The CIA's Favorite Novel

June 25, 2014 Topic: HistorySociety Region: soviet unionRussia

The CIA's Favorite Novel

Why the CIA helped sneak Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago into the Soviet Union—and how the censors ultimately won.

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. There is no call to revolt against the regime in the novel, but the heresy which Dr. Zhivago preaches—political passivity—is fundamental. Pasternak suggests that the small unimportant people who remain passive to the regime’s demands for active participation and emotional involvement in official campaigns are superior to the political “activists” favored by the system. Further, he dares hint that society might function better without these fanatics.

Could anyone in Langley now write with such verve and insight about, say, the historical roots of Vladimir Putin’s irredentist views on Ukraine? I’m inclined to doubt it. But, of course, these were the days when the agency was still populated by pipe-smoking Yale grads who had spent their New Haven days boning up on the New Criticism and editing student literary magazines. There were also plenty of mustachioed, hard-drinking White émigrés straight out of some future David Lean movie—just the sort of guys you wanted to have around when it was a matter of reintroducing an instant Russian literary classic into the homeland where it was banned. (Or maybe not. When Pasternak finally got ahold of one of these early, illicit editions of his book, he was incensed by all the errata. Such are the casualties of cultural warfare.) After various mishaps, lovingly documented by Finn and Couvée, the agency finally managed to sponsor several print runs of the book—one of them produced by a publisher in the Netherlands helpfully provided by the Dutch intelligence service.

But how to get the novel into the hands of Soviet citizens? The CIA operatives decided to distribute their Russian-language edition at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. The Belgians issued some fifteen thousand visas to Soviet citizens visiting the fair, which Moscow and Washington turned into a classic Cold War cultural face-off. For the sake of plausible deniability, though, the Americans couldn’t simply hand out the books at their own pavilion. Instead, they hit upon the perfect cover: the Vatican. Soviet visitors who wandered into the Vatican exhibit were approached by a Russian-speaking priest who offered them copies of the book:

Finally, the CIA-sponsored edition of 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.

And then, in October 1958, the big news came through: Pasternak had won the Nobel Prize. For the Soviet leadership, it was now time to take the gloves off. The party launched a round-the-clock campaign denouncing Pasternak as a contemptible turncoat lusting after foreign currency. Literaturnaya Gazeta, the USSR’s flagship literary publication, treated its readers to a venomous assault on Pasternak’s character that included anti-Semitic references to Judas and his “thirty pieces of silver.” Members of the Writers’ Union were summoned to Stalinist meetings where they were expected to join the chorus of denunciation. Friends renounced him.

The Albanian writer Ismail Kadare, studying in Moscow at the time, recalled: “The radio, from 5 in the morning until 12 at night, the television, the newspapers, the journals, magazines, even for children, were full of articles and attacks on the renegade writer.” Pravda even brought a famed Stalinist hatchet man out of retirement to declare Pasternak a “weed.” When two young poets told the author how they were being pressured to sign a statement denouncing him, he responded with characteristic largeness of soul: “‘Really now,’ said Pasternak, ‘what does it matter? It’s an empty formality—sign it.’” But he later confided to a friend that he saw their visible relief upon hearing this from him as a small betrayal.

Happily, there were a few signs that Russians hadn’t entirely succumbed to the climate of fear. A few Muscovites participated in a small demonstration denouncing the anti-Semitic tone of the official diatribes against Pasternak. In some organizations, the number of those who refused to sign the obligatory statements condemning him was quite high.

The low point came when the Writers’ Union announced Pasternak’s expulsion from the organization. Battered by the nonstop vituperation, Pasternak even suggested to Ivinskaya that they commit joint suicide; she declined to accept the invitation. In the end, he mollified his persecutors by agreeing to send a telegram to Oslo rejecting the prize.

And yet, as Finn and Couvée rightly observe, Pasternak never backed away from his initial decision to publish. He had spent some ten years on the book, and he clearly regarded it as the crowning achievement of his life as an artist. “The publication of Doctor Zhivago has become the most important thing in my life, and I don’t intend to do anything to prevent it,” he told Ivinskaya at one point. In one of his letters to Feltrinelli, Pasternak wrote, “Ideas are not born to be hidden or smothered at birth, but to be communicated to others.”

Akhmatova observed, not entirely unjustly, that Pasternak got off relatively easy in the end, if one compared his trials with the fate of so many of his colleagues during the period of High Stalinism. She noted that Pasternak and his family were left untouched in his house, calling the story of his encounter with the party “a battle of butterflies.” Yet there is no question that this battle took its toll on Pasternak. Never in particularly good health, he died in 1960, just two years after receiving the Nobel Prize.

His funeral offered an opportunity for those who supported him to celebrate his moral example: the young writers Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky, who would go on to become leaders of the dissident movement in the 1960s, carried the lid of his coffin. There remains some dispute about the precise number of people who took part in the funeral ceremony: some estimates put the figure as high as several thousand, though between five hundred and a thousand seems more likely. As the authors note, the fact that anyone showed up at all was remarkable enough, given the circumstances.


FINN AND Couvée unite fine literary spadework with a highly readable narrative. The usual tendency in a book like this is for authors to identify so completely with the protagonist that the rough edges of the story get smoothed away. Not here: even some of the repulsive Soviet cultural bureaucrats come across as complicated human characters. The authors note that the critical reception of Pasternak’s book, despite its huge popular success, was quite mixed; if anything, I suspect, today’s verdicts will be even more divided, given the novel’s frequent lapses into kitschy philosophizing. (Akhmatova herself was among those who didn’t think it was very good.) But there can be no denying that the scandal surrounding the banning of Pasternak’s novel was one of the great intellectual causes célèbres of the Cold War—an incident that, coming on the heels of the Soviets’ brutal crackdown on the Hungarian Revolution, contributed to the waning credibility of the Communist model.

Unfortunately, Finn and Couvée do not spend quite enough time on the novel itself. They devote only a few paragraphs to their synopsis of Doctor Zhivago, and are much too diffident about the reasons the Soviet authorities rejected the book so ferociously. They characterize Doctor Zhivago as a sort of general paean to the primacy of the individual, which is true enough. But in rereading the novel, I was struck by how explicitly and emphatically it denounces the idea of revolutionary Communism, which Pasternak consistently depicts as a bloody abstraction inherently opposed, in the novel’s allegorical scheme, to the life principle that it celebrates. (Zhivago’s name is derived from the Russian root for “life.”) Here’s how Pasternak describes a group of revolutionary leaders: “Numbered among the gods at whose feet the revolution had laid its gifts and its burnt offerings, they sat silent and grim as idols; they were men in whom everything alive and human had been driven out by political conceit.”

Pasternak’s antirevolutionary animus manifests itself on every other page: he equates White atrocities with Red ones, and shows one of the book’s most disgusting characters, a rank, upper-class opportunist, turning up to serve the Soviet cause. The book’s literary quality is debatable, but there can be little question about its political direction. “The [U.S. and European] press focused on what they saw as [Doctor Zhivago’s] anti-Communist flavor,” write Finn and Couvée rather cautiously. But it’s awfully hard to see how anyone could have failed to see the book in that light.

The story told in The Zhivago Affair offers a potent reminder that the demise of Communism has been an enormous blessing to the world (and especially to Russia). But it also fills me with melancholy about the decline of Russian literary culture. Pasternak may not have been entirely convincing as a novelist, but he was a remarkable poet who emerged from a spectacularly fertile literary culture. Today’s Russia, by contrast, is a singular cultural wasteland. It’s almost impossible to imagine a European publisher sending scouts to present-day Moscow to search for exciting or original literary work. Anyone who wishes to understand how this could have happened, after the triumphs of Russian literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, need only consider the systematic assault on the creative spirit organized by the Soviet regime. Finn and Couvée offer us a valuable account of that system in action.