The Zhivago affair, literature and propaganda

Literature is certainly a separate and distinct field from politics. Political power should never be used to pressure writers into towing a party line. But literature can never be indifferent to, or isolated from, the political climate.

Literature, in this case Doctor Zhivago, was turned into an instrument of Cold War propaganda – by the United States. Despite strenuous denials from Washington, the promotion of the novel by Boris Pasternak, and the latter’s award of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was part of a concerted ‘soft power’ campaign to promote literature as a political weapon. This effort was orchestrated at the highest levels of the US government, and involved the CIA and British intelligence.

Let’s unpack this issue, and explore what it means for us today.

The Zhivago novel, and the cultural and political firestorm surrounding its publication, is the subject of The Zhivago Affair: the Kremlin, the CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book, published in 2014. The authors describe how the US ruling institutions recognised the political value of secretly publishing novels the Soviet government had banned.

Pasternak’s novel, published in 1957, gained an international audience, and earned its author a Nobel prize, due to its promotion by powerful forces in the capitalist West. In fact, it is no exaggeration to state that Pasternak’s pathway to the Nobel prize was paved for him by the CIA.

The novel itself, partly autobiographical and part historical drama, revolves around the life of Dr Yuri Zhivago in the wake of the 1917 Russian revolution and subsequent developments. The author, Boris Pasternak, while not anti-Soviet, basically remained indifferent to the socialist revolution. Pasternak achieved great fame as a novelist in the Soviet Union, gaining prestige as a national treasure. Previously honoured as a great writer, the Kremlin decided to ban his novel as a work contrary to the ideals and goals of the Soviet government.

The CIA and British intelligence sensed an opportunity. Secret copies of the book were smuggled out of the USSR, to be published and circulated in the capitalist nations. The book was illegally circulated through underground channels inside the Eastern bloc, with the express goal of exerting ideological pressure and encouraging Soviet citizens to question their state.

Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958, though he was forced to reject it by the Soviet authorities. Made into a movie in the early 1960s, Pasternak became a symbol of artistic and literacy defiance in the face of authoritarianism. It is interesting to note that the US and British governments, while claiming to defend artists and writers from political persecution, used novels and literature as political weapons in their efforts to combat socialist culture and ideas.

For decades, the role of the US and Britain, and its covert political motivations, remained hidden behind a mask of promoting artistic and literary freedom. Writers and artists, we were told during the Cold War, should be free from politics and government interference. The Soviet premier at the time, Nikita Khrushchev, admitted in his memoirs, written years after the Zhivago affair, that he had been wrong in banning the novel.

The Nobel committee, in mending fences with the Soviet authorities, awarded the literature prize in 1965 to prominent Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov, in particular for his epic, historical four-volume novel, And Quiet Flows the Don, which examines the Soviet government’s sweeping economic and cultural changes in the with the revolution, civil war and collectivisation on the Don Cossacks.

The book itself, average in tone and unremarkable, was promoted for its propagandistic value. This may seem a strange concept to grasp – surely the capitalist West does not engage in vulgar propaganda? Peter Finn and Petra Couvee, the authors of the book mentioned above who have examined the Zhivago affair, wrote that:

During the Cold War, the CIA loved literature – novels, short stories, poems. Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov. Books were weapons, and if a work of literature was unavailable or banned in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe, it could be used as propaganda to challenge the Soviet version of reality.

Literature is not only a reflection of a given society, it can also influence the outlook of its readers, and become a potent force for shaping that society. The political ramifications of historical novels is something that cannot be handled by censorship, that is for sure. However, we would be deluding ourselves if we did not recognise the galvanising impact that a novel can have on political vision. This is not merely an academic question, but has real-world contemporary relevance.

Consider the case of The Turner Diaries.

Published in 1978 by American white supremacist and neo-Nazi William Luther Pierce, the Turner Diaries has achieved a kind of Bible-status among the white nationalist Right. The themes elaborated in the novel have inspired terrorist actions in the US, including the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The novel elaborates how ‘race traitors’, enemies of the white race, are eliminated, along with African Americans, Jews and other minorities. This book, rather than extolling a bygone era of slavery, shifted white nationalism onto a futuristic perspective. It provided a blueprint for white nationalist action, and served to unite splintered groups.

The tone of the novel is lurid and violent – with misogyny and anti-Semitism dripping from its pores. Its impact cannot be underestimated – it has become a seminal text in the canon of racist hate literature. It has served to inspire terrorist violence, and has spawned a veritable genre of racist literature. A hero fighting against the odds is not a new idea in American literature – but Pierce gave it a white supremacist spin. Canada, among a number of countries, has deemed the book hate literature, and has outlawed its importation.

It is time to face the reality that literature, even when not overtly political, is part of the political and cultural climate. It has the ability to set the framework through which millions of readers understand political and historical issues. The Soviet programme at cultural and social engineering was more ‘sledgehammer’ in form that in the United States. But make no mistake, capitalist cultural engineering, while subtle and psychological, is no less powerful and saturates the public mind.

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