Credit: Trevor Paulhus / Cover courtesy of Penguin Random House
Lara Prescott's Debut Novel Reveals How The CIA Used Art As a Weapon During The Cold War
"On Second Thought" host Virginia Prescott speaks with Lara Prescott.
The 1966 film Dr. Zhivago captivated Cold War-era America. It won several Oscars and set off a faux-Siberian fashion trend. David Lean’s film was based on Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel, which the Soviet government banned even before it was published.
Lara Prescott’s debut novel, The Secrets We Kept, follows a CIA plot to get the book printed and smuggled into the hands of Russian readers. She creates some sharp female typists and operatives as characters who support the international espionage.
Her book became an instant New York Times best seller and is now out in paperback. Prescott joined On Second Thought host Virginia Prescott (no relation) to discuss the book as part of one of the Atlanta History Center’s virtual author talks. Prescott expanded on how the CIA used art as propaganda and shared the real-life love story behind Dr. Zhivago.
This audio is an edited version of the conversation, but you can hear (and watch) the full interview below. The virtual author talks, which are free events, resume on Thursday, Aug. 13 with author Mab Seacrest. For a full schedule and Zoom links, visit the Atlanta History Center’s website.
On why Soviet Russia and Stalin considered books to be “weapons”
I saw a report by a chief intelligence officer in the CIA (that) said that books are one of the single most important pieces of propaganda because they have the most ability to change people's hearts and minds. And if you think about it, at the time, you spend hours and hours … reading a book, putting yourself in other people's shoes and developing this connection – a sense of empathy for the other person, which is very powerful. It could be a life-changing force. And both the Soviets agreed and Stalin would also say that books were weapons, and that's why so many books were being banned and why writers being persecuted. And they didn't think this was a bomb or something that could be done overnight. This was this planting of a seed. And once someone would read this book and questioned why it had been banned, they would then begin to question other things about their governments.
I saw a report by a chief intelligence officer in the CIA [that] said that books are one of the single most important pieces of propaganda because they have the most ability to change people's hearts and minds.
On how the CIA used art as a form of propaganda during the Cold War
I thought it was fascinating how much the CIA elevated art as a form of propaganda – most of the time, unbeknownst to the writers and the artists themselves. Not only did they use books, but they used abstract art. They promoted artists like Jackson Pollock. They promoted jazz musicians. And just the thought that they wanted the Soviets to think we have the best art; we are the most free; look at these things we can do. And to them, that was almost like a knife to the Soviet culture, who upheld the letters – and they were the king of letters and ballet and music, and they still wanted to reign free with that. And I think it's interesting to see that cultural Cold War was going on alongside the space race and maybe in the end was even more successful.
On the real-life love story behind Dr. Zhivago
(Olga Ivinskaya) was imprisoned to pressure Boris Pasternak to stop writing his novel. Essentially, Boris was the most famous living writer in Soviet Russia at the time, and everyone knew that once this novel came out, this would be the most popular novel in the land; everyone would want to read it. And the Soviets caught word of what he was writing and deemed it subversive – before it was published, as he was writing. But they wanted to pressure him, and to pressure him they took the person that, at the time, he was madly in love with. And they interrogated her in Lubyanka (Prison), trying to pressure her into giving up Boris – saying he's writing something subversive, sign her name against him. And then when she refused, she was sentenced to five years in the gulag. And she never gave up, Boris. She continually denied that he was doing anything wrong and she paid for it.
Boris was the most famous living writer in Soviet Russia at the time, and everyone knew that once this novel came out, this would be the most popular novel in the land; everyone would want to read it.
On how writing The Secrets We Kept combined many of Prescott’s passions
I feel a very strong connection with Dr. Zhivago and I always have. I think my mom would say I was fated to write it. I don't know if I would go that far. But it is interesting to find something that embodies all of these different passions in my life, whether it's words, writing, politics, and also Zhivago, come together in one project. And it's something that when you're writing something that takes so many years to write, you really have to be passionate and almost obsessed with it. … And it was hard to kind of put that away once you're finished writing it.
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