Lara Prescott’s sparkling debut novel is based on one of the Cold War’s strangest stories: a covert operation to spread a banned book across the Soviet Union.
When I taught American literature at a Soviet university in 1980, I managed to bring along some books that were banned by the Kremlin: Catch-22, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Slaughterhouse-Five. I passed the limited copies on to my students, who would stay up all night reading in order to hand them off to a classmate in the morning. Reading material was so precious that a month-old copy of Newsweek was hoarded as a treasure. By contrast, many of my students in Texas could read anything, but—even before the advent of the internet and its distractions—preferred to read little. It reminded me of something Philip Roth said after returning from a trip to Prague in 1984, when the Czech Republic was still controlled by a Communist regime: “There nothing goes and everything matters; here everything goes and nothing matters.”
Despots suppress literature, a tacit acknowledgement of the power of stories. During the Cold War, the CIA took the opposite approach. From 1950 to 1991, it clandestinely dispersed as many as 10 million books—literary time bombs—throughout the Soviet bloc. And the agency orchestrated one of the oddest operations of the Cold War: the secret publication and distribution of Doctor Zhivago in Russia.
The story of Doctor Zhivago is familiar to many who saw the acclaimed 1965 film adaptation starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, but the novel’s journey to publication is its own epic. Russian author Boris Pasternak wrote the book in 1956, but given its criticism of the Soviet regime, no one in Russia would publish it. He eventually had the manuscript smuggled out of the country, and an Italian imprint released it to the world in 1957. The CIA, recognizing the potency of Pasternak’s work, printed a small, easily smuggled paperback edition in the original Russian and disseminated it into that country in 1959. This strange story is the basis for The Secrets We Kept, a spellbinding debut novel from Lara Prescott, a graduate of the University of Texas’ Michener Center for Writers and a resident of Austin.
Prescott (who was named after Lara Antipova, Doctor Zhivago’s heroine) reimagines the episode mostly through the eyes of Irina Drozdova and Sally Forrester, two CIA typists who find themselves on this strange information warfare assignment. The structure of The Secrets We Kept observes a fine symmetry, crosscutting between two sections labeled “East” and “West.” In “East,” Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s friend and lover, recounts her complicated relationship with the author, her harrowing ordeal in a Soviet prison camp, the worldwide success of Doctor Zhivago in translation, and the painful consequences for its author and his muse.
Simultaneously, “West” follows the women and men of the CIA Soviet Russia Division in their personal intrigues and machinations to place Pasternak’s banned novel before Russian eyes. Both sections are full of compelling prose, but, because the CIA activity was declassified only recently, “West” is fresher. The symmetry extends to a sort of meta-device: The novel begins and ends with the collective voice of the typists—bright, talented women who sometimes know more than the men they work for, serving as a Greek chorus to a heartrending drama.
At one point, a character from the typing pool says, “Doctor Zhivago is both a war story and love story. But years later, it was the love story we remembered most.” The same could be said about The Secrets We Kept, which depicts cultural warfare between two nuclear superpowers while also focusing most vividly on two sets of lovers: Pasternak and Ivinskaya, and Drozdova and Forrester. Drozdova, born in America to an émigré mother after her father vanished into Lubyanka Prison, applies for a typist’s position at the CIA and ends up a clandestine courier. One of her assignments is to disguise herself as a nun and hand out copies of Doctor Zhivago at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair, sowing “seeds of dissent planted within a smuggled book.” Drozdova is trained in her task by Forrester, a beautiful, flamboyant, and unpredictable veteran spy. The love that develops between them is as taboo in the repressive, homophobic America of the 1950s as writing a novel with a jaundiced view of the Revolution is in Russia.
The successful launch of Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, in 1957 was a spectacular propaganda coup for the Soviet Union. The CIA struck back with what today would seem a quaint and feeble weapon: a book. “They had their satellites,” observe the women of the typing pool, “but we had their books.”
Books—Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, The Communist Manifesto, On the Origin of Species, the Bible, the Quran—once did have the power to change the world. The writings of Pasternak, Andrei Sakharov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn played as critical a role in the dissolution of the USSR as any American missile. Prescott’s novel, shaped by a central intelligence of its own, is a bittersweet reminder of a world in which eloquent books like hers still counted.
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