A few days ago, the CIA baffled many of its followers with a tweet written in Cyrillic, raising fears that the agency’s Twitter account had been hacked, like an US military account was recently.
Fortunately, the Russian-speaking community quickly corrected the worried masses: the CIA had simply posted a quote of the poet and novelist Boris Pasternak, whose novel “Doctor Zhivago” the CIA helped to disseminate throughout the Soviet bloc in the 1960s. The quotation was the following: “I wrote this novel for it to be published and read, and that is still my only desire”.
Indeed, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the agency helped to publish a Russian-language edition of “Doctor Zhivago”, which the Soviet Union had banned for its “anti-Soviet sentiments”. If you haven’t read that, the novel spans the Russian civil war and early Soviet regimes. Its main characters range from pro-tsar White soldiers to “old Bolsheviks” and the eponymous poet-doctor. Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov described the plot of the novel as “a sorry thing, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences”.
However, Nobel judges and CIA agents did like the book and respectively awarded Boris Pasternak the literature prize in 1958 and helped to publish the miniature editions of the book that could be mailed into Russia. The CIA itself pronounced the book as a “piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system” and an object of “great propaganda value”. Apparently, this was in the first place simply because the Soviet Union had banned it.
In the meantime, some of the politician observers believe that the CIA’s tweet could be a message to Kremlin, as Russia has recently put more pressure on the press – for example, the country banned profanity in art, forced bloggers who have over 3,000 daily readers to register with the government, and muzzled some independent press. But the others see the tweet as a PR move by CIA, which just wants to show off its 20th-century achievements.
About two years ago, the spy agency declassified around a hundred documents that pertained to its efforts to get a Russian version of the book into the USSR. This move was taken following the freedom of information request from a journalist and academic writing a work about spies, Pasternak and propaganda.