When The CIA Smuggled ‘Doctor Zhivago’ Into The USSR

“But if people love poetry, they love poets. And nobody loves poetry like a Russian.” —Doctor Zhivago (1965)

In A Nutshell

Doctor Zhivago is one of the all-time classic Russian novels, and it’s also a pretty decent movie. However, there was a time when Russians weren’t allowed to read Boris Pasternak’s classic book. Soviet censors did their best to make Zhivago disappear, but fortunately for literary-minded Russians, the CIA stepped in to save the day.

The Whole Bushel

The Soviet Union wasn’t such a great place for artists. Well, it wasn’t really a great place for anyone, but writers, painters, and filmmakers had it especially rough. If you wanted to create something—say a portrait or a novel—you had to stick to a very strict code known as “Socialist Realism.” Developed in the 1930s by the Soviet government, Socialist Realism set out very specific rules about what artists could and couldn’t do.

For example, their work had to be realistic, but that didn’t mean they could show hungry peasants or police brutality. “Realistic” meant humans had to look like humans, and none of that abstract nonsense, thank you very much. Art also had to be easy for the working class to understand so that stream-of-consciousness business wasn’t welcome either. Moral ambiguity was forbidden, and most importantly, art had to glorify the state which is why so many movies, songs, and paintings portrayed Joseph Stalin as a benevolent hero.

If you broke the rules, things didn’t end well. Under Stalin, rebellious writers and mutinous musicians found themselves slaving away in Siberian gulags or dangling in the air with a noose around their neck. So Boris Pasternak knew he was taking a risk as he wrote his epic novel, Doctor Zhivago. Already on Stalin’s naughty list for his poetry, Pasternak’s sweeping romance put him squarely in the Soviet spotlight. After all, the titular hero was a complex intellectual, the story revolted against the constraints of Socialist Realism, and some parts even challenged the Revolution itself.

Of course, Pasternak knew what he was getting into. Even before his pages hit the press, Soviet officials interrogated his mistress (who incidentally inspired the novel’s heroine) and treated her so badly she miscarried. Not only that, but the very paper Pasternak wrote on was a gift from a poet who’d been tortured and murdered by the state. Despite the pressure, the Russian was undeterred, and in 1955, he finally finished his book. But now there was a new problem . . . what was he going to do with it?

Since the Soviets weren’t going to publish Zhivago, Pasternak had to sneak his novel out of the country. Fortunately, he struck a deal with an Italian publishing company, and soon the book was an international bestseller. It was published in multiple languages across the world, and everyone loved the story of Yuri Zhivago and his dear Lara . . . well, almost everyone. Despite the fact it was originally written in Russian, no one in Russia had ever read the book. After all, it was strictly forbidden—and that’s when the CIA stepped in.

It’s 1958, the Cold War is on, the Space Race is in full swing, and the Central Intelligence Agency is coming up with ways to subvert the Soviet government and introduce its citizens to ideas like “democracy” and “capitalism.” One of their most interesting schemes involved smuggling contraband books into the USSR. Using various publishers as fronts, they sneaked Orwell, Nabokov, and Joyce into Soviet homes, but when Doctor Zhivago hit the shelves, the CIA knew they had a winner on their hands.

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While it wasn’t an anti-communist diatribe, Doctor Zhivago preached that “every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being.” At least that’s what the CIA said. So the Agency got to work publishing as many Russian copies of the novel as possible . . . only they had to keep quiet since they didn’t want to draw Soviet attention. In fact, they even had Dutch publishers do the actual printing so Soviet officials wouldn’t recognize the paper stock.

Once the novels were ready to go, the CIA distributed the books at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Both the US and USSR set up giant pavilions to promote their countries, but the CIA couldn’t have American exhibitors just passing out novels to any Russian who walked by. Instead, they allied with the Vatican. Whenever Russian Christians showed up at the Catholic booth, the priests would hurry them into a secret library where they were given a copy of Doctor Zhivago.

The 1958 fair was such a success that the CIA printed a new batch of novels (this time, they were all pocket-sized) and showed up at the 1959 World Festival for Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship. Only now, the agency was less subtle. Using Russian émigrés to hand out copies, the CIA lackeys met up with Soviet teenagers in theaters, slipped copies into shopping bags, and even threw books into open windows of Soviet buses.

While Doctor Zhivago hardly brought the USSR to its knees, the book did make its way back into Russia where citizens surreptitiously read their smuggled copies. So if nothing else, the CIA operation was a blow for artistic freedom . . . even if it was a government-sponsored plot. As for Pasternak, while his novel became a classic, he struggled with oppression for the rest of his life. When he won the Nobel Prize in 1958, the Soviets forced him to refuse it. And thanks to threats against his loved ones, he was even bullied into apologizing for his masterpiece. Still, the Soviets couldn’t stop people from reading Pasternak’s novel. Today, the Soviet Union is no more, but Doctor Zhivago is here to stay.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image from the 1965 film adaptation
The Telegraph: How CIA used copies of Dr Zhivago in battle to win Cold War
The Atlantic: Is Literature ‘the Most Important Weapon of Propaganda’?
The Daily Beast: Why the CIA Loved ‘Doctor Zhivago’
Russian Art Dealer: Socialist realism