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Doctor Zhivago: Literature’s Cold War Firestorm

Doctor Zhivago: Literature’s Cold War Firestorm

A whiff of scandal surrounds this year’s Nobel Prize ceremonies, as Bob Dylan, the laureate in literature, will not be accepting his award in person. But this controversy is nothing compared to the firestorm that the Nobel Committee set off back in 1958. Bob Dylan may have waited several weeks to so much as acknowledge the announcement of his award, but 1958’s recipient was forced to reject the medal against his will, a decision that tore apart the remainder of his life. Boris Pasternak was that recipient, and Doctor Zhivago was the book that earned him one of literature’s highest honors.

Pasternak witnessed the October Revolution of 1917 as a young man, and was initially optimistic about what it could mean for the people of Russia. After publishing a number of collections of poems, stories, and translations, he started the novel that would eventually become Doctor Zhivago in 1932 but destroyed his draft during Stalin’s terror. The Great Purge caused him to dramatically re-evaluate the Soviet regime, but he did not feel safe enough to write a book that expressed his new understanding of the October Revolution until 1946. He then spent roughly a decade working on a book that would send shockwaves throughout the world.

Doctor Zhivago portrays the Russian Revolution as corrupt and failing to fulfill its ideals. Its protagonist, Yuri Zhivago, damns the Bolshevik revolutionaries as people who “aren’t at home in anything except change and turmoil, because they haven’t any real capacities, they are ungifted.” This was a message that the Soviet Union wanted to smother, no matter how ruthless it had to be.

In 1949, when the word began to spread that Pasternak was writing critically of the communist regime, his mistress Olga Ivinskaya was arrested and sentenced to five years in the Gulag. Ivinskaya was pregnant with Pasternak’s child at the time of the arrest and suffered a miscarriage due to her mistreatment.  By 1950, the Union of Soviet Writers had labelled Pasternak “an author lacking in ideology and remote from Soviet reality.”  Unable to get his manuscript published in Russia, Pasternak managed to get it published in Italian in 1957 with the help of publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak was well aware of the dangers that this step entailed; upon the book’s publication, he wrote to Feltrinelli, “You are hereby invited to my execution.” The Italian version was translated into English, French, and German within a year, and for the next six months Doctor Zhivago would remain on The New York Times best-seller list.

In the United States, the CIA saw Doctor Zhivago as more than just an acclaimed piece of literature—they saw it as a weapon. At this point in the Cold War, the Agency had a well-developed cultural operation in place that had brought millions of copies of books ranging from James Joyce to Ernest Hemingway into the Soviet Union. The CIA, according to one memo, considered Pasternak’s novel “more important than any other literature which has yet to come out of the Soviet bloc” and planned to assist in maximizing the number of copies available to the people of Europe in order to earn the book “consideration for such honor as the Nobel Prize.” It should be clear, however, that Pasternak had been considered a writer of enormous literary merit in his own right for several decades, having been a finalist for the Nobel Prize six times since the end of World War II. The CIA managed to have a Russian-language version of the novel printed in The Hague and smuggled into the USSR; the operation would quickly achieve its desired goal.

Pasternak’s fate as an enemy of the USSR was sealed when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for “his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.” Soviet leadership immediately accused the CIA of manipulating the outcome, and the head of the Komsomol called Pasternak a “pig fouling its own sty.” The USSR announced that if Pasternak left the country to receive the prize, he would never be allowed to return.  Dreading the thought of exile, Pasternak sent a letter to the committee declining the award

After rejecting the prize, Pasternak’s health quickly deteriorated. He was demonized by the press and thrown out of the Union of Soviet Writers and copies of his poetry and his translations of European plays disappeared from publication. Pasternak was driven into poverty by this censorship and criticism, and he died from lung cancer in 1960. Even at his funeral, KGB agents were placed in the crowd to monitor any dissentious talk by mourners. Ivinskaya was sentenced to another four years in the Gulag camps after his death, and Pasternak’s reputation would not be restored until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite his famously otherworldly artistic persona, Boris Pasternak found himself at the ideological center of the Cold War, seen as an asset by the West and a threat by the USSR. The Zhivago Affair demonstrates the tremendous impact literature can have even in the confrontation of superpowers. Literature can examine the world, challenge orthodoxies, and expose lies. Before Russia had the likes of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it had a man who was willing to throw away his high stature to expose the shortcomings of the Russian Revolution. It can be easy to appreciate a great book, but what we may not always appreciate is the courage it takes to write one.