Why ‘Doctor Zhivago’ was dangerous

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: the story behind the story of a world-famous work of literature.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: When Boris Pasternak finished his novel "Dr. Zhivago" in 1956, Soviet authorities read the tale of an individual struggle amid the Russian revolution and refused to publish it. Western intelligence agencies, though, quickly realized its potential as a tool of propaganda.

The story of how the novel became came to be published and smuggled back into the Soviet Union with help from the CIA is told in the new book "The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book."

It's co-authored by Petra Couvee.

And joining me now, Peter Finn, national security editor and former Moscow correspondent for The Washington Post.

And welcome to you.

PETER FINN, Co-Author, "The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book": Great to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's almost hard to remember now how — a time when a book could have this kind of power, right, a propaganda tool.


Both the CIA and the Soviet authorities and were big believers in the power of literature to effect change, to — the Soviets believed in literature as a means to mold Soviet man, to help create this new society. And they expected their writers to pick these muscular characters in the factories and the fields celebrating the communist state.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so set the scene for us.

Boris Pasternak himself, he was already very famous in the Soviet Union, not a dissident in the way we think of it, right, but with a kind of fraught relationship with the…

PETER FINN: Not at all.

He was regarded as one of the great poets of the 20th century, one of the great Russian poets. He became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet state after the purges, after the Great Terror.

He started writing "Dr. Zhivago" in 1945. It took him 10 years. It wasn't an overtly political book, but he realized that he wasn't celebrating the revolution, and when the Soviet literary bureaucrats came to read it, that was their biggest criticism.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that's what I want to ask you. What was so dangerous about "Dr. Zhivago," the book? A lot of people remember the movie.

But the whole idea that it was exploring of this individual in his time, what bothered them so?

PETER FINN: Nothing had been written like this before in Soviet society. It was completely original.

It failed to celebrate the revolution. It had religious overtones. It was teeming with life in ways that were alien to the Soviet authorities. And they just couldn't abide it. Everything that they couldn't abide made it seem so interesting to people in the West who had never read this kind of literature coming out of Russia.

JEFFREY BROWN: But British and CIA intelligence offices, they were reading novels coming out of the Soviet Union. And they saw something right away.


And within the CIA at the Soviet Russia Division, there were many first- and second-generation Russians. The head of the division spoke Russian, read Russian. When they read this, they were hugely enthusiastic, and you can see it in their internal memos, where they're talking to one another and saying, essentially, wow, this is an incredible book. We haven't seen anything like it. We must get it back in.

JEFFREY BROWN: The memos are truly stunning to read, because it's in — you sort of see at that moment, right?

PETER FINN: Yes, it's all contemporaneous.

It's all them reacting to this raw manuscript in Russian that they had gotten from British intelligence.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so once they realized this — and this is what you document throughout most of the book — is the kind of — and somebody even later refers to as a kind of a stunt. It's just how they were able to get it published and then sent back into the Soviet Union, because that's the audience they wanted to reach.


Their primary goal was to get this into the hands of Soviet citizens and hope that each Soviet citizen who got the book would pass it to a friend, and that person would pass it to another, so that the book would circulate widely. And it did ultimately circulate quite widely among the intelligentsia at least.

And the larger context here was that, over the course of the Cold War, the CIA published, or translated, printed and sent in millions of books and journals across a whole range of subjects, not just literature, but also art history, psychology, biography, economics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Again, a struggle of ideas.

PETER FINN: It was a struggle of ideas.


PETER FINN: And it was a huge, huge, multidecade effort that cost tens of millions of dollars.

JEFFREY BROWN: The CIA link, I gather from your writing, was seen early and written about a little bit.

PETER FINN: Yes, because the first printing — and the CIA did two printings, one a hardback, one a miniature paperback.

The first printing, the operation didn't go smoothly, and that immediately led to rumors and speculation about who was behind this. And there was suggestions from the very beginning that the CIA was involved, particularly because people associated this printing with Russian emigres and saw the hand of the American government anywhere they saw Russian emigres in Russian Europe.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you were able to tell the larger story because of all these unclassified — previously classified documents.


We were able to tell the CIA part of the story, which is part of the larger story. I mean, our main character is Boris Pasternak and his book. But, yes, that was our — that was our goal. It took several years for those records to be declassified, but they were in the end.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know you spent years in Moscow yourself, and that's where this all began for you?


In Moscow, I came across the story. I started reading about Pasternak. I became completely absorbed by it. I thought it was just a fascinating tale. And it deserved a single narrative in English. I thought other people would love it as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what — from your years in Russia and also covering national security, what about the story surprised you most or stuck with you that made you wanted to tell?

PETER FINN: Well, I guess it was the use of soft power by the CIA.

JEFFREY BROWN: Soft power?

PETER FINN: Yes. I was fascinated by and that part of the CIA's history.

And they had massive programs throughout the Cold War that were cultural programs, not only books, but magazines, subsidizing the tours of orchestras, art exhibitions, academic conferences. They were involved in a whole range of activities.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Peter Finn is co-author with Petra Couvee of "The Zhivago Affair."

Thank you so much.

PETER FINN: Thank you.