The CIA’s ‘Zhivago’

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…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.