The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn & Petra Couvée - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Pasternak Bound

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book


Harvill Secker 350pp £20

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a ‘shop’ in Pimlico where visitors to – and from, if they were daring – the USSR could select free of charge any number of books, largely Russian poetry, fiction and history banned by the Soviets, as long as they promised to distribute them to Soviet citizens. The books were often intercepted by customs, but corruption was then no less widespread than today and confiscated books would soon be selling on the black markets of Leningrad and Moscow. Not just the distribution but the publication and, often, the editing of this material, which shaped the minds of Soviet dissidents (and diplomats), were down to the CIA. The Soviet authorities were thus pushed into producing their own editions of the work of poets such as Nikolai Zabolotsky and Osip Mandelstam, whom they would rather have consigned to oblivion. The CIA’s use of ‘soft power’, subsidising Russian-language journals and publishers in the USA, Germany and France, as well as providing an outlet for tamizdat (‘publish over there’) literature and for writings that had fallen foul of changes in the Party line, is more than enough to expiate its mistakes and sins.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée have had access to the files that show how the CIA secured publication of the Russian text of Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr Zhivago. (Why the CIA doesn’t proudly declassify all files on its defence of Russian literature, I do not understand.) The CIA, naturally, got

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