One of the more potent weapons in the Cold War exploded only in sales, popularity and cultural impact. It was Boris Pasternak’s surging romantic epic, Doctor Zhivago, and the story of its journey from Russia to America and back again emerges in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. This account of America’s attempts to use the book in what essentially became a weaponless war, is, Kirkus says, “a derring-do-packed” story, “a fast-paced political thriller about a book that terrified a nation.”
Hovering over The Zhivago Affair is another story, this one telling how the book’s authors, Peter Finn, national security editor for the Washington Post, and Petra Couvée, a writer, translator and teacher at Saint Petersburg State University in Russia, has its own elements of intrigue and discovery.
As the two authors recently recalled, in their joint response to e-mail interview questions, their work began in the late 1990s when they got a tip that during the Cold War, the CIA had gone after copies of Zhivago, hoping to get the banned book to Russian readers. Specifically, a retired Dutch intelligence officer told Couvée that his agency had helped arrange the printing of hundreds of copies of the book in The Hague.
“It had long been rumored that there was an agency role,” the authors recalled, “but the CIA had never acknowledged the printing.”
To get to the facts in the case, the two authors, who by now had teamed on the story, asked the CIA to release any documents they possessed relating to the matter. Eventually, in 2012, the agency declassified 130 documents that detailed its role in two printings of Doctor Zhivago.
“The moment was opportune,” the writers say. “More than 50 years had passed and the agency, which of course has its own interests, saw little downside in releasing the material.”
Doctor Zhivago represented, the authors say, “a golden opportunity for the CIA.” With the novel’s “overt religiosity, its sprawling indifference to the demands of socialist realism and the obligation to genuflect before the October Revolution, ” Finn and Couvée say, Doctor Zhivago challenged the current Soviet mindset.
Books, the authors learned, had long been used by the CIA as weapons in the Cold War.
“The agency…had its own printing press at headquarters,” the authors say. “There were probably thousands of titles, not just literature, but also works of history, art history, economics, sociology, psychology, etc., that were translated into Russian and the languages of Eastern Europe and spirited across the Iron Curtain.”
Among the works “conscripted” into this ideological war between East and West were novels by Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot and Nabokov, and even the Russian writers Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
In a clandestine arrangement with Dutch intelligence and an academic publishing house in The Hague, the CIA sponsored a run of the novel that eventually circulated in Berlin, London, Paris and behind a curtain at the Vatican Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair (aka Expo ‘58), where Russian visitors snapped up copies.
At a time in Russia when raising an eyebrow at the State could result in banishment to the gulag, Pasternak roamed free, in spite of his novel’s critical views on Russian life.
“Who was targeted and who survived could seem frighteningly random,” the authors say. “Although they never met, there was a mysterious bond between Stalin and the Poet…and the Soviet leader protected Pasternak. The State, however, struck at him through his surrogates. His lover, Olga Ivinskaya, was targeted and she spent several years in the Gulag.”
Work on the book took the authors to Russia, where, they observed, Russian bookshops now display copies of Doctor Zhivago. One of the newest editions of the novel is part of a newly created series, Banned Books.
“The cover features diagonally, in glamorous pink, the words ‘forbidden book,’ ” the authors say. “Russian publishers know the word BANNED sells books.”
Finn and Couvée dealt with a Russia somewhat more open than the country Pasternak knew.
“As foreigners, we were met with some skepticism, but, in the end, people agreed to be interviewed and warmed to us,” they recall. “We were able to review what we needed in the archives, albeit after sometimes protracted negotiations over tea with the archivists.”
Reading The Zhivago Affair while mindful of the current travails of the book business and the ascendency of electronic media, one wonders if today a book could send governments and their intelligence agencies scrambling to get it to the public. The authors are skeptical.
“It’s doubtful the agency is still in the book business,” they say, “but almost certainly it is all over social media.”
Gerald Bartell's book coverage appears in Kirkus Reviews, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. The photo above left is of Peter Finn photographed by Marc Bryan-Brown.