THE BOOK THAT CHANGED HISTORY
They had their satellites, but we had their books. Back then, we believed books could be weapons—that literature could change the course of history. The Agency knew it would take time to change the hearts and minds of men, but they were in it for the long game. Since its OSS roots, the Agency had double-downed on soft propaganda warfare—using art, music, and literature to advance its objectives. The goal: to emphasize how the Soviet system did not allow free thought— how theRed State hindered, censored, and persecuted even its finest artists. The tactic: to get materials into the hands of Soviet citizens by any means.
We started out stuffing pamphlets into weather balloons and sent them over borders to burst, their contents raining down behind the Iron Curtain. Then we mailed Soviet-banned books back behind enemy lines. At first, the men had the bright idea to just mail the books in nondescript envelopes, crossing their fingers and hoping at least a few would make it across unmolested. But during one of their book meetings, Linda piped up, suggesting the idea of affixing false covers to the books for better protection. A few of us gathered every copy we could find of less-controversial titles, like Charlotte’s Web and Pride and Prejudice, removed their dust jackets, and glued them to the contraband before dropping them in the mail. Naturally, the men took the credit.
And it was around that time that the Agency decided we ought to dive even deeper into the war of the words, graduating several men within the ranks to create their own publishing companies and found literary magazines to front our efforts.
The Agency became a bit of a book club with a black budget. It was more appealing to poets and writers than book readings with free wine. We had our hands so deep in publishing you’d have thought we got a cut of the royalties.
We’d sit in on the men’s meetings and take notes while they talked about the novels they wanted to exploit next. They’d debate the merits of making Orwell’s Animal Farm the subject of their next mission versus Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. They’d talk books as if their critiques would be printed in the Times. So serious, and yet we’d joke that their conversations felt like ones we’d had back in our undergrad lit classes.
So there were the balloons, the false covers, the publishing companies, the lit mags, all the other books we’d smuggled into the USSR.
Then there was Zhivago.
Classified under codename AEDINOSAUR, it was the mission that would change everything.
Doctor Zhivago — a name more than one of us had trouble spelling at first—was written by the Soviet’s most famous living writer, Boris Pasternak, and banned in the Eastern Bloc due to its critiques of the October Revolution and its so-called subversive nature.
On first glance, it wasn’t evident how a sweeping epic about the doomed love between Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova could be used as a weapon, but the Agency was always creative.
The initial internal memo described Zhivago as “the most heretical literary work by a Soviet author since Stalin’s death,” saying it had “great propaganda value” for its “passive but piercing exposition of the effect of the Soviet system on the life of a sensitive, intelligent citizen.” In other words, it was perfect.
The memo passed through SR faster than word of a break room tryst during one of our martini-soaked Christmas parties and spawned at least half a dozen additional memos, each seconding the first: that this was not just a book, but a weapon—and one the Agency wanted to obtain and smuggle back behind the Iron Curtain for its own citizens to detonate.
Discover the story of the book that changed history.
THE SECRETS WE KEPT
by Lara Prescott.
A dazzling first novel about the women in the CIA's typing pool, the fate of a banned masterpiece and all the other secrets they kept.
Publishing Autumn 2019
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