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A Writer Who Defied The System In 'The Zhivago Affair'

What appeared in Soviet newspapers, magazines and books during the 1950s was processed through so many layers of censorship, that what ultimately emerged was mostly propaganda. Writers and poets who defied the system, went unpublished, lost their jobs and often their homes. Many were sent to the gulag, or died in the cellars of the KGB.

During the worst terror of the Stalin years, Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr. Zhivago, was left largely alone because, it was rumored, Stalin liked some of his poetry.

The Zhivago Affair, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, does a masterful job of putting flesh on the bare bones of a story that has been hinted at in the press for decades. The novel, Dr. Zhivago, was denied publication within the Soviet Union, because parts of it were regarded as too critical of Russia's 1917 revolution and the turmoil that followed.

Pasternak had labored on the book, which he considered his masterwork, for decades. Ultimately, in frustration, he agreed to have the manuscript smuggled out of the Soviet Union. It was published first in Italy, then all over Europe and in the United States. The more acclaim the novel received outside the Soviet Union, the more Pasternak was reviled within his own country.

The CIA smelled a propaganda bonanza. The agency had hundreds of copies of Zhivago printed in Russian and then arranged for the books to be passed out to Russian tourists at the Vatican Pavilion of the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. The late William F. Buckley noted approvingly that "in Moscow these books were passed from hand to hand as avidly as a copy of Fanny Hill in a college dormitory."

The operation was intended to infuriate the Soviet government and it did. It was also meant to encourage dissidents. There the campaign was less successful.

When, in the fall of 1958, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in large measure because of Zhivago, he was denounced, expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and, ultimately, forced to reject the Prize.

It's understandable that the publishers of the Zhivago Affair are stressing the CIA's covert operation; but this is mainly a book about a brilliant, complicated and ultimately, very brave writer. A despicable Soviet system tried to destroy him. A cynical U.S. operation tried to use him. Just a tiny chapter in the Cold War.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Respected broadcast journalist Ted Koppel is a commentator who provides analysis and perspective on the topics and events that shape our world. His news experience and interests are wide-ranging, spanning topics from national security, values, privacy, health and the media to Iran, Iraq and the Mideast.

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