It has been a long time since I read Dr. Zhivago (though, more recently, I saw the 2002 two-part BBC/Terrence Davies miniseries), though I’ve been meaning to read a newer translation of it. There is quite a bit of the poetry Boris Pasternak wrote for his character Yuri Zhivago in the book by American journalist Peter Finn and St. Petersburg State University teacher Petra Couvée’s fortchcoming The Zhivago Affair:The Kremlin the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. What they quote leaves me cold, as has other Pasternak poetry, though I don’t know if its greatness is lot in translation or is illusory. As for the long novel itself, I suspect that if I did read it in its newer translation, I would still agree with E. M. Forster who deemed in overrated when it was an international best-seller in 1958, writing that it “lacks the solidity of War and Peace. I don’t think Pasternak is very interested in people.”
Though supported by the Soviet state in relative (contrasted to that of most people in the USSR of the time) comfort in a dacha in the writer’s village of Peredelkino, Pasternak was a martyr to the machinations of the Stalinist cultural politics (that did not cease with Nikita Kruschev’s “secret speech” denouncing the Stalin “cult of personality” and paranoid persecutions by the dictator who took a direct hand in keeping culture-creators frightened and subservient). After the Swedish Academy selected Pasternak as winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature (unanimously, from a short list of him, Alberto Moravia, and Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen and not the orthodox Soviet writer urged on them by the Soviet literary establishment, 1965 laureate Mikhail Sholokov), Pasternak was expelled from the writer’s organization and none of his work (including translations of Shakespeare and Goethe) was allowed to be published or sold.
Pasternak had already been pressured (for fear of reprisals against his two families) not to accept the Nobel Prize and sought not to be expelled from his homeland (had he gone to Stockholm, he certainly would not have been permitted to return to the USSR), and the calumnies must have worn him down. (He died at the age of 70 in 1960.)
After being toppled form power, Kruschev read the book (earlier, his son-in-law had told him that with 300-400 words expunged, it could have been published without damage to the Soviet state) and (in memoirs smuggled to publication in the West, as Dr. Zhivago had been) expressed regret at having banned the book. The ban and much publicized pressuring Pasternak to reject the Nobel Prize was far more harmful to the international reputation of the Soviet Union among its foreign sympathizers (those left after the Red Army put down the revolt in 1956 in Hungary) than the book would have been if it had been published in a small edition within the Soviet Union. Pasternak’s novel does not celebrate either the 1917 revolution or the Soviet state (the Stalinist one growing directly from the Leninist one in Pasternak’s view, as in Solzhenitsyn’s), but the very public persecution of the writer for his unorthodox (possibly heterodox) writing was a public relations disaster.
Finn (in particular, I think) got CIA documents declassified that showed its initiative in getting a Russian edition into print (by Mouton in the Netherlands, the press that was about to publish linguistic works by Noam Chomsky) in time for distribution (from the Vatican pavilion) at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels, one at which the Soviet Union showcased its achievements (not least the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik). The CIA received a microfilm of the manuscript from British MI6 with warnings not to produce a version printed in the US or by Russian émigrés (the “White Russian” diaspora). The CIA chose an operator eager to make his own deal and get a Russian edition printed by the University of Michigan Press (the press was persuaded to wait until after the world fair).
Finn and Couvée chronicle many intrigues of getting the manuscript and later messages out of Peredelkino and rubles into it (and to Pasternak’s mistress and reputed muse, Olga Ivinskaya, in Moscow) and the ultimately tragic case of the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian communist who had been disillusions (like Calvino) by the crushing of the Hungarian revolt, refused to return the manuscript (as demanded by the Italian communist party on behalf of the Comintern) or not to publish it, and eventually joined Red Brigade terrorism, going underground and being found dead in 1972.
Finn and Couvée have many tales of domestic (that is, to Pasternak’s omnivorous appetite for women), intranational (USSR cultural politics and persecution of writers imagined to be “dissident”) and international (CIA, MI6, Dutch) intrigues, as well as to the struggle between 1946 and 1956 to write Dr. Zhivago. They do not deliver their own judgment on the literary merits of the novel or the poetry that many Russians revered and revere, while quoting very divergent judgments by others, not least that of the committee that delivered a “revise and resubmit along these lines” verdict for publication within the USSR.