Zhivago used as propaganda by CIA
BORIS Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was a bestselling novel in 1958 before becoming the film starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Now Washington Post journalist Peter Finn and writer/translator Petra Couvée reveal the wild political intrigue the book stirred up during the Cold War. Finn and Couvée have done exhaustive research, including gaining access to CIA documents. The result is a reallife thriller that captures the heartache, courage and frustration of Pasternak as well as a wide range of writers, politicians and would-be spies. Pasternak was a highly regarded Russian poet in 1945 when he began his only novel. He lived near Moscow in a state-supported writers’ colony. The Soviets under Joseph Stalin favoured writers, but the regime that had also killed nearly 1,500 writers since the Communist revolution of 1917. “Writers were to be either marshalled in the creation of a new ‘Soviet man’ or isolated, and in some cases crushed.” Early reaction from government sympathizers to public readings from the opening chapters of Zhivago was hostile, with some calling it a “counterrevolutionary novel” with “reactionary backward-looking ideology.” Such publicity only made Pasternak more determined to continue. Along came Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a rich Italian businessman new to publishing and looking for new Soviet literature. He acquired the rights to Doctor Zhivago in 1956, around the time that the Soviets invaded Hungary. Word that Zhivago would be published outside of Russia sent the Kremlin into aggressive mode; various luminaries, including Nikita Khrushchev, tried to coerce Pasternak to get the manuscript back. The CIA heard about the novel and wanted to use it for propaganda purposes. “From the birth of the books program in the 1950s until the fall of the U.S.S.R., the CIA distributed 10 million books and periodicals in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.” These books were smuggled in pockets and suitcases by émigrés, priests, athletes, students, businessmen, tourists, soldiers, musicians and diplomats. The CIA had a special edition of Doctor Zhivago published, but their plans did not go smoothly, almost comically so. The book was distributed through the Vatican pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. The Kremlin stepped up its own propaganda against Pasternak and the book. Worried about a Stalin-like purge, fellow writers attacked him. The controversy helped make the novel a bestseller; around 850,000 copies were sold in the U.S. alone. Authors Finn and Couvée spice up this gripping book with surprising, often-amusing tidbits. For example, Harvard’s Harry Levin hadn’t read Doctor Zhivago when he formally recommended Pasternak to the Swedish Academy for the Nobel Prize in literature, which he won (and turned down) in 1958. Lolita author Vladimir Nabokov found Pasternak’s book “‘a sorry thing, clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences.’” And Khrushchev, when he finally read Zhivago, said, “We shouldn’t have banned it. There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it.”
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer.
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