Did the CIA Really Help the Author of Doctor Zhivago Win a Nobel Prize?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about novels and novelists and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the novel urban legends featured so far.

NOVEL URBAN LEGEND: The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) aided Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize chances in 1958 for his novel Doctor Zhivago.

While he began work on it decades earlier, it was not until after World War II that Boris Pasternak seriously began to devote time to finishing his novel, which ultimately became known as Doctor Zhivago, about a man torn between two women during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War that followed.

The story is now best known for the epic film adaptation by David Lean during the 1960s…

but in 1958, the year following its release, it was also noteworthy for winning its author the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Sadly, due to disapproval from the Soviet Union, where Pasternak and his family lived, Pasternak was forced to turn down the Nobel Prize.

Initially, he received the news of his award with great interest, sending a telegram (after being informed of his victory) that he was “Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed” but a few days later he wrote another one, “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must reject this undeserved prize which has been presented to me. Please do not receive my voluntary rejection with displeasure.”

This was because the novel was seen as somewhat derogatory toward the Communist view on life. It was banned from the Soviet Union, and in fact, after Pasternak’s death in 1960, his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya (who may have been the inspiration for the Lara character in Zhivago), and their daughter, were later sent to prison for allegedly receiving money from the sale of Doctor Zhivago outside the Soviet Union. That’s how hardcore the Soviets were about this book.

So, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was that interested in helping the book get MORE notice outside the USSR!

You see, Pasternak originally tried to get the book published in Russia, but he also sent out a few copies to friends in Europe. One friend got him into contact with an Italian publisher who ultimately was the one who published the novel (and translations were made from this Italian publication).

Even before it was published, Pasternak’s novel was condemned by Soviet authorities.

But AFTER it was published – hoo boy, they were not happy campers. The book was a sensation – a critical and commercial success, translated and published into many different non-Communist bloc countries, including the United States of America.

So when it came time for the Nobel Prize Committte to pick the winner for the Nobel Prize for Literature, well, Pasternak was a leading contender. In fact, Pasternak had already been nominated from 1946-1950 for his poetry, so his name was already well known.

There was just one “problem” – there was no version of the book in the original Russian! And while there is no specific rule against books being considered only on their translations, it certainly was frowned upon.

This is where the CIA stepped in, as they had intercepted a copy of the original Russian manuscript (one of the copies Pasternak had sent to friends in Europe) and made copies.

Now, with the deadline for the Nobel Prize coming soon, a Russian version was mysteriously published by an unknown publishing house and sent to the Nobel Prize Committee. The CIA arranged for it to be published.

Pasternak’s son, though, was irritated by their plans, stating that all they did was move it up a bit, as a Russian edition ended up being published the next year (not in the USSR, but by the University of Michigan), so Pasternak likely would have just won the award the NEXT year. Pasternak’s son, by the way, ended up accepting Pasternak’s Nobel Prize in 1989 – more than thirty years after it was awarded, and almost thirty years after Pasternak passed away.

Doctor Zhivago was finally released in the Soviet Union in 1988.

The legend is…


Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future urban legends columns! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

2 Responses to “Did the CIA Really Help the Author of Doctor Zhivago Win a Nobel Prize?”

  1. Interestingly, the Italian publisher of the book, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, led quite the fascinating life himself. So much so, he was the subject of a concept album and stage show, Praxis Makes Perfect, by Neon Neon released in 2013.

  2. “Doctor Zhivago” was also supposed to be a Broadway musical, to open in 2015. However, it was cancelled, maybe even before the show came to Broadway. Also, it just came out that the movie’s star, Omar Sharif, suffers from Alzheimer’s Disease.

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