US CIA reveals how it used Doctor Zhivago to undermine Soviet Union

US spy agency details how it used Boris Pasternak's Soviet-era classic as a weapon to undermine the authority of the Kremlin among Russians

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 9:53pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 April, 2014, 1:09am

CIA officials had rave reviews for Boris Pasternak's classic Russian novel
Doctor Zhivago - not for its literary merit but as a propaganda weapon in the cold war,
Washington Post reported.

The United States intelligence agency saw the book as a challenge to communism and a way to make Soviet citizens question why their government was suppressing one of their greatest writers, according to newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency's involvement in the book's printing, the
Post said on Sunday.

The Soviet government had banned the novel and British intelligence first recognised its propaganda value in 1958, sending the CIA two rolls of film of its pages and suggesting it be spread through the Soviet Union and eastern Europe.

Moscow was both angered and embarrassed by the eventual success of the novel and of David Lean's lavish 1965 movie version, which won five Academy Awards and was also nominated for the best picture award.

Pasternak's romantic epic chronicles the life of Yuri Zhivago, a physician and poet, and his love for two women through decades of revolutions, wars, civil war and communist oppression.
Doctor Zhivago had a religious, mystical tone and its main character did not follow official Marxist ideology.

Russian critics denounced Pasternak as a traitor and the Soviet publishing industry would not touch it, but an Italian literary scout took a copy of the manuscript out of the Soviet Union and an Italian company published it in 1957.

Shortly afterwards, the CIA became involved, according to recently declassified memos obtained by authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvee in their research for the book
The Zhivago Affair: The
Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, which will be released in June.

Post's story was an adaptation of the Finn-Couvee book.

One of the CIA memos said
Dr Zhivago had high propaganda value "not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication". The memo said: "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."

The CIA decided to have the novel published in foreign languages for free distribution as a way that it could try to undermine the Soviet Union.The CIA wanted to conceal the US role in disseminating
Doctor Zhivago so it brought in a Dutch publishing house to print Russian-language versions, even though the Italian publisher still held the rights to the book.

The books were distributed across Europe with the primary target being the 1958 Brussels Universal and International Exposition because Moscow had issued visas for 16,000 Soviet citizens to attend.

The CIA did not want the US pavilion at the exposition to distribute the book so it was discreetly handed to Soviet citizens visiting the Vatican's pavilion.

The books circulated widely among Soviet visitors to the exposition and a CIA memo proclaimed the move a success.

Later the CIA engineered the publication of a miniature edition of the novel, which was small enough to fit into a pocket and sometimes split into two volumes to make it easier to conceal. Many of those mini-books were distributed to young Soviets and eastern Europeans at a youth conference in Vienna in 1959.

Pasternak, who was also a leading poet, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.

The author remained in Russia up to his death in 1960 at the age of 70 after suffering from severe heart problems and lung cancer.