Books as Weapons: Doctor Zhivago and the CIA

By Robin Jacobson.

In the midst of the Cold War, the celebrated Soviet Jewish poet Boris Pasternak proudly completed his first and only novel – an epic tale of the life and loves of a doctor-poet who becomes disillusioned with the Soviet state. Disturbed by the book’s unpatriotic tone, the Soviet literary establishment refused to publish it. So, Pasternak entrusted his precious manuscript to an Italian literary agent, saying, “This is Doctor Zhivago. May it make its way around the world.”

Published in Europe in 1957, Doctor Zhivago brought Pasternak world-wide acclaim, including a Nobel Prize for Literature, but bitter persecution in his homeland. The Soviets banned Doctor Zhivago as “anti-Soviet” and forced Pasternak to renounce the Nobel Prize. The Union of Soviet Writers expelled him, the KGB harassed him, and thugs threw stones at his house, shouting anti-Semitic slurs.  All this is recounted in a fascinating new book, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée.

Before Finn and Couvée investigated, few knew how the CIA took advantage of the uproar over Doctor Zhivago to try to turn Soviet citizens against their government. Finn (national security editor for The Washington Post) and Couvée gained access to internal CIA documents and uncovered an ambitious CIA operation to secretly disseminate the banned novel behind the Iron Curtain.

Born in Moscow in 1890, Pasternak belonged to a prominent artistic Jewish family.  His father was a respected painter, and his mother, a concert pianist. The family was not religious, and Pasternak felt drawn to the Russian Orthodox Church, an interest reflected in his writing.

Beloved for his poetry, Pasternak filled Soviet concert halls whenever he offered a reading. Nonetheless, for long periods the Soviet establishment would not publish his poetry, unsure of Pasternak’s commitment to Soviet ideology. Consequently, Pasternak primarily earned a living as a translator, becoming a premier Russian interpreter of Shakespeare’s plays.

During the Cold War, the CIA fought a relentless war of ideas with the Kremlin. Hoping to stir up dissent within populations under Soviet control, the CIA covertly flooded the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries with millions of banned Russian-language and Western books. Doctor Zhivago became a star title in the secret book program.

One CIA memo, discovered by Finn and Couvée, enthusiastically declared that Doctor Zhivago “has great propaganda value . . . we 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.”

The CIA selected the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, where 16,000 Soviet visitors were expected, as an ideal first venue to covertly distribute Russian-language copies of Doctor Zhivago. To hide U.S. involvement, the CIA persuaded the Vatican Pavilion to discreetly pass copies to Russian-speaking visitors.  Before long, say Finn and Couvée, the distinctive blue book covers were “littering the fairgrounds,” ripped off by recipients who stuffed the pages in their pockets to avoid detection. The CIA took note and later published a miniature paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that was easier to conceal.

Few would want to return to the Cold War period; nonetheless, Finn’s and Couvée’s gripping tale of politics and espionage makes one feel almost nostalgic for a time when battles were fought with books and even opposing governments shared a common belief in the transformational power of literature.