Friday, 20 June 2014

Pasternak Bound

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a 'shop' in Pimlico where visitors to - and from, if they were daring - the USSR could select free of charge any number of books, largely Russian poetry, fiction and history banned by the Soviets, as long as they promised to distribute them to Soviet citizens. The books were often intercepted by customs, but corruption was then no less widespread than today and confiscated books would soon be selling on the black markets of Leningrad and Moscow. Not just the distribution but the publication and, often, the editing of this material, which shaped the minds of Soviet dissidents (and diplomats), was down to the CIA. The Soviet authorities were thus pushed into producing their own editions of the work of poets such as Nikolai Zabolotsky and Osip Mandelstam, whom they would rather have consigned to oblivion. The CIA's use of 'soft power', subsidising Russian-language journals and publishers in the USA, Germany and France, as well as providing an outlet for tamizdat ('publish over there') literature and for writings that had fallen foul of changes in the Party line, is more than enough to expiate its mistakes and sins.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée have had access to the files that show how the CIA secured publication of the Russian text of Boris Pasternak's novel Dr Zhivago. (Why the CIA doesn't proudly declassify all files on its defence of Russian literature, I do not understand.) The CIA, naturally, got some things wrong: Pasternak's text was printed from an uncorrected draft, and one of the printers chosen failed to conceal the CIA's involvement, putting Pasternak in even greater danger.

The Russian files dealing with the Zhivago affair are, perversely, more accessible, although they show the Party, the KGB, the Writer's Union and Nikita Khrushchev acting with great stupidity. (When Khrushchev, ousted from power, found time to read the novel, he declared that he could see no reason to ban it.) Pasternak had, ever since the false dawn that deceived many Soviet intellectuals during the Second World War, when church bells rang and English magazines circulated, been childishly frank about the existence and tenor of his novel, with its ambivalence towards the Bolshevik revolution and Soviet values. The secret police were well placed to take action; so many fellow writers had been shown excerpts from the novel that the police must have been swamped with denunciations.

The Soviets' miscalculation was to think that Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian communist to whom Pasternak had entrusted his manuscript, would obey instructions from the Party not to publish. An Italian communist was a loose cannon, particularly if he was also a publisher with the world's most notorious manuscript in his hands, and he published the novel in Italian in November 1957. The CIA, recognising the value of the novel, soon arranged for it to be published and distributed in Russian.

Feltrinelli and a cabal of European translators and publishers, together with the CIA and the Nobel Committee, combine to make an often farcical plot, as they try with maximum speed and with the appearance of maximum innocence to put Pasternak's text to the public and yet ensure his inviolability. The author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1958, but rejected it under pressure from the Soviet government. The drama that unfolded in Moscow, meanwhile, shows a vindictiveness that did the Soviet image as much harm as the invasion of Hungary two months earlier, but brought it not the slightest political benefit. The Soviet authorities used Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak's mistress, both as a hostage and as a lever and turned his fellow writers, even those who professed love and admiration for him, into a pack of baying jackals.

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