Archive for April 7th, 2014

News that’s not news: CIA funded Dr. Zhivago

Monday, April 7th, 2014
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No trip to Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Hoover Institution)

The internet is all abuzz with the news that the CIA funded Boris Pasternak‘s classic Doctor Zhivago.

Except that this is not news. I wrote about Pasternak, who was awarded a 1958 Nobel Prize that the U.S.S.R. would not allow him to accept, here.  An excerpt from the 2007 article, featuring a Stanford conference on Pasternak’s famous book:

The Nobel lightning bolt came not a moment too soon for Pasternak. Dark political clouds had been gathering around him. Without the prize, the poet might have faced more obvious persecution—poet Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp, poet Marina Tsvetaeva was hounded to her suicide. Both were friends of Pasternak.

Doctor Zhivago was published in Milan. Albert Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, nominated it for a Nobel. However, the book required publication in its original language to be considered. There was little financial motive for a non-Russian publisher to publish a book in Russian, and huge disincentives for Russian publishers, who faced long imprisonment in a very cold place—or worse. In recent years, researcher Ivan Tolstoi has revealed details of how the CIA financed a Russian translation of the book. Tolstoi is one of the speakers at the Stanford event. He will be speaking in Russian on a panel. A discussion in English will follow.

Tolstoi told the Moscow News this year that “both sides during the Cold War used different methods, but as for ideological subversion of Soviet power, the Americans always used above-board methods. Instead of using poison, derailing trains and kidnapping, the CIA subverted the Kremlin by Russian culture, which the Soviets were prohibited to know or remember.”

“Thanks to the fact that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, Pasternak wasn’t arrested,” Tolstoi told Radio Free Europe last year. “This deed by the CIA served to ennoble and save Pasternak. The actions of American intelligence saved a great Russian poet.”

The CIA similarly published Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others. “Such a reprehensible organization—and such nice deeds,” Tolstoi told the Moscow News. “How is that for thinking evil, but doing good.”

At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, copies of Doctor Zhivago were distributed by a Russian-speaking priest at the Vatican Pavilion. The ground nearby was reportedly littered with the dark-blue binding. Russians tore it off so the book could be divided in half, one for each pocket—it was a huge book, and Russians could assume they were being watched. With samizdat redistribution in the Soviet Union, it achieved fame on the underground book market.

Pasternak's_Doctor_Zhivago_-_Flickr_-_The_Central_Intelligence_Agency

Skip the movie. Read the book.

It would be 30 years before the book was published in its native land. Its launch heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the “Warsaw bloc” of socialist countries.

[Nikita] Khrushchev, after his own fall from power, expressed regret for the hounding of Pasternak. He had entrusted the matter to others, he said, and only realized later, when he had had a chance to look through the book himself, that he had been misled.

“In connection with Doctor Zhivago, some might say it’s too late for me to express regret that the book wasn’t published,” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs. “Yes, maybe it is too late. But better late than never.”

It was known that the CIA was underwriting other efforts, such as the YMCA Press in Paris, which published Aleksander Solzhenitsyn‘s astonishing Gulag Archipelago. That’s what made the work of Ardis so astonishing – it didn’t.

So what’s new?  The Washington Post article here makes use of 130 newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency’s secret involvement in the printing, so it’s worth a read. It’s just not the lightning bolt it’s made out to be.