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How New Zealanders smuggled an explosive novel from Stalinist Russia

Joseph Stalin, c1937.

The publication of Doctor Zhivago, the most famous novel of the Soviet Union, owed something to Kiwi diplomatic finesse and can-do.

New Zealand diplomats were involved in smuggling an early draft of Doctor Zhivago from under Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s nose to the West in the late 1940s, new research indicates. The transfer took place a decade before publication of the novel sparked an international furore.

Its author, Boris Pasternak, was recognised as a great poet in the Soviet Union and beyond; he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature every year from 1946 to 1950. However, his refusal to follow Communist Party precepts on art had angered the cultural authorities. The poet had friends and family abroad and corresponded with them, despite the danger that the Stalinist police state would brand him as a foreign spy. Making matters worse, Pasternak was of Jewish heritage: both he and his work were condemned in various Kremlin campaigns that were effectively anti-Semitic.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Although Doctor Zhivago paints a negative portrait of Stalinism, agricultural collectivisation, prison camps and the 1930s purges of the Communist Party, the Soviets were mostly concerned about its rejection of the state ideology on literature: it did not deal with the working class or the poor or with the social structures that oppressed them, as officials had prescribed.

The intricately plotted novel tells the story of a physician and poet caught up in the tumult of 20th-century Russian history and torn between his love for two women. Published in the US in 1958, it topped Publishers Weekly’s bestseller list that year. Translated into dozens of languages, it was popular throughout the world. In 1965, David Lean’s movie of the same name, filmed in Spain and starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, was released. It won five Oscars and is in eighth place on the inflation-adjusted list of highest-grossing films.

The screen adaptation avoided the novel’s political dimension and concentrated on the romance. The script was written by Robert Bolt, who had co-written Lawrence of Arabia for Lean, and the score by Maurice Jarre (both won Oscars). With words added, Jarre’s Lara’s Theme became a big hit as Somewhere My Love.

Boris Pasternak, 1960. Photo/Getty Images

The Kiwi connection

There are numerous stories about how Zhivago made its way to the West. Paolo Mancosu, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has spent much of this decade finding definitive explanations. The research was a Herculean task, involving seven languages, and made more complicated because most of the smugglers had tried to keep their activities secret, for fear their contacts with the Soviet Union would be severed.

Mancosu has traced the history of six manuscripts that reached the West in 1956 and 1957. One of his conclusions is that, in earlier, more dangerous times, four New Zealanders – Dan Davin, Paddy Costello and Ruth and Douglas Lake – were involved in the delivery to Pasternak’s family in Oxford of a 180-page typescript of the first part of Doctor Zhivago, together with letters and some photographs. The typescript is dated 1948 and held at the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford, California.

In late 1948, Davin was an editor for Oxford University Press (OUP), and the other three were diplomats at the New Zealand Legation in Moscow. The legation had opened in 1944, when World War II was still raging and the Soviet Union was one of the Allies.

Costello was first secretary. He had served with Davin in the intelligence section of the 2nd New Zealand Division. Doug Lake, a former journalist at the Christchurch Star-Sun, had been a confidential clerk to General Bernard Freyberg, the division’s commander. Lake and Ruth – they had married in 1946 when both were legation staff – were third secretaries.

In his 2016 book, Zhivago’s Secret Journey: From Typescript to Book, Mancosu reproduces entries from the diary of Pasternak’s sister, Lydia, who lived in Oxford:

Ruth and Douglas Lake at a reception in Moscow, 1947.

January 13, 1949. “To Davin – Lake, letters and photos and book from Moscow.”

January 15, 1949. “Read Borya’s [Boris’s] novel.”

“It appears,” Mancosu writes, “that [a] letter dated December 12, 1948, and the novel were brought to England by Doug and/or Ruth Lake. It is of course quite possible that the middleman in Moscow was [Paddy] Costello.” Costello had frequently visited Pasternak and Pasternak had previously used Costello to get messages to Oxford, where his parents and two sisters had lived since the late 1930s.

Apparently, Pasternak asked Lydia to send the manuscript to publishers for comment. The Lakes arrived in Oxford in early 1949 and delivered the draft and letter to Davin. Lydia met Davin and one or both of the Lakes at OUP and collected them from him.

It’s unclear how long Davin remained in possession of the draft or who else saw it. Pasternak was not sending the draft for publication at that time anyway. As he wrote to his Oxford relatives in the December 12 letter, “Publishing it … is absolutely out of the question. Publication abroad would expose me to the most catastrophic, not to say fatal, dangers.”

Ironically, despite the trio’s probable involvement in an “anti-Soviet” novel reaching the West, they were probably the most pro-Soviet of the legation staff. The diplomats’ immunity and ability to avoid searches of what they were carrying would have been valuable to anyone wanting to get things through the Iron Curtain. The Berlin Blockade, Stalin’s response to the US, UK and France merging their sectors of Germany to form West Germany, was still in force as the Zhivago typescript went from Moscow to Oxford.

Dan Davin, 1940s. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

Damned if he did

Pasternak had begun working on the novel in earnest in 1946 and, by 1948, had written enough to seek the interest of publishers in the West. He knew already that his tale of the struggles and loves of a doctor and poet during and after the Bolshevik Revolution would be damned in the Soviet Union. But little did anyone know that it would be banned in the Soviet Union for decades, badly tarnishing the state’s reputation internationally.

Pasternak’s writing was influenced by European cultural and philosophical traditions. This angered Communist officials, but it made Zhivago more accessible to Western readers than most works by Soviet writers of the time.

Some of the book’s success was undoubtedly the result of Pasternak’s status as a symbol of resistance to Soviet Communism. His courage made the Soviet authorities think again about banning texts and would have encouraged the publication, in Moscow in 1962, of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s gulag tale One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This led to publication of even more radical literature and, some would say, to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The multitalented Costello has been the subject of intense scrutiny, partly because he was a suspected Soviet spy. The case for this is led by Denis Lenihan on the website kiwispies.com; the case against led by James McNeish in the 2007 book The Sixth Man: The Extraordinary Life of Paddy Costello.

After historic MI5 files about Costello were released last year, researcher Rita Ricketts wrote in the New Zealand International Review that the case against him was unproven. “This is surely a story with more to run,” she concluded.

Auckland-born Costello had been selected for the diplomatic post because he spoke Russian (McNeish writes that he “spoke by my count nine or 10 languages, with a working knowledge of several more”). He excelled in many ways and outshone the head of the legation, the pedestrian Charles Boswell. He spent from 1944-1950 at the legation, heading it after Boswell’s departure in July 1949. The new National Government, elected in 1949, closed the mission in June 1950.

Costello, who had won a scholarship to Cambridge University, had married Bella Lerner, a British citizen and communist sympathiser of Ukrainian Jewish descent. The Costello family, with three children under 10, would go native in Moscow. Unlike most diplomatic families, they lived among Russians and the children went to Russian schools. The family had a maid, privileged access to food and more living space than ordinary Muscovites, but they were in touch with people’s hardships and joys and they mastered the language of everyday life.

Costello frequented Moscow’s many theatres where he could see opera, ballet, plays and puppet shows at low cost. He scoured the capital’s second-hand bookshops and the Lenin Library, the national library.

Costello in Paris in 1953.

Few illusions

Costello was widely regarded as a lifelong supporter of the Soviet Union, but his writing suggests he had few illusions about Stalin’s regime. McNeish quotes him as writing to Davin in 1945, “I have lost a good deal of what an American called my starry-eyedness about the USSR. Theoretically, the thing is perfect. In practice, I am certain I couldn’t live there as a citizen. Even if I survived the housing and the food, I’d undoubtedly be shot for temerarious remarks about the Holy Things. The censorship of literature is stricter than it was in fascist Italy.”

The same year, Costello wrote to Secretary of External Affairs Alister McIntosh that “the personality of Stalin … is now being played up to an extravagant degree. He has already become more than a man; although the dogma of his virgin birth has not yet been proclaimed one feels that it might well be.”

“[Costello] was not really a diplomat at all,” McNeish comments. “He was a sport: an inspired and intensely curious sport (albeit a sport in a suit), an amateur, a radical and a renegade.”

Costello received a commission from OUP to produce an updated anthology of Russian poetry, The Oxford Book of Russian Verse. McNeish writes that Costello said his compilation would reflect “a flowering” of Russian verse, including work by a man and two women whose lives reflected the dignity of the human spirit.

“This was coded language for three dissidents who bore witness to the fate of those who resisted Soviet repression: Anna Akhmatova, destitute in Leningrad, Osip Mandelshtam, who had died in a labour camp, and Marina Tsvetaeva, who had committed suicide. The edition would also contain a number of poems by Boris Pasternak.”

Costello’s selection for The Oxford Book of Russian Verse, published while he was living in Moscow, excluded Kremlin favourites and would not have pleased the Soviet authorities, who in the mid-1930s had formed a Writers Union to keep writers in line: it provided apartments, venues for readings and journals in which members could publish their creations, and it could halt publications and cut off writers’ income.

Costello’s work for OUP prompted visits to out-of-favour writers and poets in and around Moscow. Pasternak was the most important of these. He spent most of his time at Peredelkino, about an hour’s train ride from Moscow, which had been set up as a writers’ village.

McNeish writes “the two discussed Soviet nationalism and the enigma of Mandelshtam’s death. Costello ordered books in English for him, especially by Jane Austen, couriered poems and letters to family and friends in Oxford for him, enjoyed vodka and madeira in his company and took friends like the Lakes to see him in his Moscow apartment.”

Celebrations of the anniversary of the October Revolution, Red Square, 1932. Photo/Getty Images

A phony doctrine

Costello is quoted in a letter to Davin as saying, “I am seeing Pasternak again this week. Pasternak is in a peculiar position in this country. He will not write what or as the Party desires and makes it quite clear that he regards ‘Socialist realism’ as a phony doctrine (it is).

“All the other writers are either good Communists or pretend to be. He is therefore a most useful fellow to know, quite apart from the pleasure one feels in the company of a great man. He knew all the literary people since 1910 and can give me information on writers whose names are never mentioned at all in orthodox circles – Tsvetaeva and Mandelshtam for instance – because they died outside the Church.”

Apart from Lydia Pasternak’s diary note, Doug and Ruth Lake’s involvement in the smuggling of the first parts of Doctor Zhivago is undocumented. They seem never to have mentioned it. Nor do they seem to have remarked on their link to the novel when it sparked an international uproar, or after it became a popular film.

But the Lakes were playing a dangerous game: had they been apprehended with the manuscript, they would probably have been accused of spreading anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda for counter-revolutionary purposes. This might have resulted only in a propaganda coup for the Soviet Union, who could point to the discovery of a foreign government meddling in Soviet affairs, but they could have been be declared persona non grata and forbidden from staying in or entering the Soviet Union again. Pasternak would have faced imprisonment and possible execution for having contact with representatives of foreign powers and his writings would have been proscribed.

The timeline of Pasternak writing a letter on December 12, 1948, to accompany the typescript and photos and somehow getting them to the Lakes fits with the couple’s movements at the time. They would have been in England when Lydia noted the presence of at least one Lake in Oxford on January 13, 1949.

The Lake family memoirs record that the couple had intended to leave Moscow with their newborn daughter, Sarah, in October 1948. However, this was delayed because Costello was away in November and they had to wait until Doug Lake’s replacement, Douglas Zohrab, arrived in December.

A Soviet propaganda poster, 1931. Photo/Getty Images

Their journey to England took more than a month and the Lakes missed the sailing they had booked to New Zealand. Apparently the winter weather had caused problems with the heating on the trains and in Paris, Sarah had spent some time in hospital with pneumonia. They did not sail until February 11.

Although their lack of comment on Zhivago suggests they never read the script they carried, the Lakes were competent in Russian. Ruth was a linguist and Doug had completed his university degree by learning Russian. Both were involved in the production of fortnightly summaries of current events, quarterly reports and special reports for the New Zealand Government.

Ruth Lake had been particularly interested in writing reports on Soviet education and recounted her experience of giving birth in a Soviet hospital. Doug Lake and Costello’s analysis of a 1947 speech by Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov concluded that the Soviets had the atomic bomb. Their conclusion, which proved correct, was made at a time British and US authorities thought Molotov was bluffing.

Not only did the Lakes share Costello’s enthusiasms, Ruth Lake also did a few months’ work for OUP, which connects her to Davin. She may have travelled alone to Oxford to meet Davin, bringing Pasternak’s package with her, but there is no record of this in the OUP archives.

Costello was almost certainly involved in the smuggling of Doctor Zhivago to England, but he took a poor view of the novel. In Zhivago Reconsidered, a lecture delivered to the Birmingham University Russian Club in 1964, he said that “judged by the standards normally applied to novels, Zhivago is a failure”.

“The highly unusual circumstances in which the book appeared … created intense excitement and conferred an adventitious interest upon it,” he said, but he found the characters lifeless and the story feeble.

Nevertheless, “it would be absurd to deny the positive qualities of the book … Pasternak was for the last 20 years of his life the outstanding Russian poet of his time, and it would be strange indeed if some of the qualities of his poetry were not found in this novel. Above all, he can describe nature as few writers can – and Zhivago contains many remarkable passages of description … The merits of the book are in secondary things. Its defects are in the essentials.”

But, he wrote, the poems at the end of the novel “remind us that he [Pasternak] was not merely a poet without rival in Russian literature since the death of Mandelshtam; he is one of the great Russian poets. They remind us, too, that the talents of the novelist and of the lyric poet tend to exclude each other.”

Pasternak with his muse and life companion, Olga Ivinskaya, and her daughter, Irina, late 1950s. Photo/Getty Images

Stalin's victim

Stalin seems to have given Pasternak special protection for reasons that are not entirely clear. Pasternak would otherwise have been at high risk of harassment, imprisonment or worse by Stalin’s secret police. Nevertheless, the poet was one of the dictator’s victims.

Unwilling to conform to the constraints of socialist realism, he wrote little poetry between 1932 and 1940, a period when many writers became victims of purges. Instead, he became a celebrated translator of others’ work, especially of Shakespeare.

The married Pasternak met Olga Ivinskaya in 1946. She would be his mistress until his death in 1960 and was one of the women who inspired the character of Lara in Doctor Zhivago. She recorded Pasternak’s response to reading an article from a British newspaper with the headline, “Pasternak Keeps a Courageous Silence”. It lamented that the poet published only translations, keeping his own creations only for himself and a small circle of friends.

“What do they mean by saying that my silence is courageous,” she quoted him as saying. “I am silent because I am not printed.”

In 1956, Pasternak felt the climate in the Soviet Union had improved after Stalin’s death in 1953, but he was still unable to have Zhivago published in his homeland. He sent to the West six manuscripts of his tale of romance and loss after Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution.

The poet’s novel took a view of historic events that differed from the official ones, yet he had hoped it might be printed in his homeland. That would not happen until 1988, almost 30 years after his death.

Its first publication, in Italian in Italy, in 1957, was followed by a string of others in at least eight languages (not always by permission). The first publications were based on revised versions of the text, not directly on the 1948 manuscript. The Italian publication was based on a manuscript smuggled out of the Soviet Union by Italian journalist Sergio D’Angelo, with the help of communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, but under pressure from the Kremlin, he declined it. The Writers’ Union expelled him and he was threatened with being exiled to the West.

His family blamed his death in 1960 on the pressure the Soviets put on him after the publications abroad.

Pasternak with his wife, Yevgenia Lurye, and their son. Photo/Getty

Whatever happened to…

Boris Pasternak

After Doctor Zhivago was published in Italy in 1957, he faced a wave of criticism from Soviet authorities. Despite the official disapproval, thousands of admirers attended his funeral. His family continued to be persecuted until the late 1980s.

Paddy Costello

After the Moscow legation was closed, Costello took up a post at the New Zealand legation in Paris in October 1950. As Cold War hysteria peaked and with the New Zealand Government under pressure from Britain and the US over fears he was a spy, Costello resigned in 1954. He became head of the Russian studies department at Victoria University of Manchester the next year. He died in 1964.

Ruth Lake

In response to negative articles about the Soviet Union written by Jean Boswell, wife of legation head Charles Boswell, printed in New Zealand newspapers, Lake published a pamphlet in 1950. Saying Jean Boswell’s articles were full of “mis-statements, distortion and inaccuracies”, Lake gave a rosier view of the Soviet Union and condemned the developing Cold War. She died in 1991.

Doug Lake

Back in New Zealand, Lake continued to work for External Affairs, but his wife’s pamphlet led to his being sidelined. He was investigated by New Zealand’s security agencies and resigned in 1954, returning to journalism. He died in 1995.

Dan Davin

He was awarded a DLitt from the University of Otago. In the 1987 New Year Honours, he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, for services to literature. He died in 1990.

This article was first published in the May 12, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.