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The Book That Changed My Life: A Dangerous Book

The Book That Changed My LifeMy high-school classmate Lena B. told me that one of the female characters in Doctor Zhivago was based on her grandmother. I had never heard of Doctor Zhivago.

“What’s the big deal?” I said. “It’s just a book.”

She was appalled. Lena moved in the dissident circles closely watched by the KGB (place: USSR; time: circa 1972) and knew every book banned by the Soviet censors.

I did not know Doctor Zhivago, but I did know of its author — Boris Pasternak. I recounted to Lena how my father had spent long hours standing in line to purchase a set of Shakespeare plays in Pasternak’s magnificent translations, and the books (black covers, as I recall) were proudly displayed on our bookshelf.

Lena raised her eyebrow at such minor-league commitment to literature, and the following day informed me that I was to meet a certain Misha at a coffee shop unofficially nicknamed Saigon, where he would slip to me the banned book concealed in a brown paper bag. I did not argue with Lena (nobody argued with Lena) even though there were some drawbacks to her instructions: (1) Saigon was the shady hangout of Leningrad’s underground artists, writers, and dissidents; (2) it was rumored that one out of every three customers at Saigon was a KGB informant; (3) possession of banned books in the USSR was punishable by law with imprisonment and exile.

I went to Saigon as instructed.

I did not know what this Misha whom I was supposed to meet looked like, and kept my eyes peeled for anyone with a brown paper bag under his arm. I bought a cup of coffee, as black as my thoughts at the moment, but the cup banged so noisily against the saucer in my trembling hand that I began attracting the attention of a suspicious-looking individual to my left, and so I abandoned my coffee.

When hours later Misha still had not shown up, I imagined him being ambushed, cuffed, and thrown in the back of a Black Maria. Ashamed to be feeling a sense of relief, I went out of the coffee shop. Someone brushed past me on his way in, thrust the book at me (no brown paper bag hiding it), and said (much too loudly, I thought), “You got till morning. Return it back here at ten.”

I looked neither at him nor at the book before I shoved it under my overcoat and, trying not to run or to peek over my shoulder, made my way home.

Boris Pasternak as drawn by Eugene Yelchin.

Printed in tiny font with lines showing through the nearly translucent pages, the book appeared insubstantial. I needed all the lights on in my room to make out the words, but I did not want my mother to know that I was up all night breaking the law. So I switched off the main lights, covered my dim side lamp with a sheet, climbed under it, and began reading.

That night, as I pored over the exquisite prose that only a poet could conjure, I gleaned a few things that would eventually lead to my emigration from the Soviet Union. What I did not know while reading, but what I learned later, was that it took Pasternak nearly fifty years to complete Doctor Zhivago, that censors refused its publication, and that the miniature copy in my hands had been printed by the CIA and smuggled into Russia. I learned that the KGB forced Pasternak to refuse the Nobel Prize awarded to him after the book’s publication abroad, and that he was expelled from the Writers’ Union to die — not unlike Zhivago — for daring to preserve his moral freedom in the face of an oppressive state.

* * * *

“What’s wrong, Yevgeny? You’re crying!”

My mother stood in the open doorway filled with late morning light, and as I shot past her to the front door, she shouted after me, “What? No breakfast?”

“I have to return this book.”

“What is it?”

“Nothing, Mom. Just a book.”

From the May/June 2018 Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Making a Difference. For more in this series click the tag Book That Changed My Life.

Eugene Yelchin About Eugene Yelchin

Russian American author-illustrator Eugene Yelchin's novel Breaking Stalin's Nose (Holt) was a 2012 Newbery Honor Book. His forthcoming book is The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge (Candlewick), co-authored with M. T. Anderson.

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