The derring-do–packed history of “one of the first efforts by the CIA to leverage books as instruments of political warfare.”
In the 1940s, poet and translator Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) set out to write an epic of the “incredible time” during the years surrounding Russia’s revolution. The result was Doctor Zhivago, “a sad, dismal story,” as he put it, about a poet-physician and his personal and political trials during four decades of upheaval and repression. Washington Post national security editor Finn and teacher and translator Couvée chronicle the intrigue over the book’s publication in Europe, its initial reception and the vociferous opposition it generated in the Soviet Union. Though Pasternak anticipated significant censure, he insisted that his manuscript be smuggled to the Italian editor who agreed to publish it and serve as international agent. The book, Pasternak said, had “become the most important thing in my life.” He wanted it “to travel over the entire world…lay waste with fire the hearts of men.” An immediate best-seller in Italy in 1957, it was acclaimed in Germany, England and France; the following year, the microfilmed manuscript arrived at CIA headquarters. The CIA had long been translating, publishing and sending to Russia books with a “humanistic message” of freedom of opinion and personal respect. “Books were weapons” in the Cold War, the agency maintained. Although publishing Zhivago proved convoluted and frustrating, the agency managed to send several hundred copies to the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels, where the Vatican Pavilion agreed to cooperate: From a table behind curtains at the back, Russian visitors eagerly grabbed their contraband. Soviet response was swift and crushing, intensifying after Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. Denounced as a snob, a “bourgeois individualist” and a traitor, he was expelled from the prestigious writers’ union and shunned even by those he had considered friends; his long-suffering wife and mistress feared for their lives.
A fast-paced political thriller about a book that terrified a nation.