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"Doctor Zhivago": The CIA Connection and Its Impact

Ivan Tolstoy
Historian, Author of "The Laundered Novel"
Monday, January 29, 2007 1:30 PM

Historian and author Ivan Tolstoy was online Monday, Jan. 29, at 1:30 p.m. ET to discuss "The Laundered Novel," his upcoming book detailing the CIA's long-rumored push to make Soviet-banned novelist Boris Pasternak's "Doctor Zhivago" eligible for the Nobel Prize, which Pasternak won in 1958.

The Plot Thickens (Post, Jan. 27)

Tolstoy will be translated during the chat by his son, Andrey, a student at Middlebury College in Vermont and a frequent translator of Ivan Tolstoy's texts.

The transcript follows.

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Washington: Mr. Tolstoy: The story behind the "Doctor Zhivago" Nobel Prize is fascinating. It has me wondering, though, how you view modern day Russia. With the recent poisonings of Litvinenko in London and Yushchenko in Ukraine (not to mention the murder of Anna Politkovskaya and countless others), it appears that Russia still is embroiled in the days of spies and cloak-and-dagger. How different is Putin's Russia than the Soviet Union in the '50s?

Ivan Tolstoy: It would be a stretch to compare modern Russia to the Soviet police-state of the 1950s. Cloak-and-dagger politics are still extant but their breadth and nature have changed. Anti-Western policy is not absolute and pervasive, like it was fifty years ago, but selective and cocky. That cockiness is one of the primary differences; Soviet leaders were criminals, but they were ashamed of their criminality (which is not to say that this deterred their actions in any way); Putin and his cronies are not.

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Alexandria, Va.: Good afternoon. I'd like to know what Mr. Tolstoy thinks about the current state of fiction-writing abroad, but particularly in the U.S. And secondly, what type of impact do you think new technology (the Internet, e-mail, blogs) will have on novel writing? Thank you.

Ivan Tolstoy: To pass judgment on something so broad as the "state of fiction-writing abroad" requires more knowledge of the subject than I currently possess. I don't have the audacity to comment so freely on topics outside my areas of expertise, namely Russian literature and the Cold War.

I feel that modern technologies, such as the Internet, the e-mail and various blogs, have allowed people to return to the written word much of the grace that had been lost in hasty phone calls during the past few decades.

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Gila Bend, Ariz.: Are you any relation to the great Leo Tolstoy?

Ivan Tolstoy: Yes, we have common ancestry.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: Did the CIA have any other known involvement in attempting to affect the Nobel Prize process? I wonder what the CIA thought of Solzhenitsyn.

Ivan Tolstoy: Not to my knowledge. It would be appropriate to note here that the KGB tried to counteract the CIA's efforts by pressuring the Swedish Academy into removing Pasternak's name from the list of candidates, both through communiques by the Soviet Embassy in Stockholm and though various influential European figures, by way of bribes or coercion. Final score: CIA 1, KGB 0.

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Philadelphia: What is the Noble Prize process? It is my understanding any national legislator in the world can nominate a candidate for the prize. Doesn't this make the process quasi-political?

Ivan Tolstoy: The only two bodies with the power to nominate a candidate for the Prize are a) past laureates, and b) institutions that have been granted such a right. This is different from the nomination process for the Oscars or the Golden Globes. The nomination is an attempt to bring the Swedish Academy's attention to a particular figure in contemporary literature. There have been many cases of the Nobel Prize being awarded to non-nominated candidates, just as there have been many nominated candidates who never won the Prize, like Nabokov and Borges.

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New York: Mr. Tolstoy: Although a fascinating story it is hardly surprising that the CIA would want this masterpiece in the hands of the Soviet people, not just intellectuals. However, it would seem the real motivating factor in the CIA wanting this book published in Russian is the very fact the Soviet government did not want it published in Russian, true? The CIA could not predict what the Swedish Academy would do, but an epic love story against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution in which the Bolsheviks were depicted realistically and not glorified would seem to be yet another layer of anti-Soviet literature that could only help the CIA and the Western world in the Cold War.

Ivan Tolstoy: Indeed, the CIA could not predict the actions of the Swedish Academy. It could, however, ensure that Pasternak was a legitimate candidate by arranging the publication of "Doctor Zhivago" in Russian. At that point, smuggling the book into the Soviet Union for the purposes of clandestine distribution was less of a priority.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: Pasternak's been dead 45 years, the prize was awarded long ago, the surviving principals are old if not entirely forgotten, and the twisted Soviet empire is securely lodged in history's rotting landfill. So why did you wait so long to reveal your story? And when do you expect it to be published? Thanks much.

Ivan Tolstoy: Corpses -- physical and political -- decompose slowly, and their odor is felt by society for decades. Not everyone is ready to accept the evidence that I discovered over the past sixteen years. Even Pasternak's son shudders at the fact that the CIA played a positive role in the novel's history.

The reason I waited so long to publicize my findings was that I was missing several crucial pieces of information that I had to collect before I could go public with this kind of expose. The fact that my book will come out on the year of the novel's 50th anniversary is a pure coincidence. I expect to see it on bookshelves this fall.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Do you believe, as Feltrinelli's son apparently does, that the CIA managed to pull off a bogus emergency landing of a commercial airplane Feltrinelli was traveling in to steal, secretly photocopy and return, without being noticed, the Russian original of "Doctor Zhivago" from his baggage? This reads like an episode from a Soviet-era spy fiction. Was there a more plausible way for the CIA to get the manuscript?

Ivan Tolstoy: "This reads like an episode from a Soviet-era spy fiction." The only word I would change in that sentene is "fiction". The mysterious and unattainable copies of the novel; their secret transportation from behind the iron curtain to the West; the KGB surveillance of various persons involved, including the writer himself; the typesetting and printing, which took place in a number of different locations, where the persons doing the work knew nothing about the other links in the publication chain; finally, the completely unexpected publication of the novel in Holland. All these are episodes of a Cold War action film, which I would gladly produce. In this context the Malta story is not all too fantastical.

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Washington, DC: I think if the CIA did have a hand in publishing Zhivago in Russian it was one of the smartest things they did. Do you not agree?

Ivan Tolstoy: I do.

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New York: Would Russian literature have been as great had the Revolution never occurred? Without a doubt the Soviet state prevented thousands of talented writers from exploring their craft, but do you think that in some perverse way, the evils of Marxist-Leninism created the brilliance of Tolstoy and Pasternak?

Ivan Tolstoy: I wouldn't even talk about a forest fire in such terms -- I would feel bad for the trees. There would have been a different, possibly great, Russian literature; but the sacrifice of so many lives for the brilliance of a few is cruel. There is, of course, the legitimate view that adversity breeds talent, but the extent to which such utilitarian musings are appropriate is limited.

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River City: Fascinating, thank you. Why do you think Pasternak's family has reacted so negatively? I don't think accepting your premise also means we think Pasternak wasn't deserving of the prize. In fact, if true, it shows the American government thought very highly of Pasternak's power to sway powerful people with his words.

Ivan Tolstoy: Throughout most of the past fifty years, Pasternak's son has been facing accusations on the part of the Kremlin that his father received CIA assistance in receiving the Nobel Prize -- and for the past fifty years he has been fighting for his father's good name. Now all of a sudden I come along and claim to have proof of the CIA's involvement, which is naturally a great disappointment for the family. For Pasternak-the-father, however, this discovery is the best means of clearing his name of any suspicions. His personal involvement in the CIA's machinations was null and my book should in no way be interpreted as an attempt to demean his literary stature -- only to expose the political uses to which it inadvertently was put.

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Philadelphia: How did you find the information regarding the CIA? Is this from declassified papers you researched, or did you come to learn about this some other way?

Ivan Tolstoy: It took nearly twenty years, during which I took countless interviews with Russian emigres in the U.S. and Western Europe and sifted through numerous public archives.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Mr. Tolstoy, I wonder if you have any evidence of similar CIA actions towards Solzhenitsyn?

Ivan Tolstoy: I do not.

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London:"Doctor Zhivago" could not be the only book or novel that the CIA and the West wanted read by the Russians, could it?

Ivan Tolstoy: Of course not. The majority of socially relevant (dissident) literature was published and distributed in the Soviet Union with at least some financial and/or logistical assistance from the CIA.

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New York: Do you think that "Doctor Zhivago" is read by young Russians today as part of "the classics?"

Ivan Tolstoy: Yes, the same way they read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

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New Haven, Conn.: Sir: Was there any known effort to smuggle the movie "Doctor Zhivago" into the USSR by the CIA?

Ivan Tolstoy: At the time when the movie came out, there was no privately available technology in the Soviet Union with which to screen it in an appropriately clandestine setting. The movie was shown at closed sessions to Soviet cinematographers (for educational purposes) and to the high-ranking Soviet elite (for entertainment purposes). Other than that, the public simply had no access. I do know, however, that Pasternak's son was able to see it soon after it came out -- in what capacity, I am not sure.

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Washington: It seems that there is much more to the Cold War and our popular institutions that we ever suspected. Are you aware of any KGB Cold War efforts to affect the outcome of any other important cultural achievements in the West, such as the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, etc.?

Ivan Tolstoy: The KGB made repeated attempts to exert such an influence, but they failed every time because they dealt with shady and unreliable characters. There is, of course, the individual case of Mikhail Sholokhov, who was awarded the Prize in order to appease the Soviets after the Pasternak incident. This is the one case where I think the Swedish Academy overpoliticized its actions.

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New York: In your opinion, without the CIA backing, do you believe "Doctor Zhivago" would have been deserving of the Nobel Prize? Even if someone can influence an outcome wasn't there still much merit to the book?

Ivan Tolstoy: The number of nominations Pasternak received for his poetry before being awarded the Prize in 1958 is overwhelming evidence to his critical acclaim. I cannot emphasize this enough: the aim of my book is to show how the CIA paved the technical way for Pasternak's nomination. The artistic credit for the award is entirely his own.

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Blue Bell, Pa.: How is life in the current "free-market" economy for an average Russian family? Are they struggling with stagnant wages and sky-high rent and inflation of goods and services? For example, average monthly worker pay and costs of rent, foods, motorcycles, etc.

Ivan Tolstoy: The average Russian family is indeed confronted by the very difficulties you mention in your question. We no longer are dealing with the dearth of consumer goods that plagued Soviet Russia, but rather with people lacking the financial means to purchase them. This leads many to deprive themselves of basic necessities for the sake of a few luxuries; they may save by buying lower-quality food in order to afford travel abroad, for example.

I should note that there are slightly fewer poor people now than there were five years ago, but this is not a significant improvement. The standard of living in St. Petersburg and Moscow is radically different from that in the rest of the country.

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Washington: Are you familiar with Charles McCarry's novel "The Secret Lovers" which deals with CIA efforts to publish a novel by a Russian dissident?

Ivan Tolstoy: I have not heard of it until now and I'm very curious.

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River City: Does the prize process require that the book be published in it's original language in order to be a legitimate candidate for the Nobel? Why did the book have to be published in Russian once it was already published and available in other languages and countries?

Ivan Tolstoy: That is one of the requirements. The Swedish Academy must be able to assess the quality of the author's work in its native tongue (otherwise, they would be assessing the quality of the translation).

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Middlebury '84: I'm the broader context of why the CIA would do this? At first glance, I'd think the Soviets would jump for joy upon a comrade being recognized with a Nobel. I gather that somehow by doing so, the CIA empowered anti-communist intellectuals, but how much influence or power did they have? Also, Andrey -- how'd you wind up at Midd?

Ivan Tolstoy: Hypothetically, yes, the Soviets would be jumping for joy if a comrade were to be awarded the Prize. Pasternak, however, was not much of a "comrade." Soviet officials and censors found the contents of Doctor Zhivago objectionable (and rightly so, since Pasternak presents a sobering and unglorified account of the Civil War), and the Nobel Prize would only bring unfavorable attention to such a troublesome book.

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Andrey Tolstoy: On my father's behalf I would like to thank everyone in this forum for sending in their questions. If you have further comments, feel free to write to tolstoii@rferl.org.

And Middlebury '84 -- you can contact me at atolstoy@middlebury.edu.

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