When the CIA Did Good: The Washington Post presents the Story of How the Agency Distributed Pasternak’s novel, Dr. Zhivago
For many years, the American left-wing had a side business castigating the CIA for waging a “cultural war” in Europe, a propaganda offensive which the left said cast the evil American Empire in a bad light, while the CIA was doing everything possible to subvert the building of socialism throughout the world. In the late 90’s, British author Frances Stonor Saunders made a splash with her book The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. According to Ms. Saunders, “the American government had looked to the cultural Brahmins of the West to lend intellectual weight to its actions,” hence only harming what was one “the moral authority enjoyed by the intelligentsia,” thereby undermining and mocking it.
It is therefore good to be reminded, as we were in Sunday’s Washington Post front page story by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, of how the Agency quickly realized the importance of Russian novelist Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, which eventually became an Oscar-winning movie directed by David Lean, and starring Julie Christie, Omar Sharif, Tom Courtenay, Alec Guinness and Rod Steiger.
This was indeed the heyday of the CIA, and the Agency executives worked quickly and appropriately to get the novel, banned in the Soviet Union, to as many Russian readers as possible. The CIA’s Soviet Russia Division noted that the novel “has great propaganda value,” and hence they had “the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by a man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for people to read.”
In Saunders’ book, of course, she sees that effort as something evil, and she quotes a chief of the Agency’s Covert Action Staff of writing that “one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium,” thus making “books the most important weapon of strategic propaganda.” That goal was to be reached by publishing or distributing such books abroad without revealing the U.S. role. The CIA had a hand in publishing thousands of books, of which Dr. Zhivago was just one example.
So it is not quite so, as the authors of the article and their new book, The Zhivago Affair argue, that the CIA role in getting the novel into the hands of Russians was previously unknown. They do, however, provide the full story with all the details filled in. It is true, as they write, that “the novel galvanized a world largely divided between the competing ideologies of two superpowers,” and that the Agency both published a hardcover Russian edition and a miniature paperback edition printed at CIA headquarters, that could easily be hidden from the hands of the Soviet secret police.
The Communists used to have a slogan, “Art is a weapon.” The CIA realized the truth, and that the Americans could play the game as well or better than the Communists. The Soviet version of reality could easily be challenged by books that told the truth about what life in the West was like, as well as by books that exposed the fundamental rottenness that was the core of the Soviet system. To the Soviet rulers, as the authors write, Pasternak’s novel was “its overt religiosity, its sprawling indifference to the demands of socialist realism and the obligation to genuflect before the October Revolution” made it dangerous reading.