On Cold War, Dr. Zhivago, and Boris Pasternak

The Writer and the Valet

Frances Stonor Saunders on the ‘Zhivago’ Story

“‘Zhivago’, in the pre-revolutionary genitive case, means ‘the living one’. On the novel’s first page a hearse is being followed to the grave. ‘Whom are you burying?’ the mourners are asked. ‘Zhivago’ is the reply, punningly suggesting ‘him who is living’. After his first reading of the draft early chapters, at the British Embassy in Moscow in 1945, Berlin felt that he had seen a flare sent up from the survivor of a cataclysm. Swept away by the novel’s defiant personal claim for the indomitable Russian soul, he was sure that Bolshevism’s systematic programme of turning Russia away from Western civilisation couldn’t be completed as long as such writing existed. Before leaving his diplomatic post, he turned in a long memorandum – what he called, misleadingly, a ‘rambling discourse on the Russian writers’ – containing extended resumés of his meetings with Pasternak, Akhmatova, Chukovsky and others. It was a founding text of the Kulturkampf, as important in its way as George Kennan’s Long Telegram (also written in 1946) was to the shaping of the political Cold War. In a letter accompanying the report, Berlin requested that it be treated as ‘confidential’ because of ‘the well-known consequences to the possible sources of the information contained in it, should its existence ever become known to “them”’.

We’ll call this next chapter in the novel of the novel ‘The Alphabet Men’. It’s the bit where the CIA, MI6 and their little helpers at the FO, IRD, BBC, IOD, SRD, CCF, RFE, RL, VOA and BVD process the purloined microfilm of the Russian text into ‘combat material’ for the Cold War. It’s 1958, Dr Zhivago has finally been issued in Italian by Feltrinelli, and other translations are edging their way off the press in Britain, Germany and France. But Feltrinelli is refusing the rights to a Russian edition until Pasternak gives him the go-ahead. Pasternak hesitates, gambling on ever poorer odds that the novel might yet appear in Russia. Should this not be the case, and fearing a provocation too far, he explicitly requests that no eventual Russian language edition appear in the West under the auspices of any Russian émigré group or American entity. No matter, the CIA has already embarked on Operation Dinosaur, whose aim is to exploit Pasternak’s ‘heretical literary work’ for ‘maximum free world discussion and acclaim and consideration for such honour as the Nobel Prize’. According to a declassified memo quoted by Finn and Couvée in The Zhivago Affair, MI6 are ‘in favour and have offered to provide whatever assistance they can’.

Since the prize can’t be awarded for a work not published in its original language, the CIA prints an edition through a cut-out, or front, in Holland. This, the first ever appearance in Russian of the original text, deals with the Nobel Prize requirement. Encouraged by the success of this covert action, Operation Dinosaur – authorised at the highest levels, which includes the White House – produces another, pocket-sized edition (‘more easily concealed’) for distribution behind the Iron Curtain. Attributed to ‘an innocuous, fictitious publisher’, Société d’Edition et d’Impression Mondiale, and printed at CIA headquarters on thin bible stock, this miniature Dr Zhivago is shipped to Europe and handed out to anyone who might carry it into the Soviet bloc (among the various ‘pass throughs’ enlisted to this act of piracy we find the Holy See, that well-known upholder of the right of individuals to read whatever they please). By this means, Dr Zhivago crosses the line back into Russia.

These editions were both thefts. As explained by the CIA, the operation was ‘intended to be legal but turned out to be illegal’ (you don’t make apologies when you hold the moral high ground). Internal inquiries were made about international copyright law, but legality proving inconvenient, the decision was taken to ‘do it black’. However, an escrow account was set up in Pasternak’s name for his share of the royalties, ‘if he is ever in a position to use them’. What, one wonders, did the CIA do with its share?

No amount of money – not even the Nobel Prize, which was announced on 23 October 1958 – could compensate for the shitstorm into which Pasternak was now thrown. As a CIA analysis quoted by Finn and Couvée reads, ‘so long as his impact was contained within the Soviet Union, it could be tolerated; when it came to appear as a chosen vessel of Free World cold war, it had to be crushed.’ For the spooks, this was hardly an unexpected outcome. It was only after Not by Bread Alone was published in English in 1957, and trumpeted as an anti-Soviet novel by the Western media, that Dudintsev earned the full wrath of the regime. His disavowal of the propaganda value of his book – he said it made him feel as though ‘a peaceable ship in foreign waters had been seized by pirates and was flying the skull and crossbones’ – didn’t placate the authorities. He was shunned, banned and harried into poverty. So, too, Pasternak was vilified as a traitor, denigrated in a massive official campaign as a ‘literary weed’, a ‘superfluous man’, a ‘mangy sheep’, a ‘pig’ who ‘has soiled the place where he has eaten’.

Driven nearly to suicide, on 29 October Pasternak declined the Nobel Prize. ‘I couldn’t recognise my father when I saw him that evening,’ his son Evgeny recalled. ‘Pale, lifeless face, tired painful eyes, and only speaking about the same thing: “Now it all doesn’t matter, I declined the Prize.”’ Two days later, he was hounded out of the Union of Soviet Writers, whose members petitioned the Politburo to strip him of his Soviet citizenship and exile him to ‘his capitalist paradise’. The American Catholic writer and monk Thomas Merton pleaded with the union’s chief, Aleksey Surkov, to reverse the decision, arguing in a letter that Dr Zhivago was far less critical of communism than Khrushchev had been two years earlier in his speech denouncing Stalin at the Twentieth Party Congress. This startlingly obvious point was missed by everyone who jostled for a berth on the ship of fools.”

–Frances Stoner Saunders, “The Writer and the Valet”

The London Review of Books

Vol. 36 No 18 · 25 September 2014, pages 5-9.