CIA declassifies its little-known role in publishing Doctor Zhivago in Russian
The Central Intelligence Agency on April 11 posted to its public Web site nearly 100 declassified documents that detail the CIA’s role in publishing the first Russian-language edition of Doctor Zhivago after the book had been banned in the Soviet Union.
The 1958 publication of Boris Pasternak’s iconic novel in Russian gave people within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the opportunity to read the book for the first time, said a CIA news release.
The declassified memos, letters, and cables reveal the rationale behind the Zhivago project and the intricacies of the effort to get the book into the hands of those living behind the Iron Curtain.
In a memo dated April 24, 1958, 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 quickly to ensure that copies of Doctor Zhivago were available for distribution to Soviet visitors at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. 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.
As it happened, Pasternak went on to win the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, the popularity of his novel skyrocketed, and the plight of the great Russian author in the Soviet Union received global media attention.
Subsequently, the CIA funded the publication of a miniature, lightweight 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.
Obtaining, publishing, and distributing banned books like Doctor Zhivago was an important Cold War-era success story for the CIA, said the Agency’s news release.