Welcome Peter Finn (WashingtonPost) (Twitter), Petra Couvee (ZhivagoAffair.com) and Host Marcy Wheeler (Emptywheel.net) (Twitter)

The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book

Earlier this week, Washington Post reporter Adam Goldman described a scuttled CIA plan to distribute demon-faced Osama bin Laden dolls to Pakistani children as part of an influence campaign. Today’s guests, Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, discuss their book on the golden age of CIA influence campaigns, The Zhivago Affair.

Within a larger narrative about the life and Russia’s persecution of poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, Finn and Couvee describe CIA’s successful efforts to publish and distribute Pasternak’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Dr. Zhivago. Somehow, MI6 got a copy of the manuscript and shared it with the CIA, which had it published in Russian by a Dutch publisher and distributed at the Vatican’s exhibit at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Russian efforts to suppress the book and its coercion of Pasternak to publicly disclaim the publication and the Nobel prize brought international criticism. The operation was — Finn and Couvee describe CIA concluding — “a successful stunt.”

Finn and Couvee situate the operation within a larger effort to make censored books available in Russia.

The agency was in a long game. Cord Meyer, the head of the CIA’s International Organizations Division, which oversaw much of the agency’s covert propaganda operations, wrote that exposure to Western ideas “could incrementally over time improve the chances for gradual change toward more open societies.”

And Pasternak’s novel, published after his poetry had already achieved international renown, offered a particularly useful message.

“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,” wrote John Maury, the Soviet Russia Division chief. …”Pasternak suggests that the small unimportant people who remain passive to the regime’s demands for active participation and emotional involvement in official campaigns are superior to the political ‘activists’ favored by the system.”

I had an odd time with this book. I’ve spent the last half decade writing about the CIA’s abuses. But as someone whose graduate work included Czech dissident writers — who similarly benefited by Cold War schemes that facilitated the distribution of their work — it reminded me of how much superb literature from the Cold War period owes its success to CIA schemes.

It’s something Finn and Couvee address briefly in their afterword.

All these years later, in an age of terror, drones, and targeting killing, the CIA’s faith — and the Soviet Union’s faith — in the power of literature to transform society seem almost quaint.

The thing is, such efforts did play a role in defeating the Soviet Union. And it seemed so much more sound — on both an ethical and efficacious level — than today’s efforts to make horrific OBL dolls.

Somehow, the US has lost much of its skill in projecting soft power, both within and outside of the CIA. Back in the day, we forced the Soviet Union into obtuse and counterproductive persecution of Pasternak, while providing the world great literature. Now, even the CIA mocks its own soft power efforts. By laying that clear, Finn and Couvee’s book offers as much insight onto our current failures as it does on Russia or the CIA under the Cold War.


[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions.  Please take other conversations to a previous thread. – bev]



Marcy Wheeler aka Emptywheel is an American journalist whose reporting specializes in security and civil liberties.