The Soviet Union martyred many of its writers, sentencing some to labor camps or mental wards and shooting others outright. A subtler literary violence sits at the heart of “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.” Authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvée assemble a story in which censorship and the threat of arrest isolate Boris Pasternak within Russia but transform his novel “Doctor Zhivago” into a focus of international intrigue, driving it to top the New York Times bestseller list in 1958.
Readers of Russian history already know how Pasternak defied demands made on Soviet authors, yet remained under Joseph Stalin’s protection. The story of Pasternak’s literary adviser and mistress, Olga Ivinskaya — effectively sent to hard labor in Siberia as punishment for his sins — has also been documented before. Now “The Zhivago Affair” adds the contents of CIA memos to the panoramic view, resulting in the most complete account of how a censored middleweight novel about a doctor in Revolutionary Russia emerged as a global powerhouse.
Finn and Couvée reveal some long-standing rumors about the CIA’s role in launching “Zhivago” as unfounded. But the truth is dramatic enough. Anything that so infuriated Soviet leaders had value to U.S. intelligence, leading American officials to quietly plan for publication of the novel in multiple Eastern-bloc languages, spiriting the Russian version into the Vatican Pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels and later into Pasternak’s homeland itself.
Driven to write a book everyone would long to read (“even a seamstress or a dishwasher”), Pasternak created a massive cast of characters. “The Zhivago Affair” contains just as many memorable players — among them Pasternak’s two aggrieved wives, a muse accused of being an opportunist, and a Communist Italian publisher who opposed Soviet Russia by bringing “Zhivago” to print. Minor celebrity cameos abound, from the Dulles brothers running the CIA and U.S. State Department to Gloria Steinem heading up a CIA-front student organization.
The only pity here is that the authors occasionally undercut the momentum of their tale. Announcing that Pasternak will be dead in 109 days before recounting a final cascade of medical problems, for instance, feels like a referee calling a fight mid-round. Nevertheless, “The Zhivago Affair” cleanly captures a time when the appearance of a single novel could knock a superpower back on its heels, tip the scales to garner an author a Nobel Prize, and win adulation from a vaster audience than Pasternak ever dreamed of reaching.
Andrea Pitzer is a journalist and author of “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov.”