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Dr. Zhivago’s CIA Connection and the Pope

‘The Zhivago Affair’ is a detailed reconstruction of one of the most fascinating of the Cold War’s cultural skirmishes

Adam Kirsch
June 13, 2014
The Kremlin.(Photo by borisv)
The Kremlin.(Photo by borisv)

The end of the Cold War did not mean that America ceased to have rivals and enemies on the world stage. But if you look at the threats that chiefly concern our foreign policy today—the fight against Islamic terrorism, the commercial rivalry with China, even the war of nerves with Putin’s Russia in Eastern Europe—they all lack the element that made the Soviet-American struggle so consequential. That is the intellectual dimension, the sense that geopolitical rivalries were driven by a profound ideological disagreement about the best form of government.

When Francis Fukuyama invented the phrase “the End of History” to describe what happened after 1989, he did not mean that events would stop taking place, or that no more wars would be fought. He was referring specifically to the fact that, after the Cold War, struggles between rival powers were just that: power struggles, and not philosophical disagreements. No matter what happens in Ukraine or Syria, it will not shake the conviction of Americans, and billions of other people around the world, that liberal democracy is the ideal political system. Other societies may disagree, but in the West, there is no chance that we will suddenly decide that an Islamic caliphate, or a party-state dictatorship, would be preferable to parliamentary democracy. The ideological battle today is completely one-sided: the foes of democracy must justify their opposition, while the supporters of democracy take comfort in feeling that they have history on their side.

One side effect of “the End of History” is that intellectual life is no longer so charged with significance as it was during the Cold War. When a society is debating fundamental philosophical questions, as left and right did during the 20th century, even the most seemingly abstract of cultural products can reflect life-and-death political issues. That is why the CIA, during the 1950s and 1960s, became one of the most important sponsors of American culture—a fact that scandalized many when it was finally revealed but that makes a basic kind of sense. If American culture is the product of the American way of life, then showing off the products of that culture is an indirect advertisement for democracy. That’s why the CIA and the State Department sent Jackson Pollock and Louis Armstrong on world tours and funneled money into magazines like Encounter—just as the USSR promoted the work of Communist writers and sent Shostakovich to conduct his music in America.

The Zhivago Affair, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, is a detailed reconstruction of one of the most fascinating of the Cold War’s cultural skirmishes. Today the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, sits placidly on the shelves of Russian classics, alongside War and Peace and Crime and Punishment. Most people, if they know the story at all, probably know it from David Lean’s widescreen film epic, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and the balalaika-heavy “Lara’s Theme.” But when it was published in 1957, Doctor Zhivago touched off a worldwide controversy, as the Soviet Union tried ineffectually to stop the book from appearing and then reacted with outrage when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize. No book except The Gulag Archipelago, which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would publish some 15 years later, caused more anguish to the Soviets during the whole Cold War.

What made Doctor Zhivago such a bitter pill for Khrushchev’s regime to swallow? Unlike Solzhenitsyn’s book, which was a head-on indictment of Soviet crimes, Pasternak’s novel was a poetic and abstract work, most of whose literary energy goes into miraculously vivid descriptions of weather and nature. Indeed, Doctor Zhivago was Pasternak’s first and only novel; before he started writing it, in 1945, he had been famous as a lyric poet and translator of Shakespeare. It was partly Pasternak’s great stature as a poet—he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times on the strength of his verse alone—that made it difficult for the Soviet leadership to deal with him. If even Stalin, in his massacre of Soviet writers, had taken care to spare Pasternak, how could Khrushchev—who was supposed to be presiding over a “thaw” in Soviet cultural life—dare to silence or jail him?

And yet the novel’s ideological heresies were plain to see. Doctor Zhivago is a love story set against the backdrop of the world-shaking events of 20th-century Russian history—the revolution of 1905, the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and the devastating civil wars that followed, with an epilogue that carries the action forward to WWII. The Communist Party had long laid down the law about how these events, the crucible of the Soviet state, should be treated in literature. The good guys and bad guys had to be clearly identified; the virtue and necessity of the Revolution had to be taken for granted. There was no room for any kind of idiosyncratic, individual reassessment of the official storyline.

The miraculous thing about Doctor Zhivago is that, as the American critic Edmund Wilson noted at the time, Pasternak wrote as if all this ideological apparatus simply didn’t exist. He told Russia’s history from the point of view of a character—Yuri Zhivago, doctor and poet—whose class origins as a bourgeois professional already made him suspect from the Communist point of view. As Zhivago is swept up in the chaos of the war and revolution—first sent to the front to fight the Austrians, then conscripted by a partisan band to fight the counter-revolutionary Whites—he remains passionately committed to his private ideals, which are inspired by Orthodox Christianity. Pasternak was born Jewish, but he evolved a deeply Christian worldview as part of his embrace of Russianness, and several passages in the novel explain why the Jews should stop being so stubborn and convert already. (As Finn and Couvee point out, this element of Doctor Zhivago alienated some Jewish readers, including David Ben Gurion, who called it “one of the most despicable books about Jews ever written by a man of Jewish origin.”)

More than Christianity, however, life itself is Zhivago’s sacred value—his name is related to the Russian word for life—and he despises every ideology that claims to be superior to life, to be able to shape and control its mysterious forces. His great love affair with the beautiful Lara is cast as an embrace of the wildness and unpredictability of life, which she embodies as the eternal feminine. Because Zhivago retains an individual standpoint, he is able to see clearly what the Revolution actually means for Russia. The novel gives an overwhelming, visceral sensation of cold—most of the action takes place during the winters of 1917-1922—and man-made want. Houses are overrun by rats; fences are stripped for firewood; city-dwellers flee to the country to find food, then get caught in the battles between the Red and White Armies. Brutalities, many of them drawn from real events, are told unflinchingly: In a late chapter, a murderer bites a child to death, then gets lynched by a mob that ties him to the tracks and runs a train over him.

Above all, Pasternak describes the spiritual malaise that descended on the country, the ideological panic of denunciation and self-denunciation:

This was the sickness of the age, the revolutionary madness of the epoch. In thought everyone was different from his words and outward show. No one had a clear conscience. Each with good reason could feel himself guilty, a secret criminal, an unexposed deceiver. On the slightest pretext, a rage of self-castigating imagination would play itself out to the uttermost limits. People fantasized, denounced themselves, not only under the effect of fear, but also drawn on by a destructively morbid inclination, of their own free will, in a state of metaphysical trance and passion for self-condemnation that, once set loose, could not be stopped.

Pasternak does not by any means idealize the Tsarist order. Its corruption is embodied in the character of Komarovsky, a sinister lawyer who drives Zhivago’s father to suicide and seduces the teenage Lara, casting a permanent shadow over her life. And Pasternak is able to see the stern grandeur in a figure like Strelnikov, the Red Army commander who travels the Urals on a private train, exterminating counter-revolutionaries, devoting himself entirely to the cause of the people. Yet to read Doctor Zhivago is to be left in no doubt that the Russian Revolution was a material and spiritual catastrophe, whose damage would take generations to undo.

No wonder, then, that Pasternak recognized the Soviet authorities would never allow his magnum opus to appear, despite the liberal promise of the thaw. Finn and Couvee quote his words in the fall of 1955, as the 10-year writing of the book neared its end: “You mark my words—they will not publish this novel for anything in the world.” The only alternative was to try to get the book published abroad, in translation. But the precedent for Soviet writers who sought publication in the West was a frightening one: The last writer to try it had been executed by Stalin.

It was an act of great personal courage, then, when Pasternak, in May 1956, handed over the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago to a visiting Italian journalist. The journalist was working as a scout for the publishing house owned by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a young Italian multimillionaire who had put his family fortune at the service of the Italian Communist Party. Feltrinelli believed that, by publishing new Soviet literature, he would be advancing the cause of Communism. Greatly to his credit, when he found out that the USSR itself disagreed—when the leaders of world Communism put intense pressure on him to cancel the publication—Feltrinelli stuck to his guns. Freedom of expression, for him, trumped even loyalty to the revolution.

Working from memoirs and archives—including CIA records—Finn and Couvee detail the spy-vs.-spy maneuvers that ensued. The Soviet state exerted increasing pressure on Pasternak to withdraw his manuscript, forcing him to sign telegrams to Feltrinelli requesting that he cancel or postpone publication. He would then send his publisher private messages through friends, insisting that these coerced messages be ignored: “I can find no words with which to express my gratitude. The future will reward us, you and me, for the vile humiliations we have suffered.”

When Doctor Zhivago appeared in the West in late 1957 and became a sensation in large part because it had been banned at home, Pasternak was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union, which made it impossible for him to earn a living. (Even as huge royalties were piling up in his Feltrinelli account—royalties that Soviet law prevented him from accessing—Pasternak was reduced to borrowing money from his housekeeper to get by.) The writer was subjected to public denunciations, vilified in the press, and even threatened by gangs of thugs who demonstrated near his home. When the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in 1958, largely on the strength of Zhivago, the Soviet government forced him to send a telegram declining the honor, which Pasternak—a very ambitious artist—dearly wanted to accept.

Meanwhile, Finn and Couvee show, the CIA was rubbing its hands with glee at the Soviets’ self-inflicted propaganda wound. The agency arranged, through intermediaries, for a Russian-language edition of Zhivago to be distributed to visiting Soviets at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. (In a nicely ironic touch, the book was secretly handed out at the Vatican’s pavilion.) This was part, Finn and Couvee show, of an extensive program of smuggling banned books into the Eastern bloc, which succeeded in getting millions of titles into the hands of eager readers.

Whether Doctor Zhivago contributed in any measurable way to the decline of the USSR is, of course, impossible to say. But at the very least, the episode made clear what was at stake in the fight between democracy and Communism; the Soviet state’s response to the novel, ironically enough, confirmed all the critiques that Pasternak made of the paranoid Communist mindset. As for the book itself, its ultimate literary fate remains unclear. It is not a flawless masterpiece, and a surprising number of the friends Pasternak showed it to disapproved of it. (Nabokov, who didn’t like anything unless he wrote it himself, called Zhivago “clumsy, trite, and melodramatic.”) It’s easy to feel that all of Pasternak’s energy went into the descriptions and meditations—the poetic elements of the novel—with little left over for fictional problems per se, such as convincing character development and plot. Still, the living elements in this book that exalts life are so vibrantly powerful that it remains one of the most important fictional treatments of the Russian Revolution. 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.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.