The Zhivago Affair

The Zhivago Affair

“Oh, what a love it was, utterly free, unique, like nothing else on earth! Their thoughts were like other people’s songs.”

 Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago


Words hold power.

A story is more powerful.

That was my thought as I read, “The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book”  by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée.

I confess that when I first read Doctor Zhivago and watched Omar Sharif fall desperately in love with Julie Christie, all I was interested in was the love story.  I was young and unfamiliar with the traumatic events of the time in which the narrative was positioned.  I knew that there was some conflict, but, in my view, it was dramatic background material that served to move the characters around a stage.

The Zhivago Affair sent me scurrying back to reread parts of the original novel.  My eyes were opened.  Indeed, there was a passionate and profoundly moving love story – one that I had missed completely.   That is, the love of Boris Pasternak for his beloved Russia.  Boris Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago, knowing that his life was in danger.

“You are hereby invited,” he said, “to my execution.” Boris Pasternak

The Zhivago Affair is a page-turner.  It’s complex, exciting, poignant.   Peter Finn and Petra Couvée have crafted an extraordinary account of how a book can be used by powerful nations to wage political battles and influence the course of history. The reviews have been enthusiastic; descriptions include, masterful, thrilling, rich, scrupulously researched.

A word about the authors: Peter Finn is National Security Editor for The Washington Post (previously stationed in Moscow as the Post’s bureau chief); Petra Couvée is a writer and translator; she teaches at Saint Petersburg State University.

My greatest takeaway from reading The Zhivago Affair, was an understanding of Boris Pasternak’s life, his loves, his hopes and fears.

“I don’t like people who have never fallen or stumbled. Their virtue is lifeless and of little value. Life hasn’t revealed its beauty to them.”  Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

A special thank you to Elisabeth van der Meer from  A Russian Affair for rekindling my interest in Russian literature.

32 thoughts on “The Zhivago Affair

    • Happy New Year! I found this book on and note that Paolo Mancosu has a second book as well: “Zhivago’s Secret Journey: From Typescript to Book.” Thank you for this excellent find. I have never heard of Paolo Mancosu before so am looking forward to exploring his work. And thank you for connecting. Here’s to the many conversations that will happen in 2017.

      Liked by 1 person

    • You mother will find this book fascinating and add to the enjoyment of re-reading Doctor Zhivago. Boris Pasternak’s life is the best narrative of all. I was researching what makes a good story a few days ago. One of the definitions was from the American Press Institute that I think you would find interesting.”A good story is about something the audience decides is interesting or important.” The key rests with the storyteller. Boris Pasternak is a marvelous storyteller. It’s times like this that I wish I knew the Russian language so that I could read his poetry. Have a wonderful day – thank you for your comments. Hugs.

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      • Hugging back. It’s Friday already – the week has flown by! That definition of a good story is true and I would add that the reader must feel a connection to the character (in other words, the reader must care about the main character in some way). Does that make sense?

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      • It makes perfect sense!!! Thank you for the insightful addition. Rain, Rain, Rain and more rain. I love this kind of weather. Just started reading “The Black Count” the biography of Alexandre Dumas’ father, the inspiration for all of his marvelous adventures.


    • If I had a choice of whether to read Doctor Zhivago or The Zhivago Affair first, I would have to give the matter considerable thought. I find that every novel has the author’s DNA embedded in the pages. If I read Doctor Zhivago first, then I would have the immediate connection with Boris Pasternak. If I read The Zhivago Affair first, I would view his life through the lens of third parties, but I would have the advantage of the historical background. Hmmm – something to think about.


  1. I remember when this book was published. Your father and I had married in 1951, and had spent some time in Brazil, which gave us a glimpse of another culture. This book, for some reason, was considered difficult reading. I think, because beside the love story, it presented some thoughts that were very foreign and difficult for us, as North American citizens, to grasp. I must read it again–I wish time were not at such a premium.

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    • I share your concern about time being at a premium. The question how to balance a reading schedule with other activities in life has always been perplexing to me. I think that is why I enjoy reading an audio-book when I go for a walk. Reading authors from different cultures is an excellent way in which to become familiar with their view of the world. Speaking of Brazil, I enjoyed Paulo Coelho de Souza’s novel, The Alchemist, immensely (suggested to me by Brian). This is one of my favorite quotes from “The Alchemist”:”When we love, we always strive to become better than we are. When we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better too.” Many hugs and thanks!!!


  2. Oh Becky, another wonderful book on which you have shone such sparkling light. Dr Zhivago is perhaps my favourite all time film. And I read the book once, but like you, was really only interested in the film’s story. Can’t wait to go back to it now, with the inspiration of your post – after, of course, reading and being informed by The Zhivago Affair!! Sending love and many hugs xxx

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    • This is your kind of book, Liz!! There is intrigue, pathos, celebrations and tragedies. Boris Pasternak’s life reads like a Russian novel, including all the marvelously dramatic Russian names. Can you imagine the setting of the 1958 Expo in Brussels that drew 40 million visitors (many from the Soviet Union). All was quiet at the American and Soviet pavilions. It was the Vatican pavilion that had the action. Priests and Catholic activists were handing out copies of Doctor Zhivago enclosed in blue linen covers. Doesn’t that pique your interest?!! Ah Liz, so many books and so little time!! And to think that, when I was very young, I worried that I would run out of Nancy Drew mystery books. Many hugs and love coming across the pond.

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      • So nice, Rebecca, I didn’t even know you had this blog! The Zhivago Affair was in fact my inspiration for starting a blog about Russian literature; I saw it in the window of the bookshop two years ago, bought it, read it, and I enjoyed it so much. It really does make the books more interesting and enjoyable if you know more about their background. And so the circle is round again;-)
        Sunny greetings from Holland, where Doctor Zhivago was first printed in 1958!

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      • I am so glad that we connected. You have given me great insight into Russian literature, something to which I had only given cursory attention. The more I read, the more I recognize time constraints and that choosing reading material must become more strategic. I have found that one conversation, one serendipitous event can lead me on a new path of discovery. I was very interested to learn that it was “The Zhivago Affair” that was your inspiration for starting your blog! It is indeed round circle! As Boris Pasternak once wrote, “Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people, and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.” Many thanks and hugs coming your way!!!

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