‘Doctor Zhivago’ Used By CIA As Propaganda During Cold War, Book Claims

The 1957 novel by noted Russian author Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago, was used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a propaganda tool during the Cold War, according to a report published in the Washington Post on Sunday.

Newly declassified information suggests the CIA considered Doctor Zhivago a challenge to Communism. The agency used the novel as a tool to create unrest among Soviet citizens and question why their government was trying to suppress Pasternak’s — one of Russia’s greatest writers — right to free speech.

In 1958, the British Intelligence Service alerted the CIA to the value of Doctor Zhivago as a propaganda tool that could be used against the Soviet Union (USSR) to help win the Cold War. The Brits reportedly sent two rolls of film of the book’s pages to the Americans and suggested they spread them throughout the Soviet bloc.

Doctor Zhivago is the story of physician and poet Yuri Zhivago, and the love he had for two women in the midst of wars, revolutions, and civil unrest.

The ruling Communist party banned the novel from being published. However, the original manuscript was smuggled into Milan, Italy and published there in 1957. Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year, enraging Soviet authorities.

Topping that was the release of Doctor Zhivago, the well-known 1965 David Lean film starring Omar Sharif in the title role and Julie Christie as his love interest. The film further angered the Soviets when it received a Best Picture nomination, winning five Oscars in the end.

Doctor Zhivago poster

In the new book, The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, authors Peter Finn and Petra Couvee claim the CIA became involved shortly thereafter.

According to one of the uncovered memos, the CIA says that Doctor Zhivago had a high propaganda value:

“…not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication.”

“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 in his own language for his own people to read.”

The CIA set on a mission to have Doctor Zhivago published in different languages to make it more widely available and undermine the Communist Party.

The Washington Post quotes John Maury, CIA’s chief of the Soviet Russia Division, saying in a 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.”

Doctor Zhivago still

In order to keep their involvement secret, the CIA brought in a Dutch publishing house to print the Russian language versions of Doctor Zhivago. Copies were distributed throughout Europe with a focus on the 1958 Brussels Universal and International Exposition, attended by about 16,000 Soviet citizens who received their copies at the Vatican pavilion.

Other efforts by the CIA allegedly included printing miniature versions of Doctor Zhivago, small enough to hide, and splitting the original in two parts for an even easier way to carry them without being noticed.

Doctor Zhivago became a New York Times Best Seller and stayed at the number one spot for six-months. Boris Pasternak died in 1960 from heart disease and lung cancer. He was 70-years-old.

[Image via MGM Studios 1965]