Zhivago in Poland

At the beginning of April, I went to give a talk in philosophy of mathematics at the University of Krakow at the behest of my colleague Tomasz Placek. Tomasz had been aware of my interests on the history of Doctor Zhivago since I had consulted him for the translation of some editorial remarks in the first Polish edition of Doctor Zhivago. Not surprisingly we came back to the topic of the history of Zhivago and Tomasz told me that he had been involved in a distribution operation of a Polish version of Doctor Zhivago in the early eighties. In fact, he was later awarded a medal for his work in the underground. My curiosity was piqued and I asked which edition they had distributed. He could not recall the precise details but was quite definite that it was an edition printed in Poland. This I found quite surprising as I was unaware of any edition printed in Poland before the fall of the USSR. He promised he would track down the book, which he eventually found in his sister’s house. It was an edition I had never seen before printed in Poland in 1983. To my delight, Tomasz was even able to find me a copy of the book which was generously offered to me by his university colleagues Jola and Milowit Kunisnki. I want to thank them all for their generosity. I would also like to thank another philosopher of mathematics, Rafal Urbaniak, for having kindly translated an interview from Polish featuring Ziemowit Fedecki (1923-2009): some passages will be quoted in this post and the next post will give the full interview (the interview, by Anna Żebrowska, appeared in 2003 in the issue 46 of Przeglad; for the original Polish text see http://www.przeglad-tygodnik.pl/pl/artykul/cieniu-doktora-zywago)

While the first complete edition of Doctor Zhivago came out in Italian in November 1957, the first extensive excerpts from the novel came out in Poland in August 1957 in the journal Opinie, a literary quarterly that had been founded with the aim of presenting Polish readers with the most interesting recent developments in Soviet literature.

Opinie, First issue, 1957

Opinie, First issue, 1957

The editorial board consisted of Ziemowit Fedecki, Wanda Padwa, Seweryn Pollak, and Andrzej Stawar. The excerpts from Doctor Zhivago were translated by Maria Mongirdowa. The published passages were illustrated with beautiful drawings by Włodzimierz Faworski. This issue of Opinie also contained selections from Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Yashin, and Babel. The extensive selection published in Opinie (about 30 pages) indicated that a full translation of the book was being undertaken.

But how did Opinie get hold of Doctor Zhivago? The text came from a copy of the typescript given by Pasternak to Ziemowit Fedecki. Fedecki had known Pasternak since 1945 when he was in Moscow as a cultural attaché of the Polish Embassy. The description of his first visit to Pasternak is too amusing not to be quoted:

Interviewer: – Actually, how did you meet Pasternak?

Fedecki: We went to Peredelkino with Jerzy Pomianowski and  Zivov, a translator from Polish.  Zivov was his friend, Pomianowski was publishing an anthology of Russian poetry and had some business [in going], and I just really wanted to meet him. Already at the beginning Pasternak said: “Stalin, this bandit…” We heard a snap – Zivov fainted. Pomianowski, who graduated from a medical school, told us to put him on a couch. Later it turned out that  Zivov fainted every time Pasternak talked about Stalin in the presence of unfamiliar people. He was afraid that the foreigners, unaware of anything would tell in Moscow what the poet was saying about the leader and that the powers that be would use him as a witness. He didn’t want to hurt Pasternak, so he fainted not to hear anything. 

The editorial note accompanying the excerpts of Doctor Zhivago in Opinie

The editorial note accompanying the excerpts of Doctor Zhivago in Opinie

As to the date when exactly Pasternak gave Fedecki a copy of his typescript (which is still owned by Fedecki’s widow) we have a good terminus ad quem given in a letter from Pasternak to the Italian scholar Angelo Maria Ripellino. The letter is dated August 17, 1956, and in it Pasternak advises Ripellino to contact Fedecki to arrange to see the typescript:

But since you know Fedecki, address your request to him. Unfortunately, I do not have his address; otherwise, I would have written to him myself. Ask him to somehow find a way to get the manuscript to you; he has a copy of the complete text. I would have been less upset by a complete miscomprehension and misunderstanding of all my work than his being blindsided by argument of precaution, concerns about my well-being, and his complete blindness about what is idling on his bookshelf without any utility for anyone.

It is safe to assume that Fedecki must have received his typescript soon after May 1956, that is only a little time after d’Angelo was given the typescript for Feltrinelli. Indeed, there is a recollection of the meeting given by Wiktor Woroszylski who was also present. It not only helps with dating the event in May 1956 but it also shows that Boris and his wife Zinaida were at odds on the issue of handing the typescript to foreigners. Woroszylski writes:

An illustration by Faworski (from a cycle on Dante's Vita Nuova) used to illustrate the excerpts of Zhivago in Opinie.

A drawing by Faworski (from a cycle on Dante’s Vita Nuova) used to illustrate the excerpts of Zhivago in Opinie.

It was May 1956 … we got off at a small station and started off walking down the wood sleepers and then later turned off, bumbling along on a boggy road past a birch meadow and cemetery on a hill with a small white church at the top. … ‘This is more important, than poems. I have worked on this for a long time,’ [Pasternak] said, handing Yaromir [Ziemowit Fedecki] two thick, bound folios. We looked at the doorway – in it, Zinaida Nikolaevna was standing, tall, massive, slightly hunched over. We did not hear her walk it, but felt her presence. She looked at Yaromir with displeasure: ‘You must know that I am against this! Boris Leonidovich is suffering from thoughtlessness: yesterday he gave a copy to the Italians, today to you. He does not realize the danger and I must look after him.’ ‘But, Zinaida Nikolaevna,’ the poet replied, ‘everything has changed. It is about time to forget about fears and live normally. And then, the book will soon be available here – they have promised me.’ ‘I am against it,’ Zinaida Nikolaevna repeated dryly. And yet, Yaromir did not show any desire to part with the thing that he was now holding in his hands. (Woroszylski, 1977, p. 49; cited also in Wójciak-Marek 2009, pp. 152-153; translated from the latter)

If the reference to the handing over of the typescripts to the Italians is correct, then the meeting with Fedecki took place on May 21, 1956. Fedecki himself was not a great fan of Doctor Zhivago and this perhaps explains the despondent words that Pasternak wrote to Ripellino about the fate of his typescript in Poland. We get more information about Fedecki’s attitude in a long interview titled “In the shadow of Doctor Zhivago” (see next post for the full interview). Fedecki says:

I was one of the first readers of Doctor Zhivago and it bored me to death, I used to make coffee to stay awake. I told Pasternak that this is revolution seen through a window vent of his cabin in Peredelkino. As a 23 year old pup I would never dare to review it like this, but since he made me vow [Pasternak had asked Fedecki to vow that he would be completely honest in his criticism]? Pasternak listened, went upstairs and didn’t come downstairs for dinner. I packed my things (I was staying at his place in Peredelkino for holidays) and I started my goodbyes. He ran down the stairs: “Please stay, if you leave, then I will be really offended!”

This must have been in 1946 when the novel was still unfinished. But in 1956 Pasternak gave Fedecki the finished product. And contrary to Pasternak’s suspicions, the typescript was not idle.

An illustration by Faworski (from a cycle on Dante's Vita Nuova) used to illustrate the excerpts of Zhivago in Opinie.

A drawing by Faworski (from a cycle on Dante’s Vita Nuova) used to illustrate the excerpts of Zhivago in Opinie.

Indeed, the issue of Opinie in which the Zhivago selections appeared in 1957 became a source of great annoyance and anxiety for the Soviets. That issue (50,000 copies) had sold out in no time. But how had this publication been possible? Here is from Fedecki’s interview again:

Interviewer: I browsed the first issue of the quarterly Opinie. Apart from Pasternak, there were quite a few authors at that time prohibited in USSR: Babel, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. How come this could appear in 1957?

Fedecki: – Diplomatic manouvers. We applied for funding at TPPR [Polish-Soviet Friendship Society], which later ran into troubles because of that. What’s worse, we started cooperating with Władysław Siła-Nowicki, who just got out of a UB [Polish Secret Police] prison – he reviewed books for us. But Opinie was the only periodic of TPPR that disappeared from news stalls in two days.

Interviewer: – I can imagine the reaction in USSR.

 Fedecki: – Literaturnaia Gazeta published a piece “Whose opinions are these?” (Western revisionists’, they discovered). The eulogist of “a real man”, Boris Polevoi, petitioned for a “social” trial of the editorial board. They wrote about me that I’m a perfidious exhumator of pseudoliterature [Actually, this occurs in a second article published by Literaturnaia Gazeta, titled Trojan’s horse, where one finds Polevoi’s attack against Fedecki]. For a long period I was not sent to Moscow, they stopped inviting me for movies at the Russian embassy. Opinie appeared only twice, but in the second issue the censorship’s interference was so strong that with Pollak we refused to sign it.

The journal had been shut down following a Soviet intervention that is now chronicled in detail in the documents from the archive of the Central Committee published in Le Dossier de l’Affaire Zhivago (Gallimard 1994) and Boris Pasternak i Vlast’ (Rosspen 2001). Here is how D. Polikarpov, director of the department of culture, informed the Central Committee of the CPSU on August 30, 1957:

Central Committee of the CPSU

Krakow’s weekly Zycie Literackie [Literary life] of August 18, 1957 gives news of the beginning of publication of a quarterly journal titled Opinie [Opinion], dedicated to issues of Soviet culture. The first issue has just been released. Judging from the selection of works published in this first edition, the quarterly Opinie has a direction hostile to us.  Under the pretext of informing “in all honesty”, the editors have taken the course of publishing books which contain “questions of painful historical revisions” and praising ideologically corrupt books, which come under sharp criticism in our country. Among the works of Soviet authors published in the journal we find Yashin’s Levers as well as excerpts of the unpublished anti-Soviet novel by Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago. Given the foregoing, the Department of Culture of the Central Committee would consider it necessary to charge the Soviet ambassador in Poland to draw the attention of our Polish comrades to the unfriendly nature of the journal Opinie and to suggest to them, in a suitable fashion, that a critical statement on the part of the Polish communist press regarding the positions taken up by the journal Opinie, as well as the suspension of further publication of Pasternak’s work, would be received very favorably by Soviet public opinion. It will also be prudent to recommend to the Secretariat of the Soviet Writers’ Union and to the editorial board of Literaturnaia Gazeta to organize, as soon as they will have received the quarterly journal, the publication of an open letter by a group of prominent Soviet writers that will subject to criticism the positions taken by this journal. And to send this letter to the Polish press for publication, including the editorial board of the journal Opinie. Awaiting instructions. Text of the telegram to the Soviet ambassador in Warsaw is enclosed.

Director of the Department of Culture


Administrative Inspector

E. Trushchenko      

A note appended on September 30, 1957, written by B. Riurikov, deputy director of the department of culture, stated “The necessary measures regarding this issue have been taken”. And taken they were. A thirty-page summary of the contents of the journal, together with a copy of the journal, were sent to the Central Committee on September 7, 1957. Polikarpov sent a telegram to the Soviet ambassador to Poland and encouraged the ambassador to draw the attention of “our friends” to the “tendencies hostile to the USSR of the journal Opinie”. The telegram invited the ambassador “to make our friends understand that the Soviet public opinion would know how to value the suspension of the publication of Pasternak’s novel as well as a critical declaration on the part of the Polish Communist Press concerning the positions of the journal Opinie“. The ambassador did his job well, since Opinie was suspended. The vitriolic article already mentioned, titled “Whose opinion is it?”, appeared in Literaturnaia Gazeta of September 18, 1957 (there was also a second article in the same journal against Fedecki).

Ziemowit Fedecki

Ziemowit Fedecki

Meanwhile, Pollak had signed a contract for the publication of Doctor Zhivago with Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy. Needless to say, the contract was revoked:

Interviewer: A few people harboured a grudge against you, because you didn’t publish the whole of Doctor Zhivago.

Fedecki: For God’s sake, it was mid-50s, there were no private publishers or secondary circulation.  In the journal Opinie [Opinions] we could only publish part of the story, which we did one year before the Nobel prize and it was the first publication in the world. The translator, Ms Maria Mongirdowa, fell ill and died. I passed it on to Seweryn Pollak, who signed a contract with PIW [Panstwowy Instytut Wydawniczy]. In the West no one cared about the piece until Pasternak got the Nobel prize. And in Poland we couldn’t publish a book considered to be anti-soviet, whose author was expelled from the [Soviet] writers’ association. When they later called Pollak from PIW they were even afraid to mention the title of the piece: “Mr Seweryn, we have a contract with you for this piece, you know which one. Please do not refund us the advance, and in general, we won’t talk about it.” Perhaps, Herling-Grudziński [Gustaw Herling], who wrote that “Doctor Zhivago” did not appear because of Fedecki’s pettiness, has not heard of censorship in PRL [Polish People’s Republic], but a few people still remember it.

It appears that the decision of the PIW was taken as a consequence of a memo circulated by the Polish Ministry for Culture and Art that forbade throughout Poland the distribution and the printing of texts of Soviet authors that were unpublished in the USSR. In addition, according to the editors of Pasternak i vlast’, the editors of Opinie were summoned to Moscow for the “necessary conversations”.

And this sealed the fate of the publication of Doctor Zhivago inside Poland. But if publication could not be achieved in Poland, forces outside Poland soon began planning a Polish edition abroad. That story will be recounted in one of the next posts where I will present the history of the printed Polish editions of Doctor Zhivago.


Afiani, V. I., Tomilina, N. G., eds., A za mnoiu shum pogoni: Boris Pasternak i vlastʹ: dokumenty 1956-1972, ROSSPĖN, Moskva, 2001.

Le Dossier de l’Affaire Pasternak, Archives du Comité Central et du Politburo, Préface de Jacqueline de Proyart, Gallimard, Paris, 1994.

In the shadow of “Doctor Zhivago”, Interview with Fedecki by Anna Żebrowska, Przeglad, 46, 2003 [full interview in the next post]

Wójciak-Marek, M., [in Russian] Pasternak i Pol’sha: Pervaia publikatsiia Doktora Zhivago, in L. Fleishmann, ed. The life of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, Stanford, 2009, pp. 142- 155.

Woroszylsky, W., Literatura. Powiesc, Instytut Literacki, Paris, 1977