April 8, 2014

Newly disclosed documents reveal CIA plan to use Doctor Zhivago as propaganda


Boris Pasternak ©Olga Povova / Via Shutterstock.com

Boris Pasternak
© Olga Povova / Via Shutterstock.com

Newly declassified documents show that the Central Intelligence Agency ran a top-secret campaign to use Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago as anti-Soviet propaganda behind the Iron Curtain. The Washington Post ran an excerpt this weekend from the upcoming book The Zhivago Affair by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, detailing the content of documents that they unearthed in researching their book. The Post also has a slideshow featuring selected portions of the documents, including a memo from March 1959 titled “Exploitation of Dr. Zhivago” and the stipulation that the “‘hand of the United States government’ was ‘not to be shown in any manner.'”

The titular character in Doctor Zhivago—as well as Pasternak himself—came from what Finn and Couvée describe as “the cultured milieu of the Moscow intelligentsia… a world to be disdained, if summoned at all” in the Soviet Union. They further describe the author’s refusal to submit to censorship:

Pasternak knew that the Soviet publishing world would recoil from the alien tone of Doctor Zhivago, its overt religiosity, its sprawling indifference to the demands of socialist realism and the obligation to genuflect before the October Revolution.

But Pasternak had long displayed an unusual fearlessness: visiting and giving money to the relatives of people who had been sent to the gulag when the fear of taint scared so many others away, intervening with authorities to ask for mercy for those accused of political crimes, and refusing to sign trumped-up petitions demanding execution for those designated enemies of the state.

It came as no surprise that the novel was banned from publication in the USSR, but the manuscript was smuggled to Italy and published in Italian in 1957, with translations into eighteen other languages licensed by publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, including an English edition. In January 1958, the CIA received a package from British intelligence with photos of the book’s text and a suggestion that the US get copies of the book into the hands of the Russian people in order to foment anti-Communist sentiment.

The plan to use Doctor Zhivago to undermine Soviet authority was led by the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division, overseen by CIA director Allen Dulles. In one of the memos, Soviet Russia Division chief John Maury writes that:

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.

Another memo to CIA staff recommends that the novel “be published in a maximum number of foreign editions, for maximum free world distribution and acclaim and consideration for such honor as the Nobel prize.” While there’s been speculation over the years that part of the agency’s motivation for printing a Russian edition of Doctor Zhivago was to help Pasternak win the Nobel (which the Soviet government forced him to turn down), Finn and Couvée say that there’s “no indication that the agency’s motive for printing a Russian-language edition was to help Pasternak win the prize.”

Despite objections from Feltrinelli, who held the rights to a Russian edition, a cable sent by Dulles confirms that in the eyes of the CIA, the printing that the agency supported was “fully worth trouble in view obvious effect on Soviets.”


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.