Revisiting “Doctor Zhivago Comes to Michigan”

by Briana Johnson on September 28, 2021

Today’s guest post for Banned Books Week is by James Tobin, author of Sing to the Colors: A Writer Explores Two Centuries at the University of Michigan. Tobin teaches literary journalism and narrative history in the Department of Media, Journalism, and Film at Miami University in Oxford, OH. He earned his Ph.D. in history at the University of Michigan and worked for 12 years as a reporter for The Detroit News. He is author of several books, including Ernie Pyle’s War, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.


Last summer I read a truly subversive book. It was Richard Powers’s The Overstory. To say it’s a novel about trees is like saying The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an adventure tale about a boy on a river raft.

The thing it subverted, for me, was a whole way of looking at the physical world and the society that has brought that world into harness to serve only human beings. If we were to follow the novel’s logic — and the book made me want to — we would upend our way of doing things from stem to stern.

Various powerful people and organizations, if they took in the novel’s implications, would rather that none of us ever read it. But we can read it because the powerful can’t prevent the publication of subversive books. 

Our descendants might one day look back at The Overstory as a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, another book that did its part to subvert the moral structure of American society. The same could be said of Huckleberry Finn. Yet both of those books attracted the attention of people who said they should be censored or banned.

The same thing happened at the height of the Cold War with Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak’s saga of a family in the trauma of Russia’s revolution and civil war. It was not an overtly political novel. But it undermined the Soviets’ official view of history. Pasternak drafted it at a time of such intense fear among Russian writers and artists that he expected his book would never be published. He thought it would be shared with a close circle of friends, at most. Yet so compelling was his vision that he drove himself to get it on paper, whether it would live for anyone else or not.

And just as he feared, when he made efforts to get the book published, the Soviet censorship machine closed in around him. He smuggled the manuscript out to Italy believing that he might be signing his own sentence to prison, maybe to death.

We might discover how many books were actually censored or quashed by the Soviets, but we can only guess how, in that atmosphere of fear, many books never came to be written at all.

It’s impossible to imagine the American state quashing a book — right now. But I wonder if we are on the edge of storms that could prefigure our own atmosphere of self-censoring fear. Then we would enter a nightmare.

Why are the stakes so high? They’re only novels, after all.

In his marvelous new book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain — a guided tour through his college course in the Russian short story — the writer George Saunders concedes that we should “confine our expectations for fiction to this: reading fiction changes the state of our mind for a short time afterward.” 

But just how does it change the mind? As follows, he says: “I am reminded that my mind is not the only mind. I feel an increased confidence in my ability to imagine the experiences of other people and accept these as valid. I feel I exist on a continuum with other people. What is in me is in them, and vice versa.”

That is subversive. And it’s the reason why, 60 years ago, the University of Michigan Press went to great lengths to publish the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago. I wrote about how it happened in a story for The Connector, the magazine of the U-M library system. This was how that story started — and this introduction concludes with the point I had to make.


From “Doctor Zhivago Comes to Michigan”

In the spring of 1958, Fred Wieck, the director of the University of Michigan Press, took a call from a friend in the publishing industry in New York City. 

As an academic publisher, Wieck had been turning out titles like Earning Opportunities for Older Workers and A Guide to Japanese Reference and Research Materials in the Field of Political Science — not quite bestsellers.

Now, as Wieck listened, his friend — a mercurial Communist turncoat named Felix Morrow — laid out a publishing proposition that depended on secret microfilm and international intrigue.  

On his desk in New York, Morrow told Wieck, he had the page proofs of a new novel. The author was the poet Boris Pasternak, renowned in the West as Soviet Russia’s greatest man of letters. The book’s title was Dr. Zhivago, and it promised to become the hottest literary property in the world — so hot that its publication might touch off a new skirmish in the Cold War.

So far Dr. Zhivago had been published only in a small Italian edition, and without the permission of Soviet authorities. Indeed, the Kremlin’s literary enforcers had denounced the work, saying its “cumulative effect casts doubt on the validity of the Bolshevik Revolution, which it depicts as if it were the great crime in Russian history.”

The book had been published nowhere in the original Russian. It was not available in the Soviet Union in any language. Pasternak’s countrymen could not read it.

Now Felix Morrow asked Wieck: Would he care to publish the first edition of Dr. Zhivago in its native language?

And by the way, Morrow said, Wieck could count on a sizable order from the Central Intelligence Agency. 

Wieck, properly flabbergasted, would have to answer other questions first, such as: Would the University of Michigan allow its name on a book banned in its home country? Would publication put the author’s life in danger? Could such a thing be copyrighted in the U.S.? And what, exactly, was the role of the CIA in the whole business?

So began a remarkable footnote in what historians have called the cultural Cold War. Sixty years later, in a society all but drowning in tiny blasts of digital trivia, what stands out most in the story is that all its actors, heroes and villains alike, believed deeply in the power of a single book to shape the course of world events.


Read the rest of “Doctor Zhivago Comes to Michigan” at

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