Zhivago used as pro­pa­ganda by CIA

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Dave Wil­liamson

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.

ThThe ZhiZhivago Af­fair: Aff i The Krem­lin, the CIA, and the Bat­tle over a

For­bid­den Book

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