Thursday, 17 July 2014

THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by FINN and COUVEE

THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book
Harvill Secker, 2014, 352 pages, $35 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

Both the KGB and the CIA thought they had the measure of Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel, Doctor Zhivago.  As Finn and Couvée recount, the Kremlin feared it (as an attack on their rule) and the White House celebrated it (as a condemnation of all things socialist).  Both were right.

A Russian poet who was sympathetic to the Bolshevik revolution, Pasternak became disillusioned with Soviet Russia after the show trials of Old Bolsheviks and the mass repression of the late 1930s.  His short-lived attempt to ‘think the thoughts of the era, and to live in tune with it’, including his poetry lauding Stalin, was abandoned.

At age 65, Pasternak’s passive opposition went public with his first novel, Doctor Zhivago, about the doctor-poet, Yuri Zhivago (Pasternak’s alter ego), and his love affair with the nurse, Lara Antipova, during the 1917 revolution and subsequent civil war. 

Doctor Zhivago first saw the light of day, in 1957, thanks to a wealthy and dissident member, and financier, of the Italian Communist Party, who arranged for Pasternak’s manuscript to be smuggled out of Russia.

Courtesy of British spies, the CIA gained access to the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago, which, particularly after Pasternak’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, became a star exhibit in the Agency’s clandestine publishing arm.  This million dollar operation (including the CIA’s own printing press which produced ‘black’ editions) subsidised, translated and disseminated anti-communist books to the Soviet bloc (touring Moscow Philharmonic members, for example, hid pages of Doctor Zhivago in their sheet music).

The CIA recognised the propaganda potential of Doctor Zhivago for its ‘intrinsic message’ (‘a cry for the freedom and dignity of the individual’ or, as an anti-communist placard in the US put it, ‘Troubled by communism? Then consult Dr. Zhivago’) as well as for the ‘circumstances of its publication’ – the censorship and vociferous harassment of a writer forced to decline the Nobel Prize.  The 1965 Hollywood film starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie added cinematic melodrama and malign Marxist murderers of the Tsar’s family to the West’s cultural offensive.

Although Pasternak was unhappy with being turned into Cold War fodder in the West, he had left himself open to such treatment.  Doctor Zhivago transfers Pasternak’s disgust with Stalinism to a distaste for the early revolutionary period, implying that Stalinist tyranny was the direct outcome of Bolshevik-led socialist revolution even though the monolithic and repressive nature of the regime did not take shape until a decade after the revolution.

This familiar political revisionism marrs the political integrity of Pasternak, and, not that you know it from the authors’ failure to analyse Doctor Zhivago as a political and literary work, it also infects the artistic virtues of the novel.  The fate of all the novel’s characters is one of misery, despair and death at the hands of the Bolsheviks.  Love and humanity is defeated in a historically and psychologically simplistic battle between the sensitive and the evil, the individual and the collective.

The CIA got the novel right  but it was the crushing of the socialist revolution by Stalin which enabled Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago to be turned into the cultural servant of capitalism.

No comments:

Post a Comment