Doctor Zhivago in Poland (part III)

Zhivago in Poland (Part III)

We have seen in a previous post that the attempt to publish Zhivago in Poland in 1957 was successfully blocked by the Soviet authorities. One will have to wait until 1983 for a publication of the book inside Poland. But the 1983 publication is the outcome of a Polish edition that came out in Paris in 1959. Let us see in more detail how all these publications came about.

We have some details about how the 1959 edition came about through a letter written by Sergio d’Angelo to Giangiacomo Feltrinelli dated November 3, 1958:

 “I take advantage of the opportunity to convey a question that has been raised with a certain urgency. Mr. Gustav Herling, Polish by birth and writer, the husband of a daughter of Benedetto Croce, came to see me today to enquire whether you would be willing to grant to the publisher “Kultura”, located in Paris, the rights for the publication in the Polish language of Doctor Zhivago.

            The publishing house “Kultura”, according to what Mr Herling told me, was founded in 1948 by a group of leftist (mostly Socialist) Polish émigrés and survives without external support. The publishing house maintains very intense contacts with Polish culture. They publish a journal (with the same name) that circulates rather freely in Poland where it is the target of constant mention and criticism on the part of the official press.

            Having learned that the idea of publishing Doctor Zhivago in Poland has been decidedly abandoned as a consequence of the attitude taken by the Soviet authorities on the Pasternak case, the publishing house “Kultura” deems it appropriate to take charge of the project by publishing two or three thousand copies of the novel that would be distributed to Poles leaving abroad and to those that live in Poland but have occasion to travel to Paris.

Gustaw Herling (1919-2000)

Gustaw Herling (1919-2000)

            According to Mr. Herling, it would be easy to send to Poland one thousand copies, where the Pasternak case has made, as is well known, an enormous impression. (He also told me that poems and pictures of Pasternak have invaded the display windows of the Warsaw bookstores on the day following the announcement of the Prize)

            Of course I told Mr. Herling that I could only convey his proposal and considerations to you. And since I have been asked to ask you for a reply I brought up the issue now as I don’t know when you will be back in Milan.

            In case you will favorably receive Mr. Herling’s request, he would also ask you for the most favorable financial conditions, for the publisher “Kultura” seeks no financial gain from this project since they plan to distribute the majority of copies free of charge.

            Should you want to get in touch with Mr. Herling, let me inform you that he lives in Naples, via Crispi 69.” (Original letter in Italian in Archivio Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Editore, Milan)

Gustaw Herling (1919-2000) had already gained international visibility as the author of A world Apart: The Journal of a Gulag Survivor (1951) which had been published with a preface by Bertrand Russell. He was married to Lidia Croce.

Doktor Żiwago 1959

Doktor Żiwago 1959

Feltrinelli gave the permission and the Polish Zhivago was published in 1959 in Paris under the aegis of the Instytut Literacki (volume 44 of the publisher “Kultura”) and printed by Édition et Librairie “Libella” in 2500 copies. The translator was Paweł Hostowiec (aka Jerzy Stempowski).

The edition carries the Feltrinelli copyright and the accompanying editorial remark says: “We thank all those who helped publish ‘Doctor Zhivago’ in Polish, in particular Mr. Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Milan-based publisher who transferred to us without charge the copyright for the Polish edition, the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Paris that paid for the translation, Mr. Charles E. Merrill, Jr. of Boston (USA) for financial assistance, and all those who bought the subscription, in total 2500 copies, of the book” (original in Polish).

As it became clear much later, the Congress for Cultural Freedom was funded by the CIA (see Stonor Saunders 2000) and thus there is something amusing in this joint partnership of Feltrinelli with a CIA funded organization.

Title page of the Polish 1959 edition

Title page of the Polish 1959 edition

As it is clear from the conversation that Herling had with d’Angelo, part of the plan was to bring Zhivago back to Poland using visits to Paris of residents in Poland. How successfully was the attempt? An answer to this question requires a much broader analysis of two factors. The first concerns the changing levels of censorship and customs controls between 1959 and the early 1980s and, secondly, one must consider the importing of Zhivago into Poland as only one instance of a gigantic program that went under the name of “book distribution program”. The latter program, run by George Minden, was one of the most successful CIA run operations of the Cold War. Fortunately, we now have a wonderful treatment of the matter in the book by Alfred Reisch “Hot Books in the Cold War. The CIA-funded secret western book distribution program behind the iron curtain” (Reisch 2013). Using the reports written by George Minden between 1956 (year of the inception of the program) till 1973 (the reports from 1973 until 1991, the year of the dismantlement of the program, have not been located), Reisch provides a detailed analysis of the kind of books that were sent to Eastern Europe with a country by country analysis (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania).

Reisch says: “In the secret and also not so secret ideological and cultural warfare between East and West during the cold War, it is estimated that during a period of 35 years, some 10 million books were mailed and smuggled across the Iron Curtain, despite the futile attempts of the communist postal censors and customs inspectors to stem the flow” (Reisch 2013, p. 305)

Title page of the 1967 edition

Title page of the 1967 edition

In many cases the books were not blocked by the censors but did not arrive to the addressee because they were simply pilfered at the post office and resold at high prices in the black market.

In addition to the mail program, there was also the person to person distribution program, which exploited the presence of visitors from Eastern Europe to Western Europe for conferences or other events to hand out free copies of books that were then brought back to their countries. Sailors, sportsmen, students, clergymen, (and in one case even a zoo director, see Reisch, p. 236), and all other kinds of visitors were given free copies to bring back home. In 1958 “a visiting horse-jumping team [visiting Italy from Poland] with their own rail-trucks with horses took over 70 books and hid most of them in the hay” (Reisch, p. 240). The Seventh World Youth festival held in Vienna from July 26 till August 4, 1959, provided a wonderful opportunity for the person to person distribution program (it is estimated that in 10 days the total number of copies distributed to Polish delegates exceeded 5000 copies, see Reisch, pp. 241-242). The event was a communist-organized propaganda event that was exploited by the book distribution program to its advantage.

Immensely valuable are also the letters, extracts of which are given in Reisch’s book, that many of the recipients of the free books sent often providing important information about the censorship operating within their country (both in the mail distribution centers and at the boarder) and their reaction to the books they received.

One of the two covers of the 1983 edition

One of the two covers of the 1983 edition

Doctor Zhivago figures as one of the most requested books in Poland and other Eastern European Countries (“Dr. Zhivago was one of the most coveted books among East European readers” (Reisch 2013, p. 35)). Even a leading member of the Sejam (Polish parliament) asked distributors abroad for a copy of Doctor Zhivago! (see Reisch, p. 97, note 14). While copies in French and English had to be smuggled to the remaining Eastern European Countries, as of 1959 in Poland one could send the version in Polish produced in Paris.

Poles were at times stopped at customs and their copies of Zhivago were confiscated by the customs officers. There is for instance a letter from Jan Nowak to Jerzy Giedroyc dated 17 July 1961 in which Nowak informs Giedroyc (long standing chief editor of “Kultura”) that Polish visitors returning from Paris to Poland were stopped at customs and that copies of the journal Kultura and Doctor Zhivago have been confiscated. Then Nowak added that someone else who came back to Poland a few days earlier said that it was becoming more and more difficult to bring a copy inside the country. (see Platt 2001, p. 253) The letter bears witness to how the publication abroad was being smuggled into Poland and to the different levels of censorship that affected Poland in the period between the 1950s and the 1980s. I refer to Reisch’s book for more details.

Here is a reaction of a recipient from Warsaw who had successfully received by mail Doctor Zhivago:

“Your priceless publications [Doctor Zhivago and Song of Bernardette] will serve not only me but a large group of friends as well […] and will be treated as sensation! Your gift means so much to me, because I know now about your existence, about your willingness to help a lonely Polish scholar, about your understanding of our needs and desires […].” (Quoted in Reisch 2013, pp. 251-252; the original monthly report by Minden is dated May 9, 1959)

Title page of the 1983 edition

Title page of the 1983 edition

In a different letter to Nowak dated 17 February 1966 (Platt 2001, p. 281) Giedroyc says that he recently received the stenographic record of the meeting of the Moscow Writers’ Association which expelled Pasternak. He proposed preparing a radio broadcast about this. The translation of these transcripts into Polish was the main novelty of the second edition of the Polish Zhivago that was published in Paris in 1967. The title page gave the title Doktor Ziwago and added: “and a stenographic record of the general meeting of the Moscow writers from 31.X.1958 related to the case of B. Pasternak”. My 1967 copy however, despite the title page, does not contain the announced stenographic record. The colophon of my copy indicates that I have a second printing “Réimprimé en Belgique”. It is possible that the first printing done in Paris on April 28, 1967 (Imprimerie Richard) might have contained the stenographic record. If the first printing done in Paris in 1967 contains this stenographic record it should be found exactly on pages 501-542, which, to repeat, are not in the second printing. [[Added February 21, 2016: I was able to find the first printing of the 1967 edition, which does indeed have the stenographic record on pp. 501-542]]

Regardless, the stenographic record was included in the Polish edition that came out in 1983 in the midst of the new political atmosphere in Poland. The edition came out under two different formats. Both formats contain a four page introduction (Introduction to the national edition) by Andrzej Drawicz and the transcription of the stenographic record appears on pp. 501-542.

Andrzej Drawicz

Andrzej Drawicz

Apart from these differences and the covers, the translation and the page setting of this 1983 edition are like the one for the edition published by Kultura in 1967 although the format is smaller in size.


Platt, D., ed., Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, Jerzy Giedroyc, Listy 1952-1998, Towarzystwo Przyjaciół Ossolineum, Wrokław, 2001

Reisch, A., Hot Books in the Cold War. The CIA-funded secret western book distribution program behind the iron curtain, The Central European University Press, Budapest, 2013

Stonor Saunders, F., The Cultural Cold War. The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters, The New Press, New York, 2000

[Added on February 13, 2016]: Of great interest in connection to the topic of this post is also an article that was recently brought to my attention by Dr. Jan Dierick, whose helpfulness is gratefully acknowledged. The reference is: Zdzislaw Kudelski “Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, Jerzy Giedroyc, Listy o Pasternaku, podał do druku i oprac. Z. Kudelski, „Zeszyty Literackie”, 2011, nr 116, pp. 159-173”. The Russian translation (“Nowaja Polsza” 2011, nr 9 (133), pp. 8-18.) of this publication is available on the Novaya Pol’sha-website (click here). The article contains passages on Pasternak and Doctor Zhivago excerpted from the correspondence exchanged between Giedroyc and Herling-Grudziński between 1957 and 1959. Among the topics discussed are the Polish translation of Doctor Zhivago, Fedecki and Ripellino’s negative evaluation of Doctor Zhivago, and the contacts with the Feltrinelli publishing house through d’Angelo.