In the waning days of the Soviet Union, I spent a year in Moscow on an academic exchange, and brought along a favorite book: an English translation of Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, with the cover prudently removed.
At that time, with glasnost still somewhere over the horizon, Pasternak’s 1957 epic novel, describing the life of a stubbornly individualistic doctor-poet in the decades surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution, remained high on the list of heretical books outlawed by the Kremlin—though, like Solzhenitsyn’s writings, it had for decades been in underground circulation.
My torn paperback concealed not just a novel but a legend: a work that touched off a cultural storm with its humanistic ethos that defied the strictures of Soviet literature; that became an international best-seller long before it was allowed publication in the U.S.S.R.; that spawned one of the best-loved movies of all time; and that won Pasternak a Nobel Prize—an event that brought not honor but harrowing misfortune to the author and his circle, as the Kremlin vilified him as a traitor. Legal publication in the Soviet Union finally came in 1988, just before the fall of the regime, but more decades passed before another sensational facet of the Zhivago saga came to light.
A Nobel Prize that brought not honor but harrowing misfortune to the author and his circle.
Declassified documents confirmed longtime rumors: once Pasternak’s work had been spirited out of the Soviet Union by an Italian publisher in 1957, it was quickly obtained by the C.I.A., printed in the original Russian, with hundreds of copies smuggled back into the U.S.S.R., as a powerful ideological weapon in the agency’s notorious literary campaign to conquer Soviet hearts and minds. The Zhivago backstory has been chronicled in memoirs and histories such as Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s excellent The Zhivago Affair—but until recently no fiction was devoted to what is, arguably, one of the most dramatic passages in world literary history.
The void is now filled by Lara Prescott’s captivating female-driven thriller, The Secrets We Kept. Prescott’s debut novel has an ambitious premise: nothing less than to retrace the complex destiny of one of the most controversial books of its time, and simultaneously to unravel the feverish international maneuverings of a major Cold War intelligence operation. Prescott manages this by taking an original approach: focusing on the women in the case. Prescott’s women—the “we” of the title—are a cast of mingled historical and fictional characters located on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
The complex destiny of one of the most controversial books of its time.
In the East is Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak’s real-life mistress, literary amanuensis, and inspiration for the iconic character of Lara in Dr. Zhivago. In the West are a remarkable crew of fictional female C.I.A. employees: two agents—Sally Forrester, a whip-smart glamour girl working as a “swallow” for honeypot information gathering, and Russian-American neophyte Irina Drozdova—as well as an unusual composite character, the C.I.A. secretarial pool, comprised of a chorus of Miss Moneypenny types, who offer wry commentary on their bosses—Allen Dulles, and other big boys of espionage.
Recounted in a series of alternating monologues, Prescott’s novel covers the period in which Pasternak’s work made its circuitous way to world fame, the plot weaving between East and West in epic sweeps that rival those of the famously sweeping Dr. Zhivago. As the action moves from Washington to the eastern Russian wastelands, to Milan, to the Soviet writers’ colony at Peredelkino, to the Brussels World’s Fair, it becomes clear what a truly international affair Pasternak set into motion when he leaked his manuscript to the West.
Through Olga Ivinskaya’s eyes, we observe her symbiotic relationship with Pasternak, a passion based on unswerving devotion, though the writer never fully chose between his mistress and his wife. Ivinskaya made an inestimable contribution to Pasternak’s art, acting as his secretary, first reader, and literary agent, assuming the thankless role of conduit to the hostile Soviet authorities, who twice sent her to the Gulag because of her connection to him.
Parallel to Ivinskaya’s story, the narrative of the C.I.A. women is equally gripping, as Forrester and Drozdova play crucial parts in the Dr. Zhivago project, and we watch them hone their tradecraft, explore their sexuality, survive betrayal, and take hard looks at the deeper motives of the agency.
A passion based on unswerving devotion, though the writer never fully chose between his mistress and his wife.
Although love is a driving force in Prescott’s plot, the author’s talent for creating believable female characters, and the knowing eye she casts over the smallest details of their lives, transforms the book into something far beyond a historical romance. It becomes, in part, a perceptive exploration of women’s hearts, roles, and destinies in Eisenhower’s America and Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Without being tendentious, Prescott suggests there is a universality to female experience in that era, when women’s hard work and achievements were so often consigned to the shadows.
Early on, a C.I.A. character speaks of her love of spycraft, of “the power that came from being a keeper of secrets.” Throughout the novel, women keep numerous secrets, but the truly subversive secret is the extent of their power: their intelligence and capabilities, the essential contributions made while they are outwardly defined only as support staff, sexual playthings, muses, or scapegoats.
Already translated into 28 languages and due to be a film, Prescott’s book, like its famous precursor, looks fairly on the way to becoming an international blockbuster. Certainly it is superb entertainment: a thrilling story, rendered with intelligence and wit. Beyond this, it satisfies the hunger, in our own era, for women’s narratives; if there is one thing we are learning at present, it is how understanding is enriched by seeing history through unorthodox eyes. A spin-off virtue of The Secrets We Kept is that it makes us want to revisit the book at its heart: that ineffable masterpiece, Dr. Zhivago. When we do, we read the classic tale of a Russian man with fresh, perhaps more critical, insight—thanks to Prescott’s extraordinary women, who have finally had their say.
Andrea Lee is a novelist based in Italy