In 1958, the Soviet Union stifled a major novel by a man many called “the greatest living Russian writer.” Boris Pasternak’s highly anticipated Doctor Zhivago had been suppressed by the Soviet Writers’ Union, the official Soviet literary magazines, and the official Soviet publishing house. This created an opportunity for covert assistance from the CIA, who schemed to secretly publish the book in Russian with a short publishing turnaround so it could be handed out to Russians at the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium that fall. To the degree that it could, The Paris Review hoped to leverage the controversy by seeking funding from the Congress for Cultural Freedom—which resulted in The Paris Review’s supporting role in the ongoing US/Soviet propaganda wars, and strengthening the magazine’s erstwhile ties to the CIA. When Pasternak died in the wake of the controversy, he may have sensed that he’d been used as a symbol, an instrument even, by both sides. Arguably, as a string of typos in his masterpiece suggested, he had been.
In April 1934, Pasternak saw his friend the poet Osip Mandelstam on the street. Mandelstam recited a poem mocking Stalin:
We live, deaf to the land beneath us, ten steps away no one hears our speeches. All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer, The murderer and peasant-slayer.
Olga Ivinskaya captured her lover’s response to the poetic heresy. “I didn’t hear this,” he said. “You didn’t recite it to me, because, you know, very strange and terrible things are happening now: they’ve begun to pick people up. I’m afraid the walls have ears and perhaps even these benches on the boulevard here may be able to listen and tell tales. So let’s make out that I heard nothing.”
When Mandelstam was picked up, Pasternak did his best to help him, and Stalin’s chilling order, “Isolate but preserve” led to Mandelstam’s institutionalization rather than his immediate murder.
The episode prompted an unusual, though much discussed, event. Stalin phoned up Pasternak. According to Ivinskaya, Pasternak was speechless. “He was totally unprepared for such a conversation. But then he heard his voice, the voice of Stalin, coming over the line. The Leader addressed him in a rather bluff uncouth fashion, using the familiar thou form: ‘Tell me, what are they saying in your literary circles about the arrest of Mandelstam?’” Pasternak rambled evasively. Stalin: Why didn’t you come to me instead of Bukharin? If I were a poet and a poet friend of mine were in trouble, I would do anything to help him. Pasternak: If I hadn’t tried to do something you probably never would have heard about it. Stalin: But after all he is your friend.
Playing it safe, Pasternak muttered vaguely, how “poets, like women, are always jealous of one another.” Stalin: But he’s a master, isn’t he? Pasternak: But that’s not the point. Stalin: What is then?
Pasternak sensed that Stalin—notoriously fearful of genius—was thinking of the attack poem, and changed the subject.
Pasternak: Why do you keep on about Mandelstam? I have long wanted to meet you for a serious discussion.
Stalin: About what? Pasternak: About life and death. Stalin hangs up.
Word of the conversation traveled rapidly, many believing that Pasternak had failed to muster the courage to defend his friend with conviction. But according to other accounts Mandelstam was pleased, noting, “He was quite right to say that whether I’m a master or not is beside the point.” Nadezhda Mandelstam, Osip’s wife, thought Pasternak saw the dictator as the embodiment of the age and was disappointed not to meet him after that mysterious call. Pasternak even wrote an ode to Stalin, which he published in the New Year’s Day 1936 edition of Izvestiya. Though he described the dictator as “not so much a man as action/ incarnate” and “a genius of action,” he had been terrified the first time he met the figure, who emerged from the darkness in a way that made him resemble “a crab.” Pasternak later spoke of the more flattering notes as “a sincere and one of the most intense of my endeavors . . . to think the thoughts of the era, and to live in tune with it.”
Vladimir Nabokov had a conspiracy theory about the so-called Zhivago Affair. After Pasternak’s participation in the first Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934 and the pro-Soviet International Writers’ Conference in Paris, and after his odes to Stalin in 1936, Nabokov believed that the incident “was planned by the Soviets for a single goal: to guarantee the commercial success of the novel so that the hard currency earnings could be used to finance Communist propaganda abroad.”
Events have not borne out Nabokov’s conspiracy theory. Yet Nabokov remained a skeptic toward Pasternak’s novel, describing Doctor Zhivago as “sorry . . . clumsy, trite . . . melodramatic. . .” What’s interesting about Nabokov’s theory, however, is the sense of a hidden hand influencing events from the shadows.
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