Washington: A secret package arrived at CIA headquarters in January 1958. Inside were two rolls of film from British intelligence – pictures of the pages of a Russian-language novel titled Doctor Zhivago.
The book, by poet Boris Pasternak, had been banned from publication in the Soviet Union. The British were suggesting that the CIA get copies of the novel behind the Iron Curtain. The idea immediately gained traction in Washington.
"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.
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.
The newly disclosed documents indicate that the operation to publish the book was run by the CIA's Soviet Russia Division, monitored by CIA director Allen Dulles and sanctioned by President Dwight Eisenhower's Operations Coordinating Board, which reported to the National Security Council at the White House. The board, which oversaw covert activities, gave the CIA exclusive control over the novel's "exploitation".
The "hand of the United States government" was "not to be shown in any manner", according to the records.
The documents were provided at the request of the authors for a book, The Zhivago Affair, due to be published in the US on June 17.
During the Cold War, the CIA loved literature – novels, short stories, poems. Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. Books were weapons, and if a work of literature was unavailable or banned in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, it could be used as propaganda to challenge the Soviet version of reality. Over the course of the Cold War, as many as 10 million copies of books and magazines were secretly distributed by the agency behind the Iron Curtain as part of a political warfare campaign.
In this light, Doctor Zhivago was a golden opportunity for the CIA. Both epic and autobiographical, Pasternak's novel revolves around the doctor-poet Yuri Zhivago: his art, loves and losses in the decades surrounding the 1917 Russian Revolution.
The Soviet literary establishment refused to touch Doctor Zhivago but a Milan publisher had received a copy of the manuscript from an Italian literary scout working in Moscow. In June 1956, Pasternak signed a contract with the publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who would resist all efforts by the Kremlin and the Italian Communist Party to suppress the book.
In November 1957, an Italian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago was released. In Washington, Soviet experts quickly saw why Moscow loathed Doctor Zhivago. In a memo in July 1958, John Maury, the Soviet Russia Division chief, wrote that the book was a clear threat to the world view the Kremlin was determined to present: "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," he wrote.
In an internal memo shortly after the appearance of the novel in Italy, CIA staff members recommended that Doctor Zhivago "be published in a maximum number of foreign editions, for maximum free world distribution and acclaim and consideration for such honour as the Nobel prize".
As its main target for distribution, the agency selected the first postwar world's fair, the 1958 Brussels Universal and International Exposition, at which 43 nations were participating.
What was especially interesting to the CIA: the fair offered one of those rare occasions when large numbers of Soviet citizens travelled to an event in the West. Belgium had issued 16,000 visas to Soviet visitors.
After first attempting to arrange a secret printing of the novel through a small New York publisher, the CIA contacted the Dutch intelligence service, the BVD. Agency officials had been following reports of the possible publication of Doctor Zhivago in Russian by an academic publishing house in The Hague and asked whether it would be possible to obtain an early run of copies.
In early September 1958, the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago rolled off the printing press. The books were wrapped in brown paper and dated September 6. Two hundred copies were sent to headquarters in Washington. Most of the remaining books were sent to CIA stations or assets in western Europe. The largest package, 365 books, was sent to Brussels.
Doctor Zhivago could not be handed out at the US pavilion at the world's fair, but the CIA had an ally nearby: the Vatican. Russian emigre Catholics had set up a small library just off the pavilion's Chapel of Silence, a place to reflect on the suppression of Christian communities around the world. There, the CIA-sponsored edition of Doctor Zhivago was pressed into the hands of Soviet citizens. Soon the book's blue linen covers were littering the fairgrounds.
The CIA was quite pleased with itself. "This phase can be considered completed successfully," read a September 10, 1958, memo.
There was only one problem: The CIA had anticipated that the Dutch publisher would sign a contract with Feltrinelli, Pasternak's Milan publisher, and that the books handed out in Brussels would be seen as part of that print run. The contract was never signed, and the Russian-language edition printed in The Hague was illegal. The Italian publisher, who held the rights to Doctor Zhivago, was furious when he learnt about the distribution of the novel in Brussels. The furor sparked press interest and rumours, never confirmed, of involvement by the CIA.
The CIA concluded that the printing was, in the end, "fully worth trouble in view obvious effect on Soviets", according to a November 5, 1958, cable sent by Mr Dulles, the director. The agency's efforts, after all, had been re-energised by the awarding of the Nobel prize in literature to Pasternak the previous month. The Kremlin treated the award as an anti-Soviet provocation, vilified the author, and forced Pasternak to turn it down.
Prompted by the attacks on Pasternak in Moscow and the international publicity surrounding the campaign to demonise him, the CIA's Soviet Russia Division began to firm up plans for a miniature paperback edition.
Officials at the agency reviewed all the difficulties with the Mouton edition and argued against any outside involvement in a new printing. The agency already had its own press in Washington to print miniature books, and over the course of the Cold War it had printed a small library of literature – each book designed to fit "inside a man's suit or trouser pocket".
By July 1959, at least 9000 copies of a miniature edition of Doctor Zhivago had been printed
CIA records state that the miniature books were passed out by "agents who [had] contact with Soviet tourists and officials in the West". Two thousand copies of this edition were also set aside for dissemination to Soviet and Eastern European students at the 1959 World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship, which was to be held in Vienna.
Occasionally it was not only available, but unavoidable at the festival. When a Soviet convoy of buses arrived in Vienna, crowds of Russian emigres swarmed them and tossed copies of the CIA's miniature edition through the open windows. On another occasion, a Soviet visitor to the youth festival recalled returning to his bus and finding the cabin covered with pocket editions of Doctor Zhivago.
Soviet students were watched by the KGB, who fooled no one when they described themselves as "researchers" at the festival. The Soviet "researchers" proved more tolerant than might have been expected.
"Take it, read it," they said, "but by no means bring it home."
Adapted from The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee.
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