Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Doctor Zhivago’s publication in Russian 50 years ago was heralded at the time as a great literary event, but new details are now also emerging of the significance of its political role during the Cold War. The story of the book itself was already worthy of a thriller, but Moscow based researcher Ivan Tolstoy now claims to have found evidence proving that MI6 and the CIA were jointly responsible for organising the first appearance of the novel in Russian.

This discovery could prove to be significant as the huge impact created by the novel was in part due to the extraordinary circumstances surrounding its publication abroad. Indeed the subsequent reaction to this led to the opening of a new front in the battle for cultural supremacy between the USSR and the West, and indirectly inspired a generation of Russian dissident authors.


Boris Pasternak started actively working on Doctor Zhivago in the 1940s and was to spend years writing what he considered to be the culmination of his life’s work. The novel recounts the story of a doctor, Yuri Zhivago and his love for two different women, poetically contrasting the power of his feelings with the brutality of the world around him. Pasternak was a writer, not a dissident, but he was still very much aware of the political dimension of his masterpiece, admitting in a private letter that ‘the freedom of spirit with which existence is represented in the work’ would create serious difficulties in getting the novel published.

The novel was eventually finished in the New Year of 1956 and a few months afterwards Pasternak sent off copies to leading Soviet literary journals. By this stage rumours of the author’s new novel and even some parts of the work had already reached the West, and in May 1956 the communist and publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli sent an envoy to the USSR to try and obtain the rights to publish in Italian. Surprisingly Pasternak acquiesced and handed over an uncorrected copy of his novel, remarking, ‘You are now invited to attend my execution.’

Pasternak had always hoped to publish in the Soviet Union, but this became highly unlikely after the work was denounced by Foreign Minister Dmitry Shepilov as a ‘malicious libel against the USSR’. The Soviet government, which had been aware all along of the Feltrinelli-Pasternak relationship, now made efforts to recover the typescript. Feltrinelli however refused to cooperate and after having agreed to a short delay he went to print with an Italian translation in November 1957.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was reported to be furious, but the race was now on to publish an edition in Russian. For the West there was a particular urgency to this as Pasternak was at that time under consideration for the Nobel literature prize and in order for Doctor Zhivago to be judged as part of Pasternak’s oeuvre it had to have been published in the original language. For Western intelligence services the possibility that the prize might be awarded to a Soviet writer rejected by his own country was apparently to prove too tempting to be left to chance.


Based on his publication in Italian, Feltrinelli claimed international copyright and tried to stop other rival Russian editions then in progress, including one at the University of Michigan and another at the firm of Mouton in The Hague. Both of these were reportedly being prepared with the connivance of the CIA. Whether of his own volition or under pressure, Feltrinelli eventually came to an agreement with Mouton that they could publish, but only under his imprint. This print run of only a few hundred copies appeared on 24 August, almost four months before Feltrinelli’s own Russian language edition was printed in Milan.

As with so much in this story it is not clear how the US security services might have got hold of a copy of the novel for the Mouton edition, but Carlo Feltrinelli claimed in a memoir about his father, that MI6 and the CIA conducted a joint operation in Malta, delaying a plane on which Feltrinelli senior was travelling in order to copy the Zhivago typescript in his luggage.

Somewhat mysteriously a similar but pirated copy of the novel was also produced around this time, but without the name of the publisher. It is mentioned by a couple of sources that this version has the same typesetting as the later University of Michigan edition, but is said to have also been put together by the CIA at Mouton. In an article for The Sunday Times Feltrinelli wrote that ‘it would appear that someone had printed an edition on the request of some Russian émigrés in Paris, who had certain relations with the Americans’.

Journey into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

The CIA have always refused to comment on their possible involvement in the Zhivago affair, but in 2005 former Dutch intelligence officer, Joop van der Wilden, told a local television station that he had been responsible for having delivered copies of the Mouton book to US embassy personnel in the town of Wassenaar near The Hague. Ivan Tolstoy claims to have found the original printers for the purported CIA edition(s) and in his forthcoming book The Laundered Novel he will supposedly reveal all.

No matter how it was achieved the outcome was still the same – a Russian edition had appeared in time for the Nobel committee and in October 1958 Pasternak was awarded the literature prize. After professing that he was ‘proud’ and ‘astonished’ to receive the award, Pasternak was then forced to turn it down, resulting in the hoped for international outcry.

The book’s publication had ramifications not only in the West, but throughout the Soviet Union where subsequent reaction to the official campaign of vilification against Pasternak was to help sow the seeds of dissidence. Doctor Zhivago was, according to one émigré historian, ‘more than a book, it was a historic event’.

After his death in 1960, the reality of Pasternak’s despicable treatment at the hands of the state led to soul searching among many Soviet writers. Against official wishes vast numbers attended his funeral and it was from this seemingly small act of rebellion that a major anti-Soviet movement would eventually be created.


The dissident movement, which would have been unthinkable under Stalin, did not arise in a vacuum but was due to a great extent to important political developments under Nikita Khrushchev. Change had begun a few years earlier, but Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult at the 20th Party Congress in 1956 marked the official beginning of what became known as the ‘Thaw’. Over the next ten years or so personal freedoms were increased and censorship partially relaxed to allow the publication of certain works critical of Stalin, thus helping Khrushchev’s bid to strengthen his grip on power.

Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov

The first major work to emerge was written by another Nobel laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. As with Zhivago the background to the 1962 publication of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich could be the subject of an entire book in itself – the novel was considered so sensitive and so important that the final go ahead for the short work was given by Khrushchev himself.

Solzhenitsyn’s moralistic story was not by any means the first work to discuss the camps but it was unique in the fact that it implied that ‘The Great Terror’ could not be blamed on Stalin alone, but was a product the system itself. The novel created a sensation when it came out in the literary journal Novyi Mir, and the entire print run of more than 120,000 copies sold out within hours.

One Day gave hope to many that they might also see their works published and a slew of camp memoirs and stories followed; notably Evgeniya Ginzburg’s memoir Into the Whirlwind and Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, a graphic cycle of short stories about life in the far-eastern gold mining camps. Neither of these works, and indeed very few others, was ever officially sanctioned; instead they were distributed by samizdat or self-publishing and then often printed abroad.

If the heart of the dissident movement was the continuation of Pasternak’s moral duel with the Soviet Union then its body was samizdat, which the poet Anna Akhmatova called the ‘pre-Gutenberg press’. From the 1940s typewriters and carbon paper had been used to reproduce all manner of illegal works in samizdat form, and this practice now rose exponentially. Approximately five copies could be made at any one sitting, and it was a time consuming, not to say dangerous, enterprise for which many were jailed. The dissident Vladimir Bukovsky famously described it thus: ‘I myself write it, edit it, censor it, publish it, distribute it and do time for it.’

The extension of this process was tamizdat, a pun on the word ‘tam’ meaning ‘over there’, whereby émigrés used existing or set up new publishing houses to print dissident works smuggled out of the USSR. Among the most important were the YMCA Press in Paris, Posev in Frankfurt, the Flegon Press in London and Inter-language Literary Associates in Washington. The US and other intelligence services had clearly learnt from the Pasternak affair and helped to fund these and other organisations who were working towards culturally undermining the Soviet state.

Statistically, very few Soviet citizens ever saw these banned works, but the numbers reproduced were nevertheless quite large. Ginzburg’s son estimated that there were more than 5,000 copies of Into the Whirlwind illegally circulating in the USSR. Khrushchev had unwittingly opened a Pandora’s Box and now the regime was to face an uphill struggle to close it.


Criticism of One Day started appearing a few months after publication but the real sign that the Thaw was over came in 1964 when the then little known poet Iosif Brodsky was arrested and put on trial for being a ‘social parasite’. Brodsky was an unlikely target – his poetry may have been un-Soviet but like Pasternak he was not in any way political.

The trial was a test for the regime, but the absurd questioning of the judge proved that little had changed since the Zhivago affair. In one memorable passage Brodsky was asked what his job was, to which he replied that he was a poet-translator:

Judge: And who judged you to be a poet? Who appointed you a poet?

Brodsky: No one. Who appointed me a member of the human race?

Judge: Have you studied for this?

Brodsky: For what?

Judge: To be a poet. You didn’t try to graduate from university where they prepare you ... where they teach ...

Brodsky: I didn’t know that it could be taught.

Judge: Well how else then?

Brodsky: I think that it comes ... from God.

Brodsky’s comments during the trial were not only a direct challenge to Socialist Realism, they also brought into question the whole relationship between the state and art. It was in effect a clash between two systems of belief – on the one hand the Soviet understanding of art as a political tool, and on the other the intellectual idea that art was the creative expression of one’s inner emotions.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Just a year and a half later another writers’ trial was to further reunite the intellectual community, this time under the new, more repressive Brezhnev regime. Yuli Daniel and Andrei Sinyavsky were accused of ‘anti-Soviet activity’ after having published their work abroad pseudonymously. The case is often credited with starting the political side of the dissident movement, as it led directly to the first independent demonstration since the 1920s.

In December 1965 Alexander Yessenin-Volpin organised a protest on Pushkin Square, demanding that the trial be held openly, as the Soviet constitution required. Yessenin-Volpin’s defence of the constitution allowed him to expose the state’s violations of its own legal system, thus exposing the hypocrisy of the regime. This so-called ‘legality programme’ came to form the basis for dissident action over the coming years.

Between them Daniel and Sinyavsky were sentenced to 13 years, but despite this heavy cost the dissident movement had scored a major victory. The Soviet regime had allowed the trial to be open to the public and the state had thereby showed that it did not have the stomach to initiate another round of major repressions that might have been required in the event of further protests.

Over the next few years the movement gathered pace – further demonstrations took place and opposition to events both at home and in Prague led to more people joining the cause. The most significant of these was the father of the Soviet hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov, who in 1968 wrote his important pacifist text, Progress, Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom, thereafter becoming the dominant figure in the Soviet human Rights movement.

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

All the while new literary work kept on appearing. Its dominant theme was still Stalinism, a topic that remained prescient given the dictator’s partial rehabilitation under Brezhnev. Almost inevitably this is also a subject which looms large over what is perhaps the greatest work of the period.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, a part satire part modern Faust set in Stalin’s Moscow and Pontius Pilate’s Jerusalem, was written secretly in the 1930s and 1940s. Before its publication in 1966/7 its existence had only been known to Bulgakov’s wife Elena and a handful of others and it proved a revelation to a readership who had previously known the author as a playwright. The text was heavily censored before its publication in the Moskva journal, but almost inevitably an uncut version soon started doing the rounds in samizdat and a full version was later published abroad.

The Master and Margarita reflects samizdat’s other key function – helping a new generation rediscover their historical and literary heritage. Works by authors who had been banned by the regime now circulated underground and many unpublished novels written in an earlier period were also unearthed and reproduced, among them Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit and Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofya Petrovna. Poetry passed over by the regime, in particular that of Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam, was also kept alive through samizdat.


Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn

The Soviet population had been denied more than just literature, it had been deprived of its history. Thanks to samizdat memoirs, historical works such as Roy Medvedev’s Let History Judge, and of course Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a measure of truth was revealed and preserved for future generations. A mention must also be given to the extraordinary Chronicle of Current Events, through which both the West and a precious few citizens inside the USSR learnt of the regime’s human rights’ abuses against those who dared raise their head above the parapet.

Many authors, including Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, were exiled in the 1970s as the state became increasingly harsh in its treatment of wayward citizens. Dissident literature, however, continued to flourish and during this time several significant works of satire were published. Vladimir Voinovich’s Adventures of Ivan Chonkin and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moskva Petushki, the tale of a drunken journey on a suburban train, are notable examples of the genre. Perhaps the last great novel to be published abroad was Vasili Grossman’s epic story of war, Life and Fate, written in 1959 but only published in 1980. It is a rather appropriate book on which to end as its title reflects something of the ‘other worldly’ destiny of these authors who suffered so much for their craft.

Back in 1965 Yessenin-Volpin had fought for openness or glasnost in the Soviet Union. Few would have believed that only 20 years later the Soviet leader himself would be demanding the very same thing. Under Gorbachev’s modernising policies banned literary works were finally allowed out of hiding and in 1988 Doctor Zhivago was published, in the very magazine which had first rejected it.

For nearly three decades literature had helped to lead the way in dissident politics, subtly undermining the authority of the state and forcing it little by little to change. Pasternak’s refusal to compromise with the regime in 1957 had set a precedent which reverberated down the years, providing a moral impetus to those who refused to subscribe to Soviet artistic doctrine and showing the West the potential role literature could play in Cold War politics. This anniversary provides a welcome opportunity to reassess the importance and impact of both Doctor Zhivago and of the novels which followed, each of which in their own way contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union, often at great personal cost to their authors.

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