Cowards, Patriots, and Pasternak

Originally published in the December 2015 issue of Quadrant.

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book
by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee
Vintage, 2015, 368 pages, $22.99

Twilight of the Eastern Gods
by Ismail Kadare
Grove Press, 2014, 224 pages, $18.45

When Dr. Zhivago reached number one on the New York Times bestseller list in November 1958, the book it displaced was Lolita. Nabokov was not pleased. He did not think much of Pasternak as a novelist, and to make matters worse, he felt bound to keep his low opinion to himself for fear of seeming jealous. “Had not Zhivago and I been on the same ladder,” he griped in a private letter, “I would have been glad to demolish that trashy, melodramatic, false, and inept book, which neither landscaping nor politics can save from my wastepaper basket.”

Nabokov was right that Dr. Zhivago, as literature, is nothing to crow about—not that the author of Lolita was in a position to look down his nose at a book for owing its success to extra-literary considerations. Pasternak does not rank with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. He nonetheless deserves to be classed with such perfectly creditable writers as Margaret Mitchell. Indeed, Gone with the Wind may be the closest thing to an English language equivalent of Zhivago: a sweeping romantic epic set against the backdrop of a civil war, with enough sympathy shown for the losing side to attract the ire of the politically correct. Both books transitioned very well to the big screen, and in neither case was that entirely a compliment to the literary quality of the source material.

Yet during the Cold War Dr. Zhivago was transformed from a Siberian soap opera into a worldwide symbol of resistance to tyranny. The story of how this occurred is the subject of The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.

The book’s road to international fame began in 1956, when the Khrushchev thaw led Pasternak to hope that his newly completed first novel might find a Soviet publisher, despite its criticisms of Bolshevik excesses. His friend Kornei Chukovsky, who had more experience with the Moscow literary bureaucracy, was less naïve. He knew that Zhivago would be supressed, thaw or no thaw. But he also knew that Khrushchev would be wary of handing the West an easy propaganda victory. According to the gossip Chukovsky had gathered by September, “the current plan is as follows: to stem all nasty rumors (both here and abroad) by putting the novel out in three thousand copies—thereby making it inaccessible to the masses—and at the same time proclaiming that we are placing no obstacle in Pasternak’s path.”

This plan would have saved the Moscow apparat a world of trouble. Unfortunately for them, they did not proceed with it. No Russian edition of Dr. Zhivago had yet been published when the novel appeared for the first time in the West in November 1957, in Italian translation from a manuscript Pasternak had managed to smuggle out. Nor had one been published by the time of the World’s Fair in Brussels in the summer of 1958, which 16,000 Soviet citizens attended. More than 500 copies of a Russian-language edition, which had been commissioned and bulk-purchased from a Dutch publishing house by the CIA, were successfully distributed in Brussels, discreetly wrapped in brown paper.

Five days after the Brussels Expo closed, the Nobel Committee announced that Pasternak had won that year’s literature prize, after having been a regular nominee for more than a decade on the basis of his poetry. By that point there was no chance for Moscow to neutralize the book’s propaganda value by releasing a censored “authorized” edition. Their only remaining option was to discredit Pasternak, which they did, through a concerted campaign of denunciation and by forcing him to turn down the Nobel. Khrushchev himself scripted the speech that signalled the beginning of the anti-Pasternak frenzy; a mid-level apparatchik delivered the address, but the leader’s signature barnyard style was detected in the charge that Pasternak was lower than swine since “a pig never makes a mess where it eats or sleeps.” The CIA, for its part, reacted by commissioning another batch of Russian-language editions to be smuggled behind the Iron Curtain. In one instance, operatives lurking on the sidewalks of Vienna hurled pocket-sized copies through the windows of a Soviet student delegation’s bus.

The CIA angle is played up in the book’s subtitle, but to their credit, Finn and Couvee adopt a neutral tone in discussing the agency’s involvement. Unlike some recent writers, they see nothing fundamentally improper about the idea of spies waging a literary campaign—at worst, they find it a bit comical. Even at the time, it was widely known that the U.S. government funded art and literature that promoted liberal values (the magazine you are reading was among the beneficiaries). Most of those who knew about it, or suspected it, figured that if the work itself was good, the source of the funding was no cause for scandal. In this particular case, the CIA was never in contact with Pasternak directly, so Finn and Couvee do not regard their efforts on his behalf as compromising.

Langley may even be the closest thing this book has to a hero, since it certainly isn’t Pasternak. The author comes off badly from the very first chapter, which details how he broke up his first marriage by stealing his best friend’s wife. Having married that woman, he later left her for his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, on whom the character of Lara was based, though like Zhivago Pasternak never divorced the mother of his children. There were usually other women in the mix, too, including a German pen pal whom Finn and Couvee delicately describe as “a poet who worked as a masseuse”; she made the trek out to Pasternak’s dacha in 1960, to Ivinskaya’s great annoyance. Critics like Edmund Wilson have interpreted Dr. Zhivago as a sensitive soul’s reaction to totalitarian conditions, but it could just as easily have been a sensitive soul’s reaction to a love life in disarray. The novel’s central theme—A man must follow his vital force!—is the sort of thing a dissident might say to a tyrant, but it is also what a straying husband says to his long-suffering wife.

Pasternak was rather cowardly in his handling of this romantic muddle, too. He kept delegating other people to break things off with Ivinskaya so he could go back to his wife. Once he tried to enlist Ivinskaya’s fifteen-year-old daughter, who quite rightly refused. He never did have the nerve to break up with her himself, so he continued to muddle along, splitting his time between both women. On his death bed Pasternak refused to see his mistress—not out of any belated scruples, according to Finn and Couvee, but because “he simply could not bear the stress and the pitched emotion of an Ivinskaya visit.”

To be a coward with women is not the blackest sin in the catalogue, but it does make it harder to forgive Pasternak for the times when he was less than brave with the Soviet government. When word came down that he was about to be expelled from the country, Pasternak allowed Ivinskaya to persuade him to send “Nikita Sergeyevich” a contrite letter of not-quite-apology. Khrushchev responded by calling off the campaign against him, declaring, “Enough. He’s admitted his mistakes. Stop it.” To the West Pasternak seemed a martyr, but his fellow Russian writers, even the liberals among them, had some sympathy for the opinion of novelist Valentin Kateyev. “He has a splendid flat, a dacha, a car; he’s rich, he lives high off the hog,” Kateyev grumbled to Chukovsky. “You see him as a victim. Well, save your sympathy.”

*          *          *          *          *

Among the writers who would willingly have traded places with Pasternak in 1959 was a young Albanian who had come to Moscow at the age of 22 to study at the Gorky Institute for World Literature. Ismail Kadare’s years of study coincided with the Zhivago affair, and his autobiographical novel Twilight of the Eastern Gods gives an ant’s-eye view of the drama that complements Finn & Couvee’s more sweeping account.

One attraction of Kadare’s novel, which Finn & Couvee’s history lacks, is suspense. The week that Pasternak won the Nobel buzzed with uncertainty, and students at the Gorky Institute were perfectly situated to catch every rumor from their position on the periphery of Moscow’s literary world. As soon as the news broke, a meeting of the Writers’ Union was called and delegates summoned from all the People’s Republics. As the meeting loomed, gossip raged: Would Pasternak himself show up? Would he reach an accommodation with the authorities? If so, would that mean turning down the prize? “If it’s not wrapped up by eight tonight, the campaign will get even nastier,” a fellow student assures Kadare. “Apparently Chukovsky is going to call on him at two this afternoon to try to persuade him.”

A cross-check with Chukovsky’s diaries, published in 1991, reveals that Kadare’s friend was well informed: he did call on Pasternak that afternoon. “I told him about the notice I’d received from the Writers’ Union inviting me to attend an emergency meeting. Just then a courier arrived with the same notice for him.” Pasternak retreated to his bedroom, stricken, but when he came down, he refused to commit to turning down the prize. The most he would agree to do was to write a letter explaining his actions, which he drafted but did not send—which was just as well for him, for it declared, “Higher powers command me to act as I do. I feel that the Nobel Prize recently granted me can only gladden the hearts of all Soviet writers.”

The pillorying therefore went ahead as scheduled, with many of Kadare’s classmates taking a turn at the podium. Among the more vehement, he records, was a friend who “had told me the previous day that Pasternak, despite his turpitude, was worth a hundred times more than any of the other runts of Soviet literature.”

Kadare makes it a running joke that all week, whenever his narrator turns on the radio, he hears yet another statement condemning Pasternak: from the Tashkent clergy, from the people of Qipstap, from the North Sea whaling fleet. And then, suddenly:

On fine morning the radio began broadcasting reports on the achievements of the collective farms in the Urals, about summer retreats, about arts festival in one or another Soviet republic, about the abundance of the fisheries, about contented young people in the steppe near the Volga—but it uttered not another word about Pasternak.

The obviously orchestrated abruptness of the campaign’s end might have been disillusioning to young Ismail if he had not already been so cynical about the Soviet world and its literary scene. The purpose of the Gorky Institute was to teach provincial writers from across the Communist world, from Greeks to Buryats, to be good social realists. Unsurprisingly, this ideological straitjacket provoked resentment. Kadare tells of a special ritual, plot-spew, in which the students would get drunk and tell each other the plots of all the novels they would never be allowed to write. “They will write other things, often the exact opposite.”

That was a prophetic prediction in his own case, for upon his return to Albania Kadare quickly learned to compromise with the regime of Enver Hoxha. He wrote poems in praise of the dictator and buried subversive themes under so many layers of symbolism in his excellent novels that some readers (including Hoxha) failed to detect them. In his defense, Albania was more oppressive than almost any other Communist country at the time; if Kadare had been even a fraction more subversive than he was, he probably would have been shot. The only remaining option was emigration to the West, but Kadare, like Pasternak, refused to be parted from his native country. By stubbornly refusing to follow the path of freedom into exile, these two writers fell short of the Western ideal of the uncompromising dissident artist—but then, the depth of their love for their native lands may have been what allowed them to write novels worth reading in the first place.