How the CIA Turned Doctor Zhivago into a Propaganda Weapon Against the Soviet Union


Human­i­ty has long pon­dered the rel­a­tive might of the pen and the sword. While one time-worn apho­rism does grant the advan­tage to the pen, most of us have enter­tained doubts: the sword, metaphor­i­cal­ly or lit­er­al­ly, seems to have won out across an awful­ly wide swath of his­to­ry. Still, the pen has scored some impres­sive vic­to­ries, some even in liv­ing mem­o­ry. Take, for exam­ple, the CIA’s recent­ly revealed use of Boris Paster­nak’s nov­el Doc­tor Zhiva­go as a pro­pa­gan­da weapon. Repressed in Paster­nak’s native Rus­sia, the book first appeared in Italy in 1957. The fol­low­ing year, the British sug­gest­ed to Amer­i­ca’s Cen­tral Intel­li­gence Agency that the book stood a decent chance of win­ning hearts and minds behind the Iron Cur­tain — if, of course, they could get a few copies in there. A CIA memo sent across its own Sovi­et Rus­sia Divi­sion sub­se­quent­ly pro­nounced Doc­tor Zhiva­go as pos­sessed of “great pro­pa­gan­da val­ue, not only for its intrin­sic mes­sage and thought-pro­vok­ing nature, but also for the cir­cum­stances of its pub­li­ca­tion. 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.”

That eval­u­a­tion comes from one of the over 130 declas­si­fied doc­u­ments used by Peter Finn and Petra Cou­vée in their brand new his­to­ry of this act of real-life lit­er­ary espi­onage, The Zhiva­go Affair: The Krem­lin, the CIA and the Bat­tle Over a For­bid­den Book. You can read an in-depth arti­cle on some of the events involved in this oper­a­tion — the CIA’s print­ing of both hard­cov­er and minia­ture paper­back Russ­ian-lan­guage edi­tions, the not-so-clan­des­tine dis­tri­b­u­tion of copies at 1958’s Brus­sels Uni­ver­sal and Inter­na­tion­al Expo­si­tion, the CIA’s unex­pect­ed alliance with the Vat­i­can in this mis­sion, the inept prob­ing by Sovi­et “researchers” — at the Wash­ing­ton Post.

You can also watch a CBS This Morn­ing clip on the book just above. Dra­mat­ic though this “Zhiva­go Affair” sounds, it came as nei­ther the first nor last Amer­i­can use of cul­ture as a means of desta­bi­liz­ing the Sovi­et Union. We’ve even pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured two oth­ers: secret­ly-fund­ed abstract expres­sion­ist paint­ing, and Louis Arm­strong’s 1965 East Berlin and Budapest con­certs. Cold War Amer­i­ca may have had the sword, in the form of its vast nuclear arse­nal, pol­ished and ready, but clear­ly it retained a cer­tain regard for the pen — and brush, and trum­pet — as well.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Louis Arm­strong Plays His­toric Cold War Con­certs in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

How the CIA Secret­ly Fund­ed Abstract Expres­sion­ism Dur­ing the Cold War

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.