COMMENTARY | The Washington Post has run a story about a CIA operation conducted in the late 1950s that involved getting Boris Pasternak’s classic novel “Dr. Zhivago” into the hands of as many Soviet citizens as possible.
Dr. Zhivago is the story of the trials and tribulations of a poet before and during the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Because it contained an unflattering depiction of that event and of Soviet society in general, the novel was banned in the Soviet Union. Indeed when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was prohibited from going to Stockholm to accept the award.
The story shows that at least some people recognized that the Cold War was as much cultural as it was political, economic, and military. One of the most pernicious aspects of the Soviet Union was the idea it represented that the state could and should control the ideas that its citizens were exposed to. That was its major vulnerability. The CIA seems to have exploited that.
The Dr, Zhivago op was in a bygone era when the culture war with the Soviets involved smuggling books across heavily guarded borders. That sort of thing still happens, as with the effort to get Bibles in the hands of China’s growing, clandestine Christian community. But the current culture war is more frequently fought across the Internet.
One of the problems with running a closed totalitarian society such as China or Iran is what to do about the Internet. In theory anyone in Tehran or Beijing can access any information that the regime would prefer they not see at a keystroke. Both Iran and China have a huge apparatus that bends every effort, from setting up government firewalls to monitoring web uses, to make sure their citizens are not corrupted by alien ideas about freedom.
Ironically the Obama administration seems intent on giving up control of this potent technology to a vaguely defined international group. Any bets that the group will not include countries like China, Iran, and Russia? That would signal a self-inflicted defeat in the ongoing international culture war.