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When Russian poet Boris Pasternak wrote his only novel, Doctor Zhivago, he knew that its criticism of the Soviet revolution, though mild, would be enough to ensure that the book wouldn't get past the censors. So he decided to give it to an Italian publisher to be translated and published abroad despite knowing that this would be severely frowned upon by the authorities. However the CIA decided it would be a propaganda coup if they could have the book printed in Russian and smuggled back into the USSR. The Zhivago Affair is billed as the story of that CIA campaign and of the impact it had on the Soviet regime and on Pasternak himself.

Although the CIA campaign is given plenty of space, most of the book really takes the form of a biography of Pasternak. Already a highly regarded poet when he began writing his novel, Pasternak was also already seen as potentially dangerous to the regime and therefore his work was closely monitored, as was the work of most writers. The Soviet regime pampered its authors and intellectuals in comparison to other sectors of society, but punished any disloyalty harshly, with imprisonment in the gulags or even death on occasion. So from the moment it became known that he was writing the novel, Pasternak ran grave risks of bringing retribution down on himself and the people close to him.

I expected to find that I admired Pasternak - that he was a courageous man standing up for his beliefs against a regime that could crush him. Sadly, I came away from the book feeling that in fact he was an arrogant egoist, who cared little for anyone but himself and had no purpose in writing his book other than self-aggrandisement. Well, I can accept that - writers should not have to serve a higher calling any more than the rest of us, but then they shouldn't ask for special treatment either - and oh, how Pasternak felt that his amazing, unmatched genius (as he judged it) deserved to be recognised, honoured and lauded! He also felt that he was so special that he shouldn't be expected to live within commonly accepted standards, so kindly moved his mistress and her family in just down the road from his wife and own family and divided his time happily between them. Happily for him, that is - one felt the wife and mistress weren't quite so thrilled by the arrangement. But I think his level of self-centeredness is best shown by the fact that when he decided the only way out of the pressure over the book was suicide, he expected his mistress to kill herself along with him. To my amusement, the devoted but almost equally self-centred Ivinskaya was having none of it! And, denied his dramatically artistic and romantic exit, Pasternak decided to live on...

The CIA operation was dogged with incompetence from the outset (no big surprise there, I'm guessing) and also paid scant attention to the problems it may cause for Pasternak inside the USSR. However, they did in the end manage to smuggle some copies of the book in and, although the readership in the USSR was limited, the book became a huge bestseller internationally. This may have provided a level of protection for Pasternak since any severe action against him would have provoked international condemnation; and by the late '50s and early '60's, the Soviet regime cared a bit more about their international standing than they perhaps had a decade or two earlier. However, they did subject Pasternak to a number of restrictions and humiliations that made his life increasingly difficulty - they forced his peers to publicly condemn him and suspend him from the writers' union, which in turn meant that he couldn't get work. With no income, he was driven to trying to smuggle the royalties from the sale of the book in Europe into the USSR at great risk to himself and those he involved in the plan. And again Pasternak's selfishness and egoism can be seen at play here - too afraid to collect the money himself, he gave the task to the young daughter of his mistress, a task which later resulted in her spending time in prison - something Pasternak always managed to avoid for himself.

The book is well written and gives the impression of having been thoroughly researched. Despite my lack of sympathy for Pasternak, I enjoyed the biographical strand more than the CIA story and was glad that Pasternak's story got more space than the spy stuff. In case I've made it seem that the book is very critical of him, I must say that the authors' interpretation of Pasternak was considerably more sympathetic than my own, while not making any attempt to whitewash the less appealing aspects of his personality and behaviour. Overall, the book gave a clear picture of the difficulties faced by writers trying to operate under a regime of censorship backed up by fear, and some of the more moving moments were when the authors recounted the later thoughts of Pasternak's peers, regretting how they had allowed themselves to be manipulated into turning away from him at the height of the affair. An interesting and thought-provoking read - recommended. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.
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on 9 July 2014
Just finished reading Dr Zhivago for the first time when I heard this book had been published - a great companion to a classic story. Cleverly written and thoroughly researched, this book provided a historical and social context which enhanced my enjoyment and understanding of the novel. Independently, this book has everything; rich social and historical narrative, biography and intrigue. Growing up aware of the cold war era, this book has provided knowledge and developed a desire to find out more! This is an enjoyable read.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 July 2017
If anyone thinks that books are just stories, fictional entertainment, then pass them this book. Finn uncovers the way in which Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago became a weapon to both sides in the Cold War as both Soviet Russia and the US battled to win 'hearts and minds'.

With access to previously secret CIA files, there's a slight air of the romp/heist about this - if it weren't for the very serious import and impact 'the Zhivago affair' had on peoples' lives. The account of Americans secretly funding the giveaway of the novel at Expo '58 from the Vatican stand should be comic, but coming as it does amidst the virulent persecution of Pasternak, his associates, his family and other writers, smiles die.

A lively account of a specific case, but one which raises all kinds of issues about censorship, artistic freedom and the individual.
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on 25 December 2015
After this book had been serialised on Radio 4, I thought it might be something I would be interested in. Its not a biography of Pasternak but an account of the extreme reaction of the Soviets against the publicaton of his book in the West "Dr Zhivago", even though he had offered it for publication in the Soviet Union. He was convinced of the literary stature and merits of his book that he defied his peers and subsequently suffered the consequences of his actions. The Soviet Union doesn't come out well in this account and at the height of the so called " Cold War", maybe Pasternak should have been more circumspect in his actions. The book is immensely interesting and a very good read.. One learns a lot about Pasternak the person at this time of his life and to my mind I have very little sympathy with him. He was a philanderer by all accounts and had a mistress who suffered terribly on two ocassions by being transported to the Gulag on account of her relationship with Pasternak. I cannot comment on the literary merits of Dr Zhivago having only ever seen the film. However, after reading this book about the trials and tribulations of Pasternak it is on the list of books I might read given time. This Zhivago Affair is an immense read and thoroughly recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 29 June 2014
THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée brings us into a different world, the world of the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its height, its end unforeseen. The Soviet Union and the western powers—the United States, the United Kingdom—were battling for the minds and hearts of the world’s population on a number of fronts: space exploration, weaponry, medicine, the arts, literature.

Boris Pasternak was widely considered Russia’s greatest living poet, and every word he said, breathed, or thought influenced its population, much to the fury of its Communist masters, in particular the blood thirsty tyrant at the top, Joseph Stalin. Yet Pasternak’s powers were too great, and he lived, despite the Soviet’s shameful and shameless threatment of him. And although the Soviets destroyed his fellow poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova.

In May 1956, an Italian publishing functionary named D’Angelo took the train to a writers’ village just outside Moscow. According to his notes, he visited Pasternak, left carrying the original manuscript of the poet’s first and only novel, given to him with these words: “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.” The poet believed his creation would never be published in the Soviet Union; the authorities considered it an attack on the 1917 Revolution without redeeming qualities. But Pasternak thought it might be accepted in the West and, indeed, from its beginning in Italy, Doctor Zhivago was widely published in translation. Ultimately, it would win the 1958 Nobel Prize in Literature, the world’s greatest prize in that area, and the Soviet government would not allow its author to accept it.

However, from there this book’s publishing history took an unexpected turn, as it entered the world of spies. America’s Central Intelligence Agency, the CIA, knew that the Cold War was a war of ideas. It arranged to secretly publish a Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago and smuggle it back into the Soviet Union. Among other avenues, the CIA made use of the Vatican Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair of 1958, during the coldest of the cold war, when the pavilions of the US and the USSR glared at each other across a plaza. But the agency also sent copies back to the USSR with sailors, tourists, traveling academics. They were ravenously greeted in Moscow and Leningrad, copied again by hand, sold on the black market. The 1960 funeral of the poet, a charming, passionate and complex man, was attended by thousands of ordinary Russians, as well as the brave literary souls who defied their government.

Peter Finn is national security editor for The Washington Post and previously served as the Post’s Moscow bureau chief. Petra Couvée is a writer, translator and teacher at Saint Petersburg State University. They introduce us to Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s longtime lover who was the model for Dr. Zhivago’s Lara. More importantly, they have been able to draw on recently declassified CIA files to make them the first to offer concrete proof of the agency’s involvement in this extraordinary process. THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR is nearly as dramatic, powerful and moving as Pasternak’s novel DOCTOR ZHIVAGO itself, and more exciting than many spy novels I have read.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 September 2015
Dr Zhivago is one of those books that is very well known but which few people have actually read. Better known for the iconic film based on it, it nevertheless has a special place in our consciousness and holds an important position in literary history. (And in truth its literary merits are indeed open to debate.) Peter Finn, a journalist with the Washington Post, and Petra Couvée, an academic and translator of Russian literature, have uncovered a story as exciting as any thriller – the story of its publication. Using recently declassified documents, they show how a novel became a weapon in the Cold war and how the CIA decided that a mere book could challenge the Soviet state. It’s a dramatic story. Pasternak considered Dr Zhivago to be his masterpiece but knew that it could never be published in the Soviet Union as it was deemed critical of the regime. So he took the enormous risk of offering it to the Italian Communist publisher Feltrinelli. As he handed it to the associate who came to collect it he said “You are hereby invited to my execution”. This was no joke. Publishing abroad would be considered treason. Somehow Pasternak survived, but it was a close-run thing, and his lover was indeed sentenced to the Gulag, simply for being the “inspiration” for the novel. The CIA became involved after the Italian publication when the manuscript found its way to headquarters in Washington. The Soviet Russia division head John Maury pronounced it “the most heretical work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death” and recommended publishing it in Russian and smuggling it into Russia. Propaganda of the highest order. And that’s what happened. But Finn and Couvée don’t just examine the book’s publication. They also cover every aspect of the Zhivago affair, from Pasternak’s early life and the origins of the novel, his sometimes tumultuous personal life, his wider circle of friends and fellow writers, plus of course the aftermath of the publication and Pasternak's subsequent award of the Nobel Prize and the furore that created for him at home.
Meticulously and painstakingly researched, well-paced and clearly written, The Zhivago Affair has been one of my reading highlights of the year and a book that I heartily recommend.
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on 10 January 2015
I read this quickly because I found it hard to put down. I am old enough to remember some aspects of the problems over Pasternak during the late 1950s. I found this a gripping book, a page turner. The sad thing is to read how the lack of free speech in a society damages that society.

It is amazing that Stalin who had murdered thousands of intellectuals, writers and artists somehow liked this man and thus ensured his survival to write the book. Fear of the state by other writers even after the death of Stalin comes through loud and clear. A reminder that living in Russia during those times, post Stalin, was hell if you were different.

The book also shows how the publication of the book, in the west, was part of the ongoing Cold War.

A must read.
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on 7 January 2017
Only given 4 stars because I have only read half of it...up to now it is great...but you need to have read Dr Zhivago to understand the ins and outs, which I have.
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on 17 November 2016
A little boring and long winded.
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on 4 October 2015
Fascinating insight into Pasternak's position on the publication of the novel outside the USSR and on the role of the murky services which saw in this novel a way to continue their attacks on the Soviet Union.
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