Read: The Zhivago Affair

Read the prologue to The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book – Radio 4’s Book of the Week last week.


Dr Zhivago 1st edition


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

On May 20, 1956, two men took the suburban electric train from Moscow’s Kiev station to the village of Peredelkino, a thirty-minute ride southwest of the city. It was a blue-sky Sunday morning. Spring had pushed the last of the snow away just the previous month, and the air was sweet with the scent of blooming lilac. Vladlen Vladimirsky, easily the bigger of the two, had bright blond hair and wore the billowing pants and double-breasted jacket favored by most Soviet officials. His slender companion was clearly a foreigner—Russians teased the man that he was a stilyaga, or “style maven,” because of his Western clothing. Sergio D’Angelo also had the kind of quick smile that was uncommon in a country where circumspection was ingrained. The Italian was in Peredelkino to charm a poet.

The previous month D’Angelo, an Italian Communist working at Radio Moscow, read a brief cultural news item noting the imminent publication of a first novel by the Russian poet Boris Pasternak. The two-sentence bulletin told him little except that Pasternak’s book promised to be another Russian epic. The novel was called Doctor Zhivago.

Before leaving Italy, D’Angelo had agreed to scout out new Soviet literature for a young publishing house in Milan that had been established by a party loyalist, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Getting the rights to a first novel by one of Russia’s best-known poets would be a major coup both for himself and the new publishing concern. He wrote a letter to an editor in Milan in late April, and before receiving a reply asked Vladimirsky, a colleague at Radio Moscow, to set up a meeting with Pasternak.

Peredelkino was a writers’ colony built on the former estate of a Russian nobleman. Set down amid virgin pine, lime trees, cedars, and larches, it was created in 1934 to reward the Soviet Union’s most prominent authors with a retreat that provided escape from their apartments in the city. About fifty country homes, or dachas, were built on large lots on 250 acres. Writers shared the village with peasants who lived in wooden huts—the women wore kerchiefs and men rode on horse-drawn sleds.

Some of the biggest names in Soviet letters lived in Peredelkino—the novelists Konstantin Fedin and Vsevolod Ivanov lived on either side of Pasternak. Kornei Chukovsky, the Soviet Union’s most beloved children’s-book writer, lived a couple of streets away as did the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky. As idyllic as it looked, the village was haunted by its dead, those executed by the state during the Great Terror of the late 1930s— the writers Isaak Babel and Boris Pilnyak were both arrested at their dachas in Peredelkino. Their homes were handed off to other writers.

Stalin launched the new literature with a toast: “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks…”

According to village lore, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had asked Maxim Gorky, the father of Soviet literature and one of the founders of the socialist-realist school of writing, how his counterparts in the West lived. When Gorky said they lived in villas, Peredelkino was ordered up by Stalin. Legend or not, writers were a privileged caste. They were organized into the nearly four-thousand–strong Union of Soviet Writers, and lavished with perks unimaginable for ordinary Soviet citizens, who often lived in tiny spaces and suffered through long lines for basic goods. “Entrapping writers within a cocoon of comforts, surrounding them with a network of spies” was how Chukovsky described the system.

Novels, plays, and poems were seen as critical instruments of mass propaganda that would help lead the masses to socialism. Stalin expected his authors to produce fictional or poetic celebrations of the Communist state, the story lines full of muscular progress in the factories and the fields. In 1932, during a meeting with writers at Gorky’s home, Stalin launched the new literature with a toast: “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks… Here someone correctly said that a writer must not sit still, that a writer must know the life of a country. And that is correct. Man is remade by life itself. But you, too, will assist in remaking his soul. This is important, the production of souls. And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.”

After leaving the train station, D’Angelo and Vladimirsky passed the walled summer residence of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. They crossed a stream by a graveyard and walked along roads that were still a little muddy before turning onto Pavlenko Street, the narrow lane at the edge of the village where Pasternak lived. D’Angelo was unsure what to expect. He knew from his research that Pasternak was esteemed as a supremely gifted poet and was praised by scholars in the West as someone who stood out brightly in the stolid world of Soviet letters. But D’Angelo had never actually read anything by him. Within the Soviet establishment, recognition of Pasternak’s talent was tempered by doubts about his political commitment, and for long periods original work by the poet was not published. He earned a living as a translator of foreign literature, becoming one of the premier Russian interpreters of Shakespeare’s plays and Goethe’s Faust.

Pasternak’s dacha, emerging from stands of fir and birch, was a chocolate-brown, two-story building with bay windows and a veranda; it reminded some visitors of an American timber-frame house. As D’Angelo arrived at the wooden gate, the sixty-six-year-old writer, in Wellington boots and homespun pants and jacket, was working in his front garden, where the family had a vegetable patch among the fruit trees, bushes, and flowers. Pasternak was a physically arresting man, remarkably youthful, with an elongated face that seemed sculpted from stone, full sensuous lips, and lively chestnut eyes. The poet Marina Tsvetaeva said he looked like an Arab and his horse. A visitor to Peredelkino noted that he could pause at certain moments as if recognizing the impact “of his own extraordinary face… half closing his slanted brown eyes, turning his head away, reminiscent of a horse balking.”

Pasternak greeted his visitors with firm handshakes. His smile was exuberant, almost childlike. Pasternak enjoyed the company of foreigners, a distinct pleasure in the Soviet Union, which only began to open up to outsiders after the death of Stalin in 1953. Another Western visitor to Peredelkino that summer, the Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, said the experience of conversing with writers there was “like speaking to the victims of shipwreck on a desert island, cut off for decades from civilization—all they heard they received as new, exciting and delightful.”

The three men sat outside on two wooden benches set at right angles in the garden, and Pasternak took some delight in Sergio’s last name, stretching it out in his low droning voice with its slightly nasal timbre. He asked about the name’s origin. Byzantine, said D’Angelo, but very common in Italy. The poet talked at length about his one trip to Italy when he was a twenty-two-year-old philosophy student at the University of Marburg in Germany in the summer of 1912. Traveling in a fourth-class train carriage, he had visited Venice and Florence but had run out of money before he could get to Rome. He had written memorably of Italy in an autobiographical sketch, including a sleepy half-day in Milan just after he arrived. He remembered approaching the city’s cathedral, seeing it from various angles as he came closer, and “like a melting glacier it grew up again and again on the deep blue perpendicular of the August heat and seemed to nourish the innumerable Milan cafes with ice and water. When at last a narrow platform placed me at its foot and I craned my head, it slid into me with the whole choral murmur of its pillars and turrets, like a plug of snow down the jointed column of a drainpipe.”

Forty-five years later, Pasternak would become bound to Milan. Just a short distance away from the cathedral, through the glass-vaulted Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and past La Scala, was Via Andegari. At number 6 was the office of Feltrinelli, the man who would defy the Soviet Union and first publish Doctor Zhivago.

Conversations with Pasternak could become soliloquies. Once of coltish enthusiasm, words and ideas hurtling ahead before he alighted on some original point. Isaiah Berlin said, “He always spoke with his peculiar brand of vitality, and flights of imaginative genius.” D’Angelo was enthralled, happy to be an audience, when Pasternak apologized for talking on and asked his visitor why he wanted to see him.

D’Angelo explained that his posting in Moscow was sponsored by the Italian Communist Party, which encouraged its leading activists to experience life in the Soviet Union. D’Angelo worked as an Italian-language producer and reporter for Radio Moscow, the Soviet Union’s official international broadcaster, which was housed in two buildings behind Pushkin Square in central Moscow. Before coming to the Soviet Union, he had been the manager of the Libreria Rinascita, the Italian Communist Party bookstore in Rome. D’Angelo was a committed activist from an anti-Fascist family who joined the party in 1944, but some of his Italian comrades felt he was a little too bookish and lacked sufficient zeal. They hoped a spell in Moscow would stoke some fire. The party leadership arranged a two-year assignment in the Soviet capital. He had been in the Soviet Union since March.

D’Angelo, who spoke Russian well and only occasionally had to ask Vladimirsky to help him with a word, told Pasternak that he also acted as a part-time agent for the publisher Feltrinelli. Not only was Feltrinelli a committed party member, D’Angelo said, he was a very rich man, the young multimillionaire scion of an Italian business dynasty, who had been radicalized during the war. Feltrinelli had recently started a publishing venture, and he especially wanted contemporary literature from the Soviet Union. D’Angelo said he had recently heard about Doctor Zhivago, and it seemed an ideal book for Feltrinelli’s new house.

Pasternak interrupted the Italian’s pitch with a wave of his hand. “In the USSR,” he said, “the novel will not come out. It doesn’t conform to official cultural guidelines.”

D’Angelo protested that the book’s publication had already been announced and since the death of Stalin there had been a marked relaxation within Soviet society, a development that got its name—“the thaw”—from the title of a novel by Ilya Ehrenburg. The horizons of literature seemed to broaden as old dogmas were challenged. Fiction that was somewhat critical of the system, reflected on the recent Soviet past, and contained complex, flawed characters had begun to be published.

“Publication abroad would expose me to the most catastrophic, not to mention fatal, dangers.”

The Italian said he had a proposal. Pasternak should give him a copy of Doctor Zhivago so that Feltrinelli could have it translated, although he would of course wait until publication in the Soviet Union before bringing it out in Italy. And Pasternak could trust Feltrinelli because he was a Communist Party loyalist. This all sounded reasonable to the eager D’Angelo, anxious as he was to secure the manuscript and justify the stipend he was receiving from Feltrinelli.

D’Angelo had no sense of the risk Pasternak would be taking by placing his manuscript in foreign hands. Pasternak was all too aware that the unsanctioned publication in the West of a work that had not first appeared in the Soviet Union could lead to charges of disloyalty and endanger the author and his family. In a letter to his sisters in England in December 1948, he warned them against any printing of some early chapters he had sent them: “Publication abroad would expose me to the most catastrophic, not to mention fatal, dangers.”

Pilnyak, Pasternak’s former next-door neighbor in Peredelkino (the side gate between their gardens was never closed), was executed with a single bullet to the back of the head in April 1938. Pilnyak was skeptical of the Soviet project, tackled themes such as incest in his fiction, and described Stalin’s and Gorky’s literary commands as the castration of art. Pilnyak’s fate may well have been foreordained as early as 1929 when he was accused, falsely, of orchestrating publication abroad of his short novel Mahogany by anti-Soviet elements. Set in a postrevolutionary provincial town, the novel includes a sympathetically drawn character who is a supporter of Leon Trotsky—Stalin’s bitter rival. Pilnyak was subjected to a public campaign of abuse in the press. “To me a finished literary work is like a weapon,” wrote Vladimir Mayakovsky, the brash and militant Bolshevik poet, in a review of Pilnyak’s work that noted, without blushes, he had not actually read Mahogany. “Even if that weapon were above the class struggle— such a thing does not exist (though, perhaps, Pilnyak thinks of it like that)—handing it over to the White press strengthens the arsenals of our enemies. At the present time of darkening storm clouds this is the same as treachery at the front.”

Pilnyak tried to win his way back into the party’s good graces with some kowtowing pronouncements about Stalin’s greatness, but he couldn’t save himself. The charge of disloyalty was memorialized in a file. With the Great Terror at its height, he was tormented by the fear of imminent arrest. The country was in the grip of a mad, murderous purging of the ranks of the party, the bureaucracy, and the military as well as the intelligentsia and whole ethnic groups. Hundreds of thousands were killed or died in detention between 1936 and 1939; hundreds of writers were among the victims. Pasternak remembered Pilnyak constantly looking out the window. Acquaintances he ran into expressed amazement that he hadn’t already been picked up. “Is it really you?” they asked. And on October 28, 1937, the secret police came. Pasternak and his wife were at their neighbor’s house; it was the birthday of Pilnyak’s three-year-old son, also named Boris. That evening, a car pulled up and several men in uniform got out. It was all very polite. Pilnyak was needed on urgent business, said one officer.

He was charged with belonging to “anti-Soviet, Trotskyist, subversive and terrorist organizations,” preparing to assassinate Stalin, and spying for Japan; he had traveled to Japan and China in 1927 and written about his journey. He had also spent six months in the United States in 1931 with Stalin’s permission, traveling cross-country in a Ford and working briefly in Hollywood as a screenwriter for MGM. His travelogue novel Okay offered a harsh view of American life.

Pilnyak “confessed” to everything, but in a final word to a military tribunal he said he would like “to have paper” in front of him on which he “could write something of use to the Soviet people.” After a fifteen-minute trial, from 5:45 to 6:00 p.m. on April 20, 1938, Pilnyak was found guilty and sentenced to the “ultimate penalty,” which was carried out the next day—in the sinister language of the bureaucracy—by the “head of 1st special section’s 12th department.” Pilnyak’s wife spent nineteen years in the Gulag, and his child was raised in the Soviet republic of Georgia by a grandmother. All of Pilnyak’s works were withdrawn from libraries and bookstores, and destroyed. In 1938–39, according to a report by the state censor, 24,138,799 copies of “politically damaging” works or titles of “absolutely no value to the Soviet reader” were pulped.

In the wake of the arrest of Pilnyak and others, the Pasternaks, like many in the village, lived with fear. “It was awful,” said Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida, pregnant at the time with their first son. “Every minute we expected that Borya would be arrested.”

Even after the death of Stalin, no Soviet writer could entertain the idea of publication abroad without considering Pilnyak’s fate. And since 1929 no one had broken the unwritten but iron rule that unapproved foreign publication was forbidden.

As he continued his patter, D’Angelo suddenly realized that Pasternak was lost in thought. Chukovsky, Pasternak’s neighbor, thought he had a “somnambulistic quality”—“he listens but does not hear” while away in the world of his own thoughts and calculations. Pasternak had an uncompromising certainty about his writing, its genius, and his need to have it read by as wide an audience as possible. The writer was convinced that Doctor Zhivago was the culmination of his life’s work, a deeply authentic expression of his vision, and superior to all of the celebrated poetry he had produced over many decades. “My final happiness and madness,” he called it.

Both epic and autobiographical, the novel revolves around the doctor-poet Yuri Zhivago, his art, loves, and losses in the decades surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution. After the death of his parents, Zhivago is adopted into a family of the bourgeois Moscow intelligentsia. In this genteel and enlightened setting, he discovers his talents for poetry and healing. He finishes medical school and marries Tonya, the daughter of his foster parents. During World War I, while serving in a field hospital in southern Russia, he meets the nurse Lara Antipova and falls in love with her.

Upon his return to his family in 1917, Zhivago finds a changed city. Controlled by the Reds, Moscow is wracked by the chaos of revolution and its citizens are starving. The old world of art, leisure, and intellectual contemplation has been erased. Zhivago’s initial enthusiasm for the Bolsheviks soon fades. Fleeing typhus, Zhivago and his family travel to Varykino, their estate in the Urals. Nearby, in the town of Yuryatin, Zhivago and Lara meet again. Lara’s husband is away with the Red Army. Zhivago’s desire for her is rekindled, but he is troubled by his infidelity.

Captured by a band of peasant soldiers who press-gang him into serving as a field doctor, Zhivago witnesses the atrocities of the Russian Civil War, committed by both the Red Army and its enemy, a coalition of anti-Bolshevik forces known as the Whites. Zhivago eventually “deserts” the revolutionary fight and returns home to find that his family, believing him dead, has fled the country. He moves in with Lara. As the war draws near, they take refuge in the country house in Varykino. For a brief moment, the world is shut out, and Zhivago’s muse returns to inspire a burst of poetry writing. The howling of the wolves outside is a portent of the relationship’s doom. With the end of the war, and the consolidation of Bolshevik power, fate forces the couple apart forever. Lara leaves for the Russian Far East. Zhivago returns to Moscow and dies there in 1929. He leaves behind a collection of poetry, which forms the novel’s last chapter and serves as Zhivago’s artistic legacy and life credo.

Zhivago is Pasternak’s sometime alter ego. Both character and writer are from a lost past

Zhivago is Pasternak’s sometime alter ego. Both character and writer are from a lost past, the cultured milieu of the Moscow intelligentsia. In Soviet letters, this was a world to be disdained, if summoned at all. Pasternak knew that the Soviet publishing world would recoil from Doctor Zhivago’s alien tone, its overt religiosity, its sprawling indifference to the demands of socialist realism and the obligation to genuflect before the October Revolution. The novel’s heresies were manifold and undisguised, and for the Soviet faithful, particular sentences and thoughts carried the shock of an unexpected slap. A “zoological apostasy” was the reaction in an early official critique of the novel. The revolution was not shown as “the cake with cream on top,” Pasternak acknowledged, as the writing neared completion. The manuscript “should be given to anyone who asks for it,” he said, “because I do not believe it will ever appear in print.”

Pasternak had not considered Western publication, but by the time D’Angelo arrived at his gate, he had endured five months of complete silence from Goslitizdat, the state literary publisher, to which he had submitted the novel. Two leading journals, Znamya (The Banner) and Novy Mir (New World), which he hoped might excerpt parts of Doctor Zhivago, had also not responded. For D’Angelo, the timing of his pitch was the height of good fortune; Pasternak, when presented with this unexpected offer, was ready to act. In a totalitarian society he had long displayed an unusual fearlessness—visiting and giving money to the relatives of people who had been sent to the Gulag when the fear of taint scared so many others away; intervening with the authorities to ask for mercy for those accused of political crimes; and refusing to sign drummed-up petitions demanding execution for named enemies of the state. He recoiled from the group-think of many of his fellow writers. “Don’t yell at me,” he said to his peers at one public meeting, where he was heckled for asserting that writers should not be given orders. “But if you must yell, at least don’t do it in unison.” Pasternak felt no need to tailor his art to the political demands of the state; to sacrifice his novel, he believed, would be a sin against his own genius.

“Let’s not worry about whether or not the Soviet edition will eventually come out,” he said to D’Angelo. “I am willing to give you the novel so long as Feltrinelli promises to send a copy of it, shall we say in the next few months, to other publishers from important countries, first and foremost France and England. What do you think? Can you ask Milan?” D’Angelo replied that it was not only possible but inevitable because Feltrinelli would surely want to sell the foreign rights to the book.

Pasternak paused again for a moment before excusing himself and going into his house, where he worked in a Spartan study on the second floor. In winter it looked out over “a vast white expanse dominated by a little cemetery on a hill, like a bit of background out of a Chagall painting.” Pasternak emerged from the dacha a short time later with a large package wrapped in a covering of newspaper. The manuscript was 433 closely typed pages divided into five parts. Each part, bound in soft paper or cardboard, was held together by twine that was threaded through rough holes in the pages and then knotted. The first section was dated 1948, and the work was still littered with Pasternak’s hand-written corrections.

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

With all that was to come, Pasternak never wavered from that wish.

D’Angelo explained that he would be able to get the manuscript to Feltrinelli within a matter of days because he was planning a trip to the West. It was just before noon, and the men chatted for a few more minutes.

As they stood at the garden gate saying their good-byes, the novel under D’Angelo’s arm, Pasternak had an odd expression— wry, ironic—playing on his face. He said to the Italian: “You are hereby invited to my execution.”

The publication of Doctor Zhivago in the West in 1957 and the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Boris Pasternak the following year triggered one of the great cultural storms of the

Cold War. Because of the enduring appeal of the novel, and the 1965 David Lean film based on it, Doctor Zhivago remains a landmark piece of fiction. Yet few readers know the trials of its birth and how the novel galvanized a world largely divided between the competing ideologies of two superpowers.

Doctor Zhivago was banned in the Soviet Union, and the Kremlin attempted to use the Italian Communist Party to suppress the first publication of the novel in translation in Italy. Officials in Moscow and leading Italian Communists threatened both Pasternak and his Milan publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. The two men, who never met, resisted the pressure and forged one of the greatest partnerships in the history of publishing. Their secret correspondence, carried in and out of the Soviet Union by trusted couriers, is its own manifesto on artistic freedom.

The Soviet Union’s widely reported hostility to Doctor Zhivago ensured that a novel that might otherwise have had a small elite readership became an international best seller. Doctor Zhivago’s astonishing sales increased even more when Pasternak was honored by the Swedish Academy with the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature. The writer had been nominated several times before in acknowledgment of his poetry, but the appearance of the novel made Pasternak an almost inevitable choice. The Kremlin dismissed Pasternak’s Nobel Prize as an anti-Soviet provocation and orchestrated a relentless internal campaign to vilify the writer as a traitor. Pasternak was driven to the point of suicide. The scale and viciousness of the assault on the elderly writer shocked people around the world, including many writers sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Figures as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, rose to Pasternak’s defense.

Pasternak lived in a society where novels, poems, and plays were hugely significant forms of communication and entertainment. The themes, aesthetics, and political role of literature were the subjects of fierce ideological disputes, and sometimes the losers in these debates paid with their lives. After 1917, nearly 1,500 writers in the Soviet Union were executed or died in labor camps for various alleged infractions. Writers were to be either marshaled in the creation of a new “Soviet man” or isolated, and in some cases crushed; literature could either serve the revolution or the enemies of the state.

The Soviet leadership wrote extensively about revolutionary art; gave hours-long speeches about the purpose of fiction and poetry; and summoned writers to the Kremlin to lecture them about their responsibilities. The men in the Kremlin cared about writing all the more because they had experienced its capacity to transform. The revolutionary Vladimir Lenin was radicalized by a novel, Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? “Art belongs to the people,” Lenin said. “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 peasant masses are in need of black bread?”

As Stalin consolidated power in the early 1930s, he brought the country’s literary life under strict control. Literature was no longer the party’s ally, but its servant. The artistic vitality of the 1920s withered. Stalin, a poet in his youth, was a voracious reader of fiction, sometimes devouring hundreds of pages in a day. He red-lined passages that displeased him. He weighed in on what plays should be staged. He once telephoned Pasternak to discuss whether a particular poet, Osip Mandelstam, was a master of his art—a conversation that was really about Mandelstam’s fate. He decided which writers should receive the country’s premier literary award, inevitably named the Stalin Prize.

Pasternak had written poetry in praise of Lenin and Stalin… But as the bloodletting of the purges swept the country, he became profoundly disillusioned with the Soviet state.

The Soviet public longed for great writing with a desire that was rarely sated. The country’s shelves groaned under the dry, formulaic dreck produced to order. Isaiah Berlin found it all “irretrievably second-rate.” Those writers who held on to their individual voices—Pasternak and the poet Anna Akhmatova, among a few others—were rewarded with near adulation. Their readings could fill concert halls and their words, even when banned, found a way to their public’s lips. In the Obozerka forced-labor camp near the White Sea, some inmates amused and bolstered each other by trying to see who could recite the most Pasternak. The Russian émigré critic Victor Frank, explaining Pasternak’s appeal, said that in his poetry “the skies were deeper, the stars more radiant, the rains louder and the sun more savage. . . . No other poet in Russian literature—and, perhaps, in the world at large—is capable of charging with the same magic the humdrum objects of our humdrum lives as he. Nothing is too small, too insignificant for his piercing eye, the eye of a child, the eye of the first man on a new planet: rain puddles, window-sills, mirror stands, aprons, doors of railway carriages, the little hairlets standing off a wet overcoat—all this flotsam and jetsam of daily life is transformed by him into a joy for ever.”

The poet had a deeply ambivalent relationship with the Communist Party, its leaders, and the Soviet Union’s literary establishment. Before the Great Terror of the late 1930s, Pasternak had written poetry in praise of Lenin and Stalin, and he was for a time transfixed by Stalin’s guile and authority. But as the bloodletting of the purges swept the country, he became profoundly disillusioned with the Soviet state. That he survived the Terror when so many others were swallowed by its relentless, blind maw has no single explanation. The Terror could be bizarrely random— mowing down the loyal and leaving some of the suspect alive.

Pasternak was protected by luck, by his international status, and, perhaps most critically, by Stalin’s interested observation of the poet’s unique and sometimes eccentric talent.

Pasternak did not seek to confront the authorities but lived in the purposeful isolation of his creativity and his country life. He began to write Doctor Zhivago in 1945 and it took him ten years to complete. The writing was slowed by periods of illness; by the need to set it aside to make money from commissioned translations of foreign works; and by Pasternak’s growing ambition and wonder at what was flowing from his pen.

It was, effectively, a first novel, and Pasternak was sixty-five when he finished it. He channeled much of his own experience and opinions into its pages. Doctor Zhivago was not a polemic, or an attack on the Soviet Union, or a defense of any other political system. Its power lay in its individual spirit, Pasternak’s wish to find some communion with the earth, some truth in life, some love. Like Dostoevsky, he wanted to settle with the past and express this period of Russia’s history through “fidelity to poetic truth.”

As the story evolved, Pasternak realized that Doctor Zhivago stood as a rebuke to the short history of the Soviet state. The plot, the characters, the atmosphere embodied much that was alien to Soviet literature. There was in its pages a disdain for the “deadening and merciless” ideology that animated so many of his contemporaries. Doctor Zhivago was Pasternak’s final testament, a salute to an age and a sensibility he cherished but that had been destroyed. He was obsessively determined to get it published—unlike some of his generation who wrote in secret for the “drawer.”

Doctor Zhivago appeared in succession in Italian, French, German, and English, among numerous languages—but not, at first, in Russian.

In September 1958, at the World’s Fair in Brussels, a Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago, handsomely bound in a blue linen hardcover, was handed out from the Vatican Pavilion to Soviet visitors. Rumors about the genesis of this mysterious edition began almost immediately; the CIA was first mentioned by name as its secret publisher in November 1958. Until now, the CIA has never acknowledged its role.

Over the years, a series of apocryphal stories have appeared about how the CIA obtained an original manuscript of Doctor Zhivago and its motivation in printing the novel in Russian. It was said that British intelligence had forced down a plane in Malta that was carrying Feltrinelli from Moscow and secretly photographed the novel, which they removed from his suitcase in the plane’s hold. It never happened. Some of Pasternak’s French friends believed, incorrectly, that an original-language printing of Doctor Zhivago was necessary to qualify for the Nobel Prize—a theory that has periodically resurfaced. The Nobel Prize was not a CIA goal, and an internal accounting of the agency’s distribution of the book shows that no copies were sent to Stockholm; the CIA simply wanted to get copies of Doctor Zhivago into the Soviet Union and into the hands of Soviet citizens.

It has also been argued that the printing was the work of Russian émigrés in Europe and the agency’s involvement was marginal—no more than that of the financier of émigré front organizations. The CIA was in fact deeply involved. The operation to print and distribute Doctor Zhivago was run by the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division, monitored by CIA director Allen Dulles, and sanctioned by President Eisenhower’s Operations Coordinat-ing Board, which reported to the National Security Council at the White House. The agency arranged the printing of a hardcover edition in 1958 in the Netherlands and printed a miniature paperback edition of the novel at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., in 1959.

A weapon in the ideological battles between East and West— this, too, is part of Doctor Zhivago’s extraordinary life.


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