It’s not a coincidence that Lara Prescott, the author of The Secrets We Kept is named after one of the main characters in Dr. Zhivago by famous Nobel-prize winning writer Boris Pasternak. With the first name of one of the lead characters, Lara Prescott was obviously born with an inherent interest in the novel and its story. Boris Pasternak was one of Russia’s most famous and revered poets. As a favourite of Joseph Stalin, the position came with certain benefits such as a premium dacha in a closely monitored colony of writers and intellectuals near Moscow. Stalin even prevented Pasternak from suffering the fate of other writers who were deported to gulags in Siberia. After the death of Stalin, Pasternak devoted himself to finishing a novel that he’d been labouring over for more than ten years. Thanks to the movie, we’re all familiar with the story of Dr. Zhivago and perceive it as a classic love story between the beautiful Lara and Dr. Yuri Zhivago. The Soviet government, however, interpreted it as a put-down of the great revolution and considered it nothing short of treason. Consequently, it was banned from publication in the U.S.S.R. and anyone found to possess a copy was considered a traitor and sent to the gulag.
Prescott has created a wonderful fictional account of the true story behind the publication of Dr. Zhivago. Different characters based on real-life people relate their particular part in the story over a period of a few years in the 1950s. One of the most interesting and relevant is Olga, mistress of Pasternak until his death. As a result of her association with him even prior to publication of his book, she was sentenced to three years in a remote, brutal gulag. When she returned after completing her sentence, she was a shell of the woman she had been. She had aged considerably, her body was destroyed and had taken on a different shape, her hair was no longer shiny and she’d lost the beauty he’d so loved before her incarceration. But he still loved her and wanted her to be part of his life, much to the chagrin of his wife, Zinaida.
Pasternak set Olga up in a smaller house near his family’s dacha and she served as his muse, his agent, his proof-reader and manager. She was also the inspiration for Lara and the love affair between Lara and Yuri Zhivago. When they were not able to find a Russian publisher for his book, Olga was able to make a covert connection with an Italian publisher who agreed to publish Dr. Zhivago in Italian and act as his world-wide agent. This transpired during the 1950s when the Cold War was at its peak. Americans saw the publication of the book as an opportunity to further their interests in undermining the communist philosophy and used their intelligence agencies to support the publication of Dr. Zhivago in English and other languages.
The Americans printed contraband copies of the book in Russian and made available to traveling free-thinking Russians so they could take it back behind the iron curtain and facilitate its wider distribution in Russia. It was a subtle anti-communism act of espionage that worked. Pasternak was forced to decline his Nobel Prize for the novel in order to save his life but everyone in his sphere was under suspicion, including Olga and her children. We’re given a glimpse into what the world of espionage may have looked like in the 1950s. Women who had performed critical and crucial roles in underground and resistance work during World War II were now relegated to secretarial jobs typing reports for men who were probably less competent and qualified to be doing fieldwork. But some of these women were still active in the field and formed part of the network responsible for distributing Dr. Zhivago not only to the western world but also to sympathizers in the strictly controlled USSR.
The Secrets We Kept is fascinating from start to finish. It offered everything I like in a good book—strong characters, fictional first-person accounts, Russian literature, espionage, and mystery. Deeeelightful. There were a few anachronisms the author made that should have been edited out but who am I to nitpick? See if you spot them. The first time I viewed Dr. Zhivago in a movie theatre was in Amsterdam in 1967 when I was traveling around Europe on a Eurail pass. It was shown in English with Dutch subtitles and I was transfixed; I even bought a record of the soundtrack when I got home.
It’s interesting how reading a great book can create a thread that leads to needing to read another. In this case, I must put Boris Pasternak’s original novel Dr. Zhivago on my list of books to read. Original books are inevitably better than the movie, even movies as amazing as Dr. Zhivago. I’ve loved all the Russian authors I’ve read including Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekov. Seeing Russia through their eyes is fascinating. Reading about a Russian writer through the eyes of a skilled American author was also an insightful journey back in time about a fascinating subject. I’d rate Lara Prescott’s The Secrets We Kept 8 out of 10.
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