Boris Pasternak (10th February, 1890 – 30 May, 1960) was a Soviet Russian poet, novelist, and literary translator, probably best known for the novel, Doctor Zhivago. The popular novel was written in 1957, and takes place between the Russian Revolution, and the First World War. It went on to win the author the Nobel Prize for Literature, has been immortalised in a famous movie and is one of the best known Russian stories of all time.
However, Doctor Zhivago was released in a mire of controversy due to the way it portrayed Soviet Russia. The book was immediately rejected for publication in the USSR, and the Communist Part of the Soviet Union were enraged, forcing Pasternak to reject the Nobel Prize. This in itself is interesting enough, but in declassified files we’ve learned that the CIA arranged the first ever publication of the book in Russia.
According to BBC Magazine, in 1958 a Dutch secret service agent brought home a small package wrapped in brown paper, the latest weapon in the struggle between the West and the Soviet Union. However, inside was not guns or ammunition, but a copy of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, the first one in Russian language.
The book was part of a clandestine print run he’d collected from the publishers and passed onto the CIA. The plan was for several hundred copies to be handed out to Soviet visitors to the Brussels Universal International Exposition, which was taking place that year. Pasternak was already well known in Soviet Russia for his poetry and his translation work, and it was thought that Soviets might be keen to read this banned works.
It was thought the work would be a great propaganda tool, one of the declassified memos read “We have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country,”. Another reads “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,”.
The move worked and pretty soon the blue linen covers could be found littering fairgrounds, as people tore off the covers and divided the work up to make it easier to hide (I know, right! Eek. But needs must).
Word soon reached Pasternak himself, who wrote to a friend in Paris asking if it was true that Doctor Zhivago had been printed in Russian, as he had heard that copies had been handed out.
It’s a fascinating story and one that even the author was unaware of at the time. You can read all about it in The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, and of course we recommend adding the original novel to your TBR too!
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