Posts Tagged ‘Doctor Zhivago’

News that’s not news: CIA funded Dr. Zhivago

Monday, April 7th, 2014

No trip to Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Hoover Institution)

The internet is all abuzz with the news that the CIA funded Boris Pasternak‘s classic Doctor Zhivago.

Except that this is not news. I wrote about Pasternak, who was awarded a 1958 Nobel Prize that the U.S.S.R. would not allow him to accept, here.  An excerpt from the 2007 article, featuring a Stanford conference on Pasternak’s famous book:

The Nobel lightning bolt came not a moment too soon for Pasternak. Dark political clouds had been gathering around him. Without the prize, the poet might have faced more obvious persecution—poet Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp, poet Marina Tsvetaeva was hounded to her suicide. Both were friends of Pasternak.

Doctor Zhivago was published in Milan. Albert Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, nominated it for a Nobel. However, the book required publication in its original language to be considered. There was little financial motive for a non-Russian publisher to publish a book in Russian, and huge disincentives for Russian publishers, who faced long imprisonment in a very cold place—or worse. In recent years, researcher Ivan Tolstoi has revealed details of how the CIA financed a Russian translation of the book. Tolstoi is one of the speakers at the Stanford event. He will be speaking in Russian on a panel. A discussion in English will follow.

Tolstoi told the Moscow News this year that “both sides during the Cold War used different methods, but as for ideological subversion of Soviet power, the Americans always used above-board methods. Instead of using poison, derailing trains and kidnapping, the CIA subverted the Kremlin by Russian culture, which the Soviets were prohibited to know or remember.”

“Thanks to the fact that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, Pasternak wasn’t arrested,” Tolstoi told Radio Free Europe last year. “This deed by the CIA served to ennoble and save Pasternak. The actions of American intelligence saved a great Russian poet.”

The CIA similarly published Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others. “Such a reprehensible organization—and such nice deeds,” Tolstoi told the Moscow News. “How is that for thinking evil, but doing good.”

At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, copies of Doctor Zhivago were distributed by a Russian-speaking priest at the Vatican Pavilion. The ground nearby was reportedly littered with the dark-blue binding. Russians tore it off so the book could be divided in half, one for each pocket—it was a huge book, and Russians could assume they were being watched. With samizdat redistribution in the Soviet Union, it achieved fame on the underground book market.


Skip the movie. Read the book.

It would be 30 years before the book was published in its native land. Its launch heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the “Warsaw bloc” of socialist countries.

[Nikita] Khrushchev, after his own fall from power, expressed regret for the hounding of Pasternak. He had entrusted the matter to others, he said, and only realized later, when he had had a chance to look through the book himself, that he had been misled.

“In connection with Doctor Zhivago, some might say it’s too late for me to express regret that the book wasn’t published,” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs. “Yes, maybe it is too late. But better late than never.”

It was known that the CIA was underwriting other efforts, such as the YMCA Press in Paris, which published Aleksander Solzhenitsyn‘s astonishing Gulag Archipelago. That’s what made the work of Ardis so astonishing – it didn’t.

So what’s new?  The Washington Post article here makes use of 130 newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency’s secret involvement in the printing, so it’s worth a read. It’s just not the lightning bolt it’s made out to be.

Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence: British praise, American silence … so far

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Portrait of the artist as a young man: cover painting by Leonid Pasternak, the Nobel laureate's father

In general, Hoover Press isn’t known for its groundbreaking literary fare — its more usual titles embrace such topics as Social Security: The Unfinished Work and The Wave: Man, God, and the Ballot Box in the Middle East. So last summer, as I attended a reception for the appearance of Boris Pasternak: Family Correspondence, 1921-1960, I wondered how how much press attention the first English of the Nobel laureate’s family letters would get.

So here’s the upshot:  some reviews in top-notch British literary journals — The Times Literary Supplement and The Literary Review; zip in America. All the votes have not been cast, of course — the slower literary journals may yet make an appearance (perhaps they’re teaming it up with the new Peavear/Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago, but the surprise is that some of the more mainstream dailies on both sides of the Atlantic have ignored it.

Or rather, not a surprise.  The point is (and here is where I turn into a scold), that is exactly what the prominent reviewers and their editors used to do: ferret out the good from a basket of seasonal rubbish.  But book reviews have been shaved and then butchered; unemployed and hungry literary critics are feeding out of dumpsters.

That’s the bad news.  Here’s the good.  The book has received two awards: the American Library Association’s  Choice award for Outstanding Academic Title for 2010.  It also received the BookBuilders West prize.

One American has written about the book:  moi.  Here’s what I wrote about the book last summer (the rest is here):

The newly published correspondence is important: The Pasternak family was a close-knit one, and leading figures like Leo Tolstoy were family friends. Boris’ father, Leonid Pasternak, was an important post-Impressionist painter, and his mother, an accomplished pianist; they immigrated to Germany in 1921. After 1923, Pasternak was never to see his parents or two sisters again, except for one visit with a sister.

Slater said he originally began translating these letters out of a feeling of family loyalty. Pasternak did not write much about arrests, imprisonments and executions, but his intimate letters to his family have been considered works of art in themselves.

As the Nazis took power in Germany, Pasternak’s Jewish parents began to consider returning to Russia. According to Slater, “Boris found himself writing contorted letters in which he on the one hand assured his parents that he would love to have them living with him, and that they wouldn’t be a burden, but simultaneously tried his hardest to dissuade them from coming – since he knew, but couldn’t tell them, that their lives would be in danger if they came.

“I don’t think they understood his hints, and they probably did find him a bit inhospitable.” (They took refuge with Slater’s parents at Oxford instead.)

The book has, at least, gotten a few favorable reviews in the British press.  Peter France, writing in the Times Literary Supplement:

“It is not a complete translation, and one may regret the omission of certain passages discussing poems in detail, and above all the natural decision to focus on the letters of Pasternak himself. But the translator, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, the poet’s nephew, has done an admirable job, writing with enough freedom to bring across the meaning strongly, but enough faithfulness to convey something of the sheer oddity of Pasternak’s range: his exalted tone, his obscurity and his idiosyncratic eloquence. …

At Hoover reception: Anastasia Pasternak, great-granddaughter of the poet; Oxford scholar Ann Pasternak Slater, niece of the poet; Maya Slater, editor of the new volume, and her husband Nicolas Pasternak Slater, translator of the new volume and nephew of the poet. Anastasia Pasternak, great-granddaughter of the poet; Oxford scholar Ann Pasternak Slater, niece of the poet; Maya Slater, editor of the new volume, and her husband Nicolas Pasternak Slater, translator of the new volume and nephew of the poet.

Boris Pasternak has sometimes been seen as a happy man who survived miraculously when his fellow writers were meeting tragic fates.  What comes over most strongly here, however, is the sheer difficulty of his life: the anxiety, fear and depression with which he struggled for decades. … It was an increasingly hard place to be, with the arbitrary arrests, exiles, and executions, the horrors of collectivization, and, less tangibly, what Pasternak calls ‘the dark night of materialism.'”

And George Gömöri (one of the contributors, incidentally, to An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czeslaw Milosz … couldn’t resist the plug for my book), wrote in the Literary Review’s “Prisoner of Peredelkino” that the new volume of letters “will remain an indispensable source of information for future biographers” writes that Pasternak’s fortunes worsened considerably after the trial and execution of Nikolai Bukharin (we’ve written about that here, following the publication of Paul Gregory‘s engrossing book on the subject, The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina, last year).

One American had some nice words to say about the kudos drifting in from awards committees — even if from the very farthest corner of America, the far-flung islands to the west. John Stephan, professor emeritus of the University of Hawaii wrote:

“The Pasternak book richly deserves the awards. It’s a pleasure to see intellectual integrity and scholarly quality win public recognition.

It’s a marvelous work, rich in literary and historical insights, meticulously edited and handsomely produced.  Its utility for researchers is enhanced by an excellent index–notable not only for completeness and accuracy but for bio info (years of birth & death–and in some cases manner of death) of each individual mentioned in the text.  A standard all editors should emulate.”