by Peter Finn and Petra Couvée

That as recently as the early 1990s novels were considered “instruments of political warfare” by America’s top spy agency might strike you as outright fantasy or else fodder for sketch comedy (think Monty Python’s Killing Joke). And yet for decades, starting in the 1950s, the CIA covertly disseminated millions of books—including Russian translations of Orwell, Camus and Nabokov—to Soviet-controlled countries with the intention of “reinforc[ing] dispositions toward intellectual and cultural freedom, and dissatisfaction with its absence.” Perhaps more remarkable still, the agency concluded that its campaigns had been “demonstrably effective.”

THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR Peter Finn and Petra CouvéeThe details of the CIA’s “books program” are one of several remarkable takeaways from journalist Peter Finn and translator Petra Couvée’s fascinating and eye-opening book, The Zhivago Affiar—based on newly declassified documents—about how the publication of Boris Pasternak’s epic novel became the locus of a fierce ideological battle during the Cold War.

Pasternak’s first and only novel (before it he was known primarily as a poet) was a thinly disguised roman à clef about a doctor-poet from Moscow’s intelligentsia who returns from World War I to find that the Revolution has laid waste to the genteel world he once loved. The nurse Zhivago falls in love with, Lara, was based on Pasternak’s long-time mistress, Olga Ivinskaya, who was twice sent to a gulag for her involvement with the writer.

“The novel’s heresies were,” the authors write, “manifold and undisguised.” Its nostalgia for pre-Revolutionary values alone made it ideologically offensive to state-sanctioned publishers, let alone the Kremlin, and Pasternak knew it had no chance of getting published in the Soviet Union.

When a representative from a Milan publisher with ties to the Italian Communist Party showed up on the doorstep of Pasternak’s dacha and offered to publish the novel abroad the author thus jumped at the opportunity. His fearlessness in doing so was particularly astounding given that many of Pasternak’s neighbours in the writer’s colony where he lived had been executed or sent to gulags for seditious work; publishing outside the Soviet Union would only make his provocation seem more egregious.

In 1958, the year after it came out, Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. He immediately became the victim of vicious attacks—many of them anti-Semitic—not just from the Kremlin, which ensured he had no means of earning an income, but also from his fellow Soviet writers. (Vladimir Nabokov, who was living in the U.S. at the time, called Zhivago “clumsy, trite and melodramatic, with stock situations, voluptuous lawyers, unbelievable girls, romantic robbers and trite coincidences” though that authors suggest his prime concern was keeping Lolita from getting knocked off the bestseller lists.) Pasternak eventually succumbed to pressure and publicly declined the prize. Mentally and physically crushed by his ordeal, he died two years later at age 70.

The controversy nevertheless made Dr. Zhivago a worldwide bestseller and Pasternak’s a cause célèbre. It also attracted the attention of the CIA, which was deeply convinced of literature’s value as a long-range propaganda tool. Through its various front organizations, the agency found a number of inventive means of getting the novel into Soviet hands, including having priests distribute it at the Vatican pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels.

The CIA has often gotten a bad rap for habits like supporting the overthrow of democratically elected leaders, yet Finn portrays the agency’s motives with its books program as earnest bordering on idealistic: “All these years later, in an age of terror, drones, and targeted killing, the CIA’s faith—and the Soviet Union’s faith—in the power of literature to transform society seems almost quaint.”

If the CIA is currently trying to smuggle copies of The Orphan Master’s Son into North Korea, it isn’t saying. On June 11, however, five days after it raised eyebrows by joining Twitter, the agency tweeted this cryptic pronouncement: “The CIA is…a learning organization, one that makes a deliberate effort to learn from the past, adapt to the times, and refine its methods.” Hmmm.

—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor