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Issue #1637      May 7, 2014

Culture & Life

Scientology, Doctor Zhivago and other weirdness

Scientology stopped being a science-fiction based cult and became a church when its founder, sci-fi author L Ron Hubbard, discovered that churches did not have to pay tax. Although Scientology’s status as a church no doubt helped its bottom line, it did nothing to increase anyone’s perception of it as scientific. It was and remained a cult.

Although Justice Lionel Murphy, in a High Court decision not long before he died, put forward the view that an organisation was a church if its members believed it to be a church, it was a view shared by few other people. And no wonder: the decision gave greater weight to people’s subjective beliefs than it did to objective reality.

Now the Scientologists are back in the news, seeking approval from local government to open two new drug and alcohol rehabilitation centres, one in Warburton in Victoria and one in the Yarramalong Valley on the NSW Central Coast. Residents in both locations are opposed to the move.

The irony of trying to wean people off drugs or alcohol through the medium of a cult has not been lost on the residents, although their main arguments relate to adverse police reports about security problems associated with the Warburton facility and zoning breaches in Yarramalong.

The two centres would be run by a Scientology front organisation, ABLE or the “Association for Better Living and Education”. ABLE has run the Narconon centre in a rural Victorian guest house owned by the Victorian government, but now they want to upgrade and expand.

Acknowledging that ABLE’s and Narconon’s drug and alcohol programs are based not on medical science but on Scientology’s pseudo-scientific “psychological” methods, a spokesman for ABLE told The Sydney Morning Herald that “Narconon has operated in Australia for over 20 years with over 10,000 successful graduates without any of the problems traditionally associated with medical-based drug and alcohol programs.” So that’s all right then.


Let us now travel back in time to the 1950s, when a Soviet writer named Boris Pasternak who believed he was insufficiently appreciated by the literary establishment of the USSR decided to write a novel “exposing” the Revolution and the Civil War. In the resulting novel, Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak depicted these seminal events in the history of the USSR not as a time of extraordinary heroism and sacrifice by ordinary workers and peasants, but as a time of opportunism, betrayal, disappointment, tragedy and loss.

Pasternak saw no honour, no glory and no nobility in the Revolution. His jaundiced view was deeply offensive to the Communists of the USSR and the Soviet government was understandably disinclined to spend state funds on publishing his diatribe. Pasternak, however, had no qualms about offering his rejected manuscript to anti-Soviet agents from abroad, specifically from British Intelligence.

They microfilmed the Russian text and sent it out to the CIA, who in turn collaborated with Dutch Intelligence to use a small academic publishing house in The Hague in order to publish copies for distribution as a “banned book” to Russians attending the 1958 Brussels Expo. The Americans were keen to hide their involvement, so they could pour scorn on claims that the CIA was backing Pasternak. Accordingly, they enlisted the help of the Vatican – never loath to support anti-Soviet activities – who distributed the book through a group of anti-Soviet Russian emigrés ensconced in the Vatican pavilion.

The Vatican had been involved in helping numerous Nazis and other anti-Soviet elements escape retribution at the hands of the Red Army at the end of the War, including many collaborators. Now they were put to work.

The CIA was primarily concerned with smuggling the book into the USSR, as a “subversive” work. But Pasternak had successfully sent the text, no doubt with the help of yet another intelligence agency, to a Milan-based publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who kicked up a fuss over the CIA publishing a Russian edition without seeking his permission.

Even without the CIA’s faux pas, Soviet intelligence authorities were well aware of the CIA’s involvement in the affair, despite US denials. The release of some 130 declassified documents has recently allowed a book to be written about the whole sorry project: The Zhivago Affair: The Kremlin, The CIA and the Battle Over a Forbidden Book.

As soon as the Russian edition appeared, speculation was rife that the CIA was behind it, first in literary circles and then in the multitude of current affairs journals. The right-wing National Review Bulletin openly lauded the CIA for producing the book. Not surprisingly, it was not long before the CIA abandoned the use of front publishing houses for Zhivago and instead published its own “black” edition, a miniature paperback, for smuggling into the USSR.

It is unlikely that the overthrow of Socialism in the USSR nearly 30 years later can be attributed to the subversive influence of Doctor Zhivago. In fact, I think that most of those who have actually read the book will agree with me that it is a tedious read. It is not a patch on Alexei Tolstoi’s Ordeal trilogy or Serafimovich’s The Iron Flood.


Finally, did you see where the report of the official enquiry into Britain’s involvement in the “rendition” of people accused of involvement in terrorism into the none-too gentle hands of the US government exonerated the operatives of British foreign intelligence agency MI6 on the grounds that they were under no obligation to report breaches of the Geneva Convention. Accordingly, they could with a clear conscience turn a blind eye to the torture of detainees in foreign jails.

Commenting on the report, the English Guardian newspaper noted that that “even when individual MI6 officers expressed concerns about the abuse of detainees, they did not pass on their thoughts for fear of offending the US”.

Now isn’t that a feeble reason for not speaking out about torture? But then, British intelligence and counter terrorism officers would have much the same class and moral outlook as their American counterparts. They are unlikely to get on in their careers by displaying humanitarianism.

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