'Doctor Zhivago,' 'The Moon Is Down,' and the CIA's Subversion of Literature

All in all, I guess cultural appropriation isn't the worst thing the CIA has ever done.

Obi Wan was in the movie version! Image: Wikimedia Commons

Every now and then, even the CIA acts like the pen is mightier than the sword. Newly declassified documents detail the CIA’s role in publishing Russian poet Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago in Russian and distributing it to Soviet citizens in the late 1950s. The revelation confirms the CIA’s long-suspected role in bringing Doctor Zhivago back to its homeland, and is yet another example of how the CIA used literature for propaganda.

Pasternak’s 700-page romantic epic, set in the decades surrounding the Russian Revolution, was initially going to be published by the Soviet Union’s main publisher, Goslitizdat. The period of social liberalization that followed Stalin’s death, however, came to an end as the Soviet Union tightened the screws in response to the 1956 uprising in Hungary, and Pasternak’s novel had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union. It was first published in Italian in 1957 by the Milanese publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, against the wishes of both the Soviet government and the Italian Communist party.

According to the Washington Post’s feature on the documents, it didn’t take long for the contentious work to catch the attention of the British and American intelligence communities. A memo dated April 24, 1958 was sent to all branch chiefs of the agency’s Soviet division saying that the book had “great propaganda value” for its “passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive intelligent citizen.”

By July the Soviet Russia division chief John Maury called Doctor Zhivago “the most heretical literary work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death,” in another memo. “Pasternak’s humanistic message — that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state — poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system,” Maury wrote.

The CIA then set to getting the novel printed in as many international editions as possible, and took a personal interest in getting a Russian-language of Doctor Zhivago ready no later than September 1958. It was a rush job, but with the help of the Dutch intelligence service, the BVD, the novel was printed and bound in the blue linen cover of the Mouton Publishers of the Hague, Netherlands. Copies were then sent to the world’s fair in Brussels, which the Post describes as “one of those rare occasions when large numbers of Soviet citizens traveled to an event in the West. Belgium had issued 16,000 visas to Soviet visitors.” To further cloak the US government’s involvement, the books were distributed via the Vatican City’s tent at the fair.

These early, Mouton Publishers editions didn’t bear any marks of the CIA’s involvement, but they did bear the marks of being rushed to print. Writing for Radio Free Europe, Ivan Tolsoi explained just how weird the final product was:

It was a mutant of a book, riddled with typographic and grammatical errors, incomplete passages, and underdeveloped story lines. The jacket appeared to come from The Hague-based academic publisher Mouton, but the title page was Feltrinelli's. This "Zhivago" had clearly not gone through ordinary publishing channels.

But the Zhivago publication was neither the first nor the last time the CIA took a look to some books to defend the American way of life. By July 1959 another, pocket-sized version of Zhivago had been printed, and was part of a CIA book subterfuge campaign at the 1959 World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship in Vienna. About 30,000 books in 14 languages were distributed in Vienna, including George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, the essay collection The God That Failed and Doctor Zhivago were passed out.

Pasternak would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, much the on-going consternation of the Soviet government, who refused to let him receive the award.

But the CIA was more than just an ersatz publishing house. It was, at other times, involved in the editorial side, and even had a hand in shaping the MFA programs of today. As the CIA was smuggling Zhivago around Eastern Europe, back in the American Midwest, the CIA was also funding the famous and influential Iowa Writer’s Workshop through an organization called “The Fairfield Foundation."

According to writing professor Eric Bennett, Fairfield “was not really a foundation; it was a CIA front that supported cultural operations, mostly in Europe, through an organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom." The director of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop after the war, Paul Engle, curated the program’s culture to reflect the values of its conservative benefactors, such the Rockefeller Foundation, the CIA, and the State Department, and the stylistic conventions laid out by Engle continue to cast a shadow on literature to this day.

But the practice also predates the agency. During World War II, John Steinbeck worked with the CIA’s predecessors, the Office of Coordinator of Information and the Office of Strategic Services, to write the anti-Nazi novella The Moon Is Down. Even with the help of the COI and OSS, who advised Steinbeck to change the site of the invasion from small-town America to an unspecified fairy-tale land to keep from demoralizing Americans, the end result was criticized as bad propaganda, because it humanized the invading forces too much.

I actually find it very comforting that even an author as prone to flights of ideology as Steinbeck couldn’t compromise himself as an author and make one-dimensional characters that could easily function as propaganda.

And even as there is something disquieting about political forces co-opting the arts for their own ends, historians have argued that American music and blue jeans played a bigger role in bringing about the end of the Soviet Union than military build-ups did. While forcibly exporting American culture is its own ethical dilemma, the fact that in the late 50s the CIA was involved in distributing Doctor Zhivago as a critique of the USSR from Russia’s own poet, is all in all a surprisingly humane-sounding way to wage a Cold War.