Doctor Zhivago Used by CIA as Propaganda

April 11, 2014

Newly released documents reveal the CIA’s use of the novel Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak, in a secret campaign behind the Iron Curtain. A new book entitled The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée exposes, in detail, the Central Intelligence Agency’s plot to distribute the banned novel within the USSR as a form of anti-Communist propaganda. The plan, overseen by CIA Director Allen Dulles and led by the Soviet Russia Division of the CIA, began in January 1958 when British Intelligence sent photos of the book’s original text with the suggestion that copies be distributed among the Russian people. Soviet Russia Division Chief John Murray wrote in a July 1958 memo, “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.”

Once Doctor Zhivago found a home with an Italian publisher, the CIA decided it was time to take action. An internal memo called for the book to “be published in a maximum number of foreign editions, for maximum free world distribution and acclaim and consideration for such honor as the Nobel prize.” The campaign began at the 1958 Brussels Universal and National Exposition. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were a presence at the event providing the rare opportunity to get to a large group of Russian citizens in one place. While the book could not be openly handed out at the U.S. Pavilion of the fair, the CIA found an ally in the Vatican. The Civitas Dei Pavilion and Russian émigré Catholics created a small hidden library where the Dutch published, CIA-sponsored, edition was handed out. A September 1958 memo called the phase “completed successfully.”

The agency’s plans for Doctor Zhivago were bolstered when Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize, which the Kremlin forced him to decline. Whether the CIA actively played a part in the book’s winning the prize is still under speculation. The CIA’s next step was to publish a miniaturized printing of the book. By July 1959 “agents who [had] contact with Soviet tourists and officials in the West” distributed over 9,000 copies of a miniature version of the book, sized perfectly for easy concealment in a coat pocket or handbag. At the campaign’s end the CIA concluded that their covert use of Pasternak’s novel was “fully worth trouble in view of obvious effects on Soviets.”


Sources: Melville House and The Washington Post

Previous Story:
Peter Matthiessen has Died
April 9, 2014

No Comments