Politics & Policy

Doctor Zhivago and American Conservatism

Boris Pasternak in October 1958
Pasternak’s novel played a role in sorting out Birchers from mainstream conservatives.

In November 1958, at the height of the Cold War, National Review revealed the CIA’s involvement in disseminating the Russian-language edition of a new novel, Doctor Zhivago, to Soviet citizens. The culmination of the successful CIA operation took place at the Vatican Pavilion during the 1958 Brussels World Fair.

Novelist, poet, and translator Boris Pasternak had labored for ten years on Doctor Zhivago, an epic novel of more than 500 pages in the English translation. After that translation was published in the autumn of 1958, Zhivago rose to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List for fiction and became the topic of literary conversation in the United States.

And because of the CIA’s  involvement, the discussion around Zhivago took on political dimensions.

NRO has previously highlighted National Review’s Cold War reporting on the Zhivago affair: The old National Review Bulletin — an eight-page newsletter that appeared every other week, between issues of the magazine — was the first periodical to mention the CIA’s role in the printing and distribution of the novel.

But the story involving NR and Zhivago doesn’t end there. Conservatives in 1958 and ’59 wondered: Was Zhivago an authentic testament to the horrors of Bolshevism, or a piece of Communist propaganda? Answers to this question were diverse, uncomfortably so.

The debate about Doctor Zhivago revealed divisions that would resurface a few years later, in the early 1960s, when two major conservative constituencies (readers of, and writers for, William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review and members of Robert Welch Jr.’s John Birch Society) became irrevocably estranged, thus changing the landscape of American conservative politics.

Buckley gave his take on the Zhivago controversy in the introduction to his 1959 book, Up From Liberalism. He praised Pasternak as a “triumph of man over ideology.” Of Doctor Zhivago specifically, he later wrote in a letter to Welch that he “found in it an engrossing poetical indictment of Communism.”

Robert Welch and the more radical American Opinion, the John Birch Society’s monthly magazine, thought differently. In the February 1959 issue of American Opinion, the editors proclaimed the publication of Zhivago to be a part of the Communist conspiracy. The “damning” facts that prove the novel’s Communist character? 1) Pasternak never explicitly praises capitalism. 2) Nor does he obviously and unequivocally condemn revolutionary socialism. 3) The religious sentiments expressed in the novel are forced and “unconvincing.”

Western intellectuals’ warm reception of Zhivago, as well as its wild popularity among Western readers, was, according to American Opinion, cause for celebration in the capitals of Communism. Yes, Moscow and Tito’s Belgrade were both in on the deceit — even though the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia had been at odds since 1948.

America Opinion’s staggering “revelations” triggered a stinging rebuttal from Eugene Lyons in the pages of National Review. Lyons, a seasoned warrior of the anti-Communist crusade, had a rich insider’s perspective on the Soviet state. A native speaker of Russian, Lyons had worked in Moscow for the United Press from 1928 to 1934. (He was in fact the first foreign correspondent to obtain an interview with Josef Stalin, in 1930.) Lyons regularly contributed to NR in its early years, in addition to holding down a post as a senior editor for Reader’s Digest.

In rebutting American Opinion’s accusations, Lyons reminded the readers of Buckley’s magazine that the Soviet authorities had suppressed the publication of Zhivago behind the Iron Curtain. Lyons’s polemic, which was titled “Folklore of the Right,” went on to mention that the Soviet authorities had essentially forced Pasternak to decline the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. Not only that, but Pasternak was publicly denounced by the Soviet literary establishment. Lyons claimed that these two facts undermine American Opinion’s paranoid reading.

Like Buckley, Lyons discovered an anti-Soviet message in Pasternak’s poeticized prose: “[Pasternak] exalts man above the State, life above terrestrial dogma . . . , conscience above conformity, religious insights above sociological forms.”

The very title of Lyons’s fiery response, “Folklore of the Right,” reflects a deliberate effort to nudge conservatism away from Welch’s conspiratorial reasoning, for Welch’s sort of provocative conjecture was thought to undercut the exposure of “genuine Communist duplicities.”

Both Lyons and Buckley worried about the direction of the conservative movement. American conservatism was in a fragile stage of early development in the late 1950s. The conservative wing’s victory over the liberals within the Republican party with the 1964 Goldwater nomination, and then its glorious national ascendancy culminating in the Reagan presidency, were far off on the horizon during the opening months of 1959.

Robert Welch did not take kindly to Buckley’s bold — and, in hindsight, extraordinarily formative — editorial decision.

Robert Welch did not take kindly to Buckley’s bold — and, in hindsight, extraordinarily formative — editorial decision. As he read Lyons’s piece, Welch was outraged, though it wasn’t till months later that, in a letter to Buckley, he labeled the article “condescending ridicule.”

But Welch had voiced his indignation publicly in his own periodical before he admitted his sore feelings to Buckley in their private correspondence. In an April 1959 American Opinion editorial, Welch restated his case for the Communist dimensions of Doctor Zhivago. He claimed that Lyons’s criticism of him was “unchivalrous” and “decidedly unfair.”

Welch even had some critical words for Buckley and NR, if only implicitly: “we [the editors of American Opinion] have done all we could, as a practical matter and in our small way, to help other persons, groups and periodicals in the anti-Communist cause.” (Italics in original.)

Welch’s italicization of “periodicals” is a not altogether subtle reminder of National Review’s debt to him. He had donated $2,000 to the magazine during its cash-strapped early years. The 1959 message from Welch, the moneyed elder with extensive business connections, to Buckley, the 30-something upstart struggling to increase his magazine’s readership, was clear: Do not bite the hand that feeds you.

Relations between the two camps worsened in the early 1960s. Eventually, with the publication of a special feature in the October 19, 1965, issue of National Review, Buckley and his merry band attempted to permanently banish Welch and the Birch mentality from the mainstream of the Right. This was no easy task. In his forthcoming biography of Buckley, historian Alvin S. Felzenberg recounts the tale of the prolonged battle between Buckley and Welch, which brims with fascinating twists and turns. But among the most fascinating was the disagreement of the two men over Pasternak, which can be seen as one of the first episodes in the eventual rift between their respective camps.

Eventually, as the Goldwater nomination and the eventual Reagan election attest, the Buckley wing prevailed. Buckley himself regarded the successful excommunication of faux-conservative “kooks” as one of his most important contributions to American political life.

— Benjamin Musachio is an undergraduate studying Slavic literature and philosophy at Stanford University. He would like to thank the Hoover Institution Library & Archives, Professor Alvin Felzenberg, and Professor Lazar Fleishman for their generous support. 

 

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