Literature as Ideal Propaganda


During the Cold War, the CIA viewed literature as a potent tool to undermine the Soviet Union. Novels by George Orwell, Albert Camus, Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce were smuggled across borders. And, as Nick Romeo explains in the Atlantic, the CIA sought authentic works for its purposes. Doctor Zhivago, hardly a celebration of capitalism, offers an ideal example of a credible work of literature that helped subtly erode the Soviet state:

None of the works the CIA commissioned are widely read today, and Soviet writers who celebrated official ideology are equally forgotten. Doctor Zhivago, however, remains a household name. Government intervention that precedes the creation of literature tends to fail; the CIA became entangled with Doctor Zhivago only after the novel was composed. Had they found and bribed a Russian author to write a book with anti-Soviet themes, it likely would never have become an international literary and media sensation. Authentic literary productions are far more powerful than the best government efforts at cultural engineering.

Ian MacAllen is the author of Red Sauce: How Italian Food Became American (Rowman & Littlefield, April 2022). His writing has appeared in Chicago Review of Books, Southern Review of Books, The Offing, 45th Parallel Magazine, Little Fiction, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and elsewhere. He tweets @IanMacAllen and is online at More from this author →