Sunday, April 13, 2014

Operation Doctor Zhivago

A collection of 130 CIA documents were recently declassified at the request of authors, Peter Finn and Petra Couvée, of the soon-to-be-published book, The Zhivago Affair. The released CIA documents are revealing that the United States attempted to use the popular novel Doctor Zhivago as a "weapon" against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. 



Doctor Zhivago is named after its protagonist, doctor-poet, Yuri Zhivago, and the hardships he faced and horrors he witnessed during the decades spanning the Russian Revolution. The Soviet Union refused to publish Boris Pasternak's novel due to its "independent-minded political stance, unapologetic religious fervor, and indifference to socialist causes." A 1958 memo from Soviet Division chief John Maury says, "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." To paraphrase: Soviet life = not so much fun. Maury refers to Doctor Zhivago as "the most heretical library work by a Soviet author since Stalin's death."

The Kremlin and Italian Community Party tried to crush the publication but an Italian literary scout living in Moscow sent a copy to a publisher in Milan, who translated the novel and released it in Italian. The United States got wind of the power of the book, and their own Soviet Russia Division began making plans to publish the book in Russian and get it into the hands of Soviet citizens.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Operations Coordinating Board gave the go-ahead for the CIA to exploit Doctor Zhivago while keeping the operation hush-hush. The CIA had the book printed in Russian, but created the fictitious French publishing company, Société d’Edition et d’Impression Mondiale, to take the blame. Sorry France. Thanks for taking one for the team.

Image source: History.com


The 9,000 pocket-sized copies began making their way throughout Europe and were soon smuggled into Russia. The books were among 10 million copies of books and magazines that served as propaganda which were distributed by the CIA to Russia during the Cold War. The book was eventually released and Pasternak went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, but was forced to turn the award down. He died just a few years after the novel's release and missed its painfully too-long film adaptation by just a few years.

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