Did the CIA fund a Russian-language publication of Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" in order to help the dissident author win the Nobel Prize? Ivan Tolstoi, a literary historian and correspondent with RFE/RL's Russian Service, has spent the better part of two decades trying to find out. Tolstoi's research has resulted in a book, "The Laundered Novel: Doctor Zhivago, Between the KGB and the CIA,” which was recently published in Russia. In this first-person account, Tolstoi describes his pursuit of the truth behind "Zhivago's" first appearance in Russian.
By Ivan Tolstoi
On October 23, 1958, Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his "important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition."
The latter clause referred to a controversial novel, banned in the Soviet Union, smuggled out to the West, and released in 1957 in Italian by the prominent Milanese publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.
The work, "Doctor Zhivago," was a tragic love story set against the tumult of Russia's Bolshevik Revolution. Goslitizdat, the Soviet Union's main publishing house, had initially promised to publish the book in a season of growing social liberalization. But the Hungarian uprising in 1956 prompted Moscow to once again tighten the screws. Pasternak, whose work was seen as a subtle critique of the Soviet regime, was once again in the cold.
Without a "Zhivago" in the original Russian, Pasternak would lose his most important audience -- and, it was believed, his chance of winning a Nobel. Although the Swedish Academy is famously protective of its rules for eligibility, it has long been believed an author must be published in his native language in order to be considered for the prize.
The title page of the original Brussels version of "Doctor Zhivago"
After Feltrinelli's Italian publication, "Zhivago" was later translated into English and French. But it wasn't until September 1958 -- just a month before the Swedish Academy made its announcement -- that a version of the original Russian text saw light at Expo 58, the Brussels World's Fair.
It was a mutant of a book, riddled with typographic and grammatical errors, incomplete passages, and underdeveloped story lines. The jacket appeared to come from The Hague-based academic publisher Mouton, but the title page was Feltrinelli's. This "Zhivago" had clearly not gone through ordinary publishing channels. So who was responsible?
The Soviets, infuriated by Pasternak's Nobel win, blamed the agents of imperialism.
Nikita Khrushchev denounced the Swedish Academy for political meddling and demanded that the prize be awarded instead to socialist realist Mikhail Sholokhov.
Still, few had reasons to doubt the Soviet accusations. It was obvious Moscow hadn't published "Zhivago" or lobbied for its author to win the Nobel. If it wasn't them, it stood to reason it had to be the other side. But the University of Michigan soon published an official Russian version of the work, and questions about the "mutant Zhivago" soon faded.
Thirty years later, I set out to trace its mysterious lineage.
Freshly Printed 'Zhivago'
In a way, "Doctor Zhivago" and I were born the same year. My father, a diplomat who represented the Soviet Union at Expo 58, returned home to Leningrad that year with a little plastic Volkswagen for me and a freshly printed copy of the Brussels "Zhivago" hidden at the bottom of his customs-exempt luggage.
My father over the years collected a vast assortment of banned modern literature, and by high school, I had devoured the Solzhenitsyn, Nabokov, and Brodsky that made up his illicit library. The "Zhivago," however, had been lost in years of lending and relending. But its unusual history stayed fresh in my mind.
The execution was so sloppy, in fact, I felt confident a thread leading to its true provenance would be easy to find.
In 1988, as the Soviet borders opened, I left for France, where I was delighted to come across a copy of the mysterious Brussels "Zhivago" amid a collection of emigre literature. Cracking open its blue leatherette, I was delighted to discover that everything I had heard and suspected about the book was true.
While the binding was unmistakably Mouton, or at least a perfect replica of their standard issue, nothing else was suggestive of the respected academic publisher. The title page, which said Feltrinelli, had been pasted in with glue. The font was unusual for a Western printing press; the errors in the text were quite appalling. The execution was so sloppy, in fact, I felt confident a thread leading to its true provenance would be easy to find.
The thread came to me by accident the following year.
Working as a freelancer with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Munich, I met a colleague, Grigory Danilov, who in the 1950s had worked as an editor with the Central Union of Postwar Emigres (CUPE), a European subsidiary of the CIA. He casually mentioned that "Zhivago" had been among the union's printing projects.
"You must be mistaken," I said, surprised. "CUPE never published 'Zhivago.'"
But no, he insisted, he had typeset it himself.
Arrived Through Back Channels
It was a tantalizing lead, but there was little more Danilov could tell me about the book's origins. The manuscript had arrived through back channels, and the galleys were confiscated as soon as they were prepared. Since then, I've spent nearly 20 years traveling the world in search of more clues.
By December 2006, I felt I had collected enough evidence to support my suspicions: that the first Russian edition of "Doctor Zhivago" had been published by the CIA.
I announced my findings at a lecture at the Moscow Library of Foreign Literature, adding that I had reason to believe the publication of a Russian-language edition had been crucial in ensuring that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in 1958.
The CIA has refused to comment on my report.
Yevgeny Pasternak, Boris Pasternak's son, in 2004
Pasternak's son, Yevgeny, insists his father had no connections to the CIA, and that the prize would have gone to him regardless -- if not that year, then the next.
The strongest argument mounted against my claims involved the connection between the Brussels "Zhivago" and the Nobel Prize. I conducted numerous interviews over the years with people close to Pasternak, including his European charge d'affaires, Jacqueline de Proyart, whose friend, Albert Camus, was spearheading Pasternak's Nobel campaign. Time and again, I was told that Swedish officials had specifically stipulated that the publication of a Russian-language "Zhivago" was essential for Pasternak's Nobel bid.
Yet, despite the abundance of personal testimony in support of this idea, I have been able to find no documentary proof.
Nobel Prize historians know of no such "original language" rule. The Swedish Academy, which opened its Pasternak archives only this year, has defended the prize as apolitical. Horace Engdahl, the secretary of the Nobel committee, has said only that he believes the academy has no requirement that nominees be published in their original language.
'The Formal Obstacle'
Admittedly, the fact that Pasternak had been short-listed for the Nobel on so many occasions before "Zhivago" was available in any language suggests that this may not have been a barrier at all. But the idea seems to be widespread. Even Yevgeny Pasternak, in his biography of his father, writes, "The formal obstacle was that the novel hadn't been published in Russian -- only a translation existed."
My claim, in part, requires readers to abandon the self-styled notion of the Swedish Academy as a paragon of impartiality and admit that, like any other organization, its agenda was not immune to the issues of contemporary politics -- especially during the Cold War.
The Soviets, who granted Swedish writer Arthur Lundquist the Lenin Prize for literature in 1958, could easily have had occasion to warn the Swedish Academy that a Nobel, given the severe political climate in the USSR, would only harm Pasternak.
Moscow's motive is clear -- they wanted the hype over "Zhivago" to die down. It was bad enough that Giangiacomo Feltrinelli had defied them in publishing an Italian translation; international recognition would not only legitimize, but virtually deify, the insolent poet.
It is possible that the Soviets, in their talks with the Swedes, could have offered to provide a translation themselves, but at a later date, when -- the KGB could have argued -- the threat of political repercussions against Pasternak would have subsided. Thus, by pretending to wait for an opportune moment to celebrate one of their prominent literati, the Soviets could have postponed -- possibly permanently -- the domestic disgrace of Pasternak's Nobel win.
But one can easily see motivation for the CIA in such a moment, as well.
Talent For Sabotage
Pasternak's celebrity was a thorn in the Kremlin's side. Publishing "Zhivago" in Russian would only escalate the hype and strengthen internal dissent. A successful debut at Expo 58 -- no matter how shabby the workmanship -- could be seen as an ideal opportunity not only to thumb their nose at the Soviets, but show their own talent for sabotage as well.
Boris Pasternak with his wife, Zinaida, in their dacha in 1958, the year he won the Nobel Prize
Having received the Russian copies, the Swedish Academy was likely forced to consider the situation that Pasternak had been put in. While he was not yet directly persecuted by the Soviet authorities, editions of his poetry were disappearing from print, his translations of European plays were being pulled from theaters, and he was finding it increasingly difficult to find work.
Thus, a concerted effort was being made not only to drain him economically, but also to efface his image from the public view. Pasternak had already managed to send a number of alarming letters abroad, indicating that he was being sustained by occasional handouts from friends and admirers. It is plausible that, realizing this was Khrushchev's new way of disposing of his high-profile dissenters, Swedish Academy members decided to follow their moral imperative and save the poet by throwing him the lifeline of ultimate celebrity -- the Nobel Prize.
That is not to say that Pasternak was undeserving of the honor.
In the years following World War II, he was shortlisted for the Nobel six times, so it was all but inevitable that his candidacy would eventually be successful. What my analysis suggests is that there were additional political circumstances that created motives for the Swedish Academy to award the prize sooner rather than later.
As it turned out, the tragic end was inevitable.
Pasternak was tormented in the press, shunned by many of his peers, and died of a cancer that was arguably induced by the incredibly stressful two years that followed the award, which, ironically, he had refused to accept.