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

How the Soviet ban on Pasternak's 'Dr Zhivago' was turned into a US coup

"The book has great propaganda value." So read a 1958 memo to all branch chiefs of the CIA Soviet Union Division. Forget bombs; Dr Zhivago, a meandering epic about the family and loves of a passionate young doctor and poet was going to blow apart communist complacency. Not so much by its subject matter, but by the quashing of the book's publication in the Soviet Union. The CIA hoped that Soviet citizens would resent Nikita Kruschev and his government for censoring the debut novel of Boris Pasternak, one of their most popular poets.

The tangled web of Dr Zhivago and the CIA is the subject of Finn's and Couvée's first book, a compelling, seductively written tale of Cold War censorship and paranoia in which, often, Pasternak's book itself became subsumed. Finn and Couvée gained first access to CIA files and have researched them with scrupulous attention. The detail in the sources must have been overwhelming – but they keep the book sharply on track, using dramatic scene-setting and an engaging style to tell the extraordinary story of how a novel that Pasternak never expected to be published ended up as an international bestseller – and the eighth highest grossing movie of all time.

Pasternak began writing what he called "Boys and Girls" in 1945, at the age of 55. Ten years later it was complete, but was roundly rejected by the Russian literary establishment as too critical of Soviet history. Pasternak doled out secret copies to friends and anyone visiting the West. Then he gave a copy to a scout for the Milanese publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Believing that the Soviet edition was on its way, Feltrinelli had no idea that he would be publishing a sensation.

The CIA and the Kremlin had one belief in common: that literature could transform the soul – a power nowadays often attributed to YouTube or Facebook. As the CIA chief of covert operations declared, "one single book can significantly change the reader's attitude and action" more than "any other single medium". The CIA dropped Western pamphlets and magazines on Eastern Europe from balloons (they stopped after an Austrian housewife set her house on fire, startled when a balloon landed on her house), and spent millions funding shell companies that posted books to Eastern European officials and translated Western works such as Animal Farm into Russian.

After Zhivago was published in Italy in 1957 to great acclaim, the CIA wanted to bring it to a wider audience. Most of all, they wanted to distribute copies at the Brussels World Fair in 1958 – where the Soviet Union and America would both have pavilions. They persuaded a Dutch publisher to take on the job, and 365 copies of Dr Zhivago in Russian were duly sent to Brussels.

It would be too much for the US delegates to hand the books out; instead they stuck to fashion shows, square dancing and celebrating consumerism with hot dogs. The US had an ally in the nearby Vatican pavilion, whose priests and presentation ladies handed out Zhivago to Soviet visitors along with prayer books. "This phase can be considered to be completed successfully," a CIA memo declared, a month before the fair closed.

In the same year, Pasternak was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize, along with the communist poet, Alberto Moravia (whom the CIA hoped would not be chosen). Pasternak won – although he was forced to reject the award. He died in 1960, never aware of the mechanisms that had gone into publishing his book in Russian, still thinking it was émigrés who were responsible.

Years later, Kruschev finally read the book. "We shouldn't have banned it," he said. "I should have read it myself." As he recognised – and this book so vividly shows – the story of the Soviet Union vs Dr Zhivago had been a futile competition, and one in which the West had won the game.