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Operation Aedinosaur: The CIA’s Mission to Undermine Soviet Censorship During the Cold War

On December 10th 1989 at Oslo City Hall in Norway, Yevgeny Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on behalf of his late father; Boris Pasternak, who 31 years prior was nominated for the contentious and now infamous novel Doctor Zhivago. He was forced to decline the award at the behest of Soviet authorities who had banned the publication of the book just two years earlier, threatening him with exile should he accept it. 

The book’s publication, in hand with the Nobel Prize nomination, though contested, sparked one of the great cultural storms of the Cold War. 

You see, Soviet authorities deplored Doctor Zhivago for its critical portrayal of the Russian Revolution and its raw depictions of brutality under the Soviet regime, though most feared of all was its thought-provoking nature. In order to preserve the integrity of Communist Party rhetoric, Soviet censors went to extreme lengths to ban any literary text that dared to question the regime or challenge Soviet ideology.

Cultural corruption was perhaps the greatest plight that threatened to unravel the threads of the Soviet system. Western intelligence agencies were blatantly aware of the potentially devastating effects that such invasive ideals, like those pertaining to Western ideas of free speech and democracy could wreak on Stalin’s totalitarian regime, and so conceived an audacious plan to smuggle Doctor Zhivago, as well as other blacklisted books into the hands of Soviet citizenry. 

Today, recently declassified CIA documents detail how western intelligence agencies conducted a series of covert operations between 1952 and 1959. Their goal?  To sow the seeds of dissidents amid the fields of Soviet hearts and minds. This is how American, British, and Dutch Intelligence infiltrated the Iron Curtain and waged a covert war against the USSR, not with tanks or fighter jets, but with literature. 

If I was to ask you, what was the defining event of the Cold War? One of many things that spring to mind might be the Space Race, Checkpoint Charlie, or perhaps the Cuban Missile Crisis. While just a footnote in history today, each of these events came within just a few degrees of heating the Cold War above the temperature of no return.

Given that a ‘hot war’ would result in global nuclear Armageddon, open conflict gave way to the battle for ideological supremacy as the US and USSR fought to assert their cultural, intellectual, and artistic dominance over the other. 

Over the course of five years, from 1952 to 1957, from three sites in West Germany, a CIA operation codenamed ‘Aedinosaur’ launched hundreds of thousands of ten-foot balloons carrying copies of George Orwell’s Animal Farm destined for Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The letters ‘AE’ designated a Soviet Russia Division operation, and ‘DINOSAUR’ was a randomly generated cryptonym. You may well be wondering ‘what could the US possibly hope to achieve by air-ballooning books into Soviet occupied territory?’ And for this to make sense, it’s first important to understand the contents of Orwell’s novel. 

For those unfamiliar, Animal Farm is a satirical novel that tells the story of a group of farm animals who rebel against their human farmer master, hoping to create a utopian society where all animals can be equal, free, and happy.

Judging a book by its cover, you might believe Orwell’s 1945 novel to be an innocent work of children’s literature, but make no mistake, this was no Clifford The Big Red Dog, nor The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The underlying premise is symbolic of Russia and the Soviet Union under Communist Party rule, and a metaphorical representation of the events that led to the Russian Revolution.

Many of the anthropomorphic characters represent the key historical figures of the era. For instance, the early protagonist; a pig named Old Major, embodies a combination of Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, later replaced by a fierce looking Berkshire boar inspired by the then Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. Mr Jones, the incompetent and oppressive farmer ruler of Manor Farm is based on Tsar Nicholas II who is overthrown by the animals of his farm who represent Bolshevik and liberal revolutionaries.

More broadly speaking, Animal Farm is representative of all sectors of human society, be it capitalist, communist, socialist, or fascist. Though, like countless other novels critical of the Soviet system, it was swiftly banned under the pretence of protecting Stalin’s reputation and preserving the integrity of Communism. 

As you can imagine, Soviet authorities ordered these ten-foot balloons to be shot down by the air forces of the respective satellite states of the Eastern Bloc, and their Orwellian payloads be destroyed.

However, despite the Soviet’s best efforts to intercept and destroy as many of these balloons as possible, many thousands of copies successfully infiltrated the Iron Curtain and did as the CIA had intended: finding their way into the hands of Soviet inteligencia and spreading from person to person like an intellectual contagion, causing those exposed to question their rulers and ideology in ways they’d never dared to before. 

But in the same breath, Soviet censorship was no joke, and for every citizen bold enough to peer beyond the veil of state approved media, there were hundreds more for whom the thought of reprisal would deter even the slightest transgression. However, this censor state long predates the Bolsheviks’ rise to power, adapted primarily from the pre-existing, pre-revolutionary censorship model. In the words of Estonian professor and author Pavel Reifman:

“Soviet censorship did not come out of nowhere. It was the successor of the pre-revolutionary Russian censorship, the censorship of a centuries-old autocratic Russia”

Following the February Revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II, the Russian Provisional Government eliminated the main centre of tsarist censorship – the Main Committee on Matters of the Press – and introduced the post of ‘Commissar on Matters of the Press’. 

This new institution, for which we generally associate the Cold War Soviet Censorship model today, comprised several branches: The Goskomizdat was the State Committee for Publishing in the Soviet Union, responsible for all printed materials such as fiction, poetry and novelia. The Goskino; the abbreviated name for the USSR State Committee for Cinematography, was in charge of cinema.

The Gosteleradio was in charge of radio and television broadcasting, while the First Department was responsible for ensuring that state secrets and other sensitive information only reached authorised hands.

The Soviet government implemented a policy of mass destruction of pre-revolutionary and foreign books. Items deemed politically incorrect or socially harmful were uprooted from libraries around the USSR. Special collections, or ‘spetskhran’ were compilations of censored literary text only accessible to those granted a special permit by the KGB. 

With the Soviet government’s brutal display of disdain towards the old literary world, you can surely imagine how many of the Soviet Union’s best and brightest writers would ultimately bend to the will of the state, casting aside artistic freedoms and embracing the confines of socialist realism. While there were many writers and intellectuals who resisted the draconian measures imposed upon them, there’s arguably none more renowned than that of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak.

Born on February 10th, 1890, to a prominent Jewish family in Moscow, he was exposed to a culturally rich background from an early age, his father Leonid was an artist, and his mother Rosa a pianist. Boris studied musical composition for six years at the prestigious Moscow University, though by 1912 had renounced music as his life’s calling and abruptly left for Germany where he studied philosophy at the university of Marburg for a semester in 1913.

Young Boris had displayed promise as an articulate and insightful writer, having already began translating the works of Rilke by the age of 19, publishing his first book, a compilation of poetry titled Lyrics in 1913, followed by A Twin in the Clouds just a year later.

These academic endeavours exposed Boris to an exclusive world of Russian intellectualism, even from an early age. Shortly after his birth, Pasternak’s parents had joined the Tolstoyan movement, named so after the novelist Leo Tolstoy; author of War and Peace and a close family friend, as Pasternak recalled:

 “My father illustrated his books, went to see him, revered him, and …the whole house was imbued with his spirit”.  

Now, what follows is arguably the most turbulent era in Russian history. An era that would go on to inspire Pasternak’s most notable and influential work of fiction, Doctor Zhivago.

The outbreak of World War I devastated an already ravaged Russian nation. Widespread economic inflation and dire food shortages bred discontent and social unrest among a vast population whose dissolution with the ruling class was set to reach crescendo. 

The February Revolution of 1917 saw the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II from power and the installation of a provisional Russian government, one that was overthrown by Vladimir Lenin’s Bolshevik Revolution, better known as the October Revolution, which exploded later that same year. 

To briefly sum up the contents of Pasternak’s novel, the protagonist of Doctor Zhivago, Doctor Yuri Zhivago, is a poet, philosopher, physician, and alter ego of Pasternak who’s torn between his love for two women; his own wife Olga, and the wife of a Soviet revolutionary named Lara, all while navigating the socio-political turmoil of 20th century Russia. The novel is set between the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the conclusion of World War II. In this story, his life is ultimately changed by the First World War and the outbreak of the Russian Revolution.

Due to Yuri’s occupation as a doctor, he serves as a frontline medic on the Eastern Front of the First World War. It is here that he encounters first-hand the devastating effects of industrialised warfare. When the 1917 revolution erupts, the war ends for Russia, and Zhivago and his family flee Moscow for the Urals, at which point they become caught up in the Russian Civil War. 

Here, Yuri serves as a medic alongside a group of partisan soldiers, utilising the narrative to vividly depict the innumerable atrocities and barbarous acts that stained the era. In addition to the graphic depictions of violence, brutality and unflattering, often raw accounts of early 20th century Russia, Doctor Zhivago features depictions of sex and is seen by some as glorifying adultery and promiscuity. Basically, a big ‘no no’ if your goal is to publish said novel in the Soviet Union. 

When Pasternak attempted to do just this and submitted Doctor Zhivago for publication in 1956, the Goskomizdat; the State Printing and Publishing Agency, outright refused. This was due to its perceived anti-Soviet sentiment and rejection of socialist realism, not least to mention the subtle criticisms of Stalinism, Collectivization, the Great Purge, and the gulag system.

With no hope of publication in his native Russia, Pasternak sent several Russian-language copies of the manuscript for Doctor Zhivago to a number of Western contacts, one of whom was an influential Italian publisher called Giangiacomo Feltrinelli who shortly thereafter, arranged for the novel to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union by Sergio D’Angelo.  

D’Angelo was a member of the Italian Communist Party who worked with Radio Moscow on Italian-language programming. As such, he didn’t need to venture far out from the city when, in 1956, he travelled southwest by train to visit Pasternak personally at his dacha in the Soviet-made writers’ colony Peredelkino.

Here, he met the now 66-year-old poet and requested a copy of his novel, to which Pasternak handed him a newspaper-wrapped package. Inside was the almost 800 type-written page manuscript for Doctor Zhivago, including Pasternak’s own handwritten revisions. Upon handing over the manuscript, Pasternak is quoted as saying:

“You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad.”

Despite Pasternak’s desire for Doctor Zhivago to see the light of day, D’Angelo’s request to smuggle his work out of the Soviet Union and publish it externally risked severe repercussions for the author. 

Following Stalin’s death in 1953, cultural prohibitions were beginning to loosen, but the threat of vicious reprisals continued to linger. Should the external publishing of Doctor Zhivago come to the attention of Soviet authorities, Pasternak could be labelled a traitor of the state and executed in a similar fashion to that of Boris Pilnyak; Pasternak’s former next-door neighbour, who less than 20 years prior, had been executed for violating the party’s literary commands, specifically pertaining to the rumoured publication of a novel outside the USSR. 

Despite these reservations, Pasternak gave D’Angelo his blessing to publish Doctor Zhivago under Feltrinelli, and despite desperate efforts to prevent its publication by the Union of Soviet Writers, the first Italian-language editions rolled off the printing press in 1957. So immense was the desire for Doctor Zhivago that Feltrinelli was able to licence translation rights for eighteen different languages far in advance of the novel’s publication.  

Giangiacomo Feltrinelli
Giangiacomo Feltrinelli

While certain details are still shrouded in mystery to this day, the CIA released over 100 declassified documents in 2014 pertaining to their, MI6’s, and Dutch Intelligence’s involvement in the large-scale publishing of Pasternak’s novel. It’s believed that an unnamed British intelligence officer managed to procure a copy of the manuscript for Doctor Zhivago and photographed its contents page by page before delivering it to American intelligence services. A CIA memo, dated January 2, 1958 states:

“Forwarded herewith are two rolls of film which are the negatives of the photocopy of Dr Zhivago by Pasternak. These have been given to us by [REDACTED] who request they be returned ‘in due course’.”

Following this, an internal CIA memo to all branch chiefs of the agency’s Soviet Russia Division, monitored by CIA Director Allen Dulles and sanctioned by President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Operations Coordinating Board, reveals their initial thoughts on Pasternak’s novel and how they might use it as a tool of propaganda against the Soviets. The memo reads:

“This book has great propaganda value, not only for its intrinsic message and thought-provoking nature, but also for the circumstances of its publication: we have the opportunity to make Soviet citizens wonder what is wrong with their government, when a fine literary work by the man acknowledged to be the greatest living Russian writer is not even available in his own country in his own language for his own people to read.”

Having successfully obtained a copy of Pasternak’s manuscript, the CIA began exploring all viable options for the discrete publication of the Russian language edition of Doctor Zhivago. After first considering a secret printing of the novel through a small New York publisher, the CIA contacted the Dutch intelligence service; Binnenlandse Veiligheidsdienst – BVD for short – and arranged for the printing of 1000 blue-linen hardcover copies at the Mouton Publishers of The Hague in early September 1958. 

American and Dutch intelligence were closely tied, having cooperated throughout the Second World War against the occupying forces of Nazi Germany in the Netherlands. CIA subsidies in 1958 paid for approximately 50 of the BVD’s 691 staff members, with new Dutch employees receiving special training in Washington. Joop van der Wilden, a BVD officer, was dispatched to the U.S. Embassy at The Hague to discuss the printing with Walter Cini, a CIA officer stationed there at the time. 

Cini told him it would be a rush job, but the CIA was willing to provide the manuscript and pay generously for a small print run of Doctor Zhivago. He emphasised that there should be no trace of involvement by the U.S. or any other intelligence agency. As such, the 1,000 Russian-language copies printed by Mouton Publishers contained numerous typos and truncated storylines, not least to mention its perceived illegality, as the publishing rights for Pasternak’s novel belonged exclusively to Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli.

The main target for distribution was the 1958 Brussels Universal and International Exhibition, the first post-war world fair, where among scores of international visitors, several thousand Soviets of Russian and Eastern European descent were permitted to partake in the exhibition. 

Doctor Zhivago could not be handed out at the US pavilion at the world’s fair, but the CIA had a convenient ally nearby: the Vatican. Russian emigre Catholics had set up a small library just off the pavilion’s Chapel of Silence, a place to reflect on the suppression of Christian communities around the world. 

It was here, behind shrouded curtains, that the CIA-sponsored edition of Doctor Zhivago was discretely pressed into the hands of visiting Soviet citizens. Accounts of what transpired are recalled in Peter Finn’s The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, the CIA, and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book:

“Soon the book’s blue linen covers were found littering the fairgrounds. Some who got the novel were ripping off the cover, dividing the pages and stuffing them into their pockets to make the book easier to hide.”

It was hoped that some would take the book home and circulate it among their friends, some of whom might copy it in the form of ‘samizdat’; clandestine, often hand-written, or typed copies of state-banned literature, to expose copies of the novel to an even wider group of people. 

An internal CIA memo dated September 10, 1958 states:

“This phase can be considered completed successfully.”

There was however, one glaring problem. The CIA had anticipated that the Dutch publisher would sign a contract with Feltrinelli, Pasternak’s Milan publisher, and that the books handed out in Brussels would be considered as part of that print run.

The contract however was never officially signed, and the Russian-language edition printed in The Hague was illegal. The Italian publisher, who held the rights to Doctor Zhivago was infuriated upon learning about the distribution of the novel in Brussels. The fallout from such a debacle sparked press interest and rumours about the CIA’s involvement, and though unconfirmed at the time, risked exposing the entire operation. 

To best avoid letting the cat out of the proverbial bag in any future operations, the CIA’s Soviet Russia Division opted to internalise the production of Doctor Zhivago and arranged for the printing of 9000 miniature copies at a subsidiary Washington print house. Pasternak’s Nobel Prize nomination in November of that same year further emboldened the CIA’s efforts.

Despite politically motivated attacks on Pasternak in Moscow and his vilification by Soviet authorities, the next opportunity presented itself at the 1959 World Festival of Youth and Students for Peace and Friendship in Vienna, where 2000 copies were set aside for distribution among an entourage of visiting Soviet students. 

This time, the book was not only available, but largely unavoidable. When a Soviet convoy of buses arrived in Vienna, swarms of Russian emigres tossed copies of the CIA’s miniature edition through the open windows. On another occasion, a Soviet visitor to the youth festival recalled returning to his bus and finding the cabin covered with pocket editions of Doctor Zhivago.

Throughout the festival, Soviet students were shadowed by the presence of KGB officers who fooled no one when describing themselves as “researchers”. However, they proved to be more tolerant than one might have expected, with one observer quoted as saying:

“Take it, read it, but by no means bring it home.”

Despite formally declining the 1958 Nobel Prize nomination, the Union of Soviet Writers denounced Pasternak as a traitor and lobbied to have him exiled to the West. In response, Pasternak wrote directly to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, pleading:

“Leaving the motherland will mean equal death for me. I am tied to Russia by birth, by life and work.”

As a result of this, and the intercession of then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Pasternak was subsequently spared exile from his homeland.

Doctor Zhivago was finally published in Russia in 1987 as part of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s democratic reforms. This came just four years before the fall of the USSR.

Boris Pasternak died of lung cancer in his dacha in Peredelkino on the evening of May 30, 1960. Though deceased, his humanistic legacy and advocacy of artistic freedom in the face of adversity and persecution is one as timeless and relevant today as during the era of his own suppression.

Despite the ever-looming dangers that shadowed his every move, Pasternak stood firm in his beliefs, and in doing so, defined himself as a bastion of artistic freedom whose plight inspired numerous generations with his defiant nature, that to this day, is a sobering reminder of the struggle for freedom that so many faced, and continue to face, for as long as tyrannical regimes are left unquestioned.

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