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Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, The Zhivago Affair

Read an extract from, The Zhivago Affair, which is Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 (listen here). We also have an exclusive piece from the authors, Peter Finn and Petra Couvee on some newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency's secret involvement with the printing of Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago.


zhivago affairAfter leaving the train station, D’Angelo and Vladimirsky passed the walled summer residence of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. They crossed a stream by a graveyard and walked along roads that were still a little muddy before turning onto Pavlenko Street, the narrow lane at the edge of the village where Pasternak lived. D’Angelo was unsure what to expect.

He knew from his research that Pasternak was esteemed as a supremely gifted poet and was praised by scholars in the West as someone who stood out brightly in the stolid world of Soviet letters. But D’Angelo had never actually read anything by him. Within the Soviet establishment, recognition of Pasternak’s talent was tempered by doubts about his political commitment, and for long periods original work by the poet was not published. He earned a living as a translator of foreign literature, becoming one of the premier Russian interpreters of Shakespeare’s plays and

Goethe’s Faust

Pasternak’s dacha, emerging from stands of fir and birch, was a chocolate-brown, two-story building with bay windows and a veranda; it reminded some visitors of an American timber-frame house. As D’Angelo arrived at the wooden gate, the sixty-six- year-old writer, in Wellington boots and homespun pants and jacket, was working in his front garden, where the family had a vegetable patch among the fruit trees, bushes, and flowers. Pasternak was a physically arresting man, remarkably youthful, with an elongated face that seemed sculpted from stone, full sensuous lips, and lively chestnut eyes. The poet Marina Tsvetaeva said he looked like an Arab and his horse. A visitor to Peredelkino noted that he could pause at certain moments as if recognizing the impact “of his own extraordinary face . . . half closing his slanted brown eyes, turning his head away, reminiscent of a horse balking.” 

Pasternak greeted his visitors with firm handshakes. His smile was exuberant, almost childlike. Pasternak enjoyed the company of foreigners, a distinct pleasure in the Soviet Union, which only began to open up to outsiders after the death of Stalin in 1953. Another Western visitor to Peredelkino that summer, the Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, said the experience of conversing with writers there was “like speaking to the victims of shipwreck on a desert island, cut off for decades from civilization—all they heard they received as new, exciting and delightful.”

The three men sat outside on two wooden benches set at right angles in the garden, and Pasternak took some delight in Sergio’s last name, stretching it out in his low droning voice with its slightly nasal timbre. He asked about the name’s origin. Byzantine, said D’Angelo, but very common in Italy. The poet talked at length about his one trip to Italy when he was a twenty-two- year-old philosophy student at the University of Marburg in Germany in the summer of 1912. Traveling in a fourth-class train carriage, he had visited Venice and Florence but had run out of money before he could get to Rome. He had written memorably of Italy in an autobiographical sketch, including a sleepy half-day in Milan just after he arrived. He remembered approaching the city’s cathedral, seeing it from various angles as he came closer, and “like a melting glacier it grew up again and again on the deep blue perpendicular of the August heat and seemed to nourish the innumerable Milan cafes with ice and water. When at last a narrow platform placed me at its foot and I craned my head, it slid into me with the whole choral murmur of its pillars and turrets, like a plug of snow down the jointed column of a drainpipe.”

Forty-five years later, Pasternak would become bound to Milan. Just a short distance away from the cathedral, through the glass-vaulted Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and past La Scala, was Via Andegari. At number 6 was the office of Feltrinelli, the man who would defy the Soviet Union and first publish Doctor Zhivago.

Click here to read about the cover design for the hardback of The Zhivago Affair.

Below are Peter Finn and Petra Couvee's annotated notes on the documents detailing the CIA's involvement in publishing Doctor Zhivago. Click here for the images. 

  1. Dated Dec. 12, 1958, this is the first memo in the CIA files and captures some of the early reaction within the agency to the novel. There is a desire to exploit the novel and get as much global attention as possible while maintaining secrecy to protect Pasternak. This was a condition of British intelligence and guided CIA decision-making on where and how the novel should be printed and distributed. 
  2. This is a memo from early January 1958 transmitting a photographed copy of the manuscript, on two roles of film, to the chief of the CIA’s Western Europe Division. The sender is redacted, but the film was obtained from British intelligence and the memo came from the agency’s London station. It also has a little bit of publishing gossip on the second page.
  3. The CIA in this memo, dated Jan. 13, 1958, is beginning to formulate its plans including a proposal to print a ‘black’ edition that would be attributed to a Soviet publisher. In handwritten notes at the bottom of the page there is a suggestion that it may be possible to obtain permission from Feltrinelli for a Russian-language edition (presumably through a third party), but if that fails, ‘we’ll do it black’.  
  4. This memo, from April 24, 1958,  fills in the branch chiefs of the Soviet Russia Division, which is running the operation to print the novel, on the history and importance of Doctor Zhivago and its ‘great propaganda value.’ It notes that the agency is attempting to arrange publication by a non-political and preferably non-American entity. In the interim, it notes that the CIA will attempt to get translated copies of the novel into the Soviet Union. 
  5. This July 8, 1958 memo from the chief of the Soviet Russia division to the deputy director (plans) and illustrates how the operation to print Doctor Zhivago was discussed at the highest levels of the agency. The writer, John Maury, who served in Moscow during World War 2, was hugely enthusiastic about the novel. The memo also contains some intelligence about Pasternak’s communications with his Western publishers. 
  6. This memo, written on Aug. 9, 1958, for the first time notes that the CIA is considering a second printing of a miniature edition of the novel, which was ultimately published the following year at CIA headquarters. The CIA expresses an interest here in ‘long range dissemination’ of Doctor Zhivago within the Soviet Union.
  7. This memo, dated Sept. 8, 1958, appears just as the novel is about to be distributed at the Brussels World’s Fair in September 1958 and is quite self-congratulatory. It also notes that some form of escrow account was set up in Pasternak’s name by the agency, but it’s unclear if the author, or his family, ever received any of this money.  
  8. Very similar to the previous memo, and written on the same date, this one notes that a European publisher was used to print the novel in deference to the author’s wishes. Pasternak, who never knew of the CIA’s involvement, had told one of his French translators that he didn’t want the book published in Russian in the U.S. or by U.S. funded groups.
  9. The attachment to the Sept. 10, 1958 memo deals with the CIA’s troublesome relationship with a New York publisher whom it first asked to prepare the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago for printing in Europe. The agency and the publisher had some significant disagreements about secrecy, implementation and money. That led the CIA to turn to Dutch intelligence to get the job done.  Here the CIA says it will have to have some ‘stern’ negotiations with him before settling accounts because of his ‘untrustworthy’ behavior — which seems a little rich coming from an agency built on deception.
  10. After Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature, the CIA, in an Oct. 24, 1958, message from the director, wanted agency assets (principally but not only Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe) to give ‘maximum factual play’ to the award but without any ‘propagandistic commentary.’       
  11. Another message, on Oct. 28, 1958, also recommends exploitation of the news of the award of the Nobel Prize to make the point that the Soviets suppress all independent thought. It also noted that the last country to prevent one of its citizens from accepting a Nobel Prize was Nazi Germany. 
  12. This memo, dated Oct. 30, 1958 and written for Allen Dulles, the CIA director, describes the treatment of Pasternak as a ‘literary Hungary’, but also notes the impotence of the West to do much, as was the case also with the Hungarian revolt. And it notes that the West may have been too sanguine about the implications of the so-called ‘thaw’ under Khrushchev. 
  13. This memo, dated Oct. 31, 1958, accounts for the distribution of the copies of Doctor Zhivago printed for the CIA in The Hague. Three-hundred and sixty-five were sent to the Brussels World’s Fair with the rest going to CIA headquarters and stations around Europe. 
  14. The CIA role in the printing of Doctor Zhivago in the Netherlands and the novel’s distribution in Brussels was nearly exposed and sparked decades of speculation. This message, dated Nov. 5, 1958, discusses some of the problems but argues that the operation, for all its difficulties, was worth the trouble. 
  15. This Nov. 19, 1958 memo lays out a rationale and plan to print a miniature edition of Doctor Zhivago. The following year about 9,000 copies of the novel were printed on bible-stock paper and one of the major locations for distribution was a World Youth Festival that was sponsored by the Kremlin and took place in Vienna in late July 1959.
  16. This memo from Nov. 15, 1958 describes some of the press coverage that linked intelligence operatives to the printing in The Hague of Doctor Zhivago. The CIA was first mentioned by name in a column in a supplement to the National Review, the conservative publication founded by William F. Buckley Jr. 
  17. By April 1959, the CIA was looking forward to another summer season of distributing books to Soviet visitors. It also laid out a series of talking points for Western tourists to the Soviet Union to engage people they meet on this issue of freedom of expression.
  18. This memo notes how the CIA was first given exclusive rights to exploit Doctor Zhivago by the Operations Coordinating Board, an interagency committee that reported to the National Security Council in the Eisenhower White House. The memo, dated March 27, 1959, asserts that Doctor Zhivago has appeared throughout the world with the assistance of the CIA, but it is unstated which specific editions the agency sponsored. The CIA also said that open exploitation of the book was now possible as Pasternak could not be harmed any more that he has already harmed himself — an odd comment. (It’s possible they were referring to Pasternak’s decision to give someone The Nobel prize poem, which was published in the Daily Mail and infuriated the Soviet authorities anew.) 
  19. This July 16, 1959 memo records the printing of the miniature edition of Doctor Zhivago at CIA headquarters. The agency had its own printing press and over the course of the Cold War printed numerous works in miniature, but a U.S. official said that the CIA’s collection of exemplars of these books was destroyed at some point, simply because they were taking up too much room.