Night after night, a guard would come for me, and Semionov and I would have our little chats. And night after night, my humble interrogator would ask the same questions: What is the novel about? Why is he writing it? Why are you protecting him?

I didn’t tell him what he wanted to hear: that the novel was critical of the revolution. That Boris had rejected socialist realism in favor of writing characters who lived and loved by their hearts’ intent, independent of the State’s influence.

I didn’t tell him that Borya had begun the novel before we met. That Lara was already in his mind – and that in the early pages, his heroine resembled his wife, Zinaida. I didn’t tell him that as time went on, Lara eventually became me. Or maybe I became her.

I didn’t tell him how Borya had called me his muse, how that first year together he said he made more progress on the novel than he had in the previous three years combined. How I’d first been attracted to him because of his name – the name everyone knew – but fell in love with him despite it. How to me, he was more than the famous poet up on the stage, the photograph in the newspaper, the person in the spotlight. How I delighted in his imperfections: the gap in his teeth; the twenty-year-old comb he refused to replace; the way he scratched his cheek with a pen when thinking, leaving a streak of black ink across his face; the way he pushed himself to write his great work no matter the cost.

And he did push himself. By day he’d write at a furious pace, letting the filled pages fall into a wicker basket under his desk. And at night, he’d read me what he had written.

I didn’t say a word to Semionov about how Borya had confessed to me that what he was writing could be the death of him, how he feared Stalin would put an end to him as he’d done to so many of his friends during the Purges.”

Sometimes he would read to small gatherings in apartments across Moscow. Friends would sit in chairs arranged in a semicircle around a small table, where Borya sat. I’d sit next to him, feeling proud to play the hostess, the woman at his side, the almost wife. He’d read in his excited way, words toppling over each other, and stare just above the heads of those seated before him.

I would attend those readings in the city, but not when he’d read in Peredelkino, a short train ride from Moscow. The dacha in the writers’ colony was his wife’s territory. The reddish- brown wooden house with large bay windows sat atop a sloping hill. Behind it were rows of birch and fir trees, to the side a dirt path leading to a large garden. When he first brought me there, Borya took his time explaining which vegetables had thrived over the years, which had failed, and why.

The miniature Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago, covertly published and distributed into the USSR by the CIA. Wikimedia Commons

The dacha, larger than most citizens’ regular homes, was provided to him by the government. In fact, the entire colony of Peredelkino was a gift from Stalin himself, to help the Motherland’s handpicked writers flourish. “The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks,” he’d said.

As Borya said, it was also a fine way to keep track of them. The author Konstantin Aleksandrovich Fedin lived next door. Korney Ivanovich Chukovsky lived nearby, using his house to work on his children’s books. The house where Isaac Emmanuilovich Babel lived and was arrested, and to which he never returned, was down the hill.

And I didn’t say a word to Semionov about how Borya had confessed to me that what he was writing could be the death of him, how he feared Stalin would put an end to him as he’d done to so many of his friends during the Purges.

The vague answers I did offer never satisfied my interrogator. He’d give me fresh paper and his pen and tell me to try again.

Semionov tried everything to elicit a confession. Sometimes he was kind, bringing me tea, asking my thoughts on poetry, saying he had always been a fan of Borya’s early work. He arranged for a doctor to see me once a week and instructed the guards to give me an additional woolen blanket.

Other times, he attempted to bait me, saying Borya had tried to turn himself in, in exchange for me. Once, a metal cart rolled down the hallway, knocking into a wall with a bang, and he joked that it was Boris, pounding on the walls of Lubyanka trying to get in.

Or he’d say Boris was spotted at an event, looking fine with his wife on his arm. “Unencumbered” was the word he used. Sometimes it was not his wife, but a pretty young woman. “French, I think.” I’d force myself to smile and say I was glad to hear he was happy and healthy.

Semionov never once laid a hand on me, nor even threatened to. But the violence was always there, his gentle demeanor always calculated. I had known men like him all my life and knew what they were capable of.

From The Secrets We Kept (Hutchinson, £12.99)


Sold in twenty-five countries and poised to become a global literary sensation, Lara Prescott‘s dazzling first novel about the women in the CIA’s typing pool and the fate of Boris Pasternak’s banned masterpiece Doctor Zhivago is a sweeping page-turner and one of the most hotly anticipated debuts of the year.

The Secrets We Kept is published by Hutchinson and Cornerstone Digital in hardback, eBook and audio download
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Author portrait © Trevor Paulhus