The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

by Peter Finn, Petra Couvee


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The Zhivago Affair is the dramatic, never-before-told story—drawing on newly declassified files—of how a forbidden book became a secret CIA weapon in the ideological battle between East and West.

In May 1956, an Italian publishing scout went to a village outside Moscow to visit Russia’s greatest living poet, Boris Pasternak. He left carrying the manuscript of Pasternak’s only novel, suppressed by Soviet authorities. From there the life of this extraordinary book entered the realm of the spy novel. The CIA published a Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago and smuggled it into the Soviet Union. Copies were devoured in Moscow and Leningrad, sold on the black market, and passed from friend to friend. Pasternak’s funeral in 1960 was attended by thousands who defied their government to bid him farewell, and his example launched the great tradition of the Soviet writer-dissident. First to obtain CIA files providing proof of the agency’s involvement, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée take us back to a remarkable Cold War era when literature had the power to stir the world.

(With 8 pages of black-and-white illustrations.)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345803191
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/28/2015
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 760,168
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Peter Finn is National Security Editor for The Washington Post and previously served as the Post’s bureau chief in Moscow.
Petra Couvée is a writer and translator and teaches at Saint Petersburg State University.

The Zhivago Affair is their first collaboration together.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Bullets cracked against the facade of the Pasternak family’s apartment building on Volkhonka Street in central Moscow, pierced the windows, and whistled into the plaster ceilings. The gunfire, which began with a few isolated skirmishes, escalated into all-out street fighting in the surrounding neighborhood, and drove the family into the back rooms of the spacious second-floor flat. That, too, seemed perilous when shrapnel from an artillery barrage struck the back of the building. Those few civilians who ventured out on Volkhonka crab-ran from hiding spot to hiding spot. One of the Pasternaks’ neighbors was shot and killed when he crossed in front of one of his windows.
On October 25, 1917, in a largely bloodless coup, the Bolsheviks seized power in Petrograd, the Russian capital, which had been called Saint Petersburg until World War I broke out and a Germanic name became intolerable. Other major centers did not fall so easily as militants loyal to the revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin battled the Provisional Government that had been in power since March. There was more than a week of fighting in Moscow, the country’s commercial center and second city, and the Pasternaks found themselves in the middle of it. The family’s apartment building was on a street that crested a hill. The flat’s nine street-side windows offered a panoramic view of the Moscow River and the monumental golden dome of Christ the Savior Cathedral. The Kremlin was just a few hundred meters to the northeast along the bend of the river. Pasternak, who rented a room in the Arbat neighborhood, had happened over to his par­ents’ place on the day the fighting began and found himself stuck there, eventually huddling with his parents and younger, twenty-four-year-old brother, Alexander, in the downstairs apartment of a neighbor. The telephone and lights were out, and water only occasionally, and then briefly, trickled out of the taps. Boris’s two sisters—Josephine and Lydia—were caught in similarly miserable conditions at the nearby home of their cousin. They had gone out for a stroll on an unseasonably mild evening when, suddenly, armored cars began to careen through streets that quickly emptied. The sisters had just made it to the shelter of their cousin’s home when a man across the street was felled by a shot. For days, the constant crackle of machine-gun fire and the thud of exploding shells were punctuated by “the scream of wheeling swifts and swallows.” And then as quickly as it started “the air drained clear, and a terrifying silence fell.” Moscow had fallen to the Soviets.
Russia’s year of revolution had begun the previous February when women protesting bread shortages in Petrograd were joined by tens of thousands of striking workers and the national war weariness swelled into a sea of demonstrators against the exhausted autocracy. Two million Russians would die in the carnage at the Eastern Front and another 1.5 million civilians died from disease and military action. The economy of the vast, backward Russian empire was collapsing. When troops loyal to the czar fired on the crowds, killing hundreds, the capital was in open revolt. On March 3, having been abandoned by the army, Nicholas II abdicated, and the three-hundred-year-old Romanov dynasty was at an end.
Pasternak, who had been assigned to a chemical factory in the Urals to support the war effort, hurried back to Moscow. He traveled part of the journey on a kibitka, a covered wagon on runners, and warded off the cold with sheepskin coats and hay. Pasternak and his siblings welcomed the fall of the monarchy, the emergence a new Provisional Government, and, above all, the prospect of a constitutional political order. Subjects became citizens, and they reveled in the transformation. “Just imagine when an ocean of blood and filth begins to give out light,” Pasternak told one friend. His sister Josephine described him as “overwhelmed” and “intoxicated” by the charisma of Alexander Kerensky, a leading political figure, and his effect on a crowd outside the Bolshoi Theatre that spring. The Provisional Government abolished censor­ship and introduced freedom of assembly.
Pasternak would later channel the sense of euphoria into his novel. The hero of Doctor Zhivago was spellbound by the public discourse, which was brilliantly alive, almost magical. “I watched a meeting last night. An astounding spectacle,” said Yuri Zhivago, in a passage where the character describes the first months after the fall of the czar. “Mother Russia has begun to move, she won’t stay put, she walks and never tires of walking, she talks and can’t talk enough. And it’s not as if only people are talking. Stars and trees come together and converse, night flowers philosophize, and stone buildings hold meetings. Something gospel-like, isn’t it? As in the time of the apostles. Remember, in Paul? ‘Speak in tongues and prophesy. Pray for the gift of interpretation.’ ”
It seemed to Zhivago that “the roof over the whole of Russia has been torn off.” The political ferment also enfeebled the Provisional Government, which was unable to establish its writ. It was overwhelmed above all by the widely hated decision to keep fighting in the world war. The Bolsheviks, earning popular support with the promise of “Bread, Peace and Land,” and driven by Lenin’s calculation that power was for the taking, launched their insurrection and a second revolution in October. “What magnificent surgery,” Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago. “To take and at one stroke artistically cut out the old, stinking sores!”
The Bolsheviks, in their constitution, promised Utopia—“the abolition of all exploitation of man by man, the complete elimination of the division of society into classes, the ruthless suppres­sion of the exploiters, the establishment of a socialist organization of society, and the victory of socialism in all countries.”
Yuri Zhivago quickly is disillusioned by the convulsions of the new order: “First, the ideas of general improvement, as they’ve been understood since October, don’t set me on fire. Second, it’s all still so far from realization, while the mere talk about it has been paid for with such seas of blood that I don’t think the ends justify the means. Third, and this is the main thing, when I hear about the remaking of life, I lose control of myself and fall into despair.”
The word remaking was the same one Stalin used when toasting his writers and demanding engineers of the soul. Zhivago tells his interlocutor, a guerrilla commander: “I grant you’re all bright lights and liberators of Russia, that without you she would perish, drowned in poverty and ignorance, and nevertheless I can’t be bothered with you, and I spit on you, I don’t like you, and you can all go to the devil.”
These are the judgments of a much older Pasternak, writing more than three decades after the revolution and looking back in sorrow and disgust. At the time, when Pasternak was twenty-seven, he was a man in love, writing poetry, and swept along in the “greatness of the moment.”

Table of Contents


“This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.”

Chapter 1
“The roof over the whole of Russia has been torn off.”

Chapter 2
“Pasternak, without realizing it, entered the personal life of Stalin.”

Chapter 3
“I have arranged to meet you in a novel.”

Chapter 4
“You are aware of the anti—Soviet nature of the novel?”

Chapter 5
“Until it is finished, I am a fantastically, manically unfree man.”

Chapter 6
“Not to publish a novel like this would constitute a crime against culture.”

Chapter 7
“If this is freedom seen through Western eyes, well, I must say we have a different view of it.”

Chapter 8
“We tore a big hole in the Iron Curtain.”

Chapter 9
“We’ll do it black.”

Chapter 10
“He also looks the genius: raw nerves, misfortune, fatality.”

Chapter 11
“There would be no mercy, that was clear.”

Chapter 12
“Pasternak’s name spells war.”

Chapter 13
“I am lost like a beast in an enclosure.”

Chapter 14
“A college weekend with Russians”

Chapter 15
“An unbearably blue sky”

Chapter 16
“It’s too late for me to express regret that the book wasn’t published.”



A Note on Sources




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The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
kpet More than 1 year ago
The Zhivago Affair tells the story of how Boris Pasternak's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, was published. It is a tale of how the FBI published the novel, and made it available to the world. It is also a biography of Pasternak, and the effect the novel had on his life and loves. The Kremlin's reaction, and their attempts to prevent the publication is also told. In all, a well written story of a great book and the effect it had on the world.
efm More than 1 year ago
Amazing behind the scene story of Pasternak, his life and conflict within the soviet system.