CIA used 'Doctor Zhivago' as a propaganda tool in Russia, says new book

According to Peter Finn and Petra Couvée's new book 'The Zhivago Affair,' the CIA believed the novel could be used as propaganda. '[W]e have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government,' a CIA memo stated.

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    'Doctor Zhivago' is by Boris Pasternak.
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How’s this for a CIA secret: Among the biggest supporters of Russian classic “Doctor Zhivago” was the Central Intelligence Agency, which brought Boris Pasternak and his novel widespread success thanks to a secret printing that was part of a campaign to stir dissent in the Soviet Union.

“Drop books, not bombs” appears to have been among the techniques adopted by the US during the Cold War, according to a new book excerpted by the Washington Post describing the fascinating back story of one of the most recognized Russian classics in literature. 

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book,” by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, tells the story of how the CIA helped Pasternak’s novel gain entrée into Soviet society and how books play an important role in political and cultural warfare.

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Some 130 freshly declassified CIA documents describe the unusual story behind “Doctor Zhivago."

The Soviet Union had banned publication of the novel, but when an Italian publisher happened to discover it, “Doctor Zhivago” was published in Italian in 1957. A mere two months later, British intelligence sent photos of the book’s pages to the CIA, urging the American agency to use the Russian novel as a means of propaganda.

The CIA was intrigued.

"This book has great propaganda value,” a CIA memo stated “not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication.” 

“[W]e have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”

Thus began a cunning clandestine literary operation. 

Taking pains not to show “the hand of the United States government,” the CIA conspired with a Dutch publishing house to print Russian-language editions of the book, then distributed the books across Europe to Soviet expats as well as to Soviet citizens in the Soviet Union. Among the venues used to distribute the books was the Vatican pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Universal and International Exposition. 

The CIA later developed and published a miniature edition of the novel, small enough to easily hide in a pocket and conceal from Soviet authorities.

Soviet citizens embraced “Doctor Zhivago,” and the novel spread far and wide – eventually to Soviet satellite countries.

The book chronicles decades of wars, revolutions, and Communist oppression from the perspective of physician-poet Yuri Zhivago, whose love for two women forms the backbone of the story. Both romantic and religious, “Doctor Zhivago” was antithetical to Marxist ideology.

“Pasternak's humanistic message – that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state – poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system," John Maury, chief of the agency's Soviet Russia Division, said in a memo, according to Reuters

Ultimately, both the CIA mission and the novel itself were triumphs.

It was, writes the Post, “an audacious plan that helped deliver the book into the hands of Soviet citizens who later passed it friend to friend, allowing it to circulate in Moscow and other cities in the Eastern Bloc. The book’s publication and, later, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Pasternak triggered one of the great cultural storms of the Cold War.”

And while “Doctor Zhivago” has received attention thanks to the success of this particular CIA operation, and by the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Pasternak in 1958, we’re intrigued by the larger trend it represents – the use of books as weapons, as propaganda tools to fight what was ultimately a war of values.

“During the Cold War, the CIA loved literature – novels, short stories, poems. Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov,” writes the Post in a fascinating aside. “Books were weapons, and if a work of literature was unavailable or banned in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, it could be used as propaganda to challenge the Soviet version of reality. Over the course of the Cold War, as many as 10 million copies of books and magazines were secretly distributed by the agency behind the Iron Curtain as part of a political warfare campaign.”

It’s an unlikely story with an unsurprising message: books, not bombs, win hearts and minds.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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