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Breaking the Bloc

Sunday, July 5, 2009

ZHIVAGO'S CHILDREN

By Vladislav Zubok. 453 pp. $35

In Russia, appreciating literary beauty has long been a silent political protest. Boris Pasternak's 1958 anti-authoritarian novel "Doctor Zhivago," for example, published abroad and banned in the Soviet Union, became a touchstone for the post-Stalin intelligentsia. In his moving "Zhivago's Children," historian Vladislav Zubok chronicles the rise and fall of this generation of Russian intellectuals, a group he calls "the spiritual heirs of Boris Pasternak's noble doctor."

Zubok's hero is Alexander Tvardovsky, whom Khrushchev appointed to edit the literary journal Novy Mir (New World). Constantly pushing the boundaries of acceptable social criticism, Tvardovsky was behind a watershed moment in Soviet literature: In 1962, he convinced Khrushchev to let him publish Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich," an unsparing portrait of life in the gulag.

The other players in Zubok's fascinating study come from all corners of the Soviet intelligentsia, from leftist socialist true believers to right-wing patriots. The result is a thorough, scholarly examination of a vital era in Russian history whose themes of human rights, freedom and dissent will resonate among experts and lay readers alike.

-- Alexander F. Remington

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