Is Literature 'the Most Important Weapon of Propaganda'?

Stalin thought so. So, apparently, did the CIA, according to a new account of how the U.S. secretly distributed Doctor Zhivago in the Soviet Union.
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A scene from the 1965 film adaptation of Doctor Zhivago (Warner Bros.)

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once described writers as “the engineers of the human soul.”

“The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks,” he claimed. Stalin clearly believed that literature was a powerful political tool—and he was willing to execute writers whose works were deemed traitorous to the Soviet Union.

Stalin's sentiments regarding literature may seem like the deranged delusions of a dictator. But consider a similar Cold War-era comment by the CIA’s then-chief of covert action: “Books differ from all other propaganda media primarily because one single book can significantly change the reader’s attitude and action to an extent unmatched by the impact of any other single medium.” He also used a military metaphor for culture, calling books “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda.”

Despite the shared rhetoric, the CIA did not use Soviet tactics to neutralize writers deemed threats. But the American government, and the CIA in particular, has long been keenly interested in using literature to promote American ideologies and undermine communism abroad.

Probably the best case study of the CIA’s foray into literary culture is the story of Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago. Some of the relevant CIA documents were recently declassified and received a good deal of media attention last month, but the subject is more comprehensively treated in Peter Finn and Petra Couvée’s fascinating new book The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book. Told in its entirety, the story of how Doctor Zhivago helped disrupt the Soviet Union holds some intriguing implications for the present and future of cultural conflict.

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Boris Pasternak began writing Doctor Zhivago around 1945 on blank paper he inherited from a dead friend, a Georgian poet who had been tortured and executed by the Soviet regime. The poet’s widow sent the paper to Pasternak, and he honored his friend’s literary defiance by writing a novel that ignored the official demands for literature to glorify the “Soviet man” and the revolution.

The finished product was hardly a celebration of capitalism or a “Western way of life,” but some passages openly doubted that the bloodshed of the revolution was justified, and large stretches were fairly indifferent to politics. A failure to praise the regime was as dangerous as a willingness to question it, and the Communist Party officials charged with overseeing cultural affairs were anxious to prevent the publication of Doctor Zhivago.

This was easily done within the Soviet Union, but Pasternak managed to pass a copy of the manuscript to a visiting Italian with publishing contacts. In The Zhivago Affair, Couvée and Finn recount the tangled tale of the book’s journey to publication. An Italian publishing house secured the rights to the novel, and Pasternak also gave copies to friends visiting from France and England. The Soviet authorities forged his signature and sent letters to the Italian publisher demanding the return of the manuscript, but Pasternak whispered his actual intentions to visiting Italians and sent special notes in French, telling his publisher to disregard communication in any other language. He wanted the book published, whatever the repercussions.

Not long after the novel’s initial 1957 publication, the CIA became involved. When the agency was created in 1947, Congress granted it the power to carry out “other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security.” This rather vague mandate allowed the agency to expand into cultural domains.

Couvée and Finn paint an intriguing picture of the literary culture at the CIA in the 1950s; one staff member, for example, left to become the fiction editor at Playboy only to hear that his former boss at the agency might submit a story under a pseudonym. Through a number of front organizations, including Bedford Publishing Company in New York City, the agency successfully purchased, printed, distributed, and even commissioned a number of books with the goal of promoting a “spiritual understanding of Western values.” This included novels by authors as diverse as George Orwell, Albert Camus, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce; and as Couvée and Finn reveal, one book Bedford commissioned was a false memoir of a Soviet-U.S. double agent. By smuggling books to the Soviet Union in everything from food cans to Tampax boxes, Bedford got as many as one million books to Soviet readers over the course of 15 years. The CIA’s program for the dissemination of literature continued until the fall of the USSR.

Given its literary culture, some CIA staff probably realized the irony of a powerful and well-funded government agency using clandestine methods to distribute novels by George Orwell. The American government was trying to manipulate the culture of the Soviet Union to help Soviet citizens recognize the dangers of a powerful government manipulating their culture. (Unsurprisingly, they didn’t want anyone to know they were involved.)

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Nick Romeo writes regularly for The Daily Beast and The Christian Science Monitor. He has written also for Rolling StoneThe Times Literary Supplement, and The Boston Globe, and is the author of the book Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journeys.

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