International Banned Book: Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Although it contains passages written in the 1910s and 1920s, Doctor Zhivago was not completed until 1956. The novel was submitted to the literary journal Novy Mir (“Новый Мир”). However, the editors rejected Pasternak’s novel because of its implicit rejection of socialist realism. The author, like Zhivago, showed more concern for the welfare of individuals than for the welfare of society. Soviet censors construed some passages as anti-Soviet. They were also enraged by Pasternak’s subtle criticisms of Stalinism, Collectivization, the Great Purge, and the Gulag.

Pasternak sent several copies of the manuscript in Russian to friends in the West.[8] In 1957, Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli arranged for the novel to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union by Sergio D’Angelo.[9] Upon handing his manuscript over, Pasternak quipped, “You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad.” Despite desperate efforts by the Union of Soviet Writers to prevent its publication, Feltrinelli published an Italian translation of the book in November 1957.[10] So great was the demand for Doctor Zhivago that Feltrinelli was able to license translation rights into eighteen different languages well in advance of the novel’s publication. The Communist Party of Italy expelled Feltrinelli from their membership in retaliation for his role in the publication of a novel they felt was critical of communism.[11]

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency quickly realized that the novel presented an opportunity to embarrass the Soviet government. An internal memo lauded the book’s “great propaganda value”: not only did the text have a central humanist message, but the Soviet government’s having suppressed a great work of literature could make ordinary citizens “wonder what is wrong with their government”. The CIA set out to publish a Russian-language edition and arranged for it to be distributed at the Vatican pavilion at the 1958 Brussels world’s fair.[12]

Soon English and French translations were also printed. A small run of 1000 copies of an adulterated Russian-language version which included typos and truncated story lines was printed by Mouton, a publisher in the Netherlands, in August 1958, before Feltrinelli came out with their own Russian version.[13][14]

Author Ivan Tolstoi claims that the CIA lent a hand to ensure that Doctor Zhivago was submitted to the Nobel Committee in its original language, in order for Pasternak to win the Nobel prize and further harm the international credibility of the Soviet Union. He repeats and adds additional details to Fetrinelli’s claims that CIA operatives intercepted and photographed a manuscript of the novel and secretly printed a small number of books in the Russian language.[8][14][15] Recently released CIA documents do not show that the agency’s efforts in publishing a Russian-language edition were intended to help Pasternak win the Nobel, however.[12]


Acting on direct orders from the Politburo, the KGB surrounded Pasternak’s dacha in Peredelkino. Pasternak was not only threatened with arrest, but the KGB also vowed to send his mistress Olga Ivinskaya back to the gulag, where she had been imprisoned under Stalin. It was further hinted that, if Pasternak traveled to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Medal, he would be refused re-entry to the Soviet Union.

As a result, Pasternak sent a second telegram to the Nobel Committee:

In view of the meaning given the award by the society in which I live, I must renounce this undeserved distinction which has been conferred on me. Please do not take my voluntary renunciation amiss.[20]

Text cited from Wikipedia article on Doctor Zhivago

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