'Doctor Zhivago' Used by CIA as Propaganda Tool, Book Reveals


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The CIA praised Boris Pasternak's novel, Doctor Zhivago, not necessarily because of its literary merits, but because the agency saw it as a propaganda tool during the Cold War, the Washington Post reported Saturday.

The U.S. intelligence agency viewed Pasternak's novel as a challenge to Communism, and supporting it as a way to make Soviet citizens question why their government was suppressing one of their greatest writers, according to recently declassified CIA documents that disclose the agency's involvement in the publication of the book, the Post said.

The Soviet government had banned the novel in 1958. Recognizing the book's value as a piece of propaganda then, British intelligence sent the CIA two rolls of film of the pages of Doctor Zhivago, and suggested it be dispersed through the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

“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.”

Pasternak's romantic epic follows the life of Yuri Zhivago, a physician and poet, and his love for two women through decades of revolutions, wars, civil war and Communist oppression. Doctor Zhivago had a religious tone, and its main character did not follow official Marxist ideology.

Russian critics denounced Pasternak as a traitor and the Soviet publishing industry would not publish the novel. An Italian literary scout took a copy of the manuscript out of the Soviet Union and an Italian company published Doctor Zhivago in 1957.

Shortly after the book was published, the CIA became involved, according to recently declassified memos obtained by authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvee in their research for the book The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.

Pasternak was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, and the story was adapted into a critically acclaimed film by David Lean in 1965. The film won five Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Picture.

The Finn-Couvee book will be released in June.

Image via Wikimedia Commons