Among Nobel laureates for literature, Boris Pasternak has been the one with all the asterisks. At first, there was an asterisk saying “award refused,” but then it was changed to “forced to refuse.” Eventually, the Pasternak family finally posthumously accepted his rightful prize. It was a proud day for them and the CIA. The story of Pasternak’s celebrated and censored novel is chronicled in the documentary special, The Real Doctor Zhivago, directed by George Cathro, which premieres this Monday on Acorn TV.
Boris Pasternak was more Russian than vodka, borsht, or caviar. He hailed from an elite family, but he initially supported the revolution, out of sympathy for his less fortunate countrymen. Technically, Pasternak never explicitly turned against the Soviet system, but he wrote the unvarnished truth as he saw it. His epic novel Doctor Zhivago was where he recorded it all.
One of the great ironies Real Zhivago reveals is Stalin’s high regard for Pasternak’s poetry. Unbeknownst to Pasternak, the Soviet dictator interceded with his underlings several times on his behalf. Khrushchev, not so much. However, Pasternak’s found other fans, most notably the CIA, who supported the international publication of his great novel and masterminded schemes to smuggle samizdat copies back into Russia. Yet, in another supreme irony, a publisher affiliated with the Italian Communist Party was the first house to publish Doctor Zhivago in any country.
Host Stephen Smith talks extensively with Pasternak family members and relatives of his great love and editor, Olga Ivinskaya, who is widely acknowledged as the inspiration for Zhivago’s lover, Lara. We also hear from many of his surviving champions in the west, as well as several Pasternak scholars. Smith takes a little getting used to (he has the voice of gameshow host, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but he clearly did his homework, demonstrating intimate familiarity with the novel in question.
Clearly, the notion that the CIA exploited Pasternak is floated several times during RDZ, but one could argue his increased prominence also afforded him greater protection, creating a politically climate wherein it would be risky for the Soviets to make him disappear for long. Indeed, they focused most of their thuggery on Ivinskaya instead. Regardless, it is painfully obvious the CIA (as well as the VOA) were much more attuned to the geopolitical significance of art and culture in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now.