Steven G. Kellman
The Zhivago Affair:
The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book
by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée
$26.95 List Price
In a cartoon that earned him a Pulitzer Prize, Bill Mauldin shows two men at hard labor in a Soviet gulag. “I won the Nobel Prize for literature,” one tells the other. “What was your crime?” In 1958, when the cartoon was published, it was obvious that the hapless Nobel laureate was supposed to be Boris Pasternak, whose literary achievements earned him expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers and harassment so unnerving it pushed him to the verge of suicide. “It is not seemly to be famous,” a poem by Pasternak begins. “Celebrity does not exalt.” Yet after the 1957 publication of his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak, already celebrated as one of Russia’s leading poets, had unseemly celebrity thrust upon him. His novel earned him adulation abroad (he won the Nobel in 1958) but acrimony at home. Admirers and detractors alike were convinced that what Pasternak had written was of consequence to the fate of civilization.
In The Zhivago Affair, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée evoke a lost era, when a mere book could affect the geopolitics of the nuclear superpowers. The Zhivago Affair is a case study in splenetic literary reception. Finn, the national-security editor of the Washington Post, and Couvée, who teaches at Saint Petersburg State University, have produced a riveting account of how Doctor Zhivago came to be written, released, revered, and reviled. They 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.