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The Zhivago Affair, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, book review: A Cold War hot property


Fiction has power. It can challenge deeply entrenched beliefs and subtly alter people's perceptions. The big surprise is that the Soviet Union understood this and so did the CIA. The Zhivago Affair is the extraordinary account of how Boris Pasternak's only novel, Doctor Zhivago, banned by Soviet authorities, came to be read around the world, and then smuggled back into Russia.

Pasternak never expected publication in his own country because the humanistic message - that the individual matters, regardless of his politics - fundamentally undermined the Soviet ethic. But, despite knowing that unsanctioned publication in the West would expose him to "catastrophic, not to mention fatal dangers", he entrusted the manuscript to an Italian publisher. The book became a weapon in the battle of ideology. The CIA, with a budget of millions and a belief that "the power of ideas could slowly corrode the authority of the Soviet state", secretly organised a Russian edition, and handed it out to everyone they could think of - tourists, sailors, visitors to an International Exposition. They lifted the hem of the iron curtain and slipped the book under it.

There is much to think about in The Zhivago Affair: the nature of genius; the terror that leads people to betray friends; and, above all, the potency of fiction. Pasternak, accepted in his lifetime as Russia's greatest poet, leaps vividly out of the pages. The book is packed with fascinating detail: the Italian publisher, Feltrinelli, became a terrorist and blew himself up; Khrushchev apologised for the persecution of Pasternak in his memoirs - which had to be smuggled out of Russia; the only protester at the vote to expel Pasternak from the Union of Soviet Writers turned out to be Stalin's sister-in-law.

Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958. His telegram of acceptance read: "Immensely grateful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed." But he was vilified in the Soviet press and eventually forced to reject the prize. It was not until 1989, 29 years after his death, that his son travelled to Stockholm and accepted the medal on his behalf. In the same year, a journalist riding the Moscow subway was "arrested by an incredible sight: 'ordinary people' reading Pasternak. The intelligentsia had already read banned work from the past seven decades. Now it was the turn of the ordinary people." The Zhivago Affair reveals the story of that triumph with vibrant authenticity and calm analysis.

Clare Morrall's latest novel, After the Bombing, is published by Sceptre