Doctored By Details "The Zhivago Affair" chronicles an infamous book, but fails in crucial questions

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

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée (Pantheon, 2014) 368 pages, with notes and index

In The Zhivago Affair. The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée give an account of the prolonged exploitation, persecution, imprisonment, betrayal, and greed that surrounded Boris Pasternak’s life, work, and the controversial publication of his novel, Doctor Zhivago.

They are at their best in the book’s early chapters, when focusing on Pasternak’s biography , and do an excellent job of weaving pertinent details from his life and the life of Yuri Zhivago together into a single narrative. We find out that both Pasternak’s second wife, Zinaida Neigauz and his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, contributed to the creation of Lara, Yuri Zhivago’s mistress in the novel; that both Pasternak and Zhivago believed they could maintain their marriage and a long-term extramarital affair with perfect harmony; that they both suffered from serious heart conditions; and both visited the front during World War II and were deeply affected by what they saw. The Zhivago Affair, at least in these early chapters, truly captures the spirit of Pasternak’s relationship to his novel, which he called his “alter ego.”

Unfortunately, while following the narrative that stands at the core of these first five chapters, I often found myself becoming overwhelmed by detail. This first happened during the “Prologue,” on page five, with a very detailed account of Pasternak’s dacha. Not only did I learn that it stood among fir and birch trees, was chocolate brown, and a two-story building with bay windows and a veranda, but that it “reminded some visitors of an American timber-frame house.” As the paragraph continued, I also found out that the dacha had a wooden gate, Pasternak was dressed in Wellington boots and homespun pants and jacket, that he was working in the family vegetable patch, which was located among fruit trees, bushes, and flowers, and that he was a “physically arresting man, remarkably youthful, with an elongated face that seemed sculpted in stone, [with] full sensuous lips, and lively chestnut eyes.” If this wasn’t enough, I was also informed that the poet Marina Tsvetaeva once noted that Pasternak looked like “an Arab and his horse.” In another context, I might have paused over Tsvetaeva’s evocative metaphor. However, by the time I reached it, I was just wondering, why here and why now?

Along with the distraction of too many details, I also found myself wondering how much of the narrative to trust. For example, a second interesting side story that comes out in the first part of The Zhivago Affair revolves around the question of why Pasternak was never imprisoned or killed, as many other writers, poets, and artists were during the time that Joseph Stalin was in power. Finn and Couvée present an interesting theory: that Stalin was actually protecting Pasternak and that although the two never met, they had formed some kind of personal bond.

While this is a valid hypothesis, it cannot be stated as fact, which seems to be what the authors do: “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.” Because the authors were so diligent in documenting and noting references, I checked the endnotes for direct support of this statement. I myself have often wondered why Pasternak was able to take all of the risks and flaunt so many of the rules without getting arrested and killed. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a corresponding citation, leaving the theory in the realm of the possible, but inconclusive as fact.

Finally, as I read through those first five chapters, there emerged the story of what I began to call “the love triangle.” The amount of text spent on Pasternak’s relationships with women, especially with his second wife, Zinaida, and his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya (hereafter referred to as “Ivinskaya,” as Finn and Corvée do throughout their book), rivaled that devoted to the CIA’s involvement in the publication and dissemination of Doctor Zhivago, even overshadowing it at several points in the book.

According to the authors, Zinaida had little interest in Pasternak’s work and spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her female friends playing mahjong and chain smoking. When Pasternak met the “pretty, voluptuous, and sexually self-confident” Ivinskaya in October 1946, he could not help but be attracted to her. He was 56 and she was 34. He hated the idea of growing old and “treated his birthdays as days of mourning …” She “longed for recognition and wanted people to envy [her] … She was seductive and devoted, clingy and calculating. Pasternak was a very big catch.”

Zinaida found out about the affair two years later. Ivinskaya was eventually arrested and sentenced to five years hard labor because of her relationship with Pasternak. She was released in 1953 as part of a general amnesty (due to Stalin’s death and a change in leadership). She moved close to Pasternak’s home in Peredelkino so that the pair could be together more often and Pasternak commuted between his wife and his mistress on a daily basis. Ivinskaya soon became entangled in all of Pasternak’s professional affairs, essentially becoming his agent. She later allowed him to support her and her two children with illegal funds (although they were Pasternak’s own royalties from abroad), which was extremely risky for everyone concerned, and which eventually led to her second arrest. Pasternak remained conflicted about this complicated relationship until his death in 1960.

Although The Zhivago Affair is advertised as an account of Cold War CIA-Kremlin intrigue, as promoted in the title and on the book jacket, it delivers much less than promised. In fact, after being introduced in the “Prologue,” this theme only returns to the text at the very end of chapter seven: “But to get back home to Russia, Zhivago would have a secret ally” (reviewer’s emphasis). The two, short chapters that follow are, indeed, almost exclusively about the CIA involvement in the publication of Doctor Zhivago. They are packed to overflowing with detailed information. After reading just the first two pages, I already knew who oversaw clandestine operations for the CIA (Frank Wisner); who headed the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division (John Maury) and what his overall beliefs about the Soviet Union were; that the division prided itself on how much vodka could be consumed at parties and how well its members sang the charochka (which is a ceremonial drinking song with a chorus of pey do dna, which means “bottoms up” in Russian); and that the CIA’s role in operations involving Doctor Zhivago was backed by the Eisenhower White House. I was once again struck by the amount of work put into tracking down all of the information in this book. It is evident on almost every page. However, the really interesting ideas, for example, the belief on the part of governments and agencies such as the CIA in the power of literature and art as serious and effective Cold War weapons, gets lost among the plethora of details that sometimes add to, but more often do not particularly enhance, important ideas as they unfold.

Still, the material concerning the CIA’s covert involvement in the publication of the Russian language edition of Doctor Zhivago produced for distribution at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels is lively and interesting. The tale is fast paced and chaotic, full of intrigue (verging on farce), betrayal, ignorance, and greed. It is intensely and compactly told, taking up only 31 pages of this 274-page book. By chapter ten, the narrative already turns towards the events surrounding the Nobel Prize in Literature that Pasternak won in 1959. The authors themselves state that the CIA’s involvement was in no way meant to influence that decision. Accordingly, mention of the CIA recedes at this point and does not return until Chapter 14, “A College Weekend with Russians,” which recounts the agency’s opportunistic use of the crisis in Pasternak’s life that winning the Novel Prize had precipitated.   The author was pressured by the Soviet authorities, using threats, public denunciations and humiliation in order to finally extract a written refusal of the Prize and public apology to the Soviet citizenry. In terms of cold warfare, such an occurrence was a coup for the United States and allowed the CIA to pursue its mission of publishing and disseminating copies of Doctor Zhivago more openly.

The agency distributed 2,000 copies of the book at the World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship, which took place in Vienna, July 26-August 4, 1959. It set up a front organization (one of many described in The Zhivago Affair), headed by Gloria Steinem. Zbigniew Brzezinski was also present at the festival, taking part in “student high jinx” and “[trying] to sow discord by bumping into Russian delegates and then in a thick Polish accent telling them in Russian, ‘Out of my way, Russian pig!’” Neither Steinem nor Brzezinski seem to have had anything to do with the events surrounding the publication and distribution of Doctor Zhivago other than being in roughly the same place at the same time. Once again, although slightly amused and annoyed by the intrusion of these details from the lives of the rich and perhaps no longer famous into the text at this point, and fighting the tendency towards distraction that accompanied me for a good portion of the book, I kept reading, for which I was rewarded.

Nikita Krushchev, who had played a central role in the intensification of attacks on Pasternak in the press in the late 1950s, eventually thought to revisit his original position, perhaps due to the world-wide negative reaction to the official Soviet campaign against the author. According to Finn and Couvée, “[Krushchev]asked his son-in-law, Alexei Adzhubei, to read Doctor Zhivago and report back.” Adzubai concluded that with minor alterations the book could have been published in Russian in the Soviet Union, thus avoiding international scandal. “Krushchev exploded, and had Surkov removed as secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers; one report said he grabbed Surkov by the collar and shook him furiously.” Like many people who had a lot to say about Doctor Zhivago, Krushchev apparently based his actions regarding the book and its author not on the book’s own merits, but on the advice of others. Krushchev did not read the novel himself until after he was ousted from power in 1964. As Pasternak remarked in late 1957, “Everybody’s writing about it, but who in fact has read it?” This seems to me a crucial and interesting question which is never pursued. What would have happened if more people in power had actually read Doctor Zhivago? Could much, if not all, of the persecution of Pasternak have been avoided? The question of whether or not the book, when read, stands up as a piece of anti-Soviet propaganda comes up a few times in the text, but never as anything more than a superficial thought.

What is missing in The Zhivago Affair is the space to read calmly, deeply, and with attention. The ability to connect with Pasternak and his times, to become completely absorbed in the narrative of his life and the life of his novel, is often thwarted by the constant barrage of details, necessary or not. Even the most interesting ideas, many of which are nicely summarized in the “Afterword,” come across as fully formed, well-articulated sound bites ready to be collected and used when the reader happens to come across them, rather than fully developed themes that grow organically, and over time, out of the text.

In the end, I wanted another version of the book, one that didn’t try to sell itself by using the CIA in the title. If I had just skimmed The Zhivago Affair, as I did on my first reading, enjoying all the references and personal details of Pasternak’s involvement with Ivinskaya, the outlandish tactics used by the CIA during the Cold War (launching 600,000 balloons into Eastern Europe over a period of five years during the 1950s that burst at 30,000 feet and released tens of millions of propaganda leaflets ), and the general parade of political and literary characters that marched through the book, I would have felt differently about it. The issues came when I attempted to look for more and to pay closer attention to references and citations, narrative construction and the like. The Zhivago Affair works best with the internet at hand. It seems written for readers who generally enjoy power-browsing through websites and reading eBooks with hyperlinks (see The Shallows. What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. pp. 126-128; 137), people who enjoy and value searching for nuggets of information and who like to quickly satisfy their curiosity about topics as they crop up.1 For readers who have yet to embrace and make the shift to full online literacy, I recommend reading the actual novel.2

1. Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, see pp. 126-128; 137(New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).

2. For an excellent new translation see: Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, trans. Richard Pervear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 2011).