Boris Pasternak and the CIA

The Danish daily Morgenavis-Jyllandsposten (famous for those “Danish cartoons” a few years back) and its Moscow correspondent Niels J├╝rgensen have what looks like to be an exclusive concerning an interesting slice of Cold War history: CIA stood behind Pasternak’s Nobel Prize. That would be the Nobel Prize for Literature for the year 1958, awarded to the Russian author Boris Pasternak basically on the strength of his magnum opus, the novel Doctor Zhivago.

You’re probably more aware of this work in the form of the 1965 movie, starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. I never saw it myself (nor, alas, have read the book yet), but am given to understand that the film played up the lovey-dovey aspects of the tale so that the sharp criticisms it contained of the take-over of power in Russia by the Bolsheviks of 1917 and their rule since then were pushed somewhat to the margins. But it was just that criticism, from a native writer of note, that made the publication of Doctor Zhivago in the West, and especially its winning its author a Nobel Prize, such a propaganda coup against the Soviet Union back during those intense Cold War days.

That’s why – with what he terms “the biggest scandal in Nobel Prize history” – the Russian author Anatoly Korolev has now stepped forward to allege extensive CIA assistance in the winning of that Nobel. That this is coming out now has everything to do with the way records of Nobel committee deliberations are kept secret for fifty years, but Korolev is only making the public revelation, based upon what he claims is at least twenty years’ worth of dogged research into the matter by a former Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe employee named Ivan Tostoy (yes, a descendant of that other classic Russian novelist, the one who failed to win a Nobel of his own before he died despite undoubtedly deserving one more).

The essence of the matter is that, as the Doctor Zhivago manuscript was being smuggled out of Russia sometime around 1956/57 by one of Pasternak’s friends, the CIA got wind ahead of time of what was happening and arranged to have the airplane, carrying the manuscript in a personal piece of luggage in the hold, divert for an unscheduled stop at Malta. There, CIA operatives secretly searched through the plane’s luggage, while the passengers waited impatiently and wondered what was happening, found the manuscript, photographed each page, and then put it back in the suitcase so no one would know the difference, before the plane was allowed to take off again. The Agency then made sure that the Swedish Academy responsible for awarding the Nobel got its own copy by August, 1958, as it began its deliberations for that year. Why was this intervention so vital? Because Academy regulations required the submission of any literary work in its original language for its author to be considered for the Literature Prize.

There is no indication within this article that the CIA followed up on all that by then somehow bribing or blackmailing the Academy members to choose Pasternak for the 1958 award, so all the talk of “the biggest scandal!” is clearly overblown. But together with the anti-Soviet propaganda blow, the result of all these machinations was a bit of deserved reward for Pasternak himself, who had first tried conventional channels to get his novel published – he submitted to the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir, only to be threatened with jail or exile if it ever got out. As things went, he was of course forbidden by the authorities to go to Stockholm to claim his prize (and probably the prize money, too); his son Yevgeny ultimately had to do that for him, long after he had died, at the Nobel ceremony in December, 1989.

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