Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2014.
Tonianne Bellomo, on behalf of the The School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Petra Couvee and Peter Finn about their book The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book , which is among five finalists in the category of Nonfiction for the 2014 NBCC awards.
Tonianne Bellomo: Why was it important to get this story onto paper?
Petra Couvee & Peter Finn: Our goal was to create as rich and textured a story as possible, one where the reader feels transported to another time. We both saw so many elements: the power of literature, the Cultural Cold War, censorship, and romance. There was a wealth of new material that had emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union, including the records of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, as well as dairies, memoirs and letters. We also wanted to bring something new to the story by obtaining the CIA records on its involvement in the secret publication of Russian editions of Doctor Zhivago. Our research took us to several European countries as well as Russia and we spoke to those who knew Pasternak when the events of 1957 and 1958 were unfolding.
TB: Pasternak's world and Stalin's control of writers seems almost surreal to an audience living in a world that allows them to broadcast revolutions and rallies on social media sites without going through government barricades. How relevant is Pasternak's story today, particularly in a society almost dominated by the ideas and customs of a younger generation so unused to the idea of censorship and fear to speak one's mind?
PC & PF: Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, including in Russia, censorship is very real. Those who speak out on LGBT issues in Russia can be repressed under so-called gay propaganda laws. Members of Pussy Riot were sent to prison for two years for a brief protest performance in a cathedral. Filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose recent work "Leviathan" was lauded by international critics, has been dismissed by the Russian establishment, as Pasternak was, as a Western stooge. And that’s just Russia. In 2014, PEN International, an organization that defends freedom of speech [for writers], documented hundreds of cases of persecution against writers. In the last month, a secular blogger was hacked to death after leaving a book fair in Bangladesh. And PEN has noted, “citizens in many countries have faced severe reactions in their access to and use of digital media, while governments have exploited digital technologies to suppress freedom of expression.” Governments still prop up writers and artists who support the status quo and criminalize artists considered oppositional. We think Pasternak’s story, bravery and his commitment to the artist’s right to free expression couldn't be more topical.
TB: Art is used as a weapon in the world that you are writing about. Do you believe that art, any form of it, can be autonomous from political or social agendas or do you think it will always be a tool for a greater purpose? And should it ever be just art?
PC & PF: In Pasternak’s day, art was a critical tool of mass propaganda. Stalin saw writers as “engineers of the soul,” those who would help build a new society by cultivating and educating the masses. Socialist realism, as it was called, was part of a national political project. Many of those who opposed this ideological straitjacket, including Pasternak, believed in the autonomy of the artist and individual expression. Their reaction was also political; they recoiled from the prevailing ideology.
TB: Pasternak, at times, comes across as a pseudo-mythological figure, a sort of epic hero replete with hubris and love affairs. Yet, you were able to temper that with commentary that shows his very human side, showing his leanings towards narcissism. How important was it to you to sketch a human portrait of Pasternak versus just eulogizing him?
PC & PF: Pasternak is at the very center of our story. He was a magnificent poet and writer, a courageous, lone and authentic voice. We strove to write him as both artist and human, someone who would emerge from the pages as a complex figure that the reader could recognize. We drew upon diaries, letters, memoirs and interviews to capture his character and times. And we tried to make all our characters multi-dimensional, including those who pilloried Pasternak and could so easily have been caricatured.
TB: What was the research process like? Were there road blocks and, if so, how did you get around them?
PC & PF: The CIA documents took a long time to obtain—three years from when Peter first approached the agency about finding and declassifying whatever material it might have on the subject. It took some patience and persistence as the CIA, at first, said it was uninterested in our request. Conducting research in Russian archives also presents challenges. In the end, despite the headaches, we felt a growing excitement as the story came into focus.
TB: As a follow up to the above question, were there any moments when you thought it wasn't worth it to tell this story?
PC & PF: No, never.
TB: Compiling all the information and turning it into a readable work must have been difficult. What was the organization process like? For example, did you decide to focus on one thing and come in through that angle? Etc.
PC & PF: We figured out what that narrative arc of the story was very early and then it was a matter of breaking it down into chapters, and organizing them so we felt the story had texture and momentum while being absolutely true to the source material. We discussed what we thought was essential in great detail, wrote drafts and then rewrote them.
TB: There's an incredible balance between information and gorgeous prose. Was it a conscious choice to make the work less esoteric and more accessible to the everyday reader? And, if so, how important was that to you?
PC & PF: Yes, very much so. We wanted to write a compelling, accessible book. We wanted the general reader, someone who is not an expert on Russia, to enjoy what we thought was a great story. At the same time, we hoped that our original research and our reading of the source material would engage a more academic audience.
Peter Finn is National Security Editor for The Washington Post and previously served as the Post’s bureau chief in Moscow.
Petra Couvée is a writer and translator and teaches at Saint Petersburg State University.