Why the CIA Loved ‘Doctor Zhivago’
Boris Pasternak’s classic novel caused him endless trouble in Russia even as it won him acclaim abroad, where his abiding fans included the CIA, which used the book as a propaganda tool.
Isaiah Berlin called it a novel “of unexampled imaginative power,” and Edmund Wilson predicted that it would “come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history.” To these and other eminences, Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was a seminal text.
No one agreed more than the members of an ardent and motivated fan base within the CIA.
“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 the individual to the Communist system.” So said an influential CIA staffer in a July 1958 memo. Two months later, the agency would enact an elaborate scheme under which copies of the novel, banned in the Soviet Union, were surreptitiously given to Russian readers at the World’s Fair in Belgium.
This cloak-and-dagger saga—the details of which have remained largely secret for more than a half-century—is at the heart of Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. The product of a deep dive into agency archives—the CIA finally turned over the relevant documents three years after Finn, a Washington Post editor and onetime Moscow bureau chief, requested them—it’s a rich and unanticipated story. By no means, however, is it the only intriguing episode in this account of one of the era’s defining literary crucibles.
Toggling back and forth between Pasternak’s dacha in Peredelkino and the offices of the Cold War’s chief adversaries in Washington and Moscow, Finn and Couvée, a writer and translator in Russia, ably juggle a host of busy storylines. Throughout, they demonstrate a sophisticated appreciation for an artistic quest that was haunted by dread, persecution, and loss. They also share an avid eye for detail, although this does desert them at a key moment in their book.
Long before it found an international audience, helped secure him a Nobel Prize, and inspired a famous film, Doctor Zhivago was an agonized undertaking.
At the end of 1948, three years into a creative ordeal that would consume the last decade-and-a-half of his life, Pasternak posted a letter to family members living in Britain. Zhivago was still taking shape, but he knew that the story he was telling— a sweeping tale of a politically and romantically vexed doctor’s disenchantment with his homeland after the revolution of 1917—would enrage Soviet censors. Having boldly shared portions of the manuscript with fellow artists and friends, Pasternak confided that he was now increasingly anxious about the book’s future, and his own. “Publication abroad,” he wrote, “would expose me to the most catastrophic, not to mention fatal, dangers.”
With countless dead as a result of Stalin’s purges, Pasternak had reason to be fearful. Russian intellectuals enjoyed a moment of guarded hopefulness after the war, Finn and Couvée write, but by the summer of 1946 the Kremlin had resumed its practice of putting the screws to writers who were viewed as treasonous, frivolous, or immoderately independent. Pasternak’s status as an internationally respected poet—he was seen as a contender for the Nobel by the late ’40s—made him a prime target. By the time he turned 60 in 1950, he would be censured by the Union of Soviet Writers as “an author lacking in ideology and remote from Soviet reality,” denounced within the pages of several Kremlin-sanctioned newspapers, and deprived of outlets for his verse and translations.
His mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, had it even worse. She was hauled in by police, interrogated about the scandalous novel Pasternak was said to be writing, and put in prison, where she suffered a miscarriage. (Their handling of Ivinskaya typifies Finn and Couvée’s meticulous approach; the model for Zhivago’s cherished Lara, she was later rumored to be a Kremlin snitch, but the authors say that a look at the evidence “simply doesn’t support the label of informer.”)
None of this could stop Pasternak. He finished Doctor Zhivago in 1955, and was duly exultant. “You cannot imagine what I have achieved!” he wrote to a friend. “I have found and given names to all this sorcery that has been the cause of suffering, bafflement, amazement, and dispute for several decades. Everything is named in simple, transparent, and sad words.” Recognizing that domestic publication was out of the question, Pasternak furtively partnered with Milan-based publisher Feltrinelli to bring out an Italian edition in 1957. A French edition followed in June 1958, and in September the book was published in Britain and America.
That same month the CIA rolled out its Pasternak-as-propaganda operation. The agency had done this kind of thing before. In 1956 the CIA-funded Free Europe Press started supplying a handful of Eastern European students and government officials with translated copies of suppressed and banned books by Camus, Orwell, Milosz, and others. “Members of the Moscow Philharmonic, who were passed books while on tour in the West, hid them in their sheet music for the trip home,” Finn and Couvée write. “Books were also spirited home in food cans and Tampax boxes.”
For the CIA, Pasternak’s novel presented a unique opportunity to distribute a notorious new work penned by a persecuted Russian author. Doctor Zhivago had been an instant hit in the U.S. After the stateside press reported on Pasternak’s plight, it sold 70,000 copies in its first six weeks, according to Finn and Couvée. But the book remained little more than a rumor to Russian readers. And so, after taking care to distance itself from the project—Soviet censors could identify paper stock manufactured in the U.S., so the CIA’s Russian translation of Zhivago was printed in the Netherlands—agency officials settled on the recently opened World’s Fair in Brussels.
“Doctor Zhivago could not be handed out at the American pavilion, but the CIA had an ally nearby,” Finn and Couvée write. Volunteers staffing the Vatican’s building agreed to help, seeing to it that “the novel was pressed into the hands of Soviet citizens. Soon the book’s blue line covers were found littering the fairgrounds. Some who got the novel were ripping off the cover, dividing the pages, and stuffing them in their pockets to make the book easier to hide.”
The Zhivago Affair is deeply researched, but this is one instance in which it comes up short. How Vatican volunteers actually got hold of the CIA’s copies of Zhivago is never quite explained. A large portion of their book is built around this very moment, but Finn and Couvée rush through the scene in a few hundred words. Sixty years after the fact, it’s understandable that they failed to unearth more detail about a particular aspect of a clandestine operation. But from a reader’s perspective, it’s a bit of a disappointment.
Finn and Couvée paint a more vivid picture of the agency’s second effort to distribute Zhivago to Russian readers, which occurred in 1959 in Vienna. That summer the city hosted a confab for Communist youth groups, during which the CIA, with help from native Russians who no longer lived in the country, used a variety of methods to distribute a batch of undersized books to the visitors. “Crowds of Russian emigres swarmed the Soviet convoy when it entered the city and tossed copies of the CIA miniature edition of Doctor Zhivago through the open windows of the buses …” the authors write. “[C]opies of it and other novels were handed out in bags from Vienna department stores to disguise the contents; in the darkness of movie theaters; and at a changing roster of pickup points, the locations of which were circulated by word of mouth.”
This is colorful, cinematic stuff, but Finn and Couvée’s poignant depiction of Pasternak is the book’s greatest strength. His Nobel win, which should’ve been a career-capping triumph, wasn’t that at all. Fearing for his safety, and the wellbeing of those close to him, he declined to accept the award. But this did not appease the Kremlin. He was soon forced to publicly apologize for writing what he considered his masterwork. Menacing strangers turned up at his house, and threats arrived in the mail.
At his lowest point, Pasternak was suicidal, and even his death, in 1960—he had stomach cancer and his heart was failing—didn’t end the campaign against him, Finn and Couvée write: “The secret police moved among the crowd [at his funeral], eavesdropping or taking photographs.” His oft-neglected wife Zinaida outlived him by six years, but she “never saw a ruble” of the money generated by his success. Almost three decades would pass before Doctor Zhivago was legally published in his home country.