Counterintuitive Covert Action

Reading “The Zhivago Affair” by Finn and Couvee, about the publication of Pasternak’s opus. Perhaps not quite a great classic – a little self-indulgent on the semi-autobiographical individual freedom, artistic freedom level, whilst being very much in the literary artistic tradition of its great Russian prose-poet predecessors. But a big best seller thanks to its content and timing as a reaction to the Soviet regime stretching back to the original Bolshevik revolution. Most will know (some of) the story through David Lean’s magnificent film.

Like many authors engaged in brutal battle the other side of the iron-curtain during the cold-war, the “difficulties” were immense and intriguing. The CIA’s role in its western publication and promotion are fascinating.

Not surprisingly (paraphrasing):

When the CIA was created in 1947, many including Truman, were uneasy that some form of “centralised snooping” was unavoidable. In order to keep it at arms length from The White House and US government generally, its brief was sufficiently vague to give it freedom for “black propaganda” and “covert ops” whilst preserving official deniability.

Many now question whether that’s the kind of dirty job one someone has to do, given we no longer have the cold-war, but what is perhaps more surprising – entirely counter-intuitive – is the CIA’s own strategy in doing so (paraphrasing again):

In the 1950’s the CIA was engaged in relentless global and political warfare with the Kremlin. This effort was intended to shore up support for the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) … The CIA believed the power of ideas – in news, art, music and literature – could slowly corrode the authority of the Soviet state with its own people and its satellite states. The agency was in a long game that could incrementally over time improve the chances for more open societies.

The US was up against a foe that, since the 1920’s had mastered the creation of the front organisation. Phony CIA front organisations spent untold millions to fund concert tours, art exhibitions, highbrow magazines, academic research, student activism, news organisations – and book publishing. In Western Europe, the CIA channeled money to the non-communist-left. CIA help went mainly to the parties of the democratic left and centre. (The right wing and conservative forces had their own financial resources.) The CIA became one of the world’s largest grant-making institutions.

It took a fairly sophisticated point of view (ie not moronic McCarthysism) to understand that the public exhibition of views contrary to US orthodoxy was a potent weapon against monolithic Communist uniformity of action.

Dr Zhivago was a part of this. The fact that the Soviets were against it because of its anti-Soviet content was politically almost incidental to the CIA’s involvement.


Post Note:

(1) On the main angle of my agenda here – “the ideology of science” – an interesting take from Pravda on the awarding of Nobel prizes:

When three Soviet scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics it was “recognition by the academy of the major merits of the Soviet scientists” whereas ” the award for literature was prompted for entirely political motives.” Bourgeois scientists “were capable of objectivity,” but the assessment of literary works was entirely under the influence of the ideology of the dominant class.”

(2) One the theme of Russian literature generally, I also unravelled a confusion. Dostoyevsky I’ve talked about most, and here Pasternak, but last year I read the first two volumes of Sholokov’s Quiet Flows the Don. I’d obtained a four volume set of the 1939 Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing edition of the 1934 translation on the basis it was the “first” to be translated and the “first” to win the Nobel prize for literature. Doh! the first Soviet work to be published in translation and first to receive the Nobel prize in 1965. Many pre-Soviet Russian works were translated and published much earlier and of course Pasternak was awarded (but prevented from receiving) the prize in 1958. Wasn’t too impressed with Sholokov – like soap opera, drunken fights, adultery and rape, some sweeping landscapes and battlefield blood and guts, but not in the same Russian classics league poetically – much more the Soviet brutal realism.

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