CIA's war of words with the Soviets

New book tells how the CIA used Doctor Zhivago as a weapon against the Soviets, writes Sheila Fitzpatrick

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 3:35pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 July, 2014, 3:35pm

The Zhivago Affair
by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee 
Harvill Secker 
4 stars

Those were the days, that glorious time when high culture used to matter, and the CIA and the KGB fought cold wars about it. But in the era of the World Wide Web, who can take seriously the idea of smuggling books through the iron curtain? It just seems so far away.

For the CIA, it was "something of a caper" to try to flood the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites with forbidden books and periodicals, to show them freedom in action, and introduce them to the idea of cultural diversity. But there was American idealism in there too. It is harder to see any redeeming aspect in the Soviet response, which was purely defensive and involved bullying its own writers.

The spirit of your novel is one of non-acceptance of the socialist revolution
Novy mir journal to boris pasternak, in rejecting his novel 

The Soviet view was that Western culture, in its late capitalist phase, was degenerate and sterile, with the practitioners of high culture alienated from a popular audience. The Soviets thought they had done better in this respect, and in one aspect of the cold war culture wars - the musical one, with Shostakovich and Prokofiev matched against Milton Babbitt and atonality - they possibly had a point.

Literature was another matter. Soviet literature was undergoing a post-Stalinist renaissance in the mid-1950s, associated with reform-minded journals such as Novy Mir ( New World), but the work that excited a Soviet public wasn't necessarily going to appeal to Western readers any more than it appealed to conservative Soviet bureaucrats. That was where the CIA and the Western mass media achieved a miracle: they turned two works of Soviet literary realism - both semi-autobiographical - into international bestsellers and their authors into Nobel Prize winners.

In the second case, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, the subject was the gulag, which made the cold war relevance fairly clear, even though the work was in the "truth-telling" tradition of the Soviet thaw and had first been published in Novy Mir. But the first case, that of Boris Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago, was bizarre: how did a meandering epic novel by a Russian poet, essentially non-political and written in a style not much more modern than John Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga, manage to sell millions of copies in the West, and give birth to a major film?

Pasternak first came to global attention in the mid-1950s when, after failing to find a Soviet publisher for his novel, he sent it to the rich, young, eccentric, communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, in Italy. Denounced in the Soviet Union, the novel received enormous publicity abroad, partly through the CIA's efforts, and this got Pasternak in deeper trouble at home.

In 1958, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature but had to turn it down under Soviet pressure. A hate campaign followed, in which it became clear that the fact that Pasternak was a Jew, albeit from an assimilated family of Christian converts, mattered. Rejecting the option of emigration/expulsion, he stuck it out in his dacha in Peredelkino outside Moscow, where he died in 1960 at the age of 70. Prudent Soviet writers stayed away from the funeral, but foreign journalists were there en masse.

Pasternak was one of the silver-age Russian intellectuals who thought poetry was much more important than politics. Never a Communist Party member, and with the black mark of parents and sisters who had emigrated back in 1920 against him, he nevertheless made a name for himself as a poet, became a member of the Union of Soviet Writers, and was eminent enough to be allocated one of the coveted dachas at the writers' colony at Peredelkino when it was built in the 1930s.

His only novel tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor brought up in the intelligentsia, and his passage through the Russian revolution and its aftermath, including a love story, which fate (or the revolution) blights. It wouldn't have been an easy sell in the Soviet Union, even in the 1956 thaw, but perhaps not an impossible one either.

The fatal fragment was a meditation by Zhivago on the Soviet intelligentsia of which, in the late 1920s, he found himself a member: "Dear friends, oh, how hopelessly ordinary you and the circle you represent … all are. The only live and bright thing in you is that you lived at the same time as me and knew me." That was indeed Pasternak's view of his colleagues in the Writers' Union.

Pasternak sent his novel to Novy Mir in 1956, and it was turned down. This was in contrast to the journal's response a few years later when Solzhenitsyn submitted Ivan Denisovich and the editor waged an epic battle to get it into print.

The trouble was that the Novy Mir people were reform-minded - but they were reform-minded communists who believed in the revolution. As the editors correctly pointed out to Pasternak: "The spirit of your novel is one of non-acceptance of the socialist revolution." His argument, as they saw it, was that the revolution had destroyed Russia's intelligentsia physically and morally, and brought nothing to the people but suffering.

Pasternak had already been approached by an Italian communist journalist to let him take the manuscript to Feltrinelli so that translation could start for an Italian publication that would follow the Soviet launch. It was a risky idea, as Soviet writers were not allowed to publish abroad. Feltrinelli published it in Italian in 1957, without any prior Soviet publication and no prospect of one. It was the beginning of a major international scandal.

The CIA had decided that books were a weapon in the cold war, and exposure to different ideas would change communist societies. With generous funding for cultural promotion (most of it necessarily clandestine or through front organisations), the CIA became "one of the world's largest grant-making institutions", rivalling the Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. A project for sending books into the Soviet Union and eastern Europe was launched in April 1956. At first, the CIA was thinking in terms of modern Western classics in Russian translation (James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; George Orwell's Animal Farm), along with Russian emigre Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin. But then British intelligence sent a microfilm of Doctor Zhivago (Pasternak was recklessly generous in giving out copies to visiting foreigners), and Pasternak's novel became the focus of the campaign.

The Soviets were outraged. It was the decision of Nikita Khrushchev's politburo not to publish this novel by a "bourgeois individualist", moreover a Jew, whose work was marked by "estrangement from Soviet life". The KGB knew about his contact with Feltrinelli from the beginning, and had made great efforts to prevent the Italian publication. Russian newspaper Pravda denounced Pasternak; so did his colleagues in the Writers' Union.

Some years later, after his removal from office in 1964 gave him more time, Khrushchev read Doctor Zhivago for the first time, in a samizdat edition supplied by his son (and perhaps, more distantly, by the CIA). "We shouldn't have banned it," he said. "I should have read it myself. There's nothing anti-Soviet in it." That about sums it up. But the kind of Soviet stupidity that led to its banning was what made the CIA caper possible.

One can see why the CIA - which, according to The Zhivago Affair's authors, Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, is now admitting involvement for the first time, and gave them generous research access - might feel inclined to boast a little.

As cold war operations go, this was one of the good ones: relatively little collateral damage; support for literature; international fame for Pasternak, who thought his work deserved it; and, for the Soviets, a perhaps salutary lesson that the old Stalinist traditions of scapegoating and collective persecution had still to be overcome.

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