Who said the Cold War is dead? The United States and Russia are at odds over Ukraine. Putin thinks Obama is a wimp. And Russia harbors Edward Snowden after he leaks American spy secrets. What great timing for the real-life Cold War thriller, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.
This cloak-and-dagger account reveals the intriguing details of how the novel Doctor Zhivago came to be published during the height of the Cold War. Written by Russian poet Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago was kept under wraps by its author, who feared retribution from the Soviet government for the book’s critical portrayal of the 1917 Russian Revolution and its tepid treatment of socialism. After the novel was published in Italy in 1957, it became a bestseller, capturing the Nobel Prize for Literature and later inspiring an Oscar-winning film adaptation. But how Doctor Zhivago became an international sensation is almost as complex as the tortured love affair between protagonist Dr. Yuri Zhivago and his beloved Lara.
Pasternak’s novel was smuggled out of Russia by an Italian publishing scout who was entrusted with the manuscript. Pasternak’s simple instructions: “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.”
The smuggling was only the start of the intrigue. After the novel was published in Italian, the CIA saw Doctor Zhivago as a tool to spread dissent within Russia. So the CIA published copies of Doctor Zhivago in Russian and had them smuggled back into the Soviet Union. The release of Doctor Zhivago within Russia not only intensified Cold War tensions, it put Pasternak’s life at risk. He was expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and subjected to KBG harassment until his death in 1960.
The Zhivago Affair is a well-crafted work with the kind of eloquent writing that makes it read like a spy novel. Co-author Peter Finn, national security editor of the Washington Post and a former Moscow bureau chief, has written extensively about Snowden and the NSA, which helps bring insight and perspective to The Zhivago Affair. Petra Couvée, a writer, translator and teacher at Saint Petersburg State University, brings her vast knowledge of Russian language, history and culture. Together, the two have produced a book rich in nuance and detail about international politics and the surprising ways in which the words of one author can enlighten the world.