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The CIA’s ‘Zhivago’

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Mondadori/Getty Images
Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya at his dacha in Peredelkino, late 1950s

In its headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the CIA has a museum that’s not generally open to the public. The museum’s function, according to its website, is to “inform, instruct and inspire” members of the CIA as they practice the craft of intelligence.1 Among its prize exhibits, alongside the Enigma encryption machine, a semi-submersible submarine, and Osama bin Laden’s AK-47, is an unassuming paperback book measuring five-and-a-half inches high, three-and-a-half inches wide, and three quarters of an inch thick. It’s a pocket edition of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, six hundred pages printed on bible paper for smuggling purposes. The caption reads: “Copy of the original Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago, covertly published by the CIA. The front cover and the binding identify the book in Russian; the back of the book states that it was printed in France.”

So far as I know, it’s the only literary exhibit in the museum and its presence in such incongruous surroundings indicates the importance the CIA once placed on “soft” warfare and propaganda, though when exactly the book was put there and information about it released online is not clear. For over half a century the CIA kept totally quiet about its involvement with Doctor Zhivago and only very recently admitted to it. Perhaps it was in 2009, when the Russian journalist and broadcaster Ivan Tolstoy published The Laundered Novel: Doctor Zhivago between the KGB and the CIA, the first serious investigation of the subject for many years. The museum’s caption refers to Tolstoy’s book as “alleging that the CIA had secretly arranged for the publication of a limited-run, Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago,” but coyly adds (as if the museum had no connection with its bosses), “the CIA officially declined to comment on Tolstoy’s conclusions.”

Perhaps that will change now, with the publication of two new books, Inside the Zhivago Storm: The Editorial Adventures of Pasternak’s Masterpiece by Paolo Mancosu, and especially The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée. The authors of both books describe in great detail the way the CIA successfully covered its tracks and the mechanisms it used to get a Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago published in Europe with great speed, but Finn and Couvée have a trump card in the form of a collection of “approximately 135” declassified CIA documents that reveal the thinking behind the operation and the many missteps in carrying out what was till then a completely unfamiliar enterprise. There is a vast literature about Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago, and much of it has referred to the CIA’s involvement in the novel’s publication either in passing or at length, but no one has previously had access to firsthand material of this nature.2 Fortunately, Finn and Couvée’s book is about far more than the CIA. They cover every aspect of the Zhivago affair in detail, from Pasternak’s early life and the origins of his novel to the bombshell of its first publication in 1957, the nature of the CIA’s intervention, and the aftermath for Pasternak and his associates.

It took Pasternak half a lifetime to write Doctor Zhivago. A poet of genius in his youth, he had less facility with prose, yet decided early in his career that he wanted to write a “big,” nineteenth-century style novel “with a love intrigue and a heroine in it—like Balzac.” His subject would be the February and October revolutions and the civil war between Reds and Whites, all of which he had lived through and experienced personally. He made a start on the novel in 1932, when he was still sanguine about the revolution’s outcome, but destroyed most of what he had written when Stalin’s Great Terror and the purges put an end to his optimism and made it too dangerous to write down his true thoughts at all.

Pasternak had two brushes with Stalin during the next few years, the first in 1934, when Stalin phoned him out of the blue to ask his opinion of Osip Mandelstam, newly arrested for composing a biting epigram about the dictator. Pasternak knew the epigram, but waffled so much in his reply that Stalin apparently accused him of not sufficiently sticking up for a friend. As news of their conversation raced around the grapevine, some accused him of cowardice, though Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda, didn’t agree. Later, when Pasternak’s name appeared on a list of people to be executed, Stalin apparently said contemptuously, “Leave the ‘holy fool’ [a sobriquet that has also been translated as ‘cloud-dweller’] alone.”

Pasternak deliberately cultivated an image of modesty and otherworldliness (“what century is it outside?” was an oft-quoted line from one of his poems) and played possum throughout the purges, surviving while preserving his integrity, a rare feat in those times. It seemed unlikely that the cloud-dweller would toss a bomb as explosive as Doctor Zhivago into the stagnant Soviet pool a couple of decades later, but his experiences with Stalin, especially the Mandelstam affair, and other compromises he made during the Terror left a residue of guilt and remorse that certainly figured among his motives.

Pasternak returned to his novel in 1946, encouraged by the brief easing of Soviet repression during World War II and a deep patriotism that impelled him to speak out. Another powerful stimulus that year was his encounter in the offices of the literary magazine Novy Mir with a young editor and translator named Olga Ivinskaya. Pasternak, fifty-six and married to his second wife, Zinaida, with two sons at home, was completely dazzled by Olga’s movie star looks and smoldering sensuality. She was ardent, talented, energetic, and—unlike his wife—passionate about literature. “My life, my angel, I love you truly,” he wrote soon after meeting her, showering her with books and letters and extravagant compliments. Olga, twenty-two years his junior and a single mother, with two young children of her own, was awed and flattered by the famous poet’s attentions. Encountering Pasternak, she wrote in her memoir, was like meeting a god.

Soon they were taking long walks together, then they were lovers, and before long, Olga became Pasternak’s unofficial secretary and personal assistant as well, for which she was to pay dearly. In 1949 she was arrested for “anti-Soviet political activities” (Pasternak himself was too famous to be touched) and sentenced to five years in the Gulag—reduced to four as the result of the Stalin amnesty in 1953. Many thought she and Pasternak would split up after that, but Olga had apparently miscarried Pasternak’s child in prison, and in addition to feeling guilty about her incarceration, he felt she had saved his life by refusing to betray him during lengthy interrogations by the KGB. He wrote their relationship into Doctor Zhivago, and included many of the poems he dedicated to her in the twenty-six he appended to the novel.

By 1954 the novel was finished. Its plot, too convoluted to summarize in any detail, follows the life and wanderings of Yuri Zhivago, a dreamy young doctor swept up in World War I, then the revolution, then the civil war, while moving back and forth between European Russia and western Siberia. Through a series of coincidences he has repeated encounters with a young nurse, Larissa (Lara) Guichard, and though both are married, they embark on a passionate affair. They are separated when Zhivago is kidnapped by Red partisans during the civil war and forced to serve as their medical officer. Released at the end of the war, Yuri spends some idyllic months with Lara, before persuading her to travel to eastern Siberia, while he returns to Moscow and has two children with another woman before dying of a heart attack. Lara manages to attend the funeral and is then arrested and flung into the Gulag. The novel ends with two family friends meeting an orphaned laundry girl during World War II and concluding that she is the daughter of Yuri and Lara.

Pasternak submitted Doctor Zhivago to Novy Mir and the journal Znamya in early 1956, and it was months before a reply came back, partly because the KGB had to be given time to investigate Pasternak’s counterrevolutionary views and partly because discussions of the novel had gone all the way up to the Presidium of the Party’s Central Committee, where it was characterized as “a malicious libel.” In September 1956 Pasternak received a formal letter signed by five members of Novy Mir’s editorial board offering a detailed analysis of the plot and explaining what was wrong with it. Pasternak was judged to be alienated from the society he lived in and anti-Soviet in his views, and there could be no question of publishing his novel.

Meanwhile, rumors of the novel’s existence had spread far and wide among literary circles, and soon a young Italian journalist, Sergio d’Angelo, came calling at Pasternak’s dacha to ask if he would consider having it published in Italy. The proposed publisher was a Communist, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, which would make it more palatable, in d’Angelo’s view. Pasternak wasn’t convinced by the argument, but eventually handed the young man a typescript, adding with a grim laugh, “You are hereby invited to my execution” (translated by d’Angelo as “face the firing squad”).

D’Angelo carried off the prized text, setting off a months-long correspondence between Pasternak and Feltrinelli, carried on clandestinely through a variety of intermediaries, with the active participation of Ivinskaya. Much, but not all of it, was intercepted and copied by the KGB. The Soviet authorities, through the Writers’ Union, brought immense pressure on Pasternak to get the novel back, and the Italian Communist Party put pressure on Feltrinelli. There were even promises of a suitably toned-down version being published in the Soviet Union, but it was too late. Pasternak told Isaiah Berlin, who was appalled by his action and tried to dissuade him, that he was ready to sacrifice his life if necessary. He was so determined that he gave Berlin a copy to take back to England with him, secretly smuggled another copy to Jacqueline de Proyart, a Russian-speaking friend in France, and gave a fourth to George Katkov (a prominent émigré historian also based in England). By now Pasternak almost didn’t care who published his novel, as long as it appeared in print somewhere.

The nature of Pasternak’s anguish, frustration, and joy over the complex negotiations needed to realize his dream can be seen in Paolo Mancosu’s Inside the Zhivago Storm, which gives us the complete correspondence between Pasternak and Feltrinelli for the first time. Pasternak’s torments are paralleled by the young Feltrinelli’s less mortal but still stormy combat with the Italian Communist Party, and their emotional letters add up to a nonfictional epistolary novel that is a treasure house for Pasternak scholars. Feltrinelli rushed the Italian translation of Doctor Zhivago to market in November 1957, and translations into English, French, German, and other languages followed in the spring of 1958.

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ITAR-TASS
Anna Akhmatova with Boris Pasternak just after he began writing Doctor Zhivago, 1946

While the Soviet authorities maintained a tightlipped silence on the subject, Doctor Zhivago spent the next six months on the New York Times best-seller list and was an international sensation. It seemed to have everything: peace, war, revolution, civil war, a wide variety of settings, and a huge cast of characters, just like the books of Pasternak’s literary hero, Lev Tolstoy. With an illicit love affair at its center, the novel appeared to roll War and Peace and Anna Karenina into one, but it presented critics with a quandary. Even before it was published, Kornei Chukovsky called it “alien, confusing and removed from my life,” and Akhmatova echoed his verdict. “It is my time, my society, but I don’t recognize it,” she said, “It is a failure of genius.”

Vladimir Nabokov, one of the few critics in the West to agree with them, notoriously derided Doctor Zhivago as “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences,”3 and from the literary point of view he was right.4 But that wasn’t really the point of the novel’s fame or success. Nabokov’s old friend and literary sparring partner, Edmund Wilson, put his finger on the matter (and had the pleasure of contradicting Nabokov once again) when he emphasized Doctor Zhivago’s political and historical importance, and the symbolic significance of Pasternak writing such a book inside the Soviet Union, publishing it abroad, and surviving. “Doctor Zhivago will, I believe, come to stand as one of the great events in man’s literary and moral history,” wrote Wilson. “Nobody could have written it in a totalitarian state and turned it loose on the world who did not have the courage of genius.”

Content, rather than art, is the key to Doctor Zhivago’s importance. “Revolutionaries who take the law into their own hands are horrifying, not as criminals, but as machines that have gotten out of control, like a runaway train,” says the autobiographically rooted Zhivago to Lara at one point, and when Lara remarks, “You’ve changed, you know. You used to speak more calmly about the revolution,” he rejoins, “Those who inspired the revolution aren’t at home in anything except change and turmoil…because they haven’t any real capacities, they are ungifted.” Still later he comments:

Revolutions are made by fanatical men of action with one-track minds, men who are narrow-minded to the point of genius. They overturn the old order in a few hours or days…but for decades thereafter, for centuries, the spirit of narrowness which led to the upheaval is worshipped as holy.

The novel’s main action ends in 1929, suggesting that the decades of narrowness started then, and it reads like a requiem for Russian politics and Russian culture. Nothing like it had been seen in the Soviet Union since the early 1920s and it’s no wonder the authorities regarded Pasternak and his novel as anti-Soviet.

The CIA quickly came to a similar conclusion. Less than a month after Doctor Zhivago’s appearance in Italy in November 1957, a CIA memo cited an expert’s view that it was “more important than any other literature which has yet come out of the Soviet Bloc,” and that care should be taken not to harm Pasternak in taking advantage of its publication. In early January the agency received two rolls of microfilm from British intelligence, a photographic replica of Feltrinelli’s original manuscript, and began to ponder how to use them.5

The timing was propitious, for as Finn and Couvée point out, the CIA had a large number of officials who had strong literary credentials and loved books. They believed in the power of ideas, and agreed with the CIA’s chief of covert action that “books differ from all other propaganda media primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.” Crass and reductive as the sentiment may be, it acknowledges an important aspect of literature that cannot be denied. Ironically, the idea seems to have been borrowed from the Soviets themselves, who were guided by Maxim Gorky’s 1934 dictum (itself reflecting centuries of Russian attitudes) that books are weapons, “the most important and most powerful weapons in socialist culture.” The Soviets were already masters of propaganda and the manipulation of culture in the 1930s, as George Kennan, author of containment and the intellectual father of the cold war, well knew.

Kennan’s ideas had led to the foundation of the Congress for Cultural Freedom in 1950, and in 1956, just before the appearance of Doctor Zhivago, the device of mailing American books and magazines across the iron curtain was beginning to be tried. The next step was a small program to translate Western books into Russian, which functioned alongside a multimillion-dollar enterprise to publish and or distribute thousands of titles in Soviet-controlled countries. Finn and Couvée estimate that up to ten million books and magazines were clandestinely smuggled into the Soviet bloc in this way. It was an effort much less known to the public and much less controversial than cold war cultural activities in the West, although some argue that the problem was the CIA and secrecy itself the offense. The authors respond that in 1950s America no other agency could have done it, for it would have been impossible to get Congress to openly appropriate money for the support of art and culture, especially when most of the money went to institutions and publications with a liberal profile.

The appearance of Doctor Zhivago presented the CIA with a new kind of challenge. It was certain of the book’s “great propaganda value,” but mailing an English translation of the novel into the Soviet Union didn’t seem to promise many dividends, and since it had not yet appeared in Russian, it couldn’t simply be reprinted. It decided to publish its own “black” edition, but that presented problems too. The British asked the CIA not to print the book in America in order not to harm Pasternak, and Pasternak had sent word that no Russian émigrés should be involved either.

The chosen solution was to farm out the job to a New York publisher named Felix Morrow, a former Trotskyite, journalist, and author, passionately anti-Communist, who also had a security clearance. On June 23, 1958, a contract was signed with Morrow requiring him to prepare the Russian manuscript of Doctor Zhivago for typesetting and to produce two sets of photo-offset proofs by July 31. The goal was to have copies of the book printed in Europe in time to distribute them to Soviet visitors to the Brussels International World Fair in September, and also to give copies to sailors on ships bound for the Soviet Union.6

It was a harebrained scheme and it ran into numerous problems. Morrow welcomed the assignment as “an astonishing and attractive task,” but drove an extremely hard bargain over his fee, blabbed about what he was up to, and couldn’t find a European printer. Failing to blackmail the CIA into buying a large number of printed copies at inflated prices, he sent a copy of the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago to an old friend at the University of Michigan Press with a suggestion that they publish it instead. He was convinced, he later wrote, that “the Russian desk at the CIA was, at the least, not much interested in the success of this task” and was dragging its feet.7 Before long, Michigan was offering copies of a planned edition to members of the US government and to the CIA itself, and officials had to scramble to get the university to hold off.

The reason for the delays was problems in finding a European publisher, where another comedy of errors unfolded. The CIA turned for help to the Dutch intelligence service, BVD. Feltrinelli was rumored to be bringing out a Russian edition with the Dutch academic publishing company Mouton, and when it turned out that Feltrinelli was in no hurry to act, the CIA and BVD decided to go ahead without him. The director of the local branch of Paix et Liberté, a dyed-in-the-wool anti-Communist, was asked to bring the proofs to Mouton, and a deal was struck to print a rush edition of Doctor Zhivago of just over a thousand copies (1,160, to be precise). At the last moment a Mouton employee, under the impression that this was the Feltrinelli project, pasted on a slip identifying Feltrinelli as the publisher.

The books were ready by early September, just in time for the Brussels Universal and International Exposition, and about a third were distributed through the Vatican pavilion:

Soon the book’s blue linen covers were found littering the fairgrounds. Some who got the novel were ripping off the cover, dividing the pages, and stuffing them in their pockets to make the book easier to hide.

A CIA memo concluded that “this phase can be considered completed successfully,” though its success was qualified. Feltrinelli was furious that his name had been used and suspected outright fraud, unable to imagine the cause as an innocent misunderstanding. The CIA kept mum, Mouton issued an abject apology and agreed to print an additional five thousand copies for Feltrinelli, and the University of Michigan Press went ahead with its own edition in early 1959.

Pasternak won the Nobel Prize at the end of 1958 and was denounced by the head of the Komsomol, Vladimir Semichastny, as “a pig fouling its own sty” who should be kicked out of the Soviet Union to “breathe capitalist air.” An ailing Pasternak, fearing deportation, rejected the prize, and a year later he died of lung cancer. Ivinskaya was arrested and sentenced for a second time (with her daughter, Irina) to eight years in the Gulag for “foreign currency manipulations,” but released after four. In 1965 David Lean released his blockbuster movie of Doctor Zhivago, starring Omar Sharif as Zhivago and Julie Christie as Lara, which far more people remember than the novel (on Google the movie comes before the book), and in 1978 Ivinskaya published a best-selling memoir of her years with Pasternak.

Since then there has been an avalanche of books on one or another aspect of the Zhivago affair. Mancosu lists over 150 titles in his bibliography; Finn and Couvée list 184. It was Tolstoy’s flawed 2009 book, The Laundered Novel, that set off the subgenre devoted to the machinations of the CIA. The best and most accurate of those accounts before Finn and Couvée is to be found in Mancosu’s chapter two, a tour de force of literary detection worthy of a scholarly Sherlock Holmes. I feel sorry for him over his timing, but the detail he offers, together with the Pasternak–Feltrinelli correspondence, offers a different angle on the episode.

Meanwhile Finn and Couvée have written a fascinating book that is thoroughly researched, extraordinarily accurate in its factual details, judicious in its judgments, and destined to remain the definitive work on the subject for a very long time to come. Though it will be advertised and sold on the basis of the declassified material from the CIA, only two of its sixteen chapters are devoted to that subject; the rest cover every aspect of the creation of Doctor Zhivago and its consequences in rich and convincing detail. I was particularly impressed by their fair treatment of Olga Ivinskaya, who after Pasternak’s death was viciously attacked not only by the government but also by some members of Pasternak’s family and friends. My only wish is that they had delved a little more deeply into the love affair between Pasternak and Ivinskaya and the details of Pasternak’s strange ménage-à-trois, but perhaps that calls for a novelist rather than a journalist.

Also largely missing is an assessment of Pasternak’s historic achievement. Finn and Couvée refer briefly to literary successors such as Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Sinyavsky, Yuli Daniel, and Joseph Brodsky, but Pasternak’s feat had epoch-making repercussions in ways that deserve more notice. In sending his book for publication abroad, for example, he deliberately broke Soviet law and acted in a way unthinkable since the punishment of Boris Pilnyak, the last person to do the same, in 1929. Pasternak thus punched a huge hole in the iron curtain and Soviet censorship. By surviving legally unscathed he also set a precedent for behavior that had not been seen since the late 1920s, and Doctor Zhivago became in essence the first serious example of samizdat. Solzhenitsyn once criticized Pasternak for rejecting the Nobel Prize, but it’s likely that without Pasternak, he would have had a far harder time getting One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich published, let alone surviving to win the Nobel Prize himself. Pasternak was the true father of the Soviet dissident movement and singlehandedly influenced the course of the cold war.

As for the CIA, the publication of Doctor Zhivago in Russian and the smuggling of copies into the Soviet Union contributed to the novel as a samizdat phenomenon, but it had nothing to do with Pasternak’s fame or him winning the Nobel Prize. The KGB and the Soviet government’s noisy campaign of repression did much more to help than the CIA. It was the CIA’s future books program that gained most from the experiment. Meanwhile the CIA’s error-prone approach to its publications hasn’t entirely changed. The book on display in the CIA Museum is not a copy of “the original Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago,” but a later edition, in paper rather than hard cover, and brought out by an entirely different publisher.

Letters

‘Zhivago,’ Apart from the CIA September 25, 2014

  1. 1

    The CIA does admit escorted groups of visitors to the museum from time to time, but not the public at large. 

  2. 2

    Disclosure: I have a copy of the declassified CIA documents as well and was planning to write a book about “the Zhivago affair” myself until Finn and Couvée came along. I occasionally refer to these documents directly rather than via Finn and Couvée’s text. 

  3. 3

    Nabokov, nine years Pasternak’s junior, has been accused of envying the older writer, and there is probably something to that charge, for as early as 1927 he had criticized the older man’s verse style as clumsy and convoluted. Ironically, when Doctor Zhivago was being translated into English, Nabokov was suggested as a possible translator of the poems, but Pasternak himself turned the notion down, referring to Nabokov’s jealousy as the reason. Finn and Couvée suggest that Nabokov feared Doctor Zhivago would knock Lolita off its perch at the top of the best-seller list, but there could be more to it than that. Lolita is about a pubescent heroine molested and seduced by a much older man, Humbert Humbert, who has married her mother to get access to the daughter. In the opening chapters of Doctor Zhivago, we find a pubescent Lara being molested and then seduced (at the age of fifteen) by a middle-aged lawyer, Victor Ippolitovich Komarovsky, who has access to her as her mother’s lover. Another parallel is to be found between the poet, Yuri Zhivago, and another poet, Fyodor Cherdyntsev, in Nabokov’s last Russian novel, The Gift. Is it too fanciful to suggest that Pasternak’s “invitation” to d’Angelo to watch him face “the firing squad,” may have been a subconscious reference to another of Nabokov’s Russian novels, Invitation to a Beheading? The Russian word for “firing squad” and “beheading” is the same: kazn’, which means “execution” in its literal sense. 

  4. 4

    Pasternak himself acknowledged the novel’s deficiencies. “I have lost my artistic coherence and let myself inwardly sag,” he wrote to a young editor when sending him some chapters. “I have written this novel in an unprofessional way…with a dullness and naiveté for which I gave myself both permission and indulgence.” His disregard for form, he said, sprang from a desire to move away from the sophisticated modernism of his youth to a simpler form of realism, and to place a much greater emphasis on clarity of content than before. 

  5. 5

    An entire mythology has grown up around these microfilms. Feltrinelli at various times complained about CIA “interference,” and referred to a plane he was on being obliged to make an unscheduled landing. From this grew a story that British intelligence, at the request of the CIA, had forced Feltrinelli’s plane from Moscow to Milan to land in Malta, and that agents had removed the typescript of Doctor Zhivago from Feltrinelli’s suitcase and photographed it while Feltrinelli and his fellow passengers cooled their heels in the lounge for two hours (in another version, Feltrinelli was on his way from Italy to Holland).
    Repeated at different times and by various individuals, the story received its greatest publicity after Tolstoy featured it in his book. Mancosu and others discount the story on the grounds that Feltrinelli never made the journey from Moscow to Milan, and that there were enough copies circulating in Britain for such derring-do not to be necessary. All agree, however, that the CIA got their copy from the British. 

  6. 6

    Ivan Tolstoy speculated that the reason for the CIA ’s haste was the need to rush out a Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago in order for it to be considered by the Nobel Prize committee, and that the CIA had also pressured the committee to give the award to Pasternak. He was wrong on both counts, but this couldn’t be confirmed until the Nobel Foundation’s fifty-year rule of confidentiality expired soon after Tolstoy wrote. 

  7. 7

    From a letter to Carl R. Proffer, founding editor of Ardis Publishers in Ann Arbor, Michigan, sent by Morrow on October 6, 1980; see Mancosu, pp. 115–116. In a later letter, dated October 20, 1980, Morrow added: “The Russian desk people at CIA were inimical to the project…. They were either Russian agents or incredibly stupid.” 

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