Monday, September 25, 2017

The Zhivago Affair

I seldom analyze the types of sources I rely upon to learn about Russian history.   This is probably a mistake.  The sources of one’s knowledge are important, perhaps as important as the content these sources reveal.  In general, I rely upon non-academic press books rather than academic monographs to teach me about the Russian past. I spend still less time on scholarly articles or popular press articles.  I also tend to read history or memoir, as opposed to fiction.  In fact, I recently thought about why I read so-called classic fiction as opposed to current fiction, and realized that I probably approach literature as an historian.  In other words, I prefer older works precisely because they can be treated as primary sources rather than consumed as works of imagination.  This tendency to look upon a novel as an historical artifact no doubt reveals a poverty of creative or imaginative insight on my part.  Nevertheless, it’s helpful to take a step back and think about why one chose to read the books one has read. Another point of analysis is to examine the format of the books in question.  Not surprisingly, as a man in his late forties, I tend to read old-fashioned print books. I collect books, and like to mark them up in pencil, so traditional books feel right to me.  On the other hand, I have listened to quite a lot of books on CD in recent years.  Generally speaking, these books are not about Russian, since my local libraries don’t maintain specialized collections.  But now and again, I pick up a book about Russian and listen to that book.  I’ve read a biography of Catherine the Great and tried to reread Anna Karenina on CD for instance. 

Reading books on CD can be difficult.  One gets distracted, and loses one’s place.  I find that I can follow history better than fiction, since I tend to know enough about historical events to make up for any momentary distractions on the road.  I have also tried Russian history and literature in podcast format, and on video, but with a few notable exceptions, I have not found enough there to sustain me.  Recently, I have overcome my technological backwardness to do Russian books on Hoopla too.  So far, so good. I am often distracted, and sometimes wonder whether I haven’t read my Hoopla books too quickly, or too superficially.  However, Hoopla saves me some money, and allows me to “read” when I’m cooking, washing dishes, driving, or walking. 

My first Hoopla book was the Zhivago Affair:  The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.  The book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, chronicles one of the most famous incidents in modern Russian literary history, Pasternak’s controversial publication of Dr. Zhivago overseas.  The affair is relatively well-known to Russophiles, but Finn and Couvee have done an excellent job of describing the context of the event.  Clearly, the two authors think the publication of Zhivago reveals a great deal about post-Stalinist Soviet history, and post-Stalinist literary culture in particular.  The book's plot reveals that at least some Soviet intellectuals were able to rethink even the foundational events of the Soviet state, i.e., the Revolution and the Civil War.  The book's negative reception by Soviet publishers reveals how difficult it was for independent thinkers to get anything into print long after Stalin's death.

For me, The Zhivago Affair is primarily about fear.  The creation of the book reveals to Soviet and foreign readers alike that Soviet culture had somehow failed to crush Pasternak’s spirit.  However, its dismal reception by the Soviet literary establishment also reveals the extent to which fear and cowardice continued to permeate the Soviet intellectual world long after Stalin had disappeared from the scene.  People remembered what had happened to their friends and family under Stalin and went out of their way to be sure they were not in any way associated with Pasternak when he fell afoul of the authorities with Dr. Zhivago.  The book also demonstrates the extent to which Dr. Zhivago really did get picked up by American Cold Warriors—the CIA in particular—but the point of the Zhivago Affair is more about the lasting damage Stalinism did even when the Soviet people had re-entered vegetarian times. 

Again, reading The Zhivago Affair on Hoopla helped me read the book quickly, but I certainly wonder whether I wouldn't have retained more by encountering the print version.  Sometimes readers are forced to make a trade off between the quantity and quality of the reading they intend to do.  In this case, my sense of the book was definitely shaped by the audio experience.  I felt as if I had encountered the book in snapshots, with less continuity than I normally experience.  Looking back at my reading experience, I remember the authors' portrayal of Pasternak's famous phone call(s) to Stalin, their description of Pasternak's state-funded home and close circle of family (two primary companions) and friends (Akhmatova, Lydia C., etc.), their portrayal of complicated Italian, Swedish,  Russian, and American literary intrigues, their illustration of Pasternak's translation work (Shakespeare, etc.), their depiction of Pasternak's isolation, and their portrait of Pasternak's famous funeral.  Hoopla perhaps robbed me of the storyline but not the images of Pasternak's independence, creative integrity, and complicated and sometimes heroic relationship with an authoritarian regime.

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