The Zhivago Affair: Book summary and reviews of The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn

The Zhivago Affair

The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

By Peter Finn

The Zhivago Affair
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  • Published in USA  Jun 2014,
    368 pages.

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Book Summary

In May 1956, an Italian publishing scout took a train to the Russian countryside to visit the country's most beloved poet, Boris Pasternak. He left concealing the original manuscript of Pasternak's much anticipated first novel, entrusted to him with these words from the author: "This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world." Pasternak knew his novel would never be published in the Soviet Union, where the authorities regarded it as an assault on the 1917 Revolution, so he allowed it to be published in translation all over the world. 

But in 1958, the CIA, which recognized that the Cold War was above all an ideological battle, published Doctor Zhivago in Russian and smuggled it into the Soviet Union where it was snapped up on the black market and passed surreptitiously from friend to friend. Pasternak, whose funeral in 1960 was attended by thousands of readers who stayed for hours in defiance of the watching KGB, launched the great Soviet tradition of the writer-dissident. With sole access to otherwise classified CIA files, the authors give us an irresistible portrait of the charming and passionate Pasternak and a twisty thriller that takes readers back to a fascinating period of the Cold War, to a time when literature had power to shape the world.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. [A] triumphant reminder that truth is sometimes gloriously stranger than fiction." - Publishers Weekly

"I zipped through the first part in one evening and read with interest about Stalin's murderous ways but, sadly, the details of CIA involvement and the crux of the book are much less engrossing." - BookBrowse

"A fast-paced political thriller about a book that terrified a nation." - Kirkus

"With ground-breaking reporting and character-rich storytelling, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée uncover the high-stakes drama behind one of the Cold War's strangest turning-points." - Ken Kalfus, author of A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, finalist for the 2006 National Book Award

"A thrilling literary espionage yarn, but much more than that... they shed new light on the Cold War struggle for the hearts and minds of millions of people, introducing a cast of characters - poets and spies, idealists and cynics, politicians and dissidents - who could have stepped out of the pages of Doctor Zhivago itself." - Michael Dobbs, author of Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War

"The Zhivago Affair is a sparkling and fascinating account of how one of the most important novels of the 20th century found its way back to Russia, a juggernaut of truth thrust into the Soviet darkness. Peter Finn and Petra Couvée elegantly and authoritatively capture Pasternak's brilliance, the courage of his friends, and the CIA's hidden role in bringing the forbidden book to Russian readers." - David E. Hoffman, author of The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize

"This is the most detailed account to date of the events that suddenly placed one of Russia's greatest poets in the center of the struggle between Soviet and Western propaganda machines at the height of the Cold War." - Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, translators of Doctor Zhivago (2010)

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Peter Finn is national security editor for The Washington Post and previously served as the Post's bureau chief in Moscow.

Petra Couvée is a writer, translator, and teacher at Saint Petersburg State University.

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