Magazine article The Spectator

'The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book', by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book', by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée - Review

Article excerpt

The banning of Dr Zhivago in the Soviet Union had unfortunate consequences for other fine 20th-century Russian novels, says Robert Chandler

Credit: Robert Chandler

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

Harvill Secker, pp.352, £20, ISBN: 9781846557125

For most Russians, Boris Pasternak is one of their four greatest poets of the last century. For most Anglophone readers, he is the man who won the Nobel Prize for Doctor Zhivago .

The first four chapters of The Zhivago Affair give a full picture of Pasternak's life and the Soviet literary world up until the early 1950s, when Zhivago was nearing completion. Pasternak was born in Moscow in 1890, into an assimilated and highly cultured Jewish family. His father was a painter, his mother a concert pianist; among the family's friends were Leo Tolstoy, Sergey Rachmaninov and Rainer Maria Rilke. Pasternak wanted first to be a composer, then a philosopher -- but by the age of 22 he understood that his vocation was poetry.

In 1917 Pasternak wrote the poems that went into his most famous collection, My Sister Life . The main themes are love, revolution and creativity; the rhythms are impetuous, the imagery dazzling, the thoughts often incoherent. Unlike many of his friends and family, Pasternak chose not to emigrate after the October Revolution. Though soon shocked by the regime's violence, he saw Russia as his only possible home. From the mid-1920s he began trying to write more simply -- a process that culminated in Doctor Zhivago .

It is natural to wonder how Pasternak survived the Stalin era. This may have been in part because he somehow, perhaps guided by some unconscious instinct for self-preservation, established what one could call a 'personal' relationship with Stalin. This began after the suicide of Stalin's wife in 1932. Thirty-three other writers published a collective letter in the Literary Gazette ; Pasternak managed to append a separate message of his own.

Like nearly all Soviet writers, Pasternak joined in some of the public denunciations of the politicians sentenced to death during the show trials of the mid-1930s. He refused, however, to sign a letter calling for the execution of Marshal Tukhachevsky and other senior generals. Ignoring Pasternak's clear refusal, the authorities included his signature in the published text of the letter.  Pasternak then wrote to Stalin, saying he could not act as a judge of life and death.  He also wrote letters to Stalin about Maya-kovsky, and about the Georgian poets he was translating. The unexpected tone of these letters, their odd fusion of reverence and intimacy, could well have made an impression on a tyrant concerned about his place in history. Whether Stalin truly said 'We won't touch this cloud-dweller!' is uncertain, but there is no doubt that he kept at least one of Pasternak's letters in his personal archive.

The main part of this book is a history, based on original research, of Pasternak's last years and the publication of Doctor Zhivago . This will prove a valuable resource for scholars, though few more general readers will want to know the story in such detail. Rejected by Soviet publishers, the novel was smuggled to Milan in 1956. Pretending that Pasternak had withdrawn his consent, the Soviet authorities did their best to prevent publication of the Italian, English and other translations; Peter Finn and Petra Couvée catalogue every letter, telegram and meeting. …

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