Cold War sneakiness: CIA confirms using Dr. Zhivago as a weapon

“We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government…”

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Interesting admission from the Central Intelligence Agency as it confirmed the long-held suspicion that it indeed had a role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union in 1958.

The details: April 11th the CIA posted to its public website nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA's role in publishing Boris Pasternak's iconic novel -- 1958 Nobel Prize for literature -- in Russian which gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time.

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In a April 24, 1958 memo, a senior CIA officer wrote: "We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country [and] in his own language for his people to read."

After working secretly to publish the Russian-language edition in the Netherlands, the CIA moved to ensure that copies of Doctor Zhivago were available for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World's Fair.  According to a Reuters account, The CIA did not want the U.S. pavilion at the exposition to distribute the 365 copies of the book so they were discreetly handed to Soviet citizens visiting the Vatican's pavilion.

By the end of the Fair, 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago had been surreptitiously handed out, and eventually thousands more were distributed throughout the Communist bloc, according to the agency.

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The CIA funded the publication of a miniature, paperback edition of Doctor Zhivago that could be easily mailed or concealed in a jacket pocket.  Distribution of the miniature version began in April 1959, the CIA stated.   Others say over 10,000 million copies of the book were ultimately distributed.

The CIA said obtaining, publishing, and distributing banned books like Doctor Zhivago was an important Cold War-era success story for the agency.

According to the Reuters story, Pasternak's romantic epic chronicles the life of Yuri Zhivago, a physician and poet, and his love for two women through decades of revolutions, wars, civil war and Communist oppression. "Doctor Zhivago" had a religious, mystical tone and its main character did not hew to official Marxist ideology.

Russian critics denounced Pasternak as a traitor and the Soviet publishing industry would not touch it, but an Italian literary scout took a copy of the manuscript out of the Soviet Union and an Italian company published it in 1957, the CIA said.

Shortly afterwards, the CIA became involved, according to recently declassified memos obtained by authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvee in their research for the book "The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book," which will be released in June.

The Washington Post wrote: "Because of the enduring appeal of the novel and a 1965 film based on it, "Doctor Zhivago" remains a landmark work of fiction. Yet few readers know the trials of its birth and how the novel galvanized a world largely divided between the competing ideologies of two superpowers. The CIA's role - with its publication of a hardcover Russian-language edition printed in the Netherlands and a miniature, paperback edition printed at CIA headquarters - has long been hidden.

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