The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, Harvill Secker, RRP£20/Pantheon, RRP$26.95, 350 pages

In September 1958, at the World Fair in Brussels, a Russian-language edition of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, bound in blue linen, was handed out from the Vatican Pavilion to Soviet visitors. There were rumours that the CIA was involved in its publication, but these were not rumours the Americans cared to confirm.

The CIA’s involvement in literature, with books being treated as weapons, is a little known element of the cold war. In fact, as Peter Finn and Petra Couvée make clear in fascinating detail in The Zhivago Affair, the agency maintained an extensive book programme that lasted until the collapse of the Soviet Union. If a piece of literature was unavailable or banned in the USSR or eastern Europe, and the work might challenge or contrast with Soviet reality, the agency wanted it in the hands of citizens in the Eastern Bloc.

To conceal its activities in this area, the CIA created a number of worthy-sounding organisations, such as the National Committee for a Free Europe, which in turn established its own publishing unit in the Free Europe Press. The agency also funded the creation of the Bedford Publishing Company to translate and publish western literary works in Russian. In the first 15 years of its existence, Bedford distributed more than 1m books to Soviet readers.

The operation to print and distribute Doctor Zhivago, which Pasternak was unable to publish in his native country and courted danger by sending abroad, was run by the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division. By July 1959 at least 9,000 copies of a miniature edition of the novel had been printed (miniature so that it could be more easily concealed). Two thousand copies were set aside for dissemination to Soviet and eastern European students at the 1959 World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship, held in Vienna. Crowds of Russian émigrés tossed copies into the windows of the 40 buses forming the Soviet convoy as it entered the city.

Finn and Couvée began working on this subject separately and unbeknown to one another, Couvée investigating the role of Dutch intelligence in assisting the CIA and Finn writing in the Washington Post about American support for Pasternak to win the Nobel Prize. Having persuaded the CIA to release more than 130 previously classified internal documents, the authors weave the story of the agency’s literature programme around the account of Pasternak’s own life, and those of his contemporaries. In doing so, they manage to shed new light on both the period and the characters involved.

Boris Pasternak was 65 when he finished Doctor Zhivago and already tremendously popular in Russia as a poet. The Pasternak that emerges from these pages is similar in many ways to his famous creation, Yuri Zhivago, in his attitudes to life and literature (“the dearest and most important things: land and sky, great passion, creative spirit, life and death”) and in what one might call his stubborn naivety, or naive obstinacy, a sort of insouciance bordering on the disingenuous.

This is apparent, for instance, in his attempt to define himself as a “Soviet writer” merely because he happened to be “a writer who lives in Russia”. This was not at all what the Union of Soviet Writers meant when they stripped him of the title of “Soviet writer” after Doctor Zhivago was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958, and Pasternak knew it. He was forced to turn down the prize and was labelled a “Judas” who had betrayed his homeland for “30 pieces of silver”.

He was prescient, however, telling the novelist Galina Nikolayeva, one of those who had accused him of treachery: “You are younger than I, and you will live to see a time when people take a different view of what has happened.”

Pasternak never knew about the CIA’s involvement in the secret printing of his novel in Russian, believing it was the work of Russian émigrés. Neither did his son Yevgeny live to see the release of any of the CIA’s records about the affair. But he did live to see the time when people would “take a different view”, travelling in 1989 to Stockholm and receiving, on behalf of his father, the gold medal for the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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