The Secrets We Kept: Book Review

The Secrets We Kept

Lara Prescott

Random House


The CIA employed women during the Cold War with the Soviet Union as Swallows or Carriers. A Swallow was a woman who used her wiles to gain information and a Carrier was one who delivered messages to strategic locations and people. American-born Irina Drozdova becomes a Swallow when she is picked from the typing pool. She is well suited for the task with good looks and, being of Russian origin, has a command of the Russian language.

Paralleling her story is that of Olga Ivinskaya, the real person on whom Boris Pasternak’s Lara in Doctor Zhivago is based. She suffers as his muse, preferring to be incarcerated and tormented rather than betray her censured lover. Although Pasternak falls foul of Soviet authorities, Stalin, who professes to like his translations of Georgian poetry, has a soft spot for the man he deems ‘the cloud dweller’ and provides him with a spacious dacha in Peredelkino. There are graphic accounts of the travails and privations Olga suffers in prison where calluses form on her hands from manning a pick, but she is allowed to receive post from Pasternak and learns of his heart attack and how he spent months in a hospital bed fearing he would never see her again.

Boris met Olga while both were working for Novy Mir, the influential literary magazine and organ of the Writers’ Union of the the USSR. The affair is treated almost matter-of-factly by Prescott: her account does not deal with the moral qualms of adultery and shows little consideration of how the affair affects Pasternak’s family. Pasternak confides in Ira, Olga’s daughter. He tells her his affair with her mother is over and that he wants to stay with his own family now. But when he meets Olga seven years later, she is still beautiful and he falls for her charms once more, and one can feel the emotional tug as he promises never to leave her.

While this is going on, the Russians, as Prescott informs us, in 1957, are orbiting the earth in their satellite Sputnik II. But the CIA do not stand idly by. They have many of Russia’s banned books, and their goal is to emphasise how the Soviet system does not allow free thought—how the Red state hinders,­ censors and persecutes even its finest artists. Their tactic is to get the banned material into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means. They stuff proscribed matter, including literary magazines, into weather balloons and send them over borders to burst behind the Iron Curtain, and they mail banned books back to the Soviet Union with different covers.

These actions may have had some limited effect in altering the mindset of the targeted people, but the mission that will change everything and become internationally known occurs when they discover the novel Doctor Zhivago. This was banned in the Eastern Bloc due to its critiques of the October revolution and its so-called subversive nature. Despite on the surface appearing as a tragic love story between Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova, the internal memo describes Doctor Zhivago as ‘the most heretical literary work’ by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death, adding it has ‘great propaganda value for its passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a a sensitive, intelligent citizen.’ This is not just a book, as Prescott points out, but a ‘weapon’ which the Agency must get their hands on so they can send it back to Russia for its own citizens to detonate.

The opportunity to carry out this mission presents itself when the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli sends his literary agent Sergio D’Angelo to Peredelkino to seek permission from Pasternak to publish his book in the West. Prescott clearly did her research here and shows the build-up to the meeting between Pasternak and D’Angelo in great detail, although sometimes she overdoes the sensitivity of the poet in twee phrases such as ‘Boris brushed a mosquito from his arm, careful not to kill it’. After a lot of persuasion by Sergio, Boris eventually yields and hands him the manuscript with the near- prophetic words: ‘You are hereby invited to my execution.’

When Olga hears of what has happened and, knowing the dangers inherent for her lover, especially when the Cultural Department demands the return of the novel, she meets with D’Angelo and tries in vain to dissuade him from publishing the book.

Meanwhile Sally, the experienced Swallow who trained Irina, finds herself falling for the younger woman. As this could become fraught in the context of the time and circumstance,  she welcomes the ‘distraction’ offered when the Agency sends her to Milan to meet Feltrinelli where the Italian publication of the novel is being celebrated. Her job is to get a copy of the book and hand-deliver it to the Agency so they can have it translated into English and decide if it really is the propaganda weapon they hope it will be. Later Irina, a fully fledged spy by this stage, is sent to the UK to obtain the original Russian version which had been smuggled there, so the Americans can check on any inaccuracies in the Italian translation. The plan is to arrange with a new York publisher the layout and design of the manuscript and prepare proofs that can’t be traced back to American involvement, and then ship it for publication to a European publisher ‘to  erase any Company fingerprints’ and to have the greatest impact on the Soviet reader so that it will not be dismissed as American propaganda and reduce the risk to the author.

When rumours of the relationship between Sally and Irina reach the authorities, Sally is deemed as no longer ‘a desirable asset,’ and in the interest of maintaining the highest standards of the Agency she is dismissed. In the interim Irina, disguised as a nun, continues the mission and flies to Brussels to discuss with agents and a Belgian publisher how to maximise global publicity for Doctor Zhivago. It is decided that the Expo 58 World Fair in Vienna will be the best place to distribute hundreds of copies of the book to get it back to the USSR and to incite an international uproar over why it was banned.

In Russia Pasternak is being branded a Judas who has sold himself to the West, and is prevented from travelling to Sweden to receive the Nobel Prize. Despite receiving letters of support from Albert Camus, John Steinbeck and the Prime Minister of India Nehru, Pasternak declines the prize rather than be ostracised from his country of birth.

This book is a clever manipulation of history and politics with occasional telling insights into quirky Soviet regulations such as reserving the middle lanes of Russian roads for government vehicles, echoing Orwell’s ‘some more equal than others’ communist mantra.

But the book is of limited literary value in its own right. Its themes have already been dealt with effectively and accurately in factual works such as Peter Finn’s and Petra Couvée’s The Zhivago Affair and Anna Pasternak’s Lara: The Untold Love Story and the Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago. However, that said, Lara Prescott’s book is to be welcomed for highlighting the great artist that Pasternak was and, hopefully, it will encourage a new generation of readers to appreciate his original work.

Published in the Irish Examiner, 14/12/2019.




Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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