The Plot Thickens

(By Peter Finn -- The Washington Post)

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By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 27, 2007

MOSCOW Into one of the most sordid episodes in Russian literary history, the Soviets' persecution of Boris Pasternak, author of "Doctor Zhivago," a Russian historian has injected a belated piece of intrigue: the CIA as covert financier of a Russian-language edition of the epic novel.

Ivan Tolstoy, who is also a broadcaster for Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, writes in a forthcoming book that the CIA secretly arranged for the publication of a limited Russian-language edition of "Doctor Zhivago" in 1958 to help Pasternak secure the Nobel Prize in Literature that year.

"Pasternak's novel became a tool that was used by the United States to teach the Soviet Union a lesson," Tolstoy said in a telephone interview from Prague, where he works as a Russian commentator for the U.S. government-funded radio stations. The novelist knew nothing of the CIA's action, according to Tolstoy and the writer's family.

Tolstoy said his book, "The Laundered Novel," is based on more than a decade of research and will be released later this year, the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Doctor Zhivago." He previewed its contents in a recent lecture in Moscow.

A CIA role in printing a Russian-language edition has been rumored for years. Tolstoy offers the first detailed account of what would rank as perhaps the crowning episode of a long cultural Cold War, in which the agency secretly financed literary magazines and seminars in Europe in an effort to cultivate anti-Soviet sentiment among intellectuals.

A CIA spokesperson said the agency would have no comment on Tolstoy's account. The agency's files on its cultural underwriting in Europe remain closed, historians said. An official at the Swedish Academy, which chooses the Nobel winner in literature, said that materials on the prize committee's internal deliberations are sealed for 50 years. The Pasternak file will not become public until 2009.

The CIA connection has dismayed Pasternak's family and sparked a feud with Tolstoy, himself the grandson of an acclaimed Soviet-era novelist, Alexei Tolstoy.

"It is a detail hardly worth mentioning, a cheap sensation," said Yevgeny Pasternak, the author's 84-year-old son and an editor of his collected works, in an interview at his Moscow apartment. "I can add that my father knew nothing about this game. There is no doubt he would have won the prize anyway -- in 1959."

Pasternak, also a renowned poet, finished "Doctor Zhivago" in 1955 and submitted the novel to a Soviet publishing house for consideration. The story of a man torn between two women against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution was rejected.

But Soviet-era documents published in 2001 show that even in unpublished manuscript form it was hardly ignored. "Boris Pasternak's novel is a malicious libel of the USSR," wrote Soviet Foreign Minister Dmitry Shepilov in an August 1956 memo to members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In a memo of its own, the KGB offered the opinion that "a typical feature of his work is estrangement from Soviet life and a celebration of individualism."

Other Soviet papers show that the KGB knew that Pasternak was looking abroad as well and had reached a deal with the Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli to issue the novel in Italian.

In the months leading up its publication date in late 1957, the Soviet authorities called on Italian communists to urge Feltrinelli, himself a communist, not to go forward with it.


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