Ron Radosh

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.

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John Maury, chief of the Soviet division, understood that it was a “clear threat to the worldview the Kremlin was determined to prevent.” He put it this way:

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.

To put it in different words, the obvious truth all by itself was dangerous for Soviet citizens to read. Hence even novels were considered dangerous, and the Kremlin regularly banned the works of its own authors that were not approved by the Party’s censors.

Pasternak would eventually win The Nobel Prize for literature, something for which the Agency cannot take credit (the Soviets forced Pasternak to turn it down). Its leaders, however, were prescient enough to know great literature when they came upon it. Hence they saw to it that the book would be handed out to Russian visitors who had been allowed to attend the 1958 “Universal and International Exposition” held in Brussels. Rather than give it out at the American government’s pavilion, the copies were distributed at the Vatican pavilion, thereby enabling the US to deny having anything to do with it. They also saw to it that the novel was distributed at the 1959 Soviet-run World Festival of Youth and Students held in Vienna.

One other revelation in today’s story bares mentioning. The authors cite a Nov. 15, 1958 memo linking the CIA to publication and distribution of the novel to a newsletter sent to subscribers of National Review, the publication founded and edited by William F. Buckley, Jr. Its readers saw the following passage, ostensibly written by someone named “Quincy”:

That quaint workshop of amateur subversion, the Central Intelligence Agency, may be exorbitantly expensive but from time to time it produces some noteworthy goodies. This summer, for instance, [the] CIA forgot its feud with some of our allies and turned on our enemies — and mirabile dictu, succeeded most nobly. . . . In Moscow these books were passed from hand to hand as avidly as a copy of Fanny Hill in a college dormitory.

Buckley, who had of course worked for the CIA himself before starting the publication for which he became famous, obviously wrote that passage, as those familiar with his wit and humor can immediately recognize by its style. Were Buckley still among us, I’m sure he would have been immensely pleased to be reading this story in the Sunday paper.

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And so, the CIA chief urged Americans who had contact with Soviet citizens to use the novel to engage them in a discussion of the merits of free speech and the worthiness of individual freedom and compare it to the plight of the Soviet citizen living in an unfree society. Whether or not travelers to the Soviet bloc countries did this is unknown, and of course, in those days there were not too many Western tourists running to see the Soviet Union.

Even the KGB agents watching Russian students at the Youth Festival in Vienna were not immune to the novel’s power. The article ends with a nice anecdote. The agents told Russian students to take the book and read it, but leave it in Vienna and not try to bring it into the USSR when they returned home.

It is good to be reminded that as our security agencies are denigrated and regularly attacked, to know that in the heady days of the Cold War, they called some things correctly and took the right steps.

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Cross-posted at PJ Lifestyle