As we navigate Japan’s cultural diplomacy this week, the “cultural” aspect of diplomacy is underscored once more. We think about how we perceive initiatives meant to captivate audience’s attention towards a certain nation and their policies, convictions, and norms. Usually, we focus on what a specific government or organization within a country is trying to transmit. But we rarely look at how other powerful institutions in competing nations frame other’s diplomatic assets. Indeed, that is the subject of an article in the Washington Post published on April 5, “During Cold War, CIA used ‘Doctor Zhivago’ as a tool to undermine Soviet Union”.
As the novel, written by a Russian poet, was banned in the Soviet Union, the UK and the US seized the opportunity to use it as a soft power weapon to portray the USSR as the freedom-enemy it was, and to provide legitimacy and garner support for the war. In words of a CIA memo, “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.” The CIA’s active involvement in helping distribute the novel clandestinely throughout Eastern-bloc circles echoed its efforts to use literature as double-edged swords for propaganda against communism and in favor of the Western position. Thanks to this, the novel won a Nobel Peace Prize- with all of the implications this had for the diplomatic wars of the time. Along with “1984”, “Animal Farm”, and “Dr Zhivago” the article states, “over the course of the Cold War, as many as 10 million copies of books and magazines were secretly distributed by the agency behind the Iron Curtain as part of a political warfare campaign.” In a concerted move by Western allies, the book was distributed widely to Russian citizens and caught global attention, as the US intended- even from the Vatican, which also helped disseminate it. It was a savvy move in the “Communism vs Freedom” Western diplomacy.