if ever there was one (see @Lynn_Shepherd for more information and to join in).

I hope to tie up War and Peace with one more blog post (if I can manage to write something without plot spoiling) and I will give an update on the Doctor Zhivago progress as soon as possible. I’m toying with a couple more ideas for future reads as well, so watch this space!

Meanwhile why not drop me a line below to let everyone know about your 2014 reading challenges. Happy New Reading Year to one and all!