At the top of my reading pile these days is The Zhivago Affair, the tale of how Russian author Boris Pasternak came to write the novel Dr. Zhivago, how he came to have the novel first published in 1957 in Italy (to the absolute dismay and anger of Soviet authorities who wanted it not to be published at all), and how the United States’ CIA used the novel as an anti-Soviet tool.
I’m about halfway through the book, written by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, and I find it fascinating, as I do many books, movies and pieces of music that have any connection with Russia. That fascination has endured for many years, built on a number of things, including (but likely not limited to) watching and reading the news of the Cold War centered on Moscow and Washington during my childhood; playing the many pieces of Russian and Eastern European music that my orchestra director at St. Cloud Tech High School selected for our repertoire; seeing the 1965 film version of Dr. Zhivago not long after it came out; spending six days in 1973 in Moscow and the city that was then called Leningrad (now called St. Petersburg, as it was at its founding in 1703); and learning (and watching as an adult) the arc of Russian history from ambitious empire to Soviet linchpin to chaotic democracy to today’s authoritarian state.
When that fascination was developing, in the late 1960s, I tried to read Pasternak’s novel and found it confusing and not a little boring. For years, as an adult, I had a leather-bound copy of the novel on my shelf and never read it. That copy is gone now; I evidently sold it during the lean years of the late 1990s. And as I read The Zhivago Affair, I’m tempted to try Dr. Zhivago once again. I’ll also likely take another look at the David Lean film. I ordered it several years ago from Netflix but for some reason never finished watching it; what I did see confirmed my long-standing impression of it as sprawling but likely easier to digest than the novel itself.
With the movie, of course, comes the music: Maurice Jarre’s soundtrack, for which he won a deserved Academy Award. During recent late evenings, I’ve been using the expanded version of the soundtrack as background music for The Zhivago Affair just as I once used Tchaikovsky’s music – including, of course, the “1812 Overture” – for a long-abandoned reading of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Another book I need to try again, I guess.) Jarre’s themes and motifs echo Russian music; the real thing also comes out of the speakers here frequently, from Tchaikovsky to Borodin to Glinka to a scavenged collection of maybe 300 Russian folk songs and the two-CD set The Best of the Red Army Choir.
The listening is easy. Reading, of course, takes more time (and sometimes much more effort). There are Russian books beyond Tolstoy’s masterpiece that I need to read, including a copy of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment that was signed and dated by my dad in 1948. And I need to accelerate my reading of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, at which I’ve been poking for years. (Fortunately, Solzhenitsyn’s account of the Soviet forced labor camps – and of the various government agencies that sent millions to those camps – is more anecdotal than narrative, so reading bits and pieces at a time is an approach that seems to work.)
So is this fascination of mine with things Russian – especially with the period from, oh, 1900 through 1950 – just a historical interest? I don’t think so. It feels deeper than that, like the grip that Stonehenge has had on me over the years. I think that the soul I carry through this life – or that carries me, more fittingly – knows Russia well. That’s all I can say. Would I like to be able to say more? Well, yes, but the best I can do is guess at this point. And beyond indulging in a little bit of supposition over a beer with friends, I’m better off finishing The Zhivago Affair and then turning my attention to other works that might enlighten me, helping me to know (once again, I think) the history and culture of a place that seems so alien and yet so familiar.
Here’s Maurice Jarre’s “Main Title” from the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago.