by Lara Prescott (2019)

If you love Doctor Zhivago, you will love this book. Add the story of the Cold War era CIA espionage used to circumvent serious Soviet obstacles to publication of Boris Pasternak’s Nobel prize-winning novel, and you’ll love Prescott’s debut book even more.

Some of us may wonder why Stalin never sent Pasternak to the gulag when he sent so many other writers, musicians, and others there or even to their deaths. While no one would ever accuse Stalin of having any soft spot, he actually did like Pasternak’s pre-Zhivago poetry enough to spare him.

However, Stalin indirectly punished Pasternak by sending his mistress/muse Olga to the gulag. She was released after serving more than 3 years of her 10-year sentence, upon which their relationship resumed. Despite the miscarriage of Pasternak’s child and years of extremely hard labor and conditions, she never betrayed him.

While Doctor Zhivago has been read and loved worldwide for more than 60 years, HOW that became possible has been revealed only recently. Prescott explains:

“In 2014, thanks to [Peter] Finn and [Petra] Couvee’s petitioning, the CIA released ninety-nine memos and reports pertaining to its secret Zhivago mission. And it was seeing the declassified documents—with their blacked-out names and details—that first inspired me to fill in the blanks with fiction.” [p. 347]

So while there is a massive amount of FACT in her book, it’s classified as FICTION.

Let’s look at the facts first. Doctor Zhivago covers the time period from 1905 to WWII. Pasternak (1890-1960) was of an age and social class that enabled him to be fully aware of events of that tumultuous period in Russia. He finished the book in 1956, but no Soviet publisher dared to publish it. Word about this reputed masterpiece spread throughout the literary world, and plots abounded as to how to get a copy of the manuscript out of the Soviet Union without endangering Pasternak.

The first publisher to be successful was the Italian Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who accepted the manuscript from Pasternak’s own hands and smuggled it out of the Soviet Union. It was first published just to get it out into the world, while many others were feverishly working to translate it into various languages.

The CIA obtained an Italian copy with the intent of helping to flood the market with a translation. However, it was decided for political reasons to disguise the true origin of those copies which were released via clandestine means to make it appear other countries were the source.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting parts of this story is WHY the CIA had such interest in flooding the market with this book with the intent of getting it into the hands of Soviet citizens. Prescott explains:

“They had their satellites [referring to the launch of Sputnik, making the Soviet Union first in the space race], but we had their books. Back then, we believed books could be weapons—that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the hearts and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game. Since its OSS roots, the Agency had doubled down on soft-propaganda warfare—using art, music, and literature to advance its objectives. The goal: to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought—how the Red State hindered, censored, and persecuted even its finest artists. The tactic: to get cultural materials into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means… The Agency became a bit of a book club with a black budget… [Zhivago] was the mission that would change everything.” [pp. 130-131]

Doctor Zhivago…was written by the Soviet’s most famous living writer, Boris Pasternak, and banned in the Eastern Bloc due to its critiques of the October Revolution and its so-called subversive nature… It had ‘great propaganda value’ for its ‘passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive, intelligent citizen.’” [p. 131; with quote from CIA internal memo]

The FICTION aspect of Prescott’s book focuses almost entirely on women of the CIA. There is certainly some truth to those characters, and Prescott has helped round them out. The women include a group of typists and two trained agents: Irina and Sally. The relationship between the latter two women evolves throughout the book and blossoms into something entirely different… but I won’t spoil it for our readers.

The one male agent who gets the most attention in the book is Teddy Helms. He describes his intent and motives:

“The Agency wanted to stack its ranks with intellectuals—those who believed in the long game of changing people’s ideology over time. And they believed books could do it. I believed books could do it. That was my job: to designate books for exploitation and help carry out their covert dissemination. It was my job to secure books that made the Soviets look bad: books they banned, books that criticized the system, books that made the United States look like a shining beacon. I wanted them to take a good hard look at a system that had allowed the State to kill off any writer, any intellectual… they disagreed with… I wanted to do it without any fingerprints.” [p. 197]

I found this book hard to put down. Prescott shed light on events that show us how just one work of art can change the world in ways never imagined. It’s well-written, not difficult to read and understand, and in my opinion, should be on the Best Books of 2019 list.

For anyone who’s interested in reading more about these events, Prescott has included a list of her sources in an informal bibliography. This is her debut offering, and frankly, I can hardly wait for her next book!

–Donna Rueff–