How the U.S. Government Tried to Undermine the U.S.S.R. By Publishing ‘Doctor Zhivago’

Nicholas E. Barron
Feb 25 · 4 min read

The true story of how the CIA got into book publishing

By Christine Kingery

How do you turn down the Nobel Prize for literature? The Swedish Academy bestowed the award upon Boris Pasternak, author of books such as Doctor Zhivago, in 1958. For Pasternak, the Nobel was the ultimate recognition-as an artist, humanitarian, and Russian. But for his country, the Prize didn’t mean glory; for the Soviet Union, the award meant sedition, an embrace of Western values over the importance of nation and communism.

Pasternak was on the wrong side of the political regime. At the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, he supported the new government’s ideals and goals. The difference was-and this was a big deal-he didn’t think that individuals should need to forgo their rights over the good of the State. It was that dissident ideology that put Pasternak on the outs with the Kremlin.

St. Basil’s Basilica in Moscow
Photo by Adrien Wodey on Unsplash

Pasternak wrote Doctor Zhivago over several decades, completing it in 1956. He tried to publish the book in Russia in a newspaper named Novy Mir. But the publisher, controlled by the Kremlin, decided that some passages were anti-Soviet and denied publication.

At the same time, countries worldwide noticed that not many Soviet writings were leaving the country, and the international literary movement began actively seeking out Russian literature. In 1956, an Italian journalist named Sergio D’Angelo traveled to Russia, and while there, D’Angelo discovered a large public fervor for the poet Boris Pasternak. Learning of Doctor Zhivago’s existence, D’Angelo asked Pasternak if a publisher in Italy could print the work. Stunned, Pasternak handed over the manuscript.

The Kremlin was not pleased.

In the meantime, the United States was looking to bring down the Soviet Union and put a crack in the U.S.S.R.’s political veneer. The C.I.A. saw Pasternak and its anti-Soviet sentiments as the way to advance this mission. In C.I.A. documents declassified in 2014, a file dated Dec. 12, 1957, stated, “ Dr. Zhivago should be published in a maximum number of foreign editions, for maximum free world discussion and acclaim and consideration for such honor as the Nobel Prize.”

Although the letter doesn’t say that the C.I.A. went to the Nobel committee to influence them to award the prize to Pasternak, the letter certainly indicates that the C.I.A. had the idea in mind.

The C.I.A. printed 355 copies of Doctor Zhivago at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. The agency distributed them at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958.

The C.I.A.’s Soviet Russia Division ran the operation, sanctioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Operations Coordinating Board, which reported to the National Security Council. The bizarre Pasternak conspiracy went all the way to the top of the U.S. government.

The Swedish Academy knew that awarding Pasternak the Prize would anger the Soviet regime, potentially endangering Pasternak himself. After all, the book wasn’t even being distributed or printed within Russia’s land borders. And so the Academy was careful in the way they worded the award, saying that Pasternak received the Nobel Prize “for his important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.”

The Kremlin’s response was brutal, and the government doubled down on their work to discredit Pasternak and bully him into turning down the Prize. One magazine called Doctor Zhivago “a Literary Weed” saying, “if you compare Pasternak to a pig, a pig would not do what he did, because a pig never s — — where it eats.” A union representative called Pasternak a “literary whore, hired and kept in America’s anti-Soviet brothel.”

The Soviet government told Pasternak that if he traveled to Stockholm to collect the Nobel, he could never return to the Soviet Union. The government had already arrested his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, a few years earlier, imprisoning her in the Gulag for five years on charges of being “an accomplice to the spy.” (Olga was the inspiration behind Doctor Zhivago’s Lara.)

Pasternak feared for the safety of his loved ones as well as for himself. He sent a frantic letter to Premier Nikita Krushchev begging for leniency.

“Leaving the motherland will equal death for me,” Pasternak wrote. “I am tied to Russia by birth, by life, and work.”

The Nobel Prize committee awarded Pasternak the Prize on Oct. 23, 1958. Six days later, the writer turned down the award.

Pasternak died two years after declining to accept the Nobel Prize. His lover, Ivinskaya, was imprisoned a second time, accused of being Pasternak’s link with Western publishers and receiving payment for Doctor Zhivago. She served four years of an eight-year sentence.

Doctor Zhivago was finally published in Russia in 1988. In Dec. 1989, Boris’s son, Yevgenji Pasternak, traveled to Stockholm to collect his father’s Nobel Prize.

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Nicholas E. Barron

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Nicholas E. Barron

Written by

Focused on writing, books, and storytelling. Newsletter for readers and writers: Pronouns: he, him, his 🏳️‍🌈

Bidwell Hollow

Sharing stories about famous authors and poets and writer interviews. Visit for more.

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