By John Helmer, Moscow
If you were the only person in the world who thought yourself a genius, it would be an embarrassment to be named Barry Parsnip.
Robert Zimmerman solved the nomenclature problem. He became Bob Dylan – and Hey Presto! He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2016.
Barry Parsnip (aka Boris Pasternak) didn’t solve the problem. But it was solved for him by a combination of the British, US and Soviet secret services, with an assist from the Dutch and Italians. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1958 before his novel, Doctor Zhivago, had been read in the original Russian by more than a thousand people, counting government officials. Following the prize-giving until now, about 10 million people have read it, mostly in translation. But time and numbers haven’t improved either on Parsnip or on Zhivago. It is still, as Vladimir Nabokov said at the start, “a sorry thing, clumsy, trite, and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers, and trite coincidences.” Kornei Chukovsky, Pasternak’s neighbour and comrade, thought the novel was “boring, banal.” Yevgeny Yevtushenko said it was “disappointing”. Anna Akhmatova told Pasternak to his face that Zhivago was a bad novel “except for the landscapes.” She was being ironic – there are no landscapes in the book.
Not to Pasternak’s face, Nabokov went for Pasternak’s jugular – his vanity. Nabokov called Pasternak’s composition “goistrous and goggle-eyed.” That turned out to be the perfect picture of a victim, and MI6 and the CIA were able to provoke the Soviet authorities into persecution of Pasternak the victim. That operation, codenamed AEDINOSAUR, confirmed what the West wanted the world to believe – that Russians are bad by a standard noone else in the world is held to.
Pasternak’s story, when it happened and still today, is also confirmation of the readiness of some Russians to believe that however crapulous and despised they are at home, there will always be love for them across the frontier, in the West.
In prose Parsnip, er Pasternak was, as Americans used to call them, a poor Johnny One-Note.
He knew a small section of old Moscow, where Tverskaya Street ran into Brest (now Belarus) railway station. His countryside was restricted to the banks of the Kama River, around Solikamsk, in Perm region, where he spent World War I, disqualified from military service on account of a leg injury. He also spent World War II in the relative safety of Chistopol, in Tatarstan, 800 kilometres east of Moscow.
Left to right: Leonid Pasternak; Rozalia Kaufman; Boris Pasternak, aged 26, in 1916
As a youngster, he tried drawing and painting, but was never as promising as his father, the portrait painter Leonid Pasternak. He tried music, but was never as adept as his mother, Rozalia Kaufman, a pianist. Alexander Scriabin, a visitor to his parents’ dacha, persuaded him to drop university studies in music and law, in favour of philosophy. After a term in Germany, he graduated with a thesis on “Hermann Cohen’s Theoretical Philosophy”. He then decided on literature for a career. He went to soirees where he distinguished himself presenting papers with titles like “Symbolism and Immortality.”
The year was 1913, and there was a surplus of that. Pasternak knew little else. He didn’t follow birds, cats or dogs. He didn’t hunt or fish; collect mushrooms; drink vodka or champagne; play cards; cultivate a garden; ride horses, drive cars. His experiments with women were limited to those making few demands — household servants and prostitutes, not his fellow students. He didn’t join university clubs or run in political demonstrations. His only autobiographical recollections of the 1905 student riots and general strike in Moscow were of a drawing by his father of a wounded student; of his father’s meetings at the time with Maxim Gorky; and of “stray bullets whistling down the empty streets”. Pasternak was absent. He was also absent at the Bolshevik Revolution and the civil war, after which his mother, father and sisters emigrated to Berlin, and then on to England.
What Pasternak knew from experience, and what he imagined, he repeated in print every five years or so. The Childhood of Luvers appeared in 1922; Safe Conduct was written between 1929 and 1931; The Last Summer in 1934. In 1956, when he recapitulated the same life stories, he conceded the earlier effort “was spoiled by its affected manner, the besetting sin of those days”. That’s vintage Pasternak – blame was always elsewhere.
As he repeated the stories, Pasternak’s lack of experience began to show in the increasing strain of his imagery. He became the master of the mixed metaphor. A cat “flaps its wings at aprons and plates”; a bulldog raises his head “like a slobbering old dwarf with sagging cheeks”; a blackbird whistled “as if blowing through a clogged flute”; rye before harvest in the field has “such a sinister dark brown, the colour of old, dull gold”; an engine releases steam “with a singsong burble, as if it were milk coming to the boil in over a spirit lamp in a nursery.” Snow, which ought to be the speciality of every Russian imagist, turns out, for Pasternak, to “pour with the convulsive haste of some white madness”. On another occasion, it flew “obliquely…as if trying all the while to make up for something”. And then again, “over the blue line of the snowdrifts the snow greedily absorbed the pineapple sweetness the sun poured into it.”
Leon Trotsky called Pasternak in for a 30-minute meeting in August 1922, but Pasternak didn’t let him get a word in edgeways. Except for this question: “Yesterday I began struggling through the dense shrubbery of your book. What were you trying [sic] to express in it?” Pasternak replied that Trotsky should decide for himself, whereupon Trotsky closed the conversation and sent Pasternak off.
Joseph Stalin committed a great many sins, but deconstructing Pasternak wasn’t one of them.
Stalin, a voracious reader, collector and annotator of books, considered Pasternak so unexceptional , unserious and unthreatening, he didn’t think he was worth reading. For what Stalin did read, click.
In December 1935, Stalin publicly declared that Vladimir Mayakovsky “was and remains the best and most talented poet of our epoch”. Earlier Pasternak had been envious of Mayakovsky’s acclaim, and resented Mayakovsky’s criticisms; they included the recommendation that two of Pasternak’s early books of poetry should not have been published at all. When Pasternak said he liked Mayakovsky, it was after he “discovered certain unexpected points of similarity in our technique.”
Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930 was Pasternak’s chance at put-down. “Mayakovsky shot himself out of pride,” Pasternak wrote years later, “because he condemned something in himself, or close to him, to which his self-respect could not submit”. But when Stalin spoke more positively of Mayakovsky, Pasternak wrote this to Stalin: “Your lines about him had a saving effect on me. Of late, under the influence of the West, [people] have been inflating [my significance] terribly and according [me] exaggerated significance… they began suspecting serious artistic power in me. Now, since you have put Mayakovsky in first place, this suspicion has been lifted from me, and with a light heart I can live and work as before, in modest silence, with the surprises and mysteries without which I would not love life. In the name of this mysteriousness, fervently loving and devoted to you, B. Pasternak.”
This was false modesty; Stalin wasn’t fooled. More than a decade later, in 1949, Stalin told a prosecutor to take no action against Pasternak. “Leave him,” Stalin said, “he’s a cloud dweller”.
To his fellow writers and colleagues in the Writers Union, the cloud on which Pasternak sat himself was so puffed up with vanity and self-seeking, he had almost no peers for supporters. When he started reading excerpts of Doctor Zhivago, as he composed them, there were a handful of acolytes, but no professional endorsements. By the time Stalin died in 1953, Pasternak knew that noone in Moscow took his work seriously. Still, in December 1955, after he had written the last lines of the book, Pasternak told an acolyte: “You cannot imagine what I have achieved! I have found and given names to all this sorcery that has been the cause of suffering, bafflement, amazement, and dispute for several decades. Everything is named in simple, transparent, and sad words. I also once again renewed and redefined the dearest and most important things: land and sky, great passion, creative spirit, life and death.”
The declassification of CIA files on Operation AEDINOSAUR enabled Peter Finn (right), a Washington Post reporter on defence and security, and a Russian-speaking collaborator, Petra Couvee, to publish their research into how Pasternak’s book was first published outside Russia. AE in the operation’s code-name stood for the CIA’s Soviet Russia division; DINOSAUR wasn’t meant as the agency’s assessment of Pasternak, as close as it was to Stalin’s and Trotsky’s. According to Finn, the cryptonym was generated randomly.
The book on the operation appeared in 2014. Although Finn and Couvee applied to MI6, they report that the British intelligence agency refused to release its Pasternak files. The CIA records indicate that the British probably hatched the idea of promoting the novel as a propaganda strike against Moscow before the Americans thought of it.
In May 1956, five months after Pasternak had finished Doctor Zhivago, he gave a copy of the manuscript to an Italian for relay to the Milan publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak had already submitted the work for publication in Russian, and there had been an anticipatory notice of its appearance in April 1956. But Pasternak told the Italian “in the USSR the novel will not come out.” The reason, he said, was that “it doesn’t confirm to official cultural guidelines.” The more often Pasternak repeated that line to foreign visitors, the more he believed it, the more foreigners showed up to request the manuscript – and the more certain the outcome became.
By the summer of 1956 Pasternak had given a copy to Helene Peltier for publication of a French translation in Paris. Days later, he gave Isaiah Berlin a copy for an English translation and publication. Berlin is described in the Finn book as an Oxford don and an academic scholar. Omitted was Berlin’s wartime service with British intelligence and the Foreign Office, and his ongoing links with the Soviet operations branch of MI6 at the time Berlin was meeting with Pasternak. Berlin was one of the first of fluent Russian-speaking Britons to receive the manuscript from Pasternak. There were others. It was not until December 1957 – eighteen months after Berlin received Pasternak’s manuscript — that MI6 sent its copy of the book in Russian to the CIA. What was happening in the interval was that the news of MI6’s interest in the book leaked to the KGB, and the British decided to withhold what they had from the Americans.
Here is the declassified CIA document. The implication on the British side is that this was the first time Pasternak’s book had been sent to the CIA. The implication in the CIA document release is that the agency had thought Pasternak was a “cloud dweller” and hadn’t thought of Doctor Zhivago for literary merit or info-warfare before.
Berlin wrote later that as soon as he had read the manuscript in mid-1956, he recognized its value. Spot Berlin’s qualifications: “Unlike some [sic] of its readers in both the Soviet Union and the West I thought it was a work of genius. It seemed – it seems – to me to convey an entire range of human experience, and to create a world, even if it contains only one genuine inhabitant [sic], in language of unexampled [sic] imaginative power.” Apparently, Berlin kept shtum in front of Americans.
In August of 1956, a few weeks after Berlin had launched Pasternak’s book in London, a KGB general, Ivan Serov, reported to the Kremlin that Feltrinelli was preparing the book to appear in Italian, and that Pasternak was trying to get the book out in France and the UK. That is the Feltrinelli version. Exactly how, and from how many sources, the KGB had learned of the book’s publication plan in the West isn’t known. What is certain is that publication of Doctor Zhivago was interpreted in Moscow as an operation by hostile foreign intelligence agencies for anti-Soviet propaganda. At this point, the Soviet Central Committee decided on a quiet reaction – they would try to block the Italian edition through their Italian Communist Party links to Feltrinelli; and they would ask the Writers Union to stop Pasternak’s unexpurgated version from appearing in Russian.
If possible, the Central Committee calculated, it might get Pasternak to agree to edit his manuscript, so that the Russian edition would lack the anti-Soviet propaganda elements. Who then would be able to tell where they came from? This under-estimated Pasternak’s conviction that his genius would brook no editing of the book at all.
When the foreign blocking moves failed, and it appeared Feltrinelli would be followed by editions in French and in English, the Soviets escalated, to match what they believed the western campaign was escalating against them. Just five paragraph-long excerpts from the 700-page book were repeatedly cited; in the Vintage Classics paperback edition of 2011 they can be found at pages 267, 285, 362, 365, and 460. “What was conceived as ideal and lofty,” Pasternak had concluded in the third last paragraph of the book, “became coarse and material. So Greece turned into Rome, so the Russian enlightenment turned into the Russian revolution”. After quoting lines from an Alexander Blok poem of 1910, he added: “now all that was metaphorical has become literal, and the children are children, and the terrors are terrifying…”
Pasternak did not object to the attention, but his amour propre was offended that so little of his masterpiece was being read, at home or abroad. Late in 1957 he told a German visitor: “Everybody’s [sic] writing about it but who in fact has read it? What do they quote from it? Always the same passages – three pages, perhaps, out of a book of 700 pages.”
In retrospect, Soviet officials have also conceded this was all they had read of Doctor Zhivago; noone wanted to bother with the rest. But the crackdown on all of Pasternak’s works, his wife, lover, and friends commenced in earnest. What he had actually written in the pages of Doctor Zhivago became as irrelevant to the Soviet campaign against its anti-revolutionary excerpts as the evidence of Pasternak’s genius meant to the promotion of Doctor Zhivago in Milan or in London. For a year the campaign succeeded with almost no readers.
Just 3,000 copies of the Italian translation were printed in November 1957 and subsequently sold. On December 12, 1957, the Psychological and Paramilitary Staff branch at CIA headquarters recommended that Doctor Zhivago “should be published in a maximum number of foreign editions for maximum world distribution and acclaim and consideration for such honor as the Nobel prize.”
A fortnight later, in mid-January 1958, in two letters to the Swedish Academy
from US professors Ernest Simmons and Harry Levin (right), Pasternak was proposed for the Nobel although neither American had read Doctor Zhivago in the original, nor in the Italian. Levin claimed the persecution of Pasternak was his qualification for the prize. “Perhaps [sic] the most extraordinary fact about his career is that, under heavy pressures forcing writers to turn their words into ideological propaganda, he has firmly adhered to those esthetic values which his writing so richly exemplifies. He has thus set an example of artistic integrity well deserving of your distinguished recognition.”
Since noone at the CIA had twisted Levin’s arm into saying this — not even his wife, Elena Zarudnaya, translator of Trostsky’s Diary in Exile — Levin’s promotion of Pasternak has never been qualified as manufacturing propaganda. Six months later, though, in July 1958, that is exactly what John Maury, head of the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division and director of AEDINOSAUR, saw as Pasternak’s value through Russian and translation printings of the book, culminating with the Nobel Prize. Pasternak’s message, Maury wrote in a memo to Frank Wisner, the agency’s head of operations, “that every person is entitled to a private life…poses a fundamental challenge to the Soviet ethic of sacrifice the individual to the Communist system. There is no call to revolt against the regime in the novel, but the heresy which Dr. Zhivago preaches – political passivity – is fundamental.”
The CIA has revealed that Zhivago for Kremlin regime change was proposed by Maury to get Wisner’s approval for money to implement Operation AEDINOSAUR. Even today the CIA has censored the amount from the declassified document. Finn and Couvee report that several million dollars – about $20 million in current dollars – were spent on paying for Dutch personnel, printing and distribution costs for the first thousand copies of a Russian edition, produced by the Dutch intelligence service in Amsterdam. It appeared in the first week of September. About 500 copies were then smuggled into the USSR over the following weeks. On October 22, 1958, the Swedish Academy announced Pasternak had been awarded the Nobel.
Suppose the KGB knew what the MI6 and CIA were up to, in league with the Italians and Dutch. Kim Philby, the KGB agent inside MI6, was no longer working in London when Berlin brought Pasternak’s book in; Philby was in Beirut, Lebanon, but he was still connected. If Philby read Pasternak, it’s still secret.
In short retrospect, Pasternak got what he thought he deserved. “I would have hidden it away,” he wrote in a letter to the Central Committee in August 1957, “had it been feebly written. But it proved to have more strength to it than I had dreamed possible – strength comes from on high, and thus its fate was out of my hands.”
In longer retrospect, the Central Committee and the KGB over-reacted. It was from on high that the fate of Doctor Zhivago was sealed, but not from Pasternak’s divinity. Had Soviet officials done less or nothing — had they encouraged Pasternak’s critics and rivals in the Writers Union to make light of the work, or poke fun of Pasternak’s obvious weaknesses, the Anglo-American intelligence assessment might have let the opportunity for regime change go. Time has let the air out of the Pasternak legend – it’s now the 197 minutes of the film of the book, not the book which western audiences recall. In Russia the audiences have evaporated. It’s a standing joke among Russian literary critics to say they haven’t read Pasternak, but feel strongly about Doctor Zhivago and what happened in 1958.
Zurab Tsereteli has offered to turn a maquette into a monument to Pasternak, but for several years in a row the Moscow city government hasn’t agreed to a site.
In Washington Maury’s Operation AEDINOSAUR was one of the very few he managed at the Soviet Division which was a success on its own terms. Maury was rewarded with a promotion to Athens, Greece. There he was the CIA station chief during the military putsch of 1967. That’s the only regime change operation at which Maury succeeded, though not for long.