We’ve all heard of Boris Pasternak’s classic Russian novel Doctor Zhivago. Some of you have even read it. Even among those who haven’t read it there’s probably a bunch of you who’ve at least seen the movie. But probably none of you knows the incredible, true story behind the novel. Now, thanks to a recent book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée all can be told.
Courtesy of the website Real Clear Books, I came across a review of The Zhivago Affair:The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. Thinking this sounds like my kinda book, I added The Zhivago Affair to my Goodreads list of books to read and then, like I do with all promising books I wanna read, quickly forgot about it. Until of course I happened to stumble across a copy at the public library. Thanking my lucky stars, I grabbed the book without a moment’s hesitation. And I must have enjoyed it because I burned through it in no time.
Published in July of this year, The Zhivago Affair isn’t just the story of novelist Boris Pasternak and how he came to write Doctor Zhivago, but how the novel’s manuscript was smuggled out of the Soviet Union by an Italian Communist, published with covert assistance from the CIA, distributed during the Brussels World’s Fair with help from the Vatican, and despite being banned in the USSR went on to win the Nobel Prize. Not bad for an author’s first novel.
What really struck me about this remarkable story is just how improbable this novel’s very existence really is. Pasternak, a talented Russian poet who rarely ventured into the world of prose, barely escaped Stalin’s purges despite having at least one verbal argument with the Soviet dictator. The novel was finished late in his life, when Pasternak was in poor health and under scrutiny by the Communist authorities. His novel was seen by many as overly long, melodramatic and hard to follow. After learning it was smuggled out of the USSR, the Soviets pressured Pasternak’s Italian agent, the Italian government and the Italian Communist Party to not publish it but to no avail. Lastly, a battle over international publishing rights almost sunk the entire CIA-sponsored project.
As a reader, it’s fun to imagine how a novel could be used as a weapon to combat a totalitarian regime. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed The Zhivago Affair. What’s not to love about a book taking on an Evil Empire?