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The True Story Behind Boris Pasternak's 'Dr. Zhivago'


This program was originally broadcast in April, 2015

The year is 1956. The place is a village outside Moscow. Boris Pasternak, Russia’s greatest living poet, hands a copy of his unpublished novel “Doctor Zhivago” to an Italian book scout intent on smuggling it out of the country. Understanding the risks of his action, Pasternak reportedly comments, “You are hereby invited to my execution.”

That dramatic exchange is vividly described in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. Written by Peter Finn of the Washington Post and Petra Couvée, a writer and translator, The Zhivago Affair tells the story of Pasternak’s famous novel and the political and ideological controversies that surrounded it. A paperback edition of The Zhivago Affair is being released next week.

Among the book’s most intriguing revelations is how Doctor Zhivago became a weapon of the Cold War. In 1958, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency commissioned a Russian translation of Doctor Zhivago. While the book was officially banned inside the Soviet Union, the CIA distributed it to Russian expatriates and eventually smuggled it inside the USSR itself. Doctor Zhivago was sold on the black market and was passed hand-to-hand as fast as Soviet citizens could read it.

The book’s co-authors drew on extensive research, including recently declassified CIA files, to tell the complicated and fascinating story of a banned book and why the CIA believed it would be a powerful weapon in the ideological struggle against communism.

Peter Finn joins us to talk about The Zhivago Affair. A longtime journalist, he previously served as the Moscow bureau for the Washington Post and was named the Post’s national security editor in 2013.

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