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The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book Hardcover – June 17, 2014
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"Beautifully crafted and scrupulously researched...Finn and Couvée have taken a complex and difficult history with many moving parts and turned it into a kind of intellectual thriller. They have to control a lot of information, yet they keep the book well-paced and often exciting. The Zhivago Affair is a prime example of hard work and fidelity to a good story."
"A work of deep historical research that reads a little like Le Carré, this is the backstory of the foreign publication of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, and it bears its multiple burdens lightly: a sideways biography of Pasternak; a psychological history of Soviet Russia; a powerful argument for the book as literature; an entry into the too-small canon on the CIA’s role in shaping culture. In new reporting on the Agency’s distribution of the book behind enemy lines, the authors show how both sides in the Cold War used literary prestige as a weapon without resorting to cheap moral equivalency."
"Fascinating...Told in its entirety, the story of how Doctor Zhivago helped disrupt the Soviet Union holds some intriguing implications for the present and future of cultural conflict."
"The Zhivago Affair does a masterful job of putting flesh on the bare bones of a story that has been hinted at in the press for decades."
"A rich and unanticipated story...[Finn and Couvée] demonstrate a sophisticated appreciation for an artistic quest that was haunted by dread, persecution, and loss. They also share an avid eye for detail...Finn and Couvée’s poignant depiction of Pasternak is the book’s greatest strength."
—The Daily Beast
"[Finn and Couvée's] riveting, well-researched book reads like a literary thriller...a fascinating essay on mid-century politics...illuminating, humane."
“An informative, fascinating, and often moving account of personal courage, espionage and propaganda, and the role of literature in the political struggle for the hearts and minds of people.”
—Knoxville News Sentinel
"Thrilling...Deftly combining biography, cultural history and literary tittle-tattle, [Finn and Couvée] have shone a light on a shadowy operation...Crushingly poignant.”
"Brisk and thrilling...The authors use rich archival research, including previously classified CIA files, to depict the oppressive political conditions that gave rise to Pasternak’s masterpiece, and the international firestorm that occurred when the novel was banned in the Soviet Union. The book offers nuanced depictions of the people in Pasternak’s life, including his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, who championed his work and shared his torment at the hands of the KGB. The torturous ideological policing by the Soviets is discussed to great effect; for indeed, the tale of Doctor Zhivago itself is very much about the long psychic scar left by Russian Revolution. It’s a story expertly told by Finn and Couvée, who unsparingly present the role played by the Kremlin in persecuting Pasternak and his loved ones, as well as the role of the CIA in using his masterpiece in a game of ideological warfare—overall, a triumphant reminder that truth is sometimes gloriously stranger than fiction."
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
"A detailed reconstruction of one of the most fascinating of the Cold War’s cultural skirmishes...The Zhivago Affair ought to bring a new generation of readers to it, curious to know what kind of a novel could make a superpower tremble."
"A fast-paced political thriller about a book that terrified a nation."
“A riveting account...[Finn and Couvéee] have drawn not only on archival documents and interviews with surviving actors in the international drama but also on newly declassified files of the Soviet, American, and Dutch intelligence services.”
“It is quite simply a remarkable story and fully sourced book, the scholarship peerless but never eclipsing one amazingly humanist story of a towering figure of 20th century Russian literature.”
—New York Journal of Books
“With groundbreaking reporting and character-rich storytelling, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée uncover the high-stakes drama behind one of the Cold War’s strangest turning points. Passionately written and acutely aware of the historical context, The Zhivago Affair almost makes one nostalgic for a time when novels were so important that even the CIA cared about them.”
—Ken Kalfus, author of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
“A thrilling literary espionage yarn, but much more than that. Finn and Couvée shed new light on the Cold War struggle for the hearts and minds of millions of people, introducing a cast of characters—poets and spies, idealists and cynics, politicians and dissidents—who could have stepped out of the pages of Doctor Zhivago itself.”
—Michael Dobbs, author of Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman—from World War to Cold War
“A sparkling and fascinating account of how one of the most important novels of the twentieth century found its way back to Russia, a juggernaut of truth thrust into the Soviet darkness. Finn and Couvée elegantly and authoritatively capture Pasternak’s brilliance, the courage of his friends, and the CIA’s hidden role in bringing the forbidden book to Russian readers.”
—David E. Hoffman, author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy
“The most detailed account to date of the events that suddenly placed one of Russia’s greatest poets in the center of the struggle between Soviet and Western propaganda machines at the height of the Cold War. Pasternak’s personal courage in the face of this totally incongruous conflict is the quality that emerges most clearly from this well-paced narrative, which is especially commendable for its avoidance of all romantic exaggeration—a quality Pasternak himself strove for in Doctor Zhivago. The book is of great relevance today, when such conflicts seem (but only seem) to have disappeared.”
—Richard Pevear, co-translator of Doctor Zhivago
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.
Top Customer Reviews
Little did I appreciate the cost to Boris Pasternak of writing this work of art that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature and also won him the scorn of his government and many of his colleagues - at least on the surface and in official pronouncements. This book, "The Zhivago Affair," sheds valuable light on the dark intrigues that took place in Russia, Italy, U.S., The Netherlands and Sweden in getting this book into the hands of readers around the world.
Using broad-based research, author Peter Finn reveals the role of the CIA in pushing for publication, and the role of the Kremlin in trying to squelch Pasternak and his treasonous novel. There is a dense cast of players - fellow writers, publishers, government functionaries, family members and clandestine operatives. There is also a fascinating examination of the widely divergent views of artistic freedom and propaganda - as seen from both sides of the Iron Curtain.
The book is as well written as it is meticulously researched. I am grateful for the role that this book plays in drawing aside the curtain and revealing how one of the great works of literature of the 20th century came to see the light of day.
The book “The Zhivago Affair”, while slowly paced, tells the story of how Pasternak was inspired to write it, how it impacted those around him and how enraged the Soviet Union became by this novel, which led to horrible treatment of a man who was one his country’s literary giants. “The Zhivago Affair” chronicles how the CIA saw the propaganda potential in such a high profile work that did not paint the 1917 Revolution with rose-colored glasses.
With a depth that is surprising for such a short book, “The Zhivago Affair”, effectively demonstrates how 600 pages of literature became one of the bigger battlegrounds of the Cold War.
The first few chapters describe Pasternak's upbringing and his poetry, for which he was famous in Russia. He gave very popular readings, and was nominated for a Nobel Prize starting in the late 1940s. The book then covers the years he spent writing Dr. Zhivago. Although married, he began a love affair which continued for the rest of his life, and this woman became a model for Lara in the novel. He apparently both expected the Soviet government to refuse to publish the book and was bewildered by its decision. Much of the rest of the book concerns the somewhat ineffective Kremlin efforts to suppress the novel and to repudiate Pasternak. His lover was imprisoned on account of his work, twice, he had to renounce his Nobel Prize, and he lost his livelihood as a writer. Yet the authorities chose not to deport him, or send him to prison. I was surprised at how much access he had to Western Europeans and Americans, and at how often he offered to placate the bureaucrats but then managed to infuriate them in the process.
The authors have done commendable research. Their portrait of Pasternak is surprisingly unflattering. Regardless of his literary standing, he seems to have been self-absorbed, over-wrought, unfaithful, incredibly naive, and reckless about the comfort and freedom of those around him. On the other hand, these attitudes allowed him to finish Zhivago, reject Soviet demands for rewrites, arrange for publication outside of Russia, and refuse to "confess" to his betrayal of the Communist state. I learned a fair amount, and lost some preconceptions; nonetheless, the book was less than expected. If you're looking for espionage, look elsewhere.
I borrowed this book from a public library loan.