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When the CIA Did Good: The Washington Post presents the Story of How the Agency Distributed Pasternak's novel, Dr. Zhivago


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.