Soft powerSoft power: CIA funded first Russian edition of Dr. Zhivago

Published 23 January 2009

The Soviet authorities banned Boris Pasternak’s “Dr. Zhivago” because of its critical treatment of the 1917 revolution; the manuscript was smuggled to the West and published — but to be considered for the Noble Prize, a work of fiction must be published in its original language; the CIA steps in to fund publishing the Russian version of the book (in Holland) — allowing the Noble Prize committee to award Pasternak, and embarrass the USSR

One day Yogi Berra’s wife told him that she had taken their son Tim to see Doctor Zhivago (David Lean’s classic screen adaptation of the Boris Pasternak novel). Yogi replied: “What the hell is wrong with him now!?”

Why this walk down memory lane? Because no term was used more often in Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings for the position of secretary of state than “soft power” (as in “the United States should rely more on soft power in its foreign policy than on hard power”). Here is an example of soft power: Newly available archival material from October 1958 shows that the first Russian edition of Pasternak’s book was published with CIA funds. This is important, because the book won the Nobel Prize in literature that year — and the Nobel Prize selection committee  only reviews fiction in the original.

Pasternak finished the novel in the mid-1950s, but because some of its descriptions of the 1917 Russian Revolution were deemed critical, the Soviet cultural authorities refused to allow the book to be published. Pasternak secretly gave the manuscript to an Italian broadcaster in Moscow, and the broadcaster smuggled the manuscript and gave it to an Italian publisher. The books was published in Italian in November 1957, and the 12,000 copies of the first edition went out of print in a matter of days. More copies were printed every two weeks but a boom did not subside. It became world famous, and was translated into English, German, and French. In the spring of 1958, Albert Camus nominated Pasternak for a Nobel Prize.

As we noted earlier, however, under the Nobel Committee’s rules, the novel had to be in the original. Here the CIA-copied version of the manuscript came in handy (how the CIA got a copy of the manuscript is another story). The CIA used proxy funds to subsidize the Russian version, published by the academic publishing house of Muton in the Hague without any copyrights in the August of 1958. The Swedish Academy had no more obstacles for awarding Pasternak, and on 23 October 1958 announced that Pasternak was the winner. Pasternak received a Nobel Prize for outstanding merits in modern lyric poetry and for continuing the traditions of the great Russian novel.

Under pressure from the Soviet authorities, Pasternak turned down the prize.

The CIA operation was a success. The Soviet Union received a tangible blow. The Pasternak story revealed the impact anti-Soviet literature published in the West could have on the Soviet Union. The Pasternak episode thus paved the way to a series of anti-Soviet publications which were crowned with the sensational Gulag Archipelago, for which the dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn was also awarded a Nobel Prize in 1970.