An interview with Ziemowit Fedecki (Doctor Zhivago in Poland, part II)

Ziemowit Fedecki (1923-2009) played an important role in the publication of Doctor Zhivago in Opinie (1957). In the previous post, I quoted some passages from an interview with Fedecki by Anna Żebrowska, which appeared in 2003 in the issue 46 of Przeglad (for the original Polish text see This post contains the translation into English of the interview. I am grateful to Rafal Urbaniak for his translation.

In the shadow of “Doctor Zhivago”

Friends of the red heir.

 Gałczyński and Pasternak asked me for my remarks about their work. I had to vow that I would tell what I really think. 

 Ziemowit Fedecki

Ziemowit Fedecki (1923-2009)

Ziemowit Fedecki (1923-2009)

Żebrowska: They call you “the red heir”.

Fedecki: As the Polish saying goes, only a cow doesn’t change her views. I will be such a cow, because I confess I have socialist convictions. I am a son of a pre-war work inspector. In Białystok, which was then  an industrial region focusing on textile production, my father closed two factories, which produced uniforms for Japanese army. To make them cheaper, they were made from second hand material – they tore rags. To make them even cheaper, they employed children for the nights. Their lungs lasted three to four months. Then even the strongest one would die. Unemployed families would give up their kids to die in order to avoid starvation for four months. When someone has seen the unbelievable poverty and atrocities of capitalism those days…

Żebrowska: So I have an explanation of “red”. And “heir”?

Fedecki: I was only a kid, when I inherited an estate called Great Lebioda from my grandfather Józef Michniewicz. It was located at the crossing of the roads leading to Lida, Grodno and Szczuczyn. Around 450 ha was occupied by a forest which couldn’t be cut. In 1920 Prażmowski-Belina camped there with the Soviet cavalry and big heads from the HQ decided that the forest was of strategic importance and was to remain intact till the next war. I didn’t grow up to be a “real” heir, I was a few years too young. After the Russian invasion in 1939, the old building was left unattended and unrenovated, so it fell apart after a dozen years or so. It’s a real shame, it was a very beautiful historic building, renovated and shown in many architecture textbooks.  We burned wood in XVIIIth century Dutch stoves, which survived the conflagration of war. And in “my” forest we woud steal wood for my bosom friend’s house, Wałodzi Malec. It was thanks to him that I got to know the exceptional charm of Belarussian folk songs, which charmed Mickiewicz and Czeczot.

Żebrowska: Why atheism in a boy from a good family, gentry?

Fedecki: Maybe you need a gift to believe, and I don’t have it. My grandmother was raised in a convent, but my parents were leftists and “Poprostu”  [“directly” or “straight”] was published in our apartment – the first one, from Wilno. For their activity in POW [Polish Military Organization] and other merits for Polish independence, my parents received Crosses of Valor; on account of the leftist “Poprostu” my father was suspended from work. During the [German] occupation my mom waged her private war against the Gestapo, stealing children from the Wilno’s ghetto who were meant to be put to death with injections. In my bed slept a Jew with a shot in his chest and a woman already drenched in lime during the Jew massacre in Ponary.

Żebrowska: How did you get out of Wilno?

Fedecki: In 1944 Putrament and Jędrychowski flew in, and they needed people for the PKWN [Polish Committee of National Liberation]. Jędrychowski offered me a job in their radio. Meanwhile my friends from AK [Home Army] were in great danger. Wilno was taken by joint AK and Russian military effort, after which the Russians raided the Poles, sending them to a forced labor camp in Kaluga. I went to Putrament and asked if he couldn’t get at least a few AK members to Lublin. “Bring them the day after tomorrow to the airport”. With Janek Mietkowski (later, the president of Radio Three and a minister) we buried his weapon in a flowerbed, gathered the others, and went to the airport. Putrament told the Russian security detail “Eto moia grupa” [This is my group, in Russian], he put us on a Dakota and we landed in Lublin. I was even curious whether our friends wouldn’t run straight to the forest, but it wasn’t proper to ask. It turned out they were sick of both war and forest. Forests were terrible, it is enough to watch Różewicz’s “Into the ground”. They went to university, got civil jobs. Only few of them ended up in the army.

Żebrowska: My father also did that – from the NSZ [National Armed Forces] he escaped from the NKVD to the army. You, however, ended up in diplomacy.

Ziemowit Fedecki (1923-2009)

Ziemowit Fedecki (1923-2009)

Fedecki: Already before the war ended I left for Moscow as a press attaché of the Polish embassy. I was there, watching from the gradinata in front of Kremlin the famous victory parade, when Russian solders would throw German flags in front of the Mausoleum. To prove myself that everything passes I kept my pass for the funeral of the all-mighty ideologist Andrei Zhdanov.

Żebrowska: Who were your friends in Moscow?

Fedecki: Mostly friends from the university, because without telling anyone I enrolled to study biology. I will never meet such amazing people. They came back from the front lines often without legs, without hands, they knew everything about Stalinism, we understood each other in half words. I left the university when they kicked out those professors who disparaged Lysenko’s theories. One of my friends was Alexander Werth, a correspondent for the “Manchester Guardian”, with whom we illegally went to the Republic of Chechnya, which was liquidated after the war. Kilometers of emptiness – empty houses, no living soul. Our guide was a journalist of “Socialist Ossetia”, who knew everyone there. On the face of it, there was no trace of Chechens, but the commandant of the old stronghold complained: “Pigs, those Chechens! They come back secretly to their settlements, especially the elderly. One knows all the paths, covers himself with leafs if he needs to, we can’t trace him. Then he reaches his village and hangs himself, right in plain sight. Later, an inspection issues complaints from the Party, forgets about us in promotions, because we weren’t good guards. How can we watch them, pigs, sons of…!”

Żebrowska: Boris Pasternak’s son, Evgenii till today tells the Poles about how you financed their family.

Fedecki: I was honored to.

Żebrowska: Was in the years of the fights with the cosmopolitans?

Fedecki: Yes, I even joked one day: “Boris Leonidovich, I thought I was done helping Jews after the occupation, but I see there’s plenty of work to be done”… Pasternak had a large family to maintain. It’s difficult to make ends meet making money on poetry, anywhere in the world. Pasternak made some money preparing translations. He even translated from Polish, even though he didn’t know the language, and didn’t understand much from Słowacki’s or Leśmian’s poetics. Jokingly he apologized that he was doing this ” for milk for the children.” When after the war the anti-semite mess began, they stopped printing his work, Shakespeare’s plays in his translation were taken off stage.

Stefan Żółkiewski (1911-1991)

Stefan Żółkiewski (1911-1991)

At that time, Stefan Żółkiewski, the editor of Kuźnica, came to Moscow, a charming man. I told him that Pasternak had no money to live. “We’ll figure out something – said Żółkiewski – I’ll prepare bills for the articles that didn’t go through the censorship.” When I went to Moscow, I took the money. I gave it to him, waited till the 1st of the month and again brought an envelope [with money], saying that another royalty had arrived. This continued for a few good months. I was making quite a lot, so I was giving him half of my salary. That’s probably why he gave me later the manuscript of Doctor Zhivago. When translations returned to the [theater] stages, Pasternak said “I don’t need royalties anymore.” Perhaps he had some idea as to where the money came from, given his dedication on a volume “To Dear Ziemowit as a proof of friendship and to remember the times, when he was the good soul for me and my family.”

Żebrowska: 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].

Seweryn Pollak (1907-1987)

Seweryn Pollak (1907-1987)

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-Grudziński], who wrote that Doctor Zhivago did not appear because of Fedecki’s pettiness, has not heard of censorship in the PRL [Polish People’s Republic], but a few people still remember it.

Żebrowska: I browsed through the first issue of the quarterly Opinie. Apart from Pasternak, there were quite a few authors at that time prohibited in the 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.

Żebrowska: 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 takes place in a second article published in July 24, 1958, in Sovetskaia Kul’tura, titled Trojan 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.

Żebrowska: Kira Gałczyńska wrote that it was you who discovered Mazury and Pranie.

Fedecki: I lived there in the summer, at a friendly forester, Mr Popowski. From Moscow I brought only 100 dollars of savings, the rest of the money I spent for books in second-hand bookshops. For 100 dollars I purchased a SHL (it’s a great motorcycle), and with Janek Mietkowski we went to Mazury. They reminded us of Wileńszczyzna [Wilno’s surroundings], we discovered places very much like our places back in Wileńszczyzna. But for a long time now I haven’t gone to Mazury, where nowadays teams from Zakopane build highlanders’ huts for ladies from the society. I have a small house in Tuchola.

Żebrowska: Jan Gałczyński ended up in the forester’s lodge in Pranie?

Fedecki: Only by accident. I had an appointment with a lady-friend in a café. She didn’t come, it turned out that at that time she was getting married for the second or third time. I waited for her for half an hour, the evening seemed empty, so I dropped by Gałczyński’s place.

Natalia and Konstanty Gałczyński

Natalia and Konstanty Gałczyński

He wasn’t there, and Mrs Natalia [Gałczyński’s wife] complained that she’d like to take Konstanty [Gałczyński’s first name] as far away from holiday pals, she was worried about his heart after the heart attack. I proposed to organize a summer in Mazury for them, where the nearest pub is 13km across the forest. I telegraphed Popowski, he responded quickly – he agreed. Gałczyński came with Ms Natalia, Kira and Jerzy Zagórski’s grandson. We drove them with Popowski on old German motor boats through the, at the time, completely virgin Mazury, from Ruciane to Pranie. Gałczyński had his revelation, it was so beautiful. You can also see how much he wrote in Mazury. And the ways we had fun in Pranie: during dinner he was the governor, I was the special task official, and we changed roles on the following day. We wrote together an anthem for USSR  according to Saltykov-Shchedrin, but alas, I only remember the last line: “Remember, citizens, don’t think!” [in Russian]. As a talented man, Gałczyński was not even a bit jealous about other poets. He was happy when someone wrote something good.

Żebrowska: What does friendship with a great poet look like, do you have to praise him?

Fedecki: Both Gałczyński, and Pasternak, when we were in closer relationships, asked for honest remarks about their work. I had to vow that I would tell what I really thought. Gałczyński gave me his “Wit Stwosz” to read. I adore Gałczyński, but I think “Wit Stwosz” is rather average. As a result result, he didn’t talk to me for over a month. 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 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!”

Żebrowska: Everyone loves criticism in superlatives.

Fedecki: In this respect Iwaszkiewicz was an extraordinary person. Twice I didn’t print his poems from “Twórczość” [Creativity], where he was editor-in-chief and my boss, not to mention that he was the president of the Writers’ association. After Gagarin died, he wrote the poem “To Gagarin’s daughters.” I told him, that it’s a greater loss when a drunk motorcycle driver hits and kills Ms Kowalska standing at a bus stop. Her daughters don’t even get any compensation. For Gagarin it was an occupational risk. He only asked “Really, is it so bad? Throw it out, then.”

Żebrowska: How do you look at “Doctor Zhivago” these days?

Fedecki:The same. If a writer wants to focus on revolution, he needs to get to know it up close, like Babel. Pasternak spent his most stormy years keeping a warm job. He knew all European languages, and since all the NSZ [National Armed Forces] officials ran after the revolution, he translated diplomatic correspondence. And that’s very good, because he received barley, pork fat, his family didn’t starve.  For a novel, however, he didn’t have enough material. Apart from that, he accepted the pointless theory, that one has to write like Lev Tolstoi. “Isn’t it enough that you write like Pasternak?” I asked. Doctor Zhivago did not become a point of reference in the history of literature. Babel’s Red Cavalry is something different, or Zoshchenko’s stories – without them, our picture of Russia would be incomplete.

Żebrowska: 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.

Jerzy Pomianowski

Jerzy Pomianowski

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.

Żebrowska: Were the poems in which Pasternak glorified the USSR written sincerely?

Fedecki: Half-half, I think. In the USSR  their system of values was out of balance, at the border of split personality. In the poem “Visokaya bolezn” Pasternak gave a real picture of Russia bathed in blood, and three pages further he was writing a pean to honour Lenin… I love early Pasternak, but his volume “Vtoroe Rozhdenie” [Second Birth] – how he felt like newly born after the revolution – is a failure. Or take a look at this statement: ” The soul is leaving the West, She has nothing to do there “. It is funny when Rilke’s friend and constant correspondent calls the West soulless!

Żebrowska: Apart from Pasternak you promoted in Poland also the work of the Oberiuts [Absurdists], Okudzhava, and Trifonov. Did any of these publications cause a storm like Doctor Zhivago?

Fedecki: There was a hell of an argument after Okudzhava’s  “You will live”. The ZLP [Association of Polish Writers] received a series of denunciations, Iwaszkiewicz every few days would say, “Come, dear Ziemek, we have a new denunciation thingy for you”. In USSR the story appeared in the provincial “Tarusskie Stranicy”, and most of the circulation was destroyed, Okudzhava was blamed for pacifism and other sins.  And we published it boldly, in a separate issue. Thanks to the Polish edition Bulat [Okudzhava] became known internationally. I convinced a German translator to prepare a translation, he didn’t know Russian very well, I helped him. In German Okudzhava was read and translated into Swedish, French. Trifonov went to France and also through Poland.

Żebrowska: Russian fates…

Fedecki: I’ll tell you a different story from our battle with cosmopolitism. Molotov’s wife was arrested, Mikhoels was murdered, the Jewish Theater was disbanded, the leader of the Jewish Anti-Fascist movement Solomon Lozovsky was executed… And then Literaturnaia Gazeta publishes a regime critic saying that idealism is the weapon of world capitalism, and Pasternak is an idealist. You can guess the rest of the reasoning. In the evening, without any appointment, Pasternak’s friends met at his place. I went there too. Pasternak was dressed elegantly, English style. Wine was served in green glasses, no one mentioned the article. At midnight we heard knocking on the door, which might have meant arrest, everyone froze. Pasternak straightened his jacket and opened the door.  The author of the article opened the door and kneeled, weeping “Forgive me Boria!” Pasternak did not accept the apologies, he only said with disdain, “Better have some wine,” everyone returned to the previous conversation. The critic mooched around for a bit and left silently.

Żebrowska: Real Dostoevsky material.

Fedecki: The critic was an ultrasonofabitch and at the same time he adored tied words. He had a priceless collection of XXth century Russian poetry, our common friend secretly copied some unavailable poems from it for me. He collected books with authors’ signatures, he loved Pasternak, but whenever the powers that be wished so, he could publicly accuse anyone of anything. During the critic’s funeral, when the casket entered the furnace, one of the attendees said: “It smells of fried dastard”.

Żebrowska: Are you happy about reality nowadays?

Fedecki: Not so much, I was raised in the spirit of tolerance, which I think died in Poland. In our village for holidays, the guests usually were: my uncle, colonel doctor Krzywiec, fanatically anti-Soviet and well noted in Rome, strongly communistic Henryk Dembiński and atheistic youth from “Poprostu”, priests Śledziewski (specialist in Wilno’s baroque) and Marcinkowski (Polish studies), music teacher Załkind, Jew, and Jasienica’s cousins – Gienia and Zosia Tatarkówna. The meeting was patronized by my grandmother, who grew up in a convent. Such different people sat at the same table and I remember no issue, no disrespect. Back then people thought that if a person is decent, that’s enough.