The CIA's Favorite Novel
Why the CIA helped sneak Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago into the Soviet Union—and how the censors ultimately won.
Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book (New York: Pantheon Books, 2014), 368 pp., $26.95.
WE LIKE to think of ourselves as creatures of causality. We cling to the belief that our choices will have predictable effects on the course of our lives. But that’s somewhat illusory. And the illusion is even more pronounced in dictatorships, where the powers that be have their own views about the vagaries of individual fate.
When Boris Pasternak handed the manuscript of his new novel Doctor Zhivago to the representative of an Italian publisher in the spring of 1956, he almost certainly didn’t envision the chain of events that this simple act would set in motion. He wasn’t planning on the book becoming a global literary sensation. He probably didn’t suspect that he would win a Nobel Prize for Literature. And he certainly never dreamed that he would prompt an elaborate covert action by the Central Intelligence Agency, whose operatives saw his novel as the perfect opportunity for a cultural drone strike, exposing for all the world to see the Soviet Communist Party’s prodigious contempt for genuine creativity.
There was, however, one thing that Pasternak foresaw quite accurately: the storm that was about to break. His decision to have the book published overseas, bypassing the party’s entrenched mechanisms of artistic control, was bound to trigger a vicious reaction from the Soviet leadership. He had seen enough to know. Born in 1890, he had weathered revolution, civil war and Stalin’s terrors relatively unscathed—but in this respect he was an extraordinary exception. Already established in the 1920s as one of the great Russian poets of his generation, he had watched as his most illustrious contemporaries were goaded into suicide (Vladimir Mayakovsky and Marina Tsvetaeva), sent to die in the gulag (Osip Mandelstam), or forced to endure public humiliation and the killing or imprisonment of their loved ones (Anna Akhmatova).
Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, the authors of this remarkable biography of Pasternak’s novel and the global scandal it spawned, deftly illuminate this background. As they explain, Pasternak’s former next-door neighbor, the novelist Boris Pilynak, “was executed with a single bullet to the back of the head in April 1938.” Isaak Babel, the great chronicler of Jewish life in the Black Sea city of Odessa (from which both of Pasternak’s parents hailed), met the same end two years later. Finn and Couvée put the number of Soviet writers who were either “executed or died in labor camps for various alleged infractions” after 1917 at nearly 1,500.
I’m not sure where this precise figure comes from, but surely it’s on the low side, considering the vast reach of the scythe that cut down many of the leading intellectuals among the USSR’s various ethnic groups in the 1930s and 1940s. (Much depends, I guess, on how the Soviet regime defined the word “writer.”) So Pasternak can hardly be accused of hysteria when he predicted the worst. On that Sunday morning in May, as Pasternak took his leave from Sergio D’Angelo, the visiting Italian Communist whom he had just entrusted with the manuscript, he said: “You are hereby invited to my execution.”
It didn’t quite come to that—partly because the immense publicity stirred up by the affair around the book made it virtually impossible for the Politburo to have Pasternak packed off to the uranium mines. In that respect, for all of his self-professed ignorance of political intrigue, Doctor Zhivago’s author showed a shrewd sense of timing. The USSR in the spring of 1956 was still a Communist dictatorship, but it wasn’t the same as it had been, say, in 1949, when Stalin’s henchman Andrei Zhdanov launched a vicious public campaign against Akhmatova (famously dubbed “half whore, half nun” by Zhdanov) and the satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko. Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilev, whose father had been shot by the Bolsheviks for allegedly counterrevolutionary activities, was dispatched to the camps—for the second time.
Stalin died in 1953. His successors embarked on a cautious political opening that came to be known, somewhat optimistically, as the “thaw.” Millions of prisoners returned home from the camps. And in February 1956, just a few months before D’Angelo’s visit, Nikita Khrushchev had taken matters one dramatic step further by denouncing Stalin’s “cult of personality” to a closed audience of top-ranking Communist Party officials. The party faithful were stunned by Khrushchev’s tales of his predecessor’s viciousness and caprice; several members of the audience had heart attacks. For many Soviet citizens, of course, this “news” about Stalin wasn’t news at all. For them, this tentative exorcism of the dictator’s ghost prompted a collective sigh of relief.
IT WAS this climate of possibility that emboldened D’Angelo, who had been commissioned by a novice Milan publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, to keep an eye open for new Russian works that might be worthy of publication in Italian translation. While going about his job as a foreign hire at Radio Moscow, D’Angelo chanced upon a notice in the Soviet media announcing the imminent publication of a novel by Pasternak, by that point widely considered one of the greatest Russian poets alive. In fact, though, Pasternak had submitted the book for publication long before, only to find himself stymied. By the time D’Angelo turned up on his doorstep, Pasternak “had endured five months of complete silence from Goslitizdat, the state literary publishers, to which he had submitted the novel.” Two leading literary journals had also refused to publish excerpts. Pasternak was not entirely surprised: “‘In the USSR,’ he said, ‘the novel will not come out. It doesn’t conform to official cultural guidelines.’” So when D’Angelo broached the idea of publishing the book overseas, Pasternak seized the moment.
He went upstairs to his second-floor study and returned bearing a large package wrapped in newspaper. This was the manuscript of the new novel, which told the story of a Pasternak alter ego, an apolitical doctor and poet who experiences an ecstatic and illicit love affair against the background of World War I, Russia’s dual revolutions and the civil war that followed. “‘This is Doctor Zhivago,’ Pasternak said. ‘May it make its way around the world.’” D’Angelo was happy to oblige. He had little inkling of the incredible risk that Pasternak was taking by choosing to publish the book overseas, thus staging an end run around the elaborate apparatus of state control that the Communist Party maintained over writers and other intellectuals.
The party’s response was not long in coming. The KGB quickly learned of Pasternak’s plans. A secret Central Committee memorandum labeled Doctor Zhivago the work of a “bourgeois individualist,” and recommended that the Kremlin use its sway with the powerful Italian Communist Party to claw the manuscript back before it could be published. Like D’Angelo, Pasternak’s publisher Feltrinelli was a longtime member of the Italian Communist Party, and he soon found himself under siege from his Italian comrades as well as unsavory envoys from Moscow like Alexei Surkov, the head of the Soviet Writers’ Union. Surkov harangued Feltrinelli in his Milan office for three hours—to no effect. Feltrinelli responded that he was a “free publisher in a free country,” and that “by publishing the novel he was paying tribute to a great narrative work of Soviet literature.” Later Feltrinelli described Surkov as “a hyena dipped in syrup.” Never have I imagined that I could feel such affection for an Italian Communist.
On Pasternak’s explicit request, Feltrinelli sold the translation rights to a number of other publishers around the world. As translations were prepared and buzz about Doctor Zhivago began to build, so too did the hysteria within the Soviet leadership. All means were used to pressure Pasternak to withdraw the novel for publication.
The party’s literary bureaucrats even resorted to using Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, as leverage. In 1950, she had been arrested and sent off to the camps, only to be released after Stalin’s death. Needless to say, she was terrified of getting caught up in the meat grinder again, so she too ended up pushing Pasternak to back down. The irony here is especially poignant, considering that she was the model for Lara, Yuri Zhivago’s muse (immortalized by the radiant Julie Christie in the 1965 movie version of Doctor Zhivago directed by David Lean).
In the telling of Finn and Couvée, Ivinskaya emerges as a rather more complicated beast—exulting in her lover’s immense literary mojo while at the same time pleading with him to avoid provoking the authorities’ ire. At one point she even prevailed upon him to send Feltrinelli a telegram, actually authored by Soviet apparatchiks, asking that Doctor Zhivago’s publication be postponed. Pasternak followed up by sending Feltrinelli a message in French, telling him to ignore the previous one. (In a nice bit of tradecraft, the novelist and his publisher had agreed beforehand that only messages sent by Pasternak in French were to be regarded as authentic.)
AT SOME point, a photocopy of the Russian manuscript found its way into the hands of the CIA. A plot was hatched: Why not publish the book in its original tongue and smuggle copies back into the USSR? John Maury, the head of the agency’s Soviet Russia Division, penned some freelance literary criticism for his colleagues: