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New 'Dr. Zhivago' backstory details Soviet repression, author's personal torment

Off-Ramp correspondent Marc Haefele reviews The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.

More than 55 years ago, something unique happened in the U.S.  literary world: two novels, each by a Russian-born writer, dueled for top place on the New York Times’ best seller list. Finally, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” was trounced by #1 best seller “Dr. Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak, a poet few Americans had heard of. 

Suddenly, at the height of the Cold War, tens of thousands of citizens of the Land of the Free were imagining themselves on the Siberian Steppes, following Zhivago and his life-love Lara in their hopeless quest for a separate peace in the Russian Civil War. In colleges, students were enrolling in Russian courses and trying to read “Zhivago” in the original.

Nabokov’s enduring tragedy of pre-teen vixen Lolita is probably more popular today.

But it was Pasternak who won the highest honor — the Nobel Prize for Literature. Yet fate favored Nabokov: he lived to enjoy his success for another 19 years.  He became one of the world’s most revered and successful writers.

Pasternak, on the other hand, was singled out for scorn and disgrace by the Soviet establishment, forced to renounce his prize, stripped of all honors and employment, his previous books banned along with "Zhivago."  Targeted for mass denunciation as a traitor, betrayed by most of his closest friends, denied any official access to the huge proceeds from his Western book sales, Pasternak, long considered his nation’s greatest poet, pleaded for mercy in vain. His health collapsed. Within two years he was dead, the greatest literary victim of Soviet repression since Stalin’s purges. His beloved companion Olga lvinskaya and her daughter were sent to the Gulag.

Yet, Pasternak had predicted this outcome before he, against the advice of friends and relatives, intrigued to smuggle his precious manuscript to the West for publication. Repeatedly, officially and otherwise, he was asked to call off the publication of “Zhivago.” He believed, however, that the torment of not being able to publish his life’s work in his lifetime would be worse than anything the Soviet leaders could inflict on him.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s “The Zhivago Affair” does a fine job of telling the full story of this publication for the first time.  The authors had access to incredibly detailed Soviet documents and conversational transcripts detailing how unutterably vicious, stupid, and insensitive the Kremlin bureaucracy still was regarding the very nature of literature and creativity, even in the “thaw” following Stalin’s death. And how their crucifixion of Pasternak, like the USSR’s 1956 Hungarian invasion,  lost Russia much credibility with both the European left and unaligned nations in general. The CIA, though, won a Cold War propaganda victory by virtually engineering the translation of the book into English and making sure that many copies of the Russian original found their way back to Pasternak’s homeland.  

None of which mitigated the misery inflicted on the author and those dear to him. It wasn’t until 1988 — the age of Glasnost — that Pasternak’s fellow citizens could openly read his singular and passionate chronicle of the war between Communist authority and the human soul. In 1989, Pasternak’s son Yevgeny was finally allowed to accept the Nobel Prize on his father’s behalf.

There’s a new "Zhivago” translation out that’s said to be easier going than the rushed 1958 version. You could read both “Zhivago” and “The Zhivago Affair” for a pretty good indication of what that Cold War thing was really all about, plus, as a bonus, one of the greatest love stories of all time.