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.

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.


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.)

Nonetheless, the CIA saw “great propaganda value” in Doctor Zhivago. Partnered with Dutch intelligence agents, they arranged for an illegal printing of a Russian-language version of the novel that was distributed at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958. The agency also used its own press in Washington to print miniature pocket-sized copies; the diminutive edition was easier to smuggle.

The operation had precisely the desired impact—for better and for worse. The reported price of the Russian edition on the black market in Moscow was close to a week’s wages. When Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize for literature, Soviet officials viciously attacked him as a traitor fawning over Western idols. Writers around the world, however, rallied to his defense, and the notoriety of the book only fueled more sales.


American efforts at cultural engineering were generally subtler than Soviet ones; the CIA sought to promote rather than prevent the publication and dissemination of books, and the agency didn’t threaten or coerce authors into supporting a particular ideology.

That said, there are some intriguing continuities between the cultural interventions of the two Cold War superpowers.

Couvée and Finn describe a meeting with a party bureaucrat at which Pasternak lost his temper and fumed: “You have your human side, I can see, but why do you come out with these stock phrases? ‘The people! The people!’—As though it were something you could just produce from your own trouser pockets.” He was railing against the arrogance of official dogma, a belief in some infinitely pliable public that could be shaped to pre-formulated ends. Yet this, judging from the CIA’s operation to print and disseminate a pocket-sized version of Doctor Zhivago, was precisely what the agency wanted: something that could emerge from one’s trouser pockets to shape the opinions of ordinary people.

Pasternak did not think of his novel as a weapon for intellectual warfare. He referred to it as “my final happiness and madness,” hardly the phrase of someone who sees a book as a cultural grenade. He thought the work was much more than a vehicle to deliver a particular message, and he was frustrated by the way the international media always quoted the same passages to show that he was critical of the regime. He wanted his book treated as a novel, not a pamphlet.

The CIA, on the other hand, was delighted by the media spotlight on the anti-Communist passages. The CIA also recognized that the symbolism of the situation made the Soviet Union look at least as bad as the novel itself did. After accepting the Nobel Prize, Pasternak then voluntarily refused it after party officials put unbearable pressure on him and his loved ones. The image of the noble but persecuted writer, a courageous critic of a corrupt regime, created great copy for journalists and terrible publicity for the Soviet Union.


The entire episode, as chronicled in The Zhivago Affair, suggests an important lesson about the limited power of spy agency attempts at cultural warfare. None of the works the CIA commissioned are widely read today, and Soviet writers who celebrated official ideology are equally forgotten. Doctor Zhivago, however, remains a household name. Government intervention that precedes the creation of literature tends to fail; the CIA became entangled with Doctor Zhivago only after the novel was composed. Had they found and bribed a Russian author to write a book with anti-Soviet themes, it likely would never have become an international literary and media sensation. Authentic literary productions are far more powerful than the best government efforts at cultural engineering.

It seems, then, that spotting and supporting those cultural artifacts that promote national interests is a more effective strategy (and one worth considering) at a time when intelligence agencies seem obsessed with data collection, gadgets, surveillance, and drones. Distributing a novel might seem like a quaint caper for a spy agency, but it reflects a deeply different strategy: relying on art and ideas rather than force to advance security objectives. And in order for art of any kind to deserve the name, it must be more than a vehicle for politics.

Pasternak himself put it best: “It’s not true that people only value the novel because of politics. That’s a lie. They read it because they love it.”