Russian history and culture, from a historian in Cambridge
I first read the novel that won Boris Pasternak the Nobel Prize — Doctor Zhivago — during an undergraduate summer. Together with David Lean’s film, it opened a picture window onto the Russian Revolution, not to mention the Russian soul. Imagine my disquiet a couple of years later when Russian friends in Moscow would laugh uproariously at my view of the greatness of the novel. For them, Doctor Zhivago was full of absurd coincidences and discredited clichés. Pasternak was one of the glories of Russian literature, but only because of his poems.
Whatever you think of Doctor Zhivago, it played a significant part in the cultural encounter between East and West during and after the Cold War. No one took it more seriously than the CIA.
The novel was deemed unpublishable in the USSR, notwithstanding the expanded cultural opportunities of the Khrushchev era. It was smuggled out by Italian admirers of Pasternak and published in Milan in 1957. The Central Intelligence Agency saw the book’s potential, not only as a means of entrenching anti-Soviet feeling in the West, but also as a way of sowing doubt about Soviet rule in the minds of ordinary Soviet readers. Agents organized the printing of the Russian original in a pocket-sized edition, which was surreptitiously handed out to passing Russians from the Vatican’s pavilion at the 1958 Brussels Expo. It was also smuggled into Moscow by determined travellers, and mailed across as well. ‘The Cold War is beginning to involve literature,’ commented Alexei Surkov, a literary rival of Pasternak.
CIA and KGB alike saw the book as a weapon in the cultural Cold War. But it is a mystery why this should be so. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962, is a much more subversive tale. Khrushchev is reported to have read a samizdat copy of the Zhivago manuscript in his enforced retirement. He expressed regret for banning it: ‘There’s nothing anti-Soviet in it.’ A few years later, Andrei Kozyrev, who would become Boris Yeltsin’s first foreign minister, nervously read the novel on a park bench in Cold War New York. He was working for the Foreign Ministry and felt he would have risked his career had be brought the book home. He was shocked: there was nothing anti-Soviet in the book. It had been banned, he concluded, to destroy Pasternak, as an act which exemplified the power of the state organs over any individual, especially one who wrote in an original way.
Kozyrev was right in a literal sense, though his point does not quite reflect the rhythms of daily life for ordinary people in the post-Stalin USSR. Doctor Zhivago lacks much engagement with party ideology, or its aesthetic of socialist realism, but so do many other works that were published after 1953. Instead, it’s about an individual facing intolerable trials of circumstance and retreating, when he could, to private life. Stripped of its grandeur and violence, such a theme was scarcely alien to the daily reality of Soviet people. But then it was scarcely alien to people on the other side of the Iron Curtain, either. Doctor Zhivago was a strange Cold Warrior.