The U.S. was determined to demonstrate-especially to Europe, with its strong Communist slant-that the Soviet Union was denouncing Stalin only on paper and the words said during the 20th CPSU Congress were not supported by deeds. As things really were, Soviet censorship remained as harsh as before, the country was enslaved, and the creative mind had no chance to speak out. Such exposure really mattered to America, with the Cold War on, Tolstoy argues as he tracks back an alleged cloak-and-dagger operation.
It is necessary now to take stock of developments preceding Pasternak's drama.
A poet of genius, Boris Pasternak had long fascinated the Nobel Committee. He was first nominated immediately after World War II, and remained on the short list from 1946 until 1950-but never won the award. His novel Doctor Zhivago came as the last drop to fill the cup of his glory.
Naivety often goes hand-in-hand with genius. Pasternak was sure no harm would come to his country from his lyrical novel, and sent copies to Soviet book publishers, to a major Moscow literary magazine, and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a prominent Italian publisher.
"I passed a copy to an Italian Communist publishing house, and was waiting for [the novel] to come out in Moscow after censorship. I agreed to all amendments," the author wrote to the Soviet Writers' Union Presidium.
Nikita Khrushchev flew into a rage as he heard about an anti-Soviet novel passed to the West. He ordered the press to throw mud at the poet. As Tolstoy sees it, the CIA snatched at the chance, and anticipated the sensation that would come with an anti-Soviet writer winning the Nobel Prize.
Meanwhile, Albert Camus, an admirer of Pasternak and himself a Nobel laureate, used his influence to call the Committee to vote for the Russian poet. The Committee replied it had no objections but one, though formidable-the Nobel statute banned awards given before the winning work came out in its original language.
So Doctor Zhivago was to be published in Russian-anywhere, if Moscow refused to publish it.
Feltrinelli, a convinced Communist, was procrastinating. To fall out with the Soviet Communist Party was the last thing he wanted, so the manuscript stayed locked up in his safe.
That is where guesses and conjectures come in. As Tolstoy has it, CIA agents stole the manuscript out of the luggage of an anonymous West European air passenger to be copied within an hour or two, and slipped back. But then, airlines carry several million suitcases a day-how could they have known which contained the priceless novel? The researcher detective offers no details. Let us wait for a three-volume collection of his work about Russian emigre life and political pursuits, soon to appear in print. It may throw more light on the matter that, meanwhile, remains vague.
Once the manuscript was secretly copied, the CIA had several editions of the novel published in Russian, part after part, next to collect it in book form and twist Feltrinelli's arms to use him as cover. Driven into a corner, the publisher succumbed, and the novel found its way to the Nobel Committee in August 1958. The road to the award opened.
The winner was announced on October 22. That was Boris Pasternak, rewarded for his "outstanding services to contemporary lyrical poetry and great Russian prose."
"I am grateful, overjoyed, proud and embarrassed," Pasternak replied in a telegram. Victimized to the point of despair, he sent another, a week later:
"The significance attached to my award by the community I belong to forces me to reject it. My refusal is voluntary. Please do not take offence."
So the poet of genius was a CIA hostage and victim.
There is one point on which I agree with Ivan Tolstoy. True, books made a greater contribution than anything else to the collapse of the Soviet empire-suffice it to mention Andrei Platonov's The Foundation Pit. The strongest blow came from The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn's unforgettable documentary epic.
The Soviet Union spent the entire 20th century fighting against itself in the battlefield of culture. That much is clear now.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.