- - Tuesday, August 19, 2014

By Peter Finn and Petra Couvee
Pantheon Books, $26.95, 368 pages

During the 1950s, the American and Soviet governments agreed on very little, but they shared a charming faith in the power of literature — novels especially — to influence the hearts and minds of readers. So when Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” was published in 1957, both governments sped into action.

The Soviets refused to publish it, claiming that Pasternak undermined the communist state by depicting the chaotic civil war following the 1917 Russian Revolution, and dramatizing Zhivago’s and Lara’s reservations about the new Russia. Acting on the belief that the book would sow seeds of political doubt in its readers, the Kremlin vilified Pasternak, quickly securing his expulsion from the Union of Soviet Writers, which effectively denied him a livelihood.

As the novel hit the best-seller lists of Europe and America, royalties piled up in a Swiss bank, but Pasternak was refused access. When his longtime lover and literary assistant, Olga Ivinskaya, tried to shift some of this cash to Russia, she and her daughter were tried and imprisoned for contravening currency regulations.

Pasternak himself was never imprisoned. He was protected by his prestige as Russia’s premier living poet and his new-found fame in the West. Nonetheless, the insults and anger of his fellow writers were remarkably vitriolic. Much of this can be explained by their well-founded fear of government reprisals; nonetheless, it was a dispiriting moral failure, as some of them later admitted.

Meanwhile, under the auspices of the CIA, the American government invested considerable money, energy and derring-do to affirm the Russian belief that “Dr. Zhivago” could undermine communism. Believing that the right kind of novels could tutor Russians in the benefits of Western-style democracy, they aimed to get copies of “Dr. Zhivago” into the hands of ordinary Russians.

They encouraged and funded publishers to get translations and quickly print copies that could be handed out to Russian visitors in the West. The books were snapped up. The grounds of one international congress in Vienna were littered with the blue covers of the Mouton edition, discarded by recipients so they could more easily hide the pages in their luggage.

In “The Zhivago Affair,” authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvee recount these events with considerable verve. Their book often reads like a spy novel, and the people they describe often dance off the pages like characters of fiction. Indeed, the people whose involvement they record were often extraordinary.

The Italian millionaire Giangiacomo Feltrinelli is one. Born into a family of Italian industrialists and financiers, Feltrinelli belonged to the Communist Party. He jumped at the chance to publish “Dr. Zhivago” and to arrange its translation into European languages and its publication in other countries. He was a faithful friend to Pasternak, and also to revolutionary causes, eventually dying when a bomb he was trying to set exploded too soon.

Olga Ivinskaya is another such. She was a journalist and editor who fell in love with Pasternak in 1946, and way before “Zhivago” was written helped him deal with publishers and the government. She also suffered through two prison terms as a result of their relationship, which lasted until his death in 1960.

The most fascinating character is Pasternak himself. The first chapters of “The Zhivago Affair” are an account of his life, and he is rarely off the pages: a figure of many ambivalences, even contradictions. He never wavered in his belief that “Dr. Zhivago” must be published, even if that meant breaking Soviet law by smuggling the typescript out to Italy and agreeing to its publication there.

The strong narrative line and vivid descriptions of “The Zhivago Affair” make for fast and fascinating reading. Particularly interesting are the accounts of life in Soviet Russia: the quick dispatch to prison or execution of any who crossed the authorities and, equally, the respect and privilege accorded to writers. Pasternak, for example, lived in an idyllic-sounding writers’ village, where he had a house that included a music room and the services of a housekeeper.

The intrigues of the government and the literary establishment are equally gripping. In fact, while the authors emphasize the CIA’s role in disseminating “Dr. Zhivago,” the machinations in Russia are more revealing. Inevitably, they suggest the parallel preoccupations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee during the decade when “Zhivago” was published. Their actions similarly prejudiced their victims’ ability to earn a living.

In turn, this suggests that a government’s faith that literature (and other arts) can shape readers’ political views can — ironically — ricochet and imperil the ability of writers and artists to practice their art.

More broadly, by focusing on one iconic geopolitical incident of the 1950s, this well-researched and readable book chillingly evokes the governmental overreactions that typified the Cold War era.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.

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