Peter Finn and Petra Couvée talk about 'The Zhivago Affair' and the book that shook the world

Authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvée explore the history of 'Doctor Zhivago,' the Russian novel that became a worldwide Cold War sensation.

Peter Finn/Courtesy of Marc Bryan-Brown/Random House
Author Peter Finn says the Zhivago affair, "especially after Pasternak was forced to renounce the Nobel Prize, caused serious damage to the Soviet image worldwide."

Epic Russian novel “Doctor Zhivago” won its author Russian poet Boris Pasternak the 1958 Nobel Prize yet writing it almost cost him his life – even as the CIA seized upon the book as a propaganda tool.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, coauthors of The Zhivago Affair, answered questions via e-mail from Monitor Books editor Marjorie Kehe about the novel, the circumstances behind its publication, its strange entanglement with both the CIA and the Russian authorities, and the impact it had on Pasternak's life.

Q. Pasternak risked the happiness and welfare of himself and his family to get "Doctor Zhivago" published. Why did this mean so much to him?

Pasternak regarded "Doctor Zhivago" as the culmination of his life’s work. And the novel was vastly more important to him than the poetry on which his artistic reputation rested – “my final happiness and madness,” he called the work. He was 65 when he finished writing it. Pasternak believed he was called to describe and interpret his era – a time of revolutions, world wars, civil war and famine – and join the masters of the great Russian epic tradition.

After years of terror, in a time when most writers lived in fear, it is remarkable how unhindered and free Pasternak felt. Once the book was written he wanted nothing more than to see it published.

Q. What was so tremendously threatening about the book – which is not really a political book at all – to the Soviet authorities?

Although it’s not a political book, its tone and themes as well as some of the sentiments expressed by its characters about the Revolution and the Soviet experiment, particularly by Yuri Zhivago, were shockingly offensive to the country’s cultural bureaucrats. The novel’s Christian coloration, particularly in the poems that form its coda, was also bewildering to a leadership that had attempted to kill religious practice. Soviet cultural politics at the time were swinging between thaws and freezes as the Kremlin tried to sort out a new party line after Stalin’s death. Handing the book over to a Western publisher was seen as a betrayal. Pasternak had not only offended with his work, but had greatly compounded his error by dealing with foreigners.    

Q. If Feltrinelli had not published the book, what would have happened to it? Might it have simply disappeared?

The relatively liberal climate in the Soviet Union in the wake of Stalin’s death restored communication between Russia and the West; there was a desire for exchange on both sides. Novels were hot. Publishing houses fought for the latest literature; Soviet writers were especially favored. Therefore, if it hadn’t been Feltrinelli, it would have been someone else. But that’s not to underestimate the importance of Feltrinelli. He was a courageous publisher and the extraordinary correspondence between Feltrinelli and Pasternak is, on its own, a manifesto for artistic freedom.  

Q. Was the CIA's attempt to use "Doctor Zhivago" as anti-Soviet propaganda effective?

The CIA’s principal goal was to get the novel back into the Soviet Union and into the hands of readers there. The first print-run of the Mouton edition was too limited and the book itself was too big and heavy to be easily smuggled.

The CIA’s second, miniature edition was much more practical, given the agency’s goal. How many made it through and were subsequently read, we will probably never know. We found a Mouton edition in the Moscow State Library where it was held in a closed section in Soviet times.  One of Petra’s colleagues in Saint Petersburg has a mini-edition and was thrilled to learn her copy was made in CIA headquarters.

Beyond simply printing the books, the CIA wanted to add to the sense globally that the Soviet Union’s censorship of its writers was crude and cruel, and the Zhivago affair, especially after Pasternak was forced to renounce the Nobel Prize, caused serious damage to the Soviet image worldwide.

Q. Pasternak did ultimately suffer for the appearance of the book and his Nobel Prize. Do you think he ever regretted his decisions?

Yes and no. He had a very hard time during the weeks of the Nobel scandal, in October and November of 1958, when friends turned their backs on him and colleagues condemned him in the most vicious terms. He was driven to the brink of suicide and his son Yevgeni said the affair accelerated his death, which came 18 months later in 1960. But it is also fair to say that Pasternak, in comparison to other writers, (Pilnyak, Mandelstam, Platonov, Akhmatova) suffered less.

In the end Pasternak reveled in the novel’s worldwide acclaim. He had the great artistic achievement he yearned for.

The one who suffered as much or more than Pasternak was his lover and literary agent, Olga Ivinskaya, who was imprisoned twice for her association with him – once when he was writing the novel and again after Pasternak’s death.  

Q. Today, what would you say is the most lasting legacy of "Doctor Zhivago"?

Artistic integrity, freedom of the individual, respect for the dissident view and an example of the power of literature to shake dictatorships and stir the world.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.