Propaganda and Censorship – Theirs and Ours / Case Study: Doctor Zhivago

The first Russian language edition of “Doctor Zhivago,” brought to you by the CIA; no ulterior motives here!

The Americans never sleep when it comes to their massive propaganda efforts. I could have done something really important and creative with my life, but instead I spend a great deal of my time countering the bullshit propaganda constantly disseminated by these capitalist imperialist maniacs. Instead of creating and building, for the most part, I must engage in destroying – just like the American ruling class and its redneck, fascist cohorts. They are trying to destroy the world while I must use my talents to try to aid in the effort to destroy them.

Recently I came across a blog article from AbeBooks, an online third-party retailer of out-of-print and rare books. The article was instigated by a client’s recent sale of an original, first-edition Russian language copy of Doctor Zhivago. This particular copy of the book sold for a whopping $11,000! The reason for the fantastic price was that this edition of Doctor Zhivago was published by the CIA specifically as propaganda to be distributed to Soviet citizens abroad as well as smuggled into the Soviet Union itself. The idea was that the book would be read and then passed on to others.

So, why did the CIA think that this particular book would make for such great anti-communist propaganda? For two reasons: Firstly, the subject of the book dealt with such themes as loneliness or alienation within Soviet society, what might be called the plight of the individual within said society, and a “corrupted and misdirected revolution” [the October 1917 Russian Revolution]. 1 Secondly, the Soviet Union banned the book and Boris Pasternak, the author, was booted out of the Soviet Union of Writers for his anti-Soviet work.

As several 1958 CIA memos stated:

“This book has great propaganda value, not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.” 2

“Pasternak’s humanistic message — that every person is entitled to a private life and deserves respect as a human being, irrespective of the extent of his political loyalty or contribution to the state — poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice of the individual to the Communist system.” 2

Another CIA memo gave the urgent recommendation that Dr. Zhivago:

“. . . be published in a maximum number of foreign editions, for maximum free world distribution and acclaim and consideration for such honor as the Nobel prize.” 2

While it may never be proved, I for one feel that it is very, very likely that the CIA requested of the Nobel Prize committee that they award the Nobel for Literature to Pasternak. Should this be a surprise from an organization that awarded Peace Prizes to the likes of nefarious war criminals such as Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama?! It certainly doesn’t strain credulity to suppose that the Nobel Prize organization was either penetrated by CIA or else that it (being a Western, bourgeois institution) dutifully sided with its class interests and its class allies.

Before the CIA published two Russian language editions of Doctor Zhivago, its very first publication was in Italian by an alleged Italian communist by the name of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. This wealthy, bourgeois, fake leftist and probable CIA asset defied the wishes of the Soviet and Italian Communist Parties and went ahead with publication of this clearly anti-Soviet book. Feltrinelli received the manuscript from one of his “literature scouts” who smuggled it out of Russia and handed it over to him in November 1957. A couple of months later, British intelligence would send over to the CIA rolls of film of the photographed pages of Pasternak’s manuscript. Feltrinelli’s Italian edition was quickly followed by two CIA Russian language editions. Hundreds of copies were handed out at the Vatican (a perpetually eager co-conspirator with reaction) pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Many more copies were distributed the next year at the 1959 World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship. This was only the beginning, as copies of this counterrevolutionary book were smuggled into the USSR for years afterward. As can be clearly seen, very suspicious circumstances surround the various printings and distribution of this book. 2,3

The Soviets began to realize their tactical error and tried to change course by offering to publish Pasternak’s book with some revisions, but the train had already left the station – it was too late. Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Soviet Union was left holding a bag of shit; they were humiliated and suffered a significant propaganda defeat. Now, this entire cycle of events begs the question, of moral and tactical import: Was it correct for the Soviet Union to censor Pasternak’s book?

From a certain standpoint, yes. Pasternak was suspected of being a Western agent, and with very good reason – his book was full of very reactionary ideas and in no way offered appropriate constructive criticism of the Revolution and Soviet society, but was very clearly intended to drag it through the mud. Why should any communist publisher wish to print such garbage? Perhaps the Soviet authorities could have allowed a foreign publisher to print the book and export it to the Soviet Union openly and legally? Maybe they should have, but one has to keep in mind that the Soviet Union was in a constant state of siege. Understanding the near limitless resources of the capitalist West, it might be foolish to simply allow them to flood the Soviet “market” with reactionary literature, i.e., propaganda.

Aside from moral considerations, there are significant risks to engaging in censorship. The various risks can be summed up in one word: Backfire, or in intelligence parlance one might say blowback. Although they approach it from the standpoint of being unequivocally immoral, Dr. Jansen and Dr. Martin, in their academic paper entitled, “Exposing and Opposing Censorship,” give pointers on how to conduct censorship successfully; in other words, how to avoid or mitigate the risk of what they call backfire. The techniques to avoid backfire are: 1) Covering up the censorship; 2) Devaluing the target; 3) Reinterpreting the action; 4) Using official channels; and 5) Using intimidation and bribery. 4

Personally, I don’t like the idea of censorship and I would imagine that most people find it to be unsavory; but if you think about it, if you have any strong opinions and beliefs at all you will find it to be irresistible. It may even turn out to be tactically correct in certain political situations (especially if you are serious about winning for your cause); or, to think about it in another way, if not necessarily tactically correct then at least it is a perfectly normal and spontaneous response to negative influences or pressure.

An important thing to keep in mind is that the U.S. ruling class, of course, has and continues to engage in censorship of varying degrees as well as deliberate propaganda and disinformation. Their moral posturing, hopefully, is fooling fewer and fewer people at home and especially abroad, but in order to have a chance at fighting and winning against these bastards the enemies of the U.S. will have to employ every possible means, including perhaps censorship of their own, to defeat them.

For those who are willing to engage in the apparently risky, but possibly rewarding tactic of censorship, here are the five main techniques again with a brief description of what they entail:

  1. Covering up the censorship – Censor while pretending with all your might that you are not actually censoring.
  2. Devaluing the target – This basically amounts to character assassination, or soft assassination, against a personal target of censorship or those who challenge or otherwise call attention to the censorship.
  3. Reinterpreting the action – Trying to convince the population, especially those who cry foul of the attempted censorship, that what you are actually doing may seem like censorship, but it really is not – it is some other entirely legal and legitimate activity.
  4. Using official channels – Use official channels or institutions such as legal or legislative bodies to “investigate” the charges of malfeasance in the form of censorship. This is a way of pretending to investigate and punish the corruption or wrongdoing in a lengthy, bureaucratic process that will stall for time; hopefully most people will forget about the matter entirely and then the problem simply goes away.
  5. Using intimidation and bribery – Bribe the subject with legal settlements containing a “gag clause” as is done in the U.S. legal system. Also, the simple threat of firing or lawsuits, including libel suits, might help shut people up. 4

So, there you have it. Those are the methods you can use to reduce the risk of backfire/blowback when engaging in censorship. The U.S. to this day remains much more proficient in the use of these nefarious techniques than the Soviet Union (an overall force for good) could probably ever hope to be. Some of these shady methods will probably never be acceptable to any truly progressive force seeking to liberate humanity, but if we want to win we had better be prepared to consider employing any and every tactic and means we can to win a better world, and indeed any future at all, for humanity.


1 Wikipedia [Doctor Zhivago (novel)]

2 Washington Post / CIA Documents obtained by WP

3 Giangiacomo Feltrinelli: The Revolutionary Publisher Who Saved Dr. Zhivago

4 Jansen and Martin, “Exposing and Opposing Censorship: Backfire Dynamics in Freedom of Speech Struggles”

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6 Responses to Propaganda and Censorship – Theirs and Ours / Case Study: Doctor Zhivago

  1. beetleypete says:

    Not the first time I have read about CIA involvement with this book.
    I quite enjoyed the film (at the time) but took the historical aspects with a pinch of salt.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  2. Prole Center says:

    I liked the film alright too, but I could definitely detect some anti-communist sentiment and themes in it. I imagine the book is much worse in that regard although I have not actually read it myself.

  3. beetleypete says:

    Yes to both. It has a definite anti-communist slant. But as an historical soap-opera, the film was involving. There is a nod to the avarice and corruption of the wealthy businessman, and the harsh treatment of the workers before the revolution. However, its main message is to suggest that bad was replaced by bad, or worse. So naturally, we would not agree with that.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  4. Actually, the Soviets did not censor Dr. Zhivago, they simply decided not to publish it, unlike the pampered author’s previous volumes of lyrical verses and translations. (Pasternak lived in a 2 story house with a garden when most Soviet citizens lacked a private apartment.) The publication turn down of his only novel was accompanied by long explanations by fellow members of the Writer’s Union. He was never arrested or jailed by the state.
    Mr. Pasternak then secretly arranged for foreign publication, though he knew it would hurt his country internationally. It was for this that he was expelled from the writer’s organization. Meanwhile, his Italian publisher opened a secret Swiss bank account for the writer who became a millionaire from the foreign royalties of his anti-Communist bestseller. At least a million rubles was smuggled illegally in suitcases delivered via Italian and German couriers to the author. He bought a big new luxury car, his mistress, twenty years his junior, bought herself a new wardrobe–until she was arrested and jailed for smuggling. In the end, even Pasternak’s funeral was exploited by the West. Publicized by the BBC’S Russian Service, hundreds turned out . . .

  5. Prole Center says:

    Thanks for your clarification and for providing those details! Where did you get this information?

  6. Glad to help.
    My source was “The Zhivago Affair” by Peter Finn and Petra Coulee. (Pantheon Books, NY)

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