Harvill Secker, £20. Order at the discounted price of £16 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power