The Zhivago Affair
The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book
Publication Date: June 17, 2014
Other Editions of This Title: Compact Disc
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Drawing on newly declassified government files, this is the dramatic story of how a forbidden book in the Soviet Union became a secret CIA weapon in the ideological battle between East and West.
In May 1956, an Italian publishing scout took a train to a village just outside Moscow to visit Russia’s greatest living poet, Boris Pasternak. He left carrying the original manuscript of Pasternak’s first and only novel, entrusted to him with these words: “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.” Pasternak believed his novel was unlikely ever to be published in the Soviet Union, where the authorities regarded it as an irredeemable assault on the 1917 Revolution. But he thought it stood a chance in the West and, indeed, beginning in Italy, Doctor Zhivago was widely published in translation throughout the world.
From there the life of this extraordinary book entered the realm of the spy novel. The CIA, which recognized that the Cold War was above all an ideological battle, published a Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago and smuggled it into the Soviet Union. Copies were devoured in Moscow and Leningrad, sold on the black market, and passed surreptitiously from friend to friend. Pasternak’s funeral in 1960 was attended by thousands of admirers who defied their government to bid him farewell. The example he set launched the great tradition of the writer-dissident in the Soviet Union.
In The Zhivago Affair, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée bring us intimately close to this charming, passionate, and complex artist. First to obtain CIA files providing concrete proof of the agency’s involvement, the authors give us a literary thriller that takes us back to a fascinating period of the Cold War—to a time when literature had the power to stir the world.
(With 8 pages of black-and-white illustrations.)
Peter Finn is National Security Editor for The Washington Post and previously served as the Post’s bureau chief in Moscow.
Petra Couvée is a writer and translator and teaches at Saint Petersburg State University.
The Zhivago Affair is their first collaboration together.
In their new book, Peter Finn and Petra Couvee explain the fraught history behind the Russian novel, Doctor Zhivago. And they tell the story of Boris Pasternak, the novel's brave author. More at NPR.org
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"Beautifully crafted and scrupulously researched...Finn and Couvée have taken a complex and difficult history with many moving parts and turned it into a kind of intellectual thriller. They have to control a lot of information, yet they keep the book well-paced and often exciting. The Zhivago Affair is a prime example of hard work and fidelity to a good story."
"A work of deep historical research that reads a little like Le Carré, this is the backstory of the foreign publication of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, and it bears its multiple burdens lightly: a sideways biography of Pasternak; a psychological history of Soviet Russia; a powerful argument for the book as literature; an entry into the too-small canon on the CIA’s role in shaping culture. In new reporting on the Agency’s distribution of the book behind enemy lines, the authors show how both sides in the Cold War used literary prestige as a weapon without resorting to cheap moral equivalency."
"Fascinating...Told in its entirety, the story of how Doctor Zhivago helped disrupt the Soviet Union holds some intriguing implications for the present and future of cultural conflict."
"A rich and unanticipated story...[Finn and Couvée] demonstrate a sophisticated appreciation for an artistic quest that was haunted by dread, persecution, and loss. They also share an avid eye for detail...Finn and Couvée’s poignant depiction of Pasternak is the book’s greatest strength."
—The Daily Beast
"[Finn and Couvée's] riveting, well-researched book reads like a literary thriller...a fascinating essay on mid-century politics...illuminating, humane."
"Thrilling...Deftly combining biography, cultural history and literary tittle-tattle, [Finn and Couvée] have shone a light on a shadowy operation...Crushingly poignant.”
"Brisk and thrilling...The authors use rich archival research, including previously classified CIA files, to depict the oppressive political conditions that gave rise to Pasternak’s masterpiece, and the international firestorm that occurred when the novel was banned in the Soviet Union. The book offers nuanced depictions of the people in Pasternak’s life, including his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, who championed his work and shared his torment at the hands of the KGB. The torturous ideological policing by the Soviets is discussed to great effect; for indeed, the tale of Doctor Zhivago itself is very much about the long psychic scar left by Russian Revolution. It’s a story expertly told by Finn and Couvée, who unsparingly present the role played by the Kremlin in persecuting Pasternak and his loved ones, as well as the role of the CIA in using his masterpiece in a game of ideological warfare—overall, a triumphant reminder that truth is sometimes gloriously stranger than fiction."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A detailed reconstruction of one of the most fascinating of the Cold War’s cultural skirmishes...The Zhivago Affair ought to bring a new generation of readers to it, curious to know what kind of a novel could make a superpower tremble."
"A fast-paced political thriller about a book that terrified a nation."
“A riveting account...[Finn and Couvéee] have drawn not only on archival documents and interviews with surviving actors in the international drama but also on newly declassified files of the Soviet, American, and Dutch intelligence services.”
“It is quite simply a remarkable story and fully sourced book, the scholarship peerless but never eclipsing one amazingly humanist story of a towering figure of 20th century Russian literature.”
—New York Journal of Books
“With groundbreaking reporting and character-rich storytelling, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée uncover the high-stakes drama behind one of the Cold War’s strangest turning points. Passionately written and acutely aware of the historical context, The Zhivago Affair almost makes one nostalgic for a time when novels were so important that even the CIA cared about them.”
—Ken Kalfus, author of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
“A thrilling literary espionage yarn, but much more than that. Finn and Couvée shed new light on the Cold War struggle for the hearts and minds of millions of people, introducing a cast of characters—poets and spies, idealists and cynics, politicians and dissidents—who could have stepped out of the pages of Doctor Zhivago itself.”
—Michael Dobbs, author of Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman—from World War to Cold War
“A sparkling and fascinating account of how one of the most important novels of the twentieth century found its way back to Russia, a juggernaut of truth thrust into the Soviet darkness. Finn and Couvée elegantly and authoritatively capture Pasternak’s brilliance, the courage of his friends, and the CIA’s hidden role in bringing the forbidden book to Russian readers.”
—David E. Hoffman, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
“The most detailed account to date of the events that suddenly placed one of Russia’s greatest poets in the center of the struggle between Soviet and Western propaganda machines at the height of the Cold War. Pasternak’s personal courage in the face of this totally incongruous conflict is the quality that emerges most clearly from this well-paced narrative, which is especially commendable for its avoidance of all romantic exaggeration—a quality Pasternak himself strove for in Doctor Zhivago. The book is of great relevance today, when such conflicts seem (but only seem) to have disappeared.”
—Richard Pevear, co-translator of Doctor Zhivago