How CIA Got Doctor Zhivago into Russia

Geraldine Chaplin and Omar Sharif during the filming of 'Doctor Zhivago' directed by David Lean in Canillejas, 1965, in Madrid.

Photograph by Gianni Ferrari/Cover/Getty Images

Geraldine Chaplin and Omar Sharif during the filming of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ directed by David Lean in Canillejas, 1965, in Madrid.

Doctor Zhivago is regarded as one of the world’s great works of literature (it also made a fantastic film).

But its author, Borris Pasternak, never thought his epic novel would be published in his home country because it would be seen as too critical of the Soviet state and its history. He was right. Soviet censors banned it.

However, Doctor Zhivago was published in Italy and then around the world. Over time, a Russian-langauge edition was printed and smuggled into the Soviet Union, where it was sold on the black market and passed from reader to reader.

Thanks to a new book, “The Zhivago Affair,” we now know who was responsible for the book making its way to Russia: the CIA.

I asked Peter Finn, the book’s co-author and a Washington Post national security editor, a few questions via email about his work, which Kirkus Reviews calls a “fast-paced political thriller about a book that terrified a nation.”  (We are former Post colleagues and share the same literary agency).

Q: Where did you get the idea to write the book?

A: “I came to the story in Moscow in 2007 when I wrote a story for the Washington Post about a Russian writer’s claim that the CIA published Doctor Zhivago in Russian to win the Nobel Prize for Pasternak. The CIA documents which we obtained while researching this book now show that was not true. The agency’s goal was simply to get the novel, which was banned in the Soviet Union, into the hands of Soviet citizens.

“While still in Moscow, I began to read about Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago–the decade Pasternak spent writing it; his deeply ambivalent relationship with the Soviet state; the strange bond between him and Stalin; and the hostile official reaction to Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak was never imprisoned but the state exploited his messy private life and struck at him indirectly by sending his mistress to the Gulag twice.

“Pasternak gave the manuscript to an Italian publisher. The Kremlin in conjunction with the Italian Communist Party attempted to intimidate both the author and publisher, stop publication in Milan, and get the novel back. They failed. In October 1958, Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Kremlin treated the award as an anti-Soviet provocation and forced Pasternak to renounce it. The elderly author — he was now 68 — was subject to an extraordinary campaign of vilification and described as a traitor and a Judas in the pages of Pravda and by the Kremlin leadership.

“Pasternak was driven to the brink of suicide. He died 18 months later and some people have said his treatment contributed to his death. Pasternak’s funeral, an extraordinary scene which we describe in the book, was attended by a huge crowd and, in effect, was one of the first public demonstrations in the Soviet Union. That is essentially the arc of our story, from the creation of the novel to Pasternak’s death. It is a story that is party about the CIA but mostly about Pasternak. It was a story that hadn’t been told as a single narrative in English at least since Robert Conquest’s The Pasternak Affair in 1961.

“An enormous amount of material had emerged since the end of the Cold War, including central committee and other official Soviet files and the memoirs, diaries and correspondence of participants in these events. My co-author Petra Couvee, who is from Leiden in the Netherlands, and I were introduced by a Dutch writer after my Post story on the CIA and Zhivago appeared. Petra is a Slavist by training, speaks Russian, and lives in St. Petersburg—all of which helped her absorb the Russian material about Pasternak and the novel and work in the Russian archives. We decided to team up and agreed that while the back story of the novel was a fascinating tale on its own, any book should try and bring something fresh and original to the table. The obvious outstanding question for us was the role of the CIA. And we set about trying to get any documents about the agency’s role declassified.”

Q:  In your book, Pasternak emerges as a complex figure who didn’t think Doctor Zhivago would ever be published in Russia. What did you learn about Pasternak that might surprise us today? What would his reaction be if he knew the CIA was behind publishing a Russian edition?

A: “I think Pasternak would have been very unhappy to learn that the CIA had the novel printed. He hated when the Western press selectively quoted from the novel to play up its anti-Soviet character. Pasternak preferred to think of himself, and the novel, as above politics. Pasternak was completely determined to have the novel published and to gain as wide an audience as possible, but he also did not want Doctor Zhivago exploited for political purposes. Pasternak had a very acute sense of his own role as an artist and he was able to draw great reserves of courage from that self-confidence. His is an enduring example of the power of literature, the power of words, to challenge official ideology.”

Q: As you were doing your extensive research, which clearly relied on everything from interviews to combing archives, did you ever have a “Holy Cow” moment, where you were just shocked by what you learned?

A: “Finally getting the CIA documents was that moment. They finally revealed, in detail, what the CIA did, and did not do 50 years ago when it organized two separate printings of Doctor Zhivago. The declassified documents were sent by regular mail to my house. I first approached the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs in 2009 and the response I got back was that the agency was not interested in cooperating with a book on the subject. I understood that exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act meant that I would likely get nothing if I went that route. Instead, I spoke to a number of retired officers through whose good offices the subject was brought to the attention of the CIA’s Historical Records Division.

“The agency’s in-house historians became interested in the subject and oversaw the release. It took three years from when I first approached the agency to obtaining the material. We got the documents in redacted form and we were able to tease out most of the critical names we needed for the story from other public records. All of this is in our footnotes. What was most striking about the material was the enthusiasm of CIA officers writing about Doctor Zhivago in internal memos. Here’s John Maury, the Soviet Russia Division chief, writing in July 1958: “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.

“There is no call to revolt against the regime in the novel, but the heresy which Dr. Zhivago preaches— political passivity— is fundamental. Pasternak suggests that the small unimportant people who remain passive to the regime’s demands for active participation and emotional involvement in official campaigns are superior to the political `activists’ favored by the system. Further, he dares hint that society might function better without these fanatics.”

Q: Many people don’t realize that the CIA was a major publisher of literature and believed that publishing books — everything from Doctor Zhivago to James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. What was behind that push? Was it just to try to destabilize the Soviet regime or did the guys running the CIA — the Ivy League crew — have a love of words, too?

A: “They had a love of words. The CIA in the 1950s was full of literature graduates and aspiring and frustrated writers. It’s one of the things that make it such an interesting place in that period. But it is a spy agency not a literary society so its operations had to have purpose. The CIA recognized the importance of literature within Soviet society and how fiction might over time change attitudes and beliefs. That was the goal of the book program–to very gradually have Soviet citizens, particularly the intelligentsia, question the system under which they lived.”



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