PRAGUE, December 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- In 1958, Boris Pasternak, the great Russian poet and novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature for what the Nobel committee described as his "important achievement both in contemporary lyrical poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition."
Best known in the Soviet Union for his poetic verse, it was his "epic" novel "Doctor Zhivago" that gained him the greatest recognition in the West.
A tragic love story set against the tumult of Russia's Bolshevik Revolution, "Doctor Zhivago" for many readers represented the epitome of the classic Russian novel.
The novel was first published in Italian in 1957; numerous translations followed.
In the spring of 1958, the French writer and philosopher Albert Camus nominated Pasternak for the Nobel Prize. But there was one key matter standing in his way: the book was not published in Russian, and writers must have their work published in their native language before they can be considered for a Nobel Prize.
How The CIA Became Involved
"Initially, during 1956, the Moscow publisher Goslitizdat -- the Soviet Union's main publishing house -- promised to put out the book, but after the Hungarian events of October 1956, the policy of the Soviet Union underwent a radical change," explains Ivan Tolstoi, a Russian literary expert and correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service. "There was to be no liberalization, no open poetry, prose, or plays -- nothing. They began, as we used to say in the Soviet Union, to tighten the screws."
From that moment, efforts began in the West to see "Zhivago" published in Russian.
But as the political climate in the Soviet Union darkened, Pasternak's supporters in the West found the proposition of publishing "Zhivago" increasingly risky.
Intensifying their hesitation, says Tolstoi, was the realization that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was behind plans to hasten the Russian edition's arrival.
Tolstoi, who spent the results of years researching the efforts behind the first publication of Pasternak's classic work in its native language, claims the CIA -- through a series of elaborate schemes -- ultimately published the book on its own.
The project, he argues, did more than win Pasternak the Nobel Prize; it also saved his life. "Thanks to the fact that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, Pasternak wasn't arrested," says Tolstoi. "This deed by the CIA served to ennoble and save Pasternak. The actions of American intelligence saved a great Russian poet."
But, in a December 14 presentation in Moscow, Tolstoi said "Pasternak had absolutely nothing to do with" the operation. "The American intelligence community did and financed everything itself, in order that a famous novel from an ingenious writer and poet might receive recognition."
Pasternak was forced to decline the award under pressure from Soviet authorities. But when he died two years later, in 1960, it was in his home in Peredelkino -- not in prison or exile abroad. It was a better fate than those of many Russian writers of the time.
Tolstoi said America's use of culture as a weapon in its ideological battle with the Soviet Union typifies what he calls "the drama of the Cold War."
"American intelligence, American policy, in this story, battled Kremlin ideology and communism not with poison, or kidnappings, or some other unseemly actions, but with the help of Russian culture," Tolstoi said. "They used Russian culture to fight against the Soviet state."
An interesting historical footnote, Tolstoi noted, is that the 1958 edition of "Zhivago" did not reflect Pasternak's final proofread version of the story, which was published only in 1967 -- nine years after he was awarded the Nobel Prize.