52° Good Morning
52° Good Morning

Excerpt from 'The Zhivago Affair'

"The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book" by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee (Pantheon, June 2014). Credit: Pantheon

On May 20, 1956, two men took the suburban electric train from Moscow's Kiev station to the village of Peredelkino, a thirty-minute ride southwest of the city. It was a blue-sky Sunday morning. Spring had pushed the last of the snow away just the previous month, and the air was sweet with the scent of blooming lilac. Vladlen Vladimirsky, easily the bigger of the two, had bright blond hair and wore the billowing pants and double-breasted jacket favored by most Soviet officials. His slender companion was clearly a foreigner -- Russians teased the man that he was a stilyaga, or "style maven," because of his Western clothing. Sergio D'Angelo also had the kind of quick smile that was uncommon in a country where circumspection was ingrained. The Italian was in Peredelkino to charm a poet.

The previous month D'Angelo, an Italian Communist working at Radio Moscow, read a brief cultural news item noting the imminent publication of a first novel by the Russian poet Boris Pasternak. The two-sentence bulletin told him little except that Pasternak's book promised to be another Russian epic. The novel was called "Doctor Zhivago."

Before leaving Italy, D'Angelo had agreed to scout out new Soviet literature for a young publishing house in Milan that had been established by a party loyalist, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Getting the rights to a first novel by one of Russia's best-known poets would be a major coup both for himself and the new publishing concern. He wrote a letter to an editor in Milan in late April, and before receiving a reply asked Vladimirsky, a colleague at Radio Moscow, to set up a meeting with Pasternak.

Peredelkino was a writers' colony built on the former estate of a Russian nobleman. Set down amid virgin pine, lime trees, cedars, and larches, it was created in 1934 to reward the Soviet Union's most prominent authors with a retreat that provided escape from their apartments in the city. About fifty country homes, or dachas, were built on large lots on 250 acres. Writers shared the village with peasants who lived in wooden huts -- the women wore kerchiefs and men rode on horse-drawn sleds.

Some of the biggest names in Soviet letters lived in Peredelkino -- the novelists Konstantin Fedin and Vsevolod Ivanov lived on either side of Pasternak. Kornei Chukovsky, the Soviet Union's most beloved children's-book writer, lived a couple of streets away as did the literary critic Viktor Shklovsky. As idyllic as it looked, the village was haunted by its dead, those executed by the state during the Great Terror of the late 1930s -- the writers Isaak Babel and Boris Pilnyak were both arrested at their dachas in Peredelkino. Their homes were handed off to other writers.

According to village lore, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had asked Maxim Gorky, the father of Soviet literature and one of the founders of the socialist-realist school of writing, how his counterparts in the West lived. When Gorky said they lived in villas, Peredelkino was ordered up by Stalin. Legend or not, writers were a privileged caste. They were organized into the nearly four-thousand -- strong Union of Soviet Writers, and lavished with perks unimaginable for ordinary Soviet citizens, who often lived in tiny spaces and suffered through long lines for basic goods. "Entrapping writers within a cocoon of comforts, surrounding them with a network of spies" was how Chukovsky described the system.

Novels, plays, and poems were seen as critical instruments of mass propaganda that would help lead the masses to socialism. Stalin expected his authors to produce fictional or poetic celebrations of the Communist state, the story lines full of muscular progress in the factories and the fields. In 1932, during a meeting with writers at Gorky's home, Stalin launched the new literature with a toast: "The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks. ... Here someone correctly said that a writer must not sit still, that a writer must know the life of a country. And that is correct. Man is remade by life itself. But you, too, will assist in remaking his soul. This is important, the production of souls. And that is why I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul."

After leaving the train station, D'Angelo and Vladimirsky passed the walled summer residence of the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. They crossed a stream by a graveyard and walked along roads that were still a little muddy before turning onto Pavlenko Street, the narrow lane at the edge of the village where Pasternak lived. D'Angelo was unsure what to expect. He knew from his research that Pasternak was esteemed as a supremely gifted poet and was praised by scholars in the West as someone who stood out brightly in the stolid world of Soviet letters. But D'Angelo had never actually read anything by him. Within the Soviet establishment, recognition of Pasternak's talent was tempered by doubts about his political commitment, and for long periods original work by the poet was not published. He earned a living as a translator of foreign literature, becoming one of the premier Russian interpreters of Shakespeare's plays and Goethe's "Faust."

Pasternak's dacha, emerging from stands of fir and birch, was a chocolate-brown, two-story building with bay windows and a veranda; it reminded some visitors of an American timber-frame house. As D'Angelo arrived at the wooden gate, the sixty-six-year-old writer, in Wellington boots and homespun pants and jacket, was working in his front garden, where the family had a vegetable patch among the fruit trees, bushes, and flowers. Pasternak was a physically arresting man, remarkably youthful, with an elongated face that seemed sculpted from stone, full sensuous lips, and lively chestnut eyes. The poet Marina Tsvetaeva said he looked like an Arab and his horse. A visitor to Peredelkino noted that he could pause at certain moments as if recognizing the impact "of his own extraordinary face ... half closing his slanted brown eyes, turning his head away, reminiscent of a horse balking."

Pasternak greeted his visitors with firm handshakes. His smile was exuberant, almost childlike. Pasternak enjoyed the company of foreigners, a distinct pleasure in the Soviet Union, which only began to open up to outsiders after the death of Stalin in 1953. Another Western visitor to Peredelkino that summer, the Oxford don Isaiah Berlin, said the experience of conversing with writers there was "like speaking to the victims of shipwreck on a desert island, cut off for decades from civilization -- all they heard they received as new, exciting and delightful."

The three men sat outside on two wooden benches set at right angles in the garden, and Pasternak took some delight in Sergio's last name, stretching it out in his low droning voice with its slightly nasal timbre. He asked about the name's origin. Byzantine, said D'Angelo, but very common in Italy. The poet talked at length about his one trip to Italy when he was a twenty-two-year-old philosophy student at the University of Marburg in Germany in the summer of 1912. Traveling in a fourth-class train carriage, he had visited Venice and Florence but had run out of money before he could get to Rome. He had written memorably of Italy in an autobiographical sketch, including a sleepy half-day in Milan just after he arrived. He remembered approaching the city's cathedral, seeing it from various angles as he came closer, and "like a melting glacier it grew up again and again on the deep blue perpendicular of the August heat and seemed to nourish the innumerable Milan cafes with ice and water. When at last a narrow platform placed me at its foot and I craned my head, it slid into me with the whole choral murmur of its pillars and turrets, like a plug of snow down the jointed column of a drainpipe."

Forty-five years later, Pasternak would become bound to Milan. Just a short distance away from the cathedral, through the glass-vaulted Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and past La Scala, was Via Andegari. At number 6 was the office of Feltrinelli, the man who would defy the Soviet Union and first publish "Doctor Zhivago."

From "The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book," by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée. Copyright © by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée. Published by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House LLC.

More Entertainment