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A familiar Russian playbook

Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony of receiving credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscow, June 27, 2014.
RIA Novosti | REUTERS
Russia's President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony of receiving credentials from foreign ambassadors at the Kremlin in Moscow, June 27, 2014.
Posted June 30, 2014, at 11:19 a.m.

In fall 1958, when Russian author Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, the Soviet regime unleashed a campaign of vilification against their native son so brutal that it drove the author, then 68, to contemplate suicide.

Pasternak’s crime was to have written a novel, “Dr. Zhivago,” that did not glorify the Bolshevik Revolution — and to allow the book to be published abroad when Communist authorities banned it at home.

These days, Americans who remember “Dr. Zhivago” likely associate it with the 1965 movie starring Julie Christie and Omar Sharif and with the movie’s unforgettable theme song. But in its day the book was a sensation, a bestseller in the West, a scandal in the Soviet Union. The Politburo hated it not so much because it was anti-revolutionary as because it wasn’t preoccupied with ideology one way or the other. It celebrated the individual — human love and ambition, poetry and the quest for meaning — in ways the Communist Party couldn’t tolerate.

This is recalled in an immensely compelling new book, “The Zhivago Affair,” co-authored by my Post colleague Peter Finn and Petra Couvee. The book draws on previously unpublished documents, Russian and American, to richly portray the complex author (including his highly complex love life), as well as CIA efforts to get the Russian-language version of “Dr. Zhivago” into Russians’ hands.

At a moment when Kremlin authorities again are orchestrating a hate-filled propaganda campaign — this time against supposed “Nazis” and “fascists” in neighboring Ukraine — the book’s account of the smearing of Pasternak has particular resonance.

It must have taken enormous strength to spend more than a decade working on a 700-page novel — Pasternak’s first; until then, he had written only poetry — that swam against everything that was rewarded and permitted in his closed world.

“Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state and turned it loose on the world,” the American critic Edmund Wilson wrote in the New Yorker, “who did not have the courage of genius.”

Yet when Nikita Khrushchev trained the party against him, Pasternak nearly broke. “I think it’s time to leave this life, it’s too much,” he told a friend.

Pravda and other official newspapers called him a traitor, a Judas, a Nazi collaborator who should be expelled from the country or, as one fellow writer said, shot. A speech partially dictated by Khrushchev compared him unfavorably to a pig, which at least “never makes a mess where it eats or sleeps.” Friends were summoned to denounce him. In a country where writers had been routinely executed or sent to the gulag for minor sins or no sin at all, few resisted, though one threw himself out a window to his death rather than comply.

“There would be no mercy, that was clear,” a friend wrote in his diary.

Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin, having ended Russia’s brief experiment with democracy and press freedom, is leading a similar campaign, this time to justify his aggression in Ukraine and undermine that country’s effort to chart an independent course. Russians cannot escape what a New York Times news article described as constant “bluster and hyperbole, . . . misinformation, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, overheated rhetoric and, occasionally, outright lies” portraying Ukrainian officials and activists as anti-Russian Nazis and warmongers. The campaign worked, at least for a time, to stoke war fever and raise Putin’s popularity.

But Pasternak’s story is a warning against drawing historical lessons too soon. The author was forced to renounce the Nobel prize, but he rallied to embark on another ambitious work, a play, before dying, at age 70, in 1960.

“You are younger than I, and you will live to see a time when people take a different view of what has happened,” he wrote one of his critics. He was right.

“That I spoke against Pasternak is my shame,” one poet later said, and even Khrushchev — deposed by fellow Politburo members in 1964 — said he was “truly sorry for the way [he] behaved toward Pasternak.”

“The Zhivago Affair” also carries a useful reminder that public opinion can be difficult to assess in countries where the government, like the Politburo then and Putin today, rules through fear.

Virtually no one dared defend Pasternak when the Kremlin declared him an enemy. But when he died, uncelebrated in the official press, notes disclosing the date and time of his burial began appearing, handwritten and taped to the wall, in the Moscow station from which trains departed to Pasternak’s village.

“When they were torn down by the police, new ones took their place,” Finn and Couvee write. And when Pasternak’s friends and relatives emerged from his house, carrying his casket on the way to a nearby cemetery, thousands of Russians were waiting outside, ignoring the intimidating presence of KGB agents, determined to pay their respects.

Fred Hiatt is the editorial page editor at The Washington Post.

 

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