Adam Kirsch at Tablet:
The Zhivago Affair, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, is a detailed reconstruction of one of the most fascinating of the Cold War’s cultural skirmishes. Today the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, sits placidly on the shelves of Russian classics, alongside War and Peaceand Crime and Punishment. Most people, if they know the story at all, probably know it from David Lean’s widescreen film epic, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie and the balalaika-heavy “Lara’s Theme.” But when it was published in 1957, Doctor Zhivago touched off a worldwide controversy, as the Soviet Union tried ineffectually to stop the book from appearing and then reacted with outrage when Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize. No book except The Gulag Archipelago, which Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would publish some 15 years later, caused more anguish to the Soviets during the whole Cold War.
What made Doctor Zhivago such a bitter pill for Khrushchev’s regime to swallow? Unlike Solzhenitsyn’s book, which was a head-on indictment of Soviet crimes, Pasternak’s novel was a poetic and abstract work, most of whose literary energy goes into miraculously vivid descriptions of weather and nature. Indeed, Doctor Zhivago was Pasternak’s first and only novel; before he started writing it, in 1945, he had been famous as a lyric poet and translator of Shakespeare. It was partly Pasternak’s great stature as a poet—he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times on the strength of his verse alone—that made it difficult for the Soviet leadership to deal with him. If even Stalin, in his massacre of Soviet writers, had taken care to spare Pasternak, how could Khrushchev—who was supposed to be presiding over a “thaw” in Soviet cultural life—dare to silence or jail him?