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.