-1Anyone who has read Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago — or seen the David Lean movie based on that novel — can understand why its story proved provocative at the height of the Cold War. Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s book The Zhivago Affair details the role Zhivago played in the long-running battle between free and closed societies.

Based on the subtitle, “The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book,” this reader expected a primarily political or bureaucratic account — focusing on back-room dealing and scheming. Instead the authors spend much more time on how Zhivago affected its author and the lives of those closest to him. Readers learn about the special privileges the Soviet Union accorded to its literary stars, and the extend to which those privileges could be removed when those stars fell to earth.

One pleasant surprise is the story of the CIA’s role in helping to ensure Russian access to the officially banned novel. Far from seeing Zhivago as a straightforward anti-communist polemic, agency experts took a more nuanced approach.

The Russian-language manuscript of Doctor Zhivago arrived at CIA headquarters in Washington, D.C., in early January 1958 in the form of two rolls of film. British intelligence provided this copy of the novel. Inside the agency, the novel was the source of some excitement. In a memo to Frank Wisner, who oversaw clandestine operations for the CIA, the head of the agency’s Soviet Russia Division described Doctor Zhivago as “the most heretical literary work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death.”

“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,” wrote John Maury, the Soviet Russia Division chief. “There is no call to revolt against the regime in the novel, but the heresy which Dr. Zhivago preaches — political passivity — is fundamental. Pasternak suggests that the small unimportant people who remain passive to the regime’s demands for active participation and emotional involvement in official campaigns are superior to the political ‘activists’ favored by the system. Further, he dares hint that society might function better without these fanatics.”

As Finn and Couvée note near the end of the text: “All these years later, in an age of terror, drones, and targeted killing, the CIA’s faith — and the Soviet Union’s faith — in the power of literature to transform society seem almost quaint.”

The process of ending the Cold War required another three decades, but The Zhivago Affair offers a fascinating story of one of that war’s most interesting episodes.