Dr. David Shevin photograph

LARA'S THEME

April, 2007

When my friend Lara discusses the unusual spelling of her name, she hearkens back to the middle of the 1960s. Her parents were among the many millions swept away by the romance, drama and grandeur of Omar Sharif's and Julie Christie's star-crossed relationship in the film version of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Christie had captivated everyone as the enigmatic Lara, and the tale entered the cultural memory as one of the greatest romances ever told.

The story's history had a cultural as well as an individual romance. Set against the turns of Russia Bolshevik revolution, Zhivago was a figure of the individual setting his direction independent of the collective identity. His decisions and destiny were set aside from national identity, and the story celebrated individualism over social character. No wonder the book became a cold war hot potato! Its author, Boris Pasternak, saw the novel acclaimed and celebrated throughout the West long before its Russian publication. In 1956, Soviet foreign minister Dmitri Shepilov declared the book a "malicious libel of the USSR" and a statement from the KGB (yes, the Soviet spy agency would declare about matters of culture) opined "a typical feature of his [Pasternak's] work is estrangement from Soviet life."

Few novels have ever had the impact of this one in international relations. The Eisenhower years saw a tremendous campaign in the industrialized nations to award Pasternak the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was awarded to the author in 1958. The counter reaction to the award was decisive and furious. Soviet authorities condemned the author mightily. He was forced to reject the award, and was expelled from the Writer's Union, where 29 of his colleagues denounced him and his work. It was not long after this furor that Pasternak's long-fragile health failed him, and he succumbed to cancer in 1960 at the age of 70.

In 1989, the author's son Yevgeny was finally able to accept the coveted Nobel award on his father's behalf. He reflected, "Some of his friends believed that it would have been fine if he got the prize one year later - the scandal would be over and everything would be quieter."

The detail of this entire furor which emerges in 2007 is that it was not only the Soviet power structure that conspired in creating Pasternak the cold war martyr. The United States was in collusion to this unfolding of literary history as well. Pasternak's fate was sealed with the Russian publication of his novel in his native Soviet land, and that publication was underwritten by the CIA.

The WASHINGTON POST broke this story, reporting on the new book THE LAUNDERED NOVEL, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the book's publication. Ivan Tolstoy, also a reporter for Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, reported from Prague that financed the Russian edition of the novel as one of its covert operations. Turned down by Russian publishing houses as the book was acclaimed outside of Pasternak's home country, the book was a samizdat, a text circulated in an active underground without state sanction. According to both Tolstoy and the novelist's family, Pasternak had no inkling of the American involvement in the Russian publication. Said Tolstoy, "Pasternak's novel became a tool that that was used by the United States to teach the Soviet Union a lesson."

Poor Pasternak! Before DOCTOR ZHIVAGO made him a puppet of the partisan fates, he had enjoyed acclaim as a poet and anonymity as a novelist. As early as 1948 and repeatedly thereafter, he was nominee for the Nobel committee's recognition. No less prominent a person than Albert Camus had submitted him for the award. Then following his completion of his novel in 1955, a web of intrigue surrounded the writer. He tried to arrange an Italian publication of the book. Then, once contracts were being arranged, he was forced to rescind his publication consent. This required Pasternak into issuing mixed instructions to his Italian publisher: telegrams calling for a halt to the publication, and secret letters imploring the publication to go forward despite the cables. The Italian edition was followed in close order by French and English renderings of the book.

A CIA spokesman announced that there would be no agency comments on Tolstoy's account of the events. Tolstoy, in turn, claims to have found not only the Russian émigré who typeset the book, but also to have interviewed ex-CIA operatives who engineered the production in a web of secrecy and stealth. The Swedish Academy, which oversees the selection of the Nobel Literature laureate, keeps files sealed for fifty years. The Academy will make its deliberations on the Pasternak award public in 2009.

By David Shevin

(C)opyright 2007 David Shevin All Rights Reserved

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