The Zhivago Affair: how censorship worked in Soviet Russia

Leigh Turner
Leigh Turner

“How many men are able to go boldly, and uprightly, to the scaffold? Unfortunately, I do not belong to their number” – Sergei Nikiforov, English teacher to the daughter of Boris Pasternak’s lover, Olga Ivinskaya, after denouncing Olga to KGB interrogators. Quoted in The Zhivago Affair.

The Zhivago Affair - Peter Finn and Petra Couvee
An excellent, chilling read

The Zhivago Affair, subtitled The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle over a Forbidden Book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, is a terrific read and fascinating to anyone interested in the former Soviet Union, literature, or both. The book explores how Dr Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, came to be published in Europe, the US and Russia in the depths of the Cold War – and how this led to Pasternak’s death.

The CIA and Dr Zhivago

The cover of The Zhivago Affair bills the book as a study in the role of the CIA in supporting publication of Dr Zhivago in the original Russian.

The story of how the CIA acquired the manuscript of Dr Zhivago in 1958 and weaponised the book is fascinating. The CIA Soviet Russia Division Chief wrote that: “Pasternak’s humanistic message – that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state – poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system… There is no call to revolt against the regime in the novel, but the heresy which Dr. Zhivago preaches – political passivity – is fundamental.”

The CIA distributed the Russian text through what seem today comically random methods. That including giving away copies at the 1958 World Fair in Brussels. They concluded the exercise was worthwhile as the novel found its way into the Soviet Union.

Soviet writers denounce Dr Zhivago

So far, so fascinating. But for me, the CIA’s role in The Zhivago Affair is not the most interesting part of the book.

For me, that prize goes to the detailed description of how the Soviet system conspired to prevent the book’s official publication on artistic grounds. It then used organs of the state – including other writers and young people – to grind down and destroy Pasternak himself.

The groupthink that afflicted Soviet writers in the 1950s also has parallels in today’s world.

Pasternak did not at first consider publishing outside Russia. In 1956, he submitted the book to the state literary publisher, Goslitizdat – then waited.

The novel threw the Soviet system into turmoil. Pasternak, one of the country’s leading poets, had written a masterpiece. How to respond?

The system rubbished the book, and Pasternak himself. The editorial board of the literary monthly Novy Mir included some of Pasternak’s closest friends. It annihilated his work in a lengthy review. The spirit of your novel is one of non-acceptance of the socialist revolution, they wrote. The general tenor of your novel is that the October Revolution, the Civil War and the social transformation involved did not give the people anything but suffering, and destroyed the Russian intelligentsia, either physically or morally... There are many clearly inferior pages, lifeless and didactically dry…

The implications of this judgement for Pasternak and his friends were fatal. The KGB had arrested Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s lover, six years earlier. Her daughter’s elderly English teacher Sergei Nikiforov denounced her (his apology for his actions appears in the introduction to this piece). Five months pregnant, she miscarried her baby during interrogation. They sentenced her to five years in a hard-labour camp “for close contact with persons suspected of espionage”.

Dr Zhivago began to appear in foreign language editions in 1957 and 1958. Then it won the Nobel Prize. In response, the Soviet authorities planned a campaign to crush the book and its author.

The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee
My bust of Maxim Gorky oversees research for this review

“This Judas who has risen again”

Dmitri Polikarpov, the head of the Communist Central Committee’s “Culture Department”, said that awarding Pasternak the Nobel Prize would be an “unfriendly act”. A fellow novelist, Boris Polevoi, wrote apparently without irony that: the West might attempt to create an anti-Soviet “sensation” out of the Novel Prize, and use it to stress the “lack of freedom of speech in the Soviet Union” and to claim there is “political pressure on certain authors”.

The Soviet authorities decided to publish the 1956 Novy Mir review in the weekly Literaturnaya Gazeta (literary newspaper). The newspaper “Pravda” [“Truth”] should run a “satirical article” denouncing the novel… A group of prominent Soviet writers should issue a joint statement that the award was an effort to ignite the Cold War. Finally, Pasternak should be told to refuse the Nobel “since the award does not serve the interests of our Motherland”.

The most insidious pressure on Pasternak came from fellow writers. Many were neighbours at the suburb where he lived at Peredelkino, near Moscow. After Pasternak’s initial refusal to renounce the Nobel Prize, the children’s writer Kornei Chukovsky told novelist Konstantin Fedin: “Pasternak will do us all great harm with all of this. They’ll launch a fierce campaign against the intelligentsia now.” As the official Writer’s Union summoned members to an emergency meeting, Chukovsky wrote in his diary: “There would be no mercy, that was clear… they were out to pillory him. They would trample him to death just as they had Zoshchenko, Mandelstam, Zabolotsky, Mirsky and Benedikt Livshits.”

The editorial in the Literaturnaya Gazeta read: “The internal emigrant Zhivago, faint-hearted and base in his small-mindedness, is alien to the Soviet people, as is the malicious literary snob Pasternak – he is their opponent, he is the ally of those who hate our country and our system.” It concluded: “Pasternak… was rewarded because he voluntarily agreed to play the part of a bait on the rusty hook of anti-Soviet propaganda. But… a piece of bait is changed as soon as it goes rotten… An ignominious end waits for this Judas who has risen again, for Doctor Zhivago, and for his creator, who is destined to be scorned by the people.”

In addition to a torrent of abuse from Soviet media organs, Pasternak also found his friends distancing themselves. The poet Ilya Selvinsky wrote: “to ignore the view of the Party, even if you think it is wrong, is equivalent, in the international situation of the present moment, to deliver a blow at the country in which you live.” He and critic Viktor Shklovsky wrote to a newspaper accusing Pasternak of “a low act of treachery”. In a debate to expel Pasternak from the writers’ union, fellow-novelists compared him with World War II traitors who collaborated with the Nazis.

The writers’ union voted unanimously to expel Pasternak, concluding: “the novel Dr Zhivago… only reveals the author’s immeasurable self-conceit coupled with a dearth of ideas… bearing in mind Pasternak’s political and moral downfall, his betrayal of the Soviet Union, socialism, peace and progress… the presidium of the board of the union of writers… strip Boris Pasternak of the title of Soviet writer and expel him from the union of writers of the USSR”.

Pasternak’s health suffers

Not surprisingly, this all-out assault told on Pasternak. He told Olga Ivinskaya “I cannot stand this business any more. I think it’s time to leave this life. It’s too much.” The pressure continued. A month later the authorities instructed Vladmir Semichastny, Head of the youth wing of the Communist Party, to attack the book. He did so at a meeting of 12,000 young people in Moscow. “As the Russian proverb goes, every flock has its mangy sheep,” Semichastny said. “[Pasternak] has gone and spat in the people’s face… if we compare Pasternak with a pig, then we must say that a pig will never do what Pasternak has done … fouled the spot where he ate and cast filth on those by whose labour he lives and breathes.”

Pasternak renounced the Nobel prize. But he was a broken man. One can hardly imagine the impact of such pressure from all around him. That included, days later, 800 writers from the Moscow branch of the writers’ union repeatedly denouncing Pasternak in hours of speeches. The fear of not denouncing the heretic writer, let alone of supporting him, generated a vicious flood of Groupthink. That washed away the moorings not only of other writers but of Pasternak himself.

Pasternak wrote letters of apology for his behaviour to Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Krushchev and to Pravda. The latter included the sentence “I have not been persecuted”. Many fellow writers still did not sympathise. Poet Anna Akhmatova dismissed Pasternak’s ordeal as inconsequential compared to what she and Zoshchenko had suffered when they were thrown out of the Union of Soviet Writers in Stalin’s time.

Akhmatova’s comment is a useful reminder. The Zhivago Affair took place during a thaw in the Soviet Union under Krushchev, rather than under Stalin’s more severe repression. But the fear remained.

Pasternak’s health continued to deteriorate and he died in May 1960, aged 70.

Would you do any better?

It is worth asking yourself: how would you respond, if you were a member of the Soviet union of writers in the 1950s? I have sympathy for Sergei Nikiforov: to stand up to a repressive system can cost you your life.

Other writers involved in the treatment of Pasternak in the 1950s explored their actions years later. The critic Viktor Shklovsky said: “Why? The most terrible thing is I don’t remember any more. The times? Sure, but we’re the time, I am, millions like me. One day everything will come to light: the records of those meetings, the letters from those years, the interrogation procedures, the denunciations – everything. And all that sewage will also dredge up the stench of fear.

The novelist Vera Panova was later asked why she was so vicious about Pasternak. She said she panicked, felt like it was 1937 again, and had to protect her large family.

In an exchange of letters between members of the writers’ union in the 1980s, Vladimir Soloukhin said that “Pasternak’s supporters, who remained silent, were as culpable as those who spoke against him.”

Social media and modern groupthink

The parallels between the fear afflicting Soviet writers, and the pressure to conform to intellectual norms dictated by an oppressive state, reminded me of today’s social media landscape.

Now, as then, a mob of “right-thinking” people can be whipped up at a moment’s notice to enforce a particular way of thinking, or belief. Those who express dissenting views do not face counter-argument, or discussion.

Rather, all too often, people expressing dissenting views face annihilation on social media. “Right-thinking” people denounce them as heretics, as un-people, as monsters. The degree of bile, of vileness, of actual physical threats, makes many people afraid to express any views, or to defend other dissenters, lest they, too, are accused. The parallels with Soviet Russia, or with the “groupthink” of George Orwell’s 1984, are chilling.

So, next time you are tempted to jump on the bandwagon and vilify someone for their beliefs, think twice before you hit the “send” button.

Never assume what happened to Pasternak could not happen again somewhere else. Perhaps it is happening somewhere now.

“The Zhivago Affair”: buy the book

You can buy The Zhivago Affair on Amazon here.

More reading tips and reviews

Please explore more reading tips and reviews on this blog by clicking on the links. Everything from Orlando to James Bond, from Middlemarch to Lee Child, from PG Wodehouse to John Connolly. Enjoy!


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