The Doctor Is In

by John J. Miller

During the Cold War, the CIA launched a secret effort to promote the novel Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak as a piece of subversive literature behind the Iron Curtain, according to a forthcoming book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée — an excerpt of which appeared in the Washington Post over the weekend.

“This book has great propaganda value,” a CIA memo to all branch chiefs of the agency’s Soviet Russia Division stated, “not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: 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 memo is one of more than 130 newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency’s secret involvement in the printing of “Doctor Zhivago” — an audacious plan that helped deliver the book into the hands of Soviet citizens who later passed it friend to friend, allowing it to circulate in Moscow and other cities in the Eastern Bloc. The book’s publication and, later, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Pasternak triggered one of the great cultural storms of the Cold War.

Because of the enduring appeal of the novel and a 1965 film based on it, “Doctor Zhivago” remains a landmark work of fiction. Yet few readers know the trials of its birth and how the novel galvanized a world largely divided between the competing ideologies of two superpowers. The CIA’s role — with its publication of a hardcover Russian-language edition printed in the Netherlands and a miniature, paperback edition printed at CIA headquarters — has long been hidden.

National Review even plays a part in the story:

The spies in Washington watched the coverage with some dismay, and on Nov. 15, 1958, the CIA was first linked to the printing by the National Review Bulletin, a newsletter supplement for subscribers to the National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley Jr.

A writer using the pseudonym Quincy observed with approval that copies of “Doctor Zhivago” had been quietly shipped to the Vatican pavilion in Brussels: “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.”

Via Martin Morse Wooster.