INTERVIEW WITH PETER FINN AND PETRA COUVÉE - CO-AUTHORS OF THE PUSHKIN HOUSE PUSHKIN HOUSE PRIZE 2015 SHORTLISTED BOOK 'THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR' (HARVILL SECKER/VINTAGE BOOKS)

 

What drew you to Pasternak?

PC: I studied Russian in the Netherlands, translated poetry and became interested in Pasternak. I read him as a student and loved him as a poet. I don’t read Dr Zhivago as a page-turner. I like to dwell and reflect on it. Some parts I really love and go back to, others are a little tedious.  It’s a classic, a book that has great force. I do hope that young people will read it and keep reading it. Pasternak was so apolitical, he drove the authorities mad. He wrote as though he didn’t have an inner censor. He was truly brave. He just wrote down what he wanted to say, but by not being political he was very political.

PF: I worked for the Washington Post in Russia from 2004-08. After writing about Zhivago, I read more and more about Pasternak and became more and more engaged with the story. I’m a huge admirer of him. I find him an incredibly courageous man. He was a great artist and someone who was very aware of his own place. Some are ambivalent about Zhivago and regard as a failure. I’ve read it several times and I enjoy it each time. It’s a book that will continue to endure. Files from the Central Committee had been published. There was an incredibly rich amount of source material for what was a really wonderful story. The big unknown was what was new, what could we bring to the story apart from our engagement with the material.

PC: I studied Russian in the Netherlands, translated poetry and became interested in Pasternak. I read him as a student and loved him as a poet. I don’t read Dr Zhivago as a page-turner. I like to dwell and reflect on it. Some parts I really love and go back to, others are a little tedious.  It’s a classic, a book that has great force. I do hope that young people will read it and keep reading it. Pasternak was so apolitical, he drove the authorities mad. He wrote as though he didn’t have an inner censor. He was truly brave. He just wrote down what he wanted to say, but by not being political he was very political.

PF: I worked for the Washington Post in Russia from 2004-08. After writing about Zhivago, I read more and more about Pasternak and became more and more engaged with the story. I’m a huge admirer of him. I find him an incredibly courageous man. He was a great artist and someone who was very aware of his own place. Some are ambivalent about Zhivago and regard as a failure. I’ve read it several times and I enjoy it each time. It’s a book that will continue to endure. Files from the Central Committee had been published. There was an incredibly rich amount of source material for what was a really wonderful story. The big unknown was what was new, what could we bring to the story apart from our engagement with the material.

PF: I worked for the Washington Post in Russia from 2004-08. After writing about Zhivago, I read more and more about Pasternak and became more and more engaged with the story. I’m a huge admirer of him. I find him an incredibly courageous man. He was a great artist and someone who was very aware of his own place. Some are ambivalent about Zhivago and regard as a failure. I’ve read it several times and I enjoy it each time. It’s a book that will continue to endure. Files from the Central Committee had been published. There was an incredibly rich amount of source material for what was a really wonderful story. The big unknown was what was new, what could we bring to the story apart from our engagement with the material.

How did you end up working together on the book?

PF: When I wrote an article about him, a Dutch journalist put me in touch with Petra. We started corresponding, and I became more interested in the subject. I decided we had complementary skills. Collaborations can go horribly wrong. I know cases where two writers have ended up hating each other. In our case it worked out really well. We travelled together, Petra did some Russian archival work and I did some in the US. We had figured out the narrative arc pretty early on. Talked through what each chapter would involve. I would write, she would comment, we would re-write. It was very collaborative.

PC: It was a little strange at first because I hardly knew Peter. But we agreed on important matters. We were so taken by the story, it was easy to work together.

How did you learn about the CIA’s role in translating Zhivago into Russian?

PC: I discovered that the first Russian edition of Dr Zhivago was published in the Hague where I was brought up. I tried but failed to get access to the Dutch security archives. I wrote about it and my story was broadcast. One of the viewers happened to work for Dutch security and knew everything about it. I was introduced to him, and he requested a close look at my CV. It felt like an exam, but then he welcomed me over for tea. He told me that they did this job for the CIA which was the main initiator.

PF: The CIA had never acknowledged anything for 50 years. When I approached the agency, the first response was ‘no’. Rather than accept that, I started to speak to former CIA people in DC about the project. They spoke to people inside, in the Historical Records Division, who went to see what if anything they had. They went through their own process of redacting and declassifying the records. It took three years from when I first approached them. We got them in summer 2012. They mailed a big chunk of documents to my house. It felt terrific. There are still things we don’t know, such as the original source in Britain for the manuscript used by the CIA.

What did you learn during your research?

PC: One thing was I didn’t know how deeply the CIA was involved. I thought they simply financed the the first Russian edition, but the people who worked there were really interested in Pasternak. They had read the books and some were second generation Russians. A second point was disproving the suggestions that the pirate edition of Zhivago was produced because of a plan to get Pasternak the Nobel prize, and that there was a mole on the prize committee. We didn’t find anything like that in the CIA documents. I’m very glad that myth has been debunked. The Nobel was just a bonus. They just wanted to get the book into the Soviet Union. But a third fact is there were also few copies that made it there. I found one, in the Lenin library in Moscow.

What is your assessment of the CIA’s role?

PF: They believed the use of culture as a propaganda tool was quite effective. That’s why they poured a great deal of money into it. It is very difficult to measure what exact effect they had. In the larger debate about the cultural Cold War, I think the things they did that targeted the Soviet Union were much less controversial than what they did in western Europe. Secretly targeting democratic allies is much more questionable as a tactic.

Are there lessons for today’s Russia from the story?

PC: His work speaks to the power of literature to threaten and rattle authoritarian regimes. Living In Russia today, I feel the political mood all the time. With the sanctions, patriotism, the new nationalism and the church growing so close to the state, it looks very close to fiction. In Novosibirsk the authorities just tried to close the opera Tannhäuser because of an inappropriate use of religious symbols. I’m in shock, thought it would never happen again. My students tell me they don’t like explicit sex in books. It’s like I’m talking to my grandmother. I think Pasternak and his fight against fanatics and nationalism is very topical today.

What is the reaction in Russia to your book?

PF: We have just got a Russian publisher. If you mention the word CIA you can get a certain amount of automatic recoil. That’s inevitable. When the CIA is involved, there will always be a search for motive. When people read it, they saw nothing propagandist. Some tried to tie it somehow to what is going on in Ukraine but the chronology simply doesn’t support that.

PC: Something we are very proud of is that we will also have a mainland Chinese edition. Hardly any books about censorship get published there.

What plans do you have for another book?

PF: We’re thinking about writing another book together. I’m not going to say what before we have embarked on it.

 

Peter Finn is the National Security correspondent for The Washington Post and Petra Couvee is a writer, translator and teacher. 

Interviewed by Andrew Jack