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.


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!