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How the CIA Stole 'Dr. Zhivago'

The novel stood in subtle opposition to much that Soviet life tried to destroy

First published in Italy in 1958, Doctor Zhivago was not released in the Soviet Union until 1989. The story of Yuri Zhivago, it outlined the history of the Russian Revolution and aftermath not as an epochal event for humanity but as a complicated event registered in the soul of a man who was very much an individual. Soviet logic demanded that it be banned. American cold war logic demanded that the book be embraced, though to celebrate it merely as propaganda was to do Pasternak the writer a terrible disservice. Pasternak’s real achievement, in Zhivago, had been to liberate himself from politics. Yet such liberation was inevitably a political act in the Soviet Union, and it was a political act outside the Soviet Union as well. “One of the great events in man’s literary and moral history,” according to Edmund Wilson, Doctor Zhivago was also the blunt object of cold war struggle, regarded with sustained attention by heads of state, by heads of the secret police and by the heads of intelligence services.

Peter Finn, a journalist at The Washington Post, and Petra Couvee, a Russian academic, trace the history of this singular novel in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle of a Forbidden Book. Their riveting, well-researched book reads like a literary thriller: the cloak (espionage), the dagger (persecution), and the pen (literature) combined in ways that only the cold war could have made possible.

Boris Pasternak (AFP/Getty Images)

Born in 1890, Pasternak was a child of the Moscow intelligentsia. Before World War I, he traveled and studied in Western Europe. Though his parents and sisters would eventually settle in the West, Pasternak stayed at home. Though “never openly hostile to Soviet power,” as Finn and Couvee put it, his poetic gifts made Soviet power interested in him. In 1922, he was summoned to meet Trotsky. Hung over, Pasternak defended literary individualism when Trotsky pressed him to write about social themes; Trotsky was charmed nevertheless. Later on, Pasternak had an avid reader in Joseph Stalin who famously telephoned Pasternak: “‘I have long wanted to meet you for a serious discussion,’ Pasternak said. ‘What about?’ Stalin asked. ‘About life and death.’ Stalin hung up.” In 1936, Pasternak wrote several poems in praise of Stalin, but when asked to endorse the execution of some persona non grata he refused. Pasternak was never an outright dissident, but neither was he a conformist. The poet Mandelstam paid for his poetry with his life, the poet Anna Akhmatova was maneuvered into silence or into a kind of private poetry. At a time of immense ideological pressure, Pasternak maintained his autonomy.

Pasternak the nonconformist was lucky to survive the 1930s. “Leave him. He’s a cloud dweller,” Stalin declared when Pasternak’s arrest was contemplated. Pasternak spent the war years translating Shakespeare, and in 1945, he began work on what would become Doctor Zhivago, a star-crossed venture from the start. “I don’t believe they will ever publish it,” he prophesied. Pasternak could not desist, however, from completing a novel in which “everything is named in simple, transparent and sad words.” The transparency—the inversion of socialist realism, which required a language in harmony with Soviet officialdom and its version of reality—was his revolutionary gesture. But the “cloud-dweller” still had to live on earth; Pasternak’s mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, was interrogated and imprisoned because of her connection to him. If he could not be brought into line directly, if he could not be forced into socialist realism, he could still be threatened and prevented being in public the writer he was in private. He was a Soviet artist living in a prison without bars...

In 1956, a chance meeting with an Italian visitor resulted in the manuscript’s secret transmission to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian communist and a publisher who quickly grasped the novel’s significance. Feltrinelli did not consider the book anti-Soviet. He simply thought it was great literature. Defying Soviet pressure, Feltrinelli ushered the book into print in 1957. The Nobel Prize was offered a year later; a Hollywood film followed in 1965; and the novel’s fame spread across the globe. In strictly literary terms, Zhivago’s success had its limits: The New York Times labeled it “a respectable achievement,” while Vladimir Nabokov dismissed it as a “sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic.” (Zhivago overtook Lolita on The New York Times bestsellers list.) But the author’s courage lent the novel a meaning apart from literature.

As The Zhivago Affair reveals, Feltrinelli was not the novel’s only publisher: The CIA played a central role in promoting and disseminating Pasternak’s novel. “The CIA, as it happened, loved literature,” Finn and Couvee write, and the agency was involved in the shipment of some one million books behind the Iron Curtain, including Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Nabokov’s Pnin. It became an urgent American agenda to place Doctor Zhivago in the hands of Russian readers. At a 1958 exposition in Brussels, attended by many Soviet visitors, the Vatican pavilion gave out free copies of Zhivago. In the words of a CIA memo, “this book has great propaganda value.”

Finn and Couvee use recently declassified materials to chronicle the CIA’s extraordinary great books program. Since the late 1960s, it has been well-known that the CIA sponsored anti-communist magazines in Western Europe. That it published and translated books, and sought to infiltrate literary life in the Soviet zone is less well-known. The East-West conflict into which Pasternak’s novel fell is neither a tragedy nor a heroic saga in The Zhivago Affair. It culminates in the tragedy of Pasternak’s life after Zhivago made its way to Italy.


As Pasternak had foreseen, the novel enraged the Soviet authorities. They sponsored a vilification campaign involving almost everyone in Soviet literary life. Pasternak was expelled from the Writers’ Union for having uttered “the cry of a frightened philistine.” In a 1958 speech delivered before twelve thousand people at the Moscow Sports Palace, the head of the Communist Youth, Vladimir Semichastny, compared Pasternak unfavorably to a pig. He was using phrases given to him by none other than Nikita Khrushchev.  An under-current of anti-Semitism ran through this public humiliation. (Pasternak had been born to an assimilated Jewish family.) He received no royalties for the book, even though the book was a best-seller in many countries.

All the while, Pasternak maintained that the book was not anti-Soviet, simply that it did not conform to official expectations. Khrushchev, who only read the book in retirement, concluded that “we shouldn’t have banned it” and that the uproar over the novel “caused much harm to the Soviet Union,” as it surely did. Zhivago’s enemies debased themselves in their orchestrated debasement of Pasternak. Their failure to suppress or to destroy its author encouraged Alexander Solzhenitsyn to fashion a forthrightly anti-Soviet literature after Pasternak’s death.

The Zhivago Affair is a fascinating essay on mid-century politics, oddly reminiscent of our own times. The Soviet Union could not fully control the texts that Soviet citizens were reading and writing, and knowing this, the CIA hacked its literary system. The provenance of books was far murkier than most people could have guessed in the 1950s, much as the provenance of internet texts and images is anything but self-evident today. All was subject to manipulation. Given the barbarism of Soviet cultural life, of a state that intimidated authors and readers with ruthless abandon, the CIA can only be credited retrospectively for bringing Doctor Zhivago to Russian readers. The CIA was not in the business of literary altruism, but it performed a service to Russian culture in its efforts to seek cold war advantage.

At the same time, Doctor Zhivago was not a book with only propagandistic value. It was, and is, a book with great spiritual value. The character of Zhivago is a witness to historical change, to the turbulence that began with the Russian Revolution, but his own revolutions are all interior. To this degree, Zhivago was as anti-Soviet as could be, reclaiming a privacy and an interiority that Soviet life existed to destroy. Khrushchev probably misjudged the book he finally read.

In thrall to the political dramas surrounding Doctor Zhivago, Finn and Couvee forego literary criticism in The Zhivago Affair. Their illuminating, humane book therefore perpetuates a problem that bedeviled Pasternak in his lifetime and has haunted his legacy ever after: How could a Soviet writer maintain the personal liberty, the spiritual independence, and the aesthetic free will Pasternak had known as a young man in pre-revolutionary Moscow? Pasternak solved the problem on the printed page. He reminded his Russian readers of all that was best in nineteenth-century Russian literature, all that had been buried under the repressive soil of Stalinism: Yuri Zhivago was the bridge between Russia’s past and its harrowing present, the exact opposite of the Soviet hero who promised only a glorious Soviet future. The daring of Pasternak’s conception is what so excited his readers in the East and the West. Out in the world, however, his book kept on proving the primacy of politics.

The Zhivago Affair should be the first volume of a longer work. A companion would uphold Zhivago’s innately literary qualities in order to rescue Pasternak from the ideological manacles of his era. His search for an art beyond manipulation and beyond propaganda has a relevance not restricted to the history of the cold war.