Book review: How Dr Zhivago stirred a cold war

  • Vikas Datta, IANS, New Delhi
  • Updated: Aug 27, 2015 17:49 IST
The true value of this book is reminding us of an era where ideology was as important and literature could be a weapon of destabilisation. (Shutterstock Photo)

Title: The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book;
Authors: Peter Finn and Petra Couvee;
Publisher: Vintage;
Pages: 368;
Price: Rs.499

It is about a time when culture and literature was as lethal a weapon as a bomb that destabilises a region. It is the story of a book that sparked off a cold war battle.

Confined to his Beijing house's basement for over two years during the Cultural Revolution, Reuters correspondent Anthony Grey was only allowed sporadic visits upstairs under close supervision to collect approved necessities. His reading matter was restricted but he still contrived somehow to elude his guards for the few seconds he needed to deftly snatch up and conceal his copy of "Doctor Zhivago" they had rejected earlier. The incident seems apt for a book, born in strange circumstances, and going on to have its own chapter in Cold War history.

The sole (and faintly-autobiographical) novel by Russian poet Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), about an idealistic physician-poet during the Russian Revolution, fell afoul of the Soviet establishment due to its apparent seditious stance and contrarian view of seminal episodes of Soviet history and seemed fated to go unpublished - had it not been for a unique international collaboration.

An Italian journalist to whom Pasternak handed over the manuscript with the words "This is 'Dr Zhivago'. May it make its way around the world" in May 1956, an Italian aristocrat-turned-communist publisher, Russian emigres, American publishers and CIA operatives, Dutch intelligence officials, and Vatican priests got together to get it published and into the hands of its readers - especially in the author's country as well as other communist countries.

Read: The Lady from Zagreb is about unconscionable fightings

Meanwhile, the Swedish Academy's selection of Pasternak for the Nobel Prize in Literature (and his subsequent repudiation of the award under government pressure) brought the book to world attention - and meant further trouble for Pasternak and his family until then Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru publicly weighed in.

This is the engrossing story that Peter Finn, the national security editor of The Washington Post and previously its bureau chief in Moscow, and Petra Couvee, a teacher at Saint Petersburg State University, bring out in their first book, based on information from declassified CIA files and interviews of various Europeans officials and activists involved in the events as well as Pasternak family members.

But their account does not only deal with the Cold War intrigues and the CIA-KGB conflict over Pasternak's novel, but also with Pasternak, his interestingly complicated love life (he virtually abandoned his first wife to marry a friend's wife, who slowly grew cantankerous, while he embarked on a long relationship with another much younger woman - who would suffer much for his and the book's sake), the Soviet Union's literary climate, especially the uncertain, lethal time during the Stalinist purges when several writes perished, the short-lived Khrushchev thaw and the eventual return of political oversight, and the role of culture and ideology in both democracies and autocratic polities.

There is a varied supporting cast - Pasternak's literary colleagues - supportive, indifferent or virulently opposed, leading authors and other intellectuals, maverick publishers, sinister and devious government functionaries and literary bureaucrats, family members, clandestine operatives, and more.

Also figuring is the eventually tragic story of Giagiacomo Feltrinelli, the Milan-based publisher (whose first publication was Nehru's autobiography) with an eye for commercial opportunity, who resisted all pressure to suppress it (he himself later became a violent ultra-left militant before being found dead in mysterious circumstances).

What is missing is the literary significance of "Dr Zhivago" with its sceptical and individualistic approach to the revolution and 'heretical' (for communist ideology) stress on personal freedom above loyalty to the proletariat and Marxist-Leninist tenets.

But the true value of this book is reminding us - in today's networked world where information can be disseminated without constraint of time and space and challenges to a nation's security are technological and financial - of an era where ideology was as important and literature could be a weapon of destabilisation.

Will anyone care as much for a book today?

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