When Books (or at least one) Mattered Mightily


Z Affair

The book is Boris Pasternak’s 1958 novel, Dr. Zhivago. In my 6/23/14 blog –  a review of ­The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses – I wrote about one of the most famous cases of literary censorship in the 20th century. In his history of the novel, Kevin Birmingham documents the might efforts on the part of the moral guardians in the UK and the US to prohibit the publication of the “indecent” work which is now one of the most celebrated important works of the last 100 years. A variety of critics, bookstore owners, writers and associates contributed to the lifting of the prohibition against publication a bit more than a decade later.

While campaigns against works that would pollute the culture (as Joyce’s work was allegedly bound to do) are still mounted today, more apparent and more consequential are religiously-based censorship efforts which take place on the global political stage. The recent Charlie Hebdo episode in France has reminded us of the campaign by jihadists against Salman Rushdie’s 1988 novel The Satanic Verses, which blasphemed the prophet and brought down a fatwa (death sentence) on Rushdie’s head. The Rushdie affair was (and to a certain sense continues to be) a skirmish in the clash of political ideologies about the most desirable society. These “clashes of civilizations” were supposed to have ended with the conclusion of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, a 49 year struggle that was fought in many different sites, including the literary arena.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvee provide us with a thorough and dramatic account of the uses of Boris Pasternak’s 1958 Dr. Zhivago on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, they remind us of how all-consuming was the battle for domination in the decades after World War II. And they remind us too that a book could be a powerful weapon employed with equal passion by the major competitors.

Before getting to the publication of the novel and Pasternak’s selection by the Nobel Prize Committee,  Finn and Couvee provide us with a quick history of Pasternak’s personal life.  Born in 1990 into an artistic family, Pasternak published his first work of poetry in 1917 and in the decades that follow was known as one of the better poets in Russia. Pasternak manages to escape Stalin’s purges of artists-intelligentsia because the dictator liked his poetry and thought Pasternak a non-rebellious dreamer.  The authors also trace Pasternak’s love life, married for all of his years to his wife Zinaida, a cautious defender of her husband’s health, and Olga Ivinskaya, his lover, muse and political strategist.

But the authors’ chief interest is in the gestation of the novel, the efforts to publish it both inside and outside the Soviet Union, and the variety of appraisals and exploitations after its dissemination. The choice of Pasternak for the Nobel Prize in Literature (in the same year as the novel’s publication) serves to re-energize the combatants in the ideological struggle.

[When, as a college student, I saw the 1965 epic movie version of this love story set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, like most Americans, I had little idea of the controversy, so wrapped up were we in David Lean’s cinematic panoramas on the Russian steppes and on the beautiful faces of Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, the ill-fated lovers.]

Finn and Couvee devote a lot of attention to the behind-the-scenes publishing struggles, agreements and intrigues that most readers will probably find a bit complicated. Suffice it to say that Pasternak worked out the Russian language publication rights with an entrepreneurial Italian, thinking that the publication by a small press in a modest European country would  provide more protection against incrimination that were the book to be printed by an American publisher. The struggle to publish the novel is, in part, the record of attempts to ward off others, like the University of Michigan, whose press had received copies of the original manuscript.

The Central Intelligence of the United States, always on the lookout to score propaganda points against the Easter Bloc and reveal the truth about its way of life, is quick to get in the game, but must do so cautiously and clandestinely. It’s dissemination of the novel will be part of a general plan for cultural exchanges that took place in the years after Stalin’s 1952 death and the early years of Nikita Khrushchev’s reign. During this period of Khrushchev’s reappraisal of Stalin’s legacy and a partial thaw, the United States government, with mighty assistance from the CIA, sponsored musicians and artists for performances and exhibitions in the Soviet Union. The authors note that this period was the first and last time that liberal progressives, many of whom changed attitudes about the workers’ utopia, were aligned with our international spy agency. [See my 11/7/13 review of Stephen Kinzer’s The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Alan Dulles, and Their Secret World War. Alan Dulles was the first head of the CIA and in charge in 1958.]

One such opportunity for getting the novel into the hands of Russian readers took place at the World’s Fair in Brussels. The CIA created and funded Bedford Publishing Company which prepared thousands of copies of the novel in Russian for visitors to the fair; many took these free gifts home with them.

Why did the CIA Cold Warriors and liberal Westerners think that Pasternak’s novel was a powerful weapon against Soviet tyranny? There was the belief that literature could change hearts and minds, and that it could do it much less expensively than the missiles positioned in Western Europe.  Pasternak’s novel was a useful propaganda weapon because it did not celebrate the 1917 Revolution and because its hero and heroine are passive about the patriotic zealotry that was supposed to be a feature of every Soviet citizen. The novel also implicitly suggests that Stalinism was not a cruel aberration of the pure Lenin revolution but rather that oppression was baked into the system from the very beginning.

The sections devoted to the Politburo’s efforts to thwart the publication and to vilify Pasternak would be comically were they not so tragic, for Pasternak, his family, and his supportive friends. In the eyes of Alexie Surkov, the chief administrator of the Union of Soviet Writers, Pasternak had violated one of the central tenets of Soviet art making: that all expressions were to serve the advancement of the state and to paint an inspirational image of life in factories and on collective farms. The “cosmopolitan” Pasternak, remote from the real people, chose to write about a well-educated individual who wants to live by his own rather than somebody’s else’s code. His individualism makes him a dangerous model. Led by Surkov and facilitated by the mighty state propaganda machine, the attack on the novel and its author is huge. Pasternak is denounced as a disloyal parasite, a weed, a piece of rubbish who should be silenced, or better yet, forced into exile.

In the face of such hostility from his countrymen, Pasternak draws consolation from his defenders abroad. Yet, he’s not the courageously defiant one. Unwilling to leave the country on his own accord, he placates the authorities by rejecting the Nobel Prize and writes a number of half-hearted apologies for the embarrassment than he has caused the state. Nevertheless, his defenders continue to praise him for his decision to write and defend a novel that demonstrates an indifference to the party line.

Not all Western writers and critics were enthusiastic about the work. Their defense of the novel occasionally stems from their admiration of the independent author rather than the quality of the prose. Some, like poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (still alive at 83), thought that the novel was not Pasternak’s true métier: he was a better poet than fiction writer. Others, like Vladimir Nabokov, thought the novel was from a previous century. Nabokov, who moved to America in the 40s, was no doubt irritated that Pasternak’s work knocked his experimental Lolita down a few places on the best seller list.

The authors believe that from our vantage point more than a half century later, there is less there than meets the eye. They find amusement in the fact that all parties misconceived the novel, finding in it what they wanted to support the way of life that they were fighting for. But even at the time there was a feeling, even in Soviet high places, that the Russians had overplayed their hand. In demonizing the gentle, a-political Pasternak they increased the conviction in the West that the Soviets were hostile to art and free expression.

One telling episode involves Khrushchev’s recruitment of his son-in-law to read the novel and report on its contents. Khrushchev’s brother-in-law and Communist party favorite Mikhail Sholokhov had been award Novel Prize and Khurshchev expected Pasternak’s work to be the opposite of the 1965 And Quiet Flows the Don. Instead his son-in-law lets him know that but for 15 innocuous lines, the novel could have been published without incident. The Premier was furious. The fact that it would take four decades after the publication of the novel for the Soviet Union to implode indicates that Pasternak’s work was not a powerful counter-revolutionary force, just one of many small fissure in the dam holding back the waters of dissatisfaction.       Z Affair

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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