Monday, 29 September 2014

The Zhivago affair, Petra Couvée and Peter Finn

It won’t have happened often that secret services were involved in the publication of a book, but that was the case when Doctor Zhivago by  Boris Pasternak was published.

Pasternak was one of the most famous authors in Russia. Stalin called writers the engineers of the soul and thought they had the special task of conveying communism and the love for the Revolution in their works. Writers who did not follow that line, were persecuted, especially during Stalin’s Great Terror.
Pasternak was not following the party line, but mostly he was left in peace.

In 1956 an Italian correspondent of Radio Moscow visited Pasternak. He had heard the rumors Pasternak had written a novel and he wanted to ask if an Italian publisher could publish it.  Giangiacomo Feltrinelli from Milano came from a rich family, but during WWII he became a communist. When he began his publishing house, he wanted to publish new and intellectual challenging books.

Pasternak did write a new novel, about a young doctor who fell in love with another woman during the Russian Revolution, but is was ignored by Russian publishers. The book never mentioned how wonderful the Revolution had been and communism was hardly mentioned. Doctor Zhivago was mostly about an individual, but Pasternak wrote it in a time and a state where individuals were not very important.

Boris Pasternak gave his manuscript to the Italian and agreed to have his work published by Feltrinelli. There would also be English translation.

In the meantime, the CIA also heard about the book and they were interested. They often used books to try to influence the public opinion in Russia and they thought Doctor Zhivago was very suited to their goal.
Very quickly an English translation was made, just in time for the World Exhibition in Brussels. From the pavilion of the Vatican the work was distributed amongst the Russian visitors, who took it back home to Russia. 

The Russian authorities were not pleased and the accused Pasternak of betraying his country, he was even threatened with deportation. His fellow-writers hastened to distance themselves from Pasternak and he was thrown out of the Writers league.
This campaign intensified when Pasternak received the Nobel prize for literature in 1957 and he finally had to refuse it, although it had made him very happy to have won.

His health deteriorated and in 1960 he died. No official statement was given by the authorities and his death was ignored. Notification of his funeral was passed around with notes at the trainstation and on lampposts etc. Thousands of people finally turned up to pay their respects to one of Russia’s greatest writers.
Only in the eighties it was safe to read Doctor Zhivago in Russia.

The Zhivago affair was written by the Dutch Petra Couvée, who teaches Dutch at the university of St. Petersburg, and Peter Finn, an American journalist. Both published articles about Doctor Zhivago before and decided to work together and combine their research for this book.
The Zhivago affair is a very interesting and readable book, full of details, about a fascinating piece of history. And it also gives a very good portrait of Boris Pasternak. 

Published in 2014

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