Boris Pasternak’s epic novel “Doctor Zhivago,” which follows the life of the doctor-poet Yuri Zhivago through the decades spanning 1917’s Russian Revolution, traveled a highly unusual route to publication. After the Soviet Union refused to publish the book due to its independent-minded political stance, an Italian publisher acquired the book and published it in translation in 1957. Soon after that, as a cache of recently declassified CIA documents reveal, the U.S. intelligence agency engineered the book’s publication in the original Russian, hoping to use it as a tool in the United States’ long-running Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Born in 1890, Pasternak (like his protagonist Yuri Zhivago) belonged to an older, cultured Moscow class that by the 1950s was well out of favor with contemporary Soviet culture. In addition to a less-than-worshipful attitude towards the Bolshevik Revolution, “Doctor Zhivago” featured other aspects that made it unacceptable to the Soviet publishing world at the time, including an unapologetic religious fervor and an indifference to socialist causes. Though the USSR refused to publish Pasternak’s novel, an Italian literary scout living in Moscow sent a copy to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a Milan publisher. In November 1957, Feltrinelli published “Doctor Zhivago” in Italian, despite efforts by the Kremlin and the Italian Communist Party to suppress its publication.
As reported in the Washington Post, what happened next is the subject of 130 CIA documents that were recently declassified at the request of Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, authors of a soon-to-be-published book, “The Zhivago Affair.” In January 1958, British intelligence officials sent two rolls of film with photographs of the book’s pages to the CIA. According to subsequent internal memos, the agency’s Soviet Russia Division then began a mission to publish “Doctor Zhivago” in Russian and get it over the Iron Curtain and into the hands of Soviet citizens.
As division chief John Maury wrote: “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.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Operations Coordinating Board, which reported to the National Security Council and oversaw covert activities, gave the go-ahead for the CIA to have exclusive control over the “exploitation” of Pasternak’s novel, provided that “the hand of the United States government” was not visible in the process.
In order to publish “Doctor Zhivago” in the original Russian, the CIA contacted BVD, the Dutch intelligence service, and engineered the publication of a hardcover version in The Hague. Beginning in September 1958, copies from the first print run were transported to CIA stations and assets throughout Western Europe. Copies made their way to Frankfurt, Berlin, Munich, London and Paris, but most of them ended up in Brussels, which was hosting that year’s World’s Fair.
Belgium had issued visas for some 16,000 Soviet visitors attending the fair, which featured pavilions for both the United States and the Soviet Union, along with 43 other nations. Though the United States couldn’t hand “Doctor Zhivago” out at their pavilion, a group of Russian émigré Catholics set up a small library in the Vatican pavilion. There, blue linen-covered copies of the novel were discreetly given to Soviet citizens, many of whom ripped the covers off to better conceal the contraband pages.
In October 1958, the cultural firestorm surrounding the publication of “Doctor Zhivago” reached new heights when Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Furious, officials in the Kremlin treated the award as an anti-Soviet provocation and forced the author to turn it down. The award was a shot of adrenaline for the CIA’s propaganda efforts, though the declassified documents show no indication that helping Pasternak win the Nobel was a specific motive behind the agency’s publication of the book (as has been speculated in the past).
By July 1959, at least 9,000 copies of a pocket-sized edition of “Doctor Zhivago” were printed at CIA headquarters, under the auspices of a (fictitious) French publisher called the Société d’Edition et d’Impression Mondiale. According to CIA records, around 2,000 of these copies were brought to the 1959 World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship, held in Vienna, while others were distributed by “agents who [had] contact with Soviet tourists and officials in the West.” In all, these mini-“Doctor Zhivagos” were among some 10 million copies of books and magazines that the CIA distributed behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.