Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Books

Review: 'Zhivago Affair' is a real-life Cold War thriller

“Art belongs to the people. It should be understood and loved by the masses. It must unite and elevate their feelings, thoughts and will. It must stir them to activity and develop the artistic instincts within them. Should we serve exquisite sweet cake to a small minority while the worker and the peasant masses are in need of black bread?"

Thus Vladimir Lenin, as quoted by Peter Finn (the Washington Post's national security editor) and Petra Couvee in their beautifully crafted and scrupulously researched book The Zhivago Affair. It is the story of a poet turned novelist, a love affair and a manuscript; of publishers and secret couriers, a brutal smear campaign, a Nobel Prize, Soviet literary politics and two intelligence services: the KGB and the CIA. All is told in a narrative of the culture war — a crucial battlefield in the Cold War — fought in the 1950s between the United States and its European allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies.

The poet-turned-novelist was Boris Pasternak, already Russia's foremost lyric poet, who started his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, in 1945 and finished it in 1955. In Russia, the great poets were met at railroad stations by thousands of people — Russians loved poetry, could quote at length from memory, idolized those who wrote it, and they had no less love for novels and plays. After the Bolshevik takeover in 1917, the leaders knew that Russian literature had to be put at the service of Soviet politics and so decreed.

More than decreed. "After 1917, nearly 1,500 writers in the Soviet Union were executed or died in labor camps for various alleged infractions," the authors write. Isaac Babel was shot in 1940, Mikhail Bulgakov forbidden to publish in 1929, the magnificent Anna Akhmatova kept from publication. By the time Pasternak finished Doctor Zhivago, he knew he was in trouble and believed he would never see his novel in print. Nonetheless, he submitted the manuscript to the official state publisher and to two literary journals. Five months passed. Silence. Still, he did what many Russian writers did: He read it aloud to friends, copies were passed around, and the novel took on a life of its own.

By the spring of 1956, the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli had sent an associate to visit Pasternak with an offer of publication in translation, which Pasternak accepted. As he bid goodbye to the associate at his garden gate, he said, "You are hereby invited to my execution."

As the Bolsheviks occupied St. Petersburg in 1917, Pasternak might have thought he had it in him to be a faithful Soviet poet, but, as Finn and Couvee show, he was wrong. He was, above all else, a poet of the human spirit, a poet in love with a world of weather, landscapes, romance and the Russian soul. And the Soviet Union? Not so much.

When Pasternak had a heart attack, he wrote a passage of dialogue for Yuri Zhivago — his character also had cardiac problems — in which Zhivago said: "It's the disease of our time, I think its causes are of a moral order. A constant systematic dissembling is required of the vast majority of us. It's impossible, without its affecting your health, to show yourself day after day contrary to what you feel, to lay yourself out for what you don't love, to rejoice over what brings you misfortune. ... Our soul takes up room in space and sits inside us like the teeth in our mouth. It cannot be endlessly violated with impunity." This was written in 1952, Stalin had a year to live, and such a paragraph could get you a train ride to Siberia.

Meanwhile, the CIA was fighting its side in the culture war. Finn and Couvee quote John Maury, the chief of the Soviet Russia Division: "Pasternak's humanistic message — that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state — poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system." The agency had established committees, foundations, radio stations — Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberation — journals such as Encounter and a publishing house, the Free Europe Press, which translated books such as James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin and George Orwell's Animal Farm, which were then infiltrated into the Soviet Union. In time, these titles were joined by Doctor Zhivago.

For Pasternak, there was hell to pay: a coordinated attack by newspapers, magazines and radio, a loss of friends and colleagues, overt surveillance by the KGB and more. In 1958, when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature — which he first accepted, then was forced to decline — the pitch of the attacks rose to hysteria.

Finn and Couvee have taken a complex and difficult history with many moving parts and turned it into a kind of intellectual thriller. They had to control a lot of information, yet they kept the book well-paced and often exciting. The Zhivago Affair is a prime example of hard work and fidelity to a good story.

Alan Furst's new novel is "Midnight in Europe."

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