Yesterday, the book world gleefully reported on a series of declassified documents from the late 1950s about the CIA’s efforts to disseminate Boris Pasternak’s classic Doctor Zhivago behind the Iron Curtain. The documents and the history of the publication of Doctor Zhivago are the subject of a book due out this June by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée entitled The Zhivago Affair.
I suspect that part of the reason all the bookworms are excited is because—apart from the fact that Doctor Zhivago is a great work of literature—this story shows just how powerful literature can be. The Doctor wasn’t kidding when he said books were the greatest weapons. We bookworms have known this for years.
What is it about books that makes them such a powerful means of changing deeply ingrained modes of thought and prejudices? Is it because we spend time alone with just an author’s words on a page? Is it because the reader has to take those words and construct them in their minds using their imagination? A CIA memo, recovered by Finn and Couvée, dated 24 April 1958 had this to say about Doctor Zhivago:
“This book has great propaganda value, not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: 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 in his own language for his own people to read.”
The memo is correct that Zhivago wasn’t available to Russian readers at the time. A legal copy wasn’t available in Russia for years. According to the articles I’ve read about The Zhivago Affair (The Guardian, The Washington Post), CIA agents were encouraged to pass the book around and even discuss it with people from communist countries.
I wonder if this happened with any other books. There may be a CIA book group that still meets, even today.