Books of 2016: The Zhivago Affair

It’s the season of new year resolutions, that shimmering moment in time when you’re convinced that this year, it’ll be different. This time, you won’t just resolve, you will do; you will conquer; you will prevail over the universe that is intent upon distracting you. It was in that spirit that I remember vowing to do all sorts of insane things in the past, like posting regularly on this blog. But let’s not look back in anger. Let’s look ahead (she said loftily).

A few days ago, someone I bumped into at a gathering told me that this year, they had vowed to take on a hashtag. This one to be precise: #100bookspact. This, like its sari equivalent, is a challenge to read 100 books in 365 days, which basically means about three and a half days to read a book. I didn’t do the maths. I was presented with the equation. My only contribution to the conversation was, “It doesn’t really seem that much, does it?”

Apparently, I’m delusional. So I’ve decided that I’m going to try and keep count of the books I read this year. Not the books that I have to read for work or research, but books that I read for fun. The titles won’t all be new. In fact, I suspect most will be old. The older I get, the more I want to revisit books, like the one below. The bigger challenge may well be remembering to jot down a post each time I’ve finished a book. But let’s see. Maybe I’ve overestimated my reading skills and underestimated by ability to keep a record.

Here beginneth… .

Book one: The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

I confess, I’m not among those who is a fan of The Zhivago Affair. The book bored me and the film made me roll my eyes. The only bit of Doctor Zhivago that was dear to me was one that had nothing to do with poet and novelist Boris Pasternak: the melody of “Lara’s Theme”, which I played again and again and again as a kid.

Fortunately, The Zhivago Affair isn’t about what happens in Doctor Zhivago. It’s the story of how it was written, published and the way it changed the lives of those who were involved in it. It turns out that in the 1960s, books were an important part of the CIA’s campaign against Soviet Communism. The basic objective was to make Russians question the establishment that ruled them. A little doubt could snowball into a revolution, the Americans believed. It would take time, but the prevailing belief was that it was with culture — books, movies, music, dance and so on — that the Cold War would be won.

In The Zhivago Affair, Finn and Couvée write about how the CIA set up publishing houses, helped distribute books that were banned in Soviet Russia to Russians, and bootlegged copies. Doctor Zhivago was a book that the CIA was rather desperate to promote. It was considered one of the most heretical works of its time because Pasternak had nothing good to say about the Russia around him.

There’s something nostalgic about this battle being waged on a cultural arena. It’s not just that it feels more elegant and well-behaved than, for instance, a military expedition or a drone. There’s an innate faith in people’s humanity, the fact that they are sentient and have feelings, and in their ability to be manipulated. The CIA knew that Soviet Russia was full of disappointment and fear. There was scarcity, lawlessness and violence. People were executed on the basis of suspicion and whimsy during the ‘purges’. There was enough discontent. All the CIA needed to do was fan the flames, and it did, using books like Doctor Zhivago.

Of course the minor detail that Finn and Couvee don’t discuss is the fact that Doctor Zhivago was a work that was made more luminous than it actually is by the politics that surrounded it. That, of course, is the central problem with propaganda, whether it’s being done by the side you support or those you oppose — artistic quality is not the reason a work of art is picked up by those interested in using culture as a weapon. If it happens to be good in an artistic sense, that’s just a bonus.

ZhivagoAffairHad the Soviet establishment not tried to stamp it out, had it not attempted to browbeat Pasternak into not publishing the novel, chances are Doctor Zhivago would have languished like the works of so many writers whose works are timely rather than timeless. But the government did persecute Pasternak. Aside from threats to his family and friends, Doctor Zhivago was roundly attacked in Soviet media and when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel, he was forced to decline. Pasternak vehemently denied any involvement with the West all his life and that, as far as Finn and Couvée can tell, seems to be true. However, considering how eagerly CIA promoted Doctor Zhivago, that doesn’t mean the Soviet commentators were off-course when they insisted the praise in the West for Doctor Zhivago was motivated by politics.

Reading about the CIA’s past attempts at wooing people over to the capitalist side and the cultural campaigns they embarked upon, I couldn’t help but feel a chill run down my spine. Their tactics reminded me of how ISIS is recruiting volunteers. These tactics worked for the CIA in the past. They seem to be working well enough for ISIS now.

Less chilling and equally fascinating is Pasternak’s life. He was married twice and his second wife had been his best friend’s wife. Then, while remaining married to his second wife, Pasternak sustained a long-standing relationship with Olga Ivinskaya, who was his lover as well as his agent, confidante and the inspiration for Lara in Doctor Zhivago. Ivinskaya would be arrested and questioned repeatedly because of her closeness to Pasternak. She survived two stints in labour camps, one of them in Siberia. Pasternak, in comparison, got off rather lightly. He just moped around in his dacha, from the look of things.

The Zhivago Affair is taut, pacy and set in a fascinating time. I suspect those who haven’t attempted Doctor Zhivago may well be tempted to read it. Finn and Couvée do a good job of describing the times in which all this drama unfolded and the semi-privileged life that writers and poets had in Soviet Russia. For all its harshness and constraints, it had its charms — it feels almost like science fiction to read the passages where Finn and Couvée quote Soviet leaders talking about the importance of literature in building a society.

The Zhivago Affair, Rs 699. Ivinskaya’s memoirs are titled A Captive of Time: My Years with Pasternak.

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