More on the romance
of the Cold War . . .
The 'Doctor Zhivago' caper

The Boston Globe
Published: February 20, 2007

There is no reason to be nostalgic about the Cold War nightmare of a thermonuclear Armageddon, superpower proxy wars across the Third World, the Soviet gulag, the censorship imposed throughout the communist bloc, or the opportunistic witch-hunting of the McCarthy period in America. Yet there is something quaint about the revelation that the CIA had Boris Pasternak's novel "Doctor Zhivago" surreptitiously published in Russian to boost his chances of winning the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature.

A forthcoming book about the "Doctor Zhivago" affair by Ivan Tolstoy — yes, a member of that illustrious literary family — recalls a bygone era when even CIA and KGB spies respected the power of literature. Tolstoy researched the covert operations of Soviet émigrés and CIA officers who arranged for the typesetting and publication of Pasternak's manuscript in the original Russian. The novel had already been published in Italian by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, himself a member of the Italian Communist Party. Albert Camus had nominated Pasternak for the 1958 Nobel. "Doctor Zhivago" would bolster the case for a Russian writer previously known for his poetry. But the Nobel committee required, quite sensibly, that to be eligible for consideration a writer's work had to be published in its original language.

The CIA's motives were hardly pure. The agency wished to embarrass the Soviets and wean cultural elites in the West from revolutionary romanticism. And Kremlin counterparts of the Langley literati grasped the other side's game plan. In a memo to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, a KGB officer reported that in the summer of 1958 a campaign "to award Pasternak a Nobel Prize was initiated by Americans and launched in the West. All reactionary and anti-Soviet forces took an active part in this campaign."

Nobody need feel bad for the outmaneuvered Soviet secret agents. Still, there was a dark side to the CIA's clandestine manipulation of cultural politics. Too often, the targets of deception were unworldly Western intellectuals who were unaware that some of the journals they read had a CIA sugar daddy.

Pasternak knew nothing of the CIA's machinations, Tolstoy said in a recent online interview for the Washington Post. "Doctor Zhivago" was literature, not propaganda. The Soviet foreign minister of the time was unwittingly bestowing the highest praise on Pasternak's work when he decried its "estrangement from Soviet life" and its "celebration of individualism."

That vehement, jargon-laden denunciation evokes a time when a novel by the poet Pasternak truly mattered. Today, Russians are reading the same airport ephemera that Americans read and, instead of publishing literary works, intelligence agents are monitoring the snuff videos of Al Qaeda fanatics.