June 24, 2014

Doctor Zhivago is easy to smuggle if it’s small, and other publishing tips from the CIA


A Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago.

A Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago.

What are the repercussions for the CIA funding most American cultural and literary institutions over the course of the Cold War? We’re still working on that one, but it’s clear the CIA did a pretty bang-up job of creating buzz around one classic novel.

Nick Romeo has a great piece over at The Atlantic about the CIA’s role in promoting Doctor Zhivago. It focuses on the “great propaganda value” the CIA saw in the novel, and how it eventually became a household name.

In April, MobyLives reported on the declassified documents that became the basis for The Zhivago Affair. The role of the CIA in the book’s printing and promotion is worth discussing in depth.

It was Boris Pasternak‘s first novel, written over ten years and completed when he was sixty-five. He gave a copy of the manuscript to an Italian bookseller named D’Angelo, who smuggled it to Rome for publication, according to the Daily Mail. The head of the Soviet Writers Union traveled to Rome to chase after the Italian publisher, and Pasternak endured threatening telegrams demanding his manuscript. It was published in 1957.

For anyone who has had to endure bad reviews or hate mail, you may have a sense of how brutally Paternak’s was attacked. Soviet papers called the book “low-grade reactionary hackwork” by a “offended and spiteful Philistine,” “the ally of all those who hate our country and our system” who “has no trace of dignity and patriotism left in [his] soul.”

By 6 AM, people were lining up to buy copies. A newspaper with quotes from the book and a circulation of 880,000 was sold out within hours, according to the authors of The Zhivago Affair.

The CIA talked about literature in military terms, calling books “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda.” CIA officials partnered with Dutch spies to print a Russian-language version of the novel illegally, and distribute it at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. In DC, the agency also printed pocket-sized copies. (Small trim sizes were easier to smuggle.) They went for a week’s wages on the black market.

In a memo to all branch chiefs of the Soviet Russia Division, the CIA said they had chosen this book “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’s a pretty winning sales pitch, don’t you think?

Boris Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 and he and his family endured so much pressure from their own government that he had to decline it. The media jumped on his personal story, and the CIA was delighted.

Years after Pasternak’s death, Nikita Khushchev, the Soviet leader who had worked so hard to ban the book, said he regretted banning it. “There was nothing anti-Soviet in it,” he said.

Funding art and literary projects under the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the CIA took an interest many other literary instituions, including writing programs and small literary magazines like The Partisan Review, The Kenyon Review, and Encounter.

In a piece for Salon, Joel Whitney called the CIA’s interest in literature “a covert international weapon of soft power.” Eric Bennett said in The Chronicle of Higher Education that the Iowa Writers Workshop “attained national eminence by capitalizing on the fears and hopes of the Cold War.”

Though the other books it worked to publish aren’t as well known as this one, the CIA took the power of publishing seriously. As the CIA’s then-chief said in 1961, “Books differ from all other propaganda media primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.”


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.