“The Writer and the Valet”: On the recent exchange in the LRB between F. Stonor Saunders and H. Hardy

The September 25 issue of The London Review of Books (volume 36, No 18) has a long and interesting article by Frances Stonor Saunders – author of a book on the cultural policies of the CIA during the Cold War, mentioned in my previous post – on Isaiah Berlin’s role in the Zhivago saga.

Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin

Henry Hardy, editor of many of Berlin’s books and essays and of a large selection of his correspondence, has criticized the article for a number of inaccuracies and for not indicating the sources of many citations. In her reply Stonor Saunders counters some of the charges and accuses Hardy of being confused about scholarly standards. For the original article and the exchange (volume 36, No 21, 6 November 2014) click here. The exchange raises a number of important issues and for a while I intended to contribute a letter to the LRB myself. But the letter grew in length and I realized there was no chance it could be published without drastic cuts. As a result, I did not submit it to the Editors, and I post it here instead.


Dear Editors,

I read with interest Frances Stonor Saunders’ article (25 September, LRB) and the subsequent exchange with Henry Hardy (6 November, LRB) . This exchange raises factual issues that are related to topics treated in my book (which was mentioned in both the original article and in the following discussion) and that can, at least in part, be addressed with the help of the documents at our disposal. Hence, I would like to contribute the following.

Given the dialectic of the debate between Stonor Saunders and Hardy, it is almost inevitable that my comments are focused on Stonor Saunders’ claims. Hardy reproaches Stonor Saunders for inaccuracy but I should like to emphasize, to begin with, two major theses that emerge from her contributions. The first is a generalized criticism of those who have discussed Berlin’s role in the Zhivago story: “In all of these thousands of pages devoted to the Zhivago affair, Berlin’s testimony is reprised without question.” The second emerges more clearly from her reply to Hardy, where, with respect to all the events surrounding the Zhivago affair, she refers to the “impossibility of drawing any safe conclusions as to what exactly happened”.

Stonor Saunders pictures Berlin as meddlesome and secretive, and motivated by the sheer desire “to be at the centre of an intrigue.” I will not pass judgment on Berlin’s motivations, but I do welcome a fresh look at the historical record. However, I should like to point out that the credibility of a renewed look at the evidence depends on the strength of the evidence provided. If the alleged ‘evidence’ rests on a misinterpretation of the documents, this will take the wind out of the sails of the revisionist reading. And this is what happens with one of the central considerations offered by Stonor Saunders for her claim about Berlin’s role in the affair. I am referring to the (alleged) evidence she cites from a reply by Martin Malia, dated 26 November 1956, to a now lost letter by Berlin. The lost letter to Berlin was itself a reply to a letter from Malia, dated April 1956, in which Malia informed Berlin that Pasternak was considering sending out a copy of Doctor Zhivago with some unnamed French students (they were Martinez, Aucouturier and Allain: see Tolstoy 2009 and Malia and Engerman 2005).

Martin Edward Malia (1924-2004)

Martin Edward Malia (1924-2004)

According to Stonor Saunders: “Berlin’s reply is not in the file, but a later letter from Malia contains its echo: Berlin wanted more exact details, in particular to know how he might make contact with the French students.” However, when one reads the letter from Malia it becomes obvious that what Berlin is inquiring about is not the French students (and their contacts in the French Embassy) but rather how to make contact with Soviet students. Malia writes: “Also my way of making contact with students would not have been of any help to you since it was largely through several normaliens at the University of Moscow, who had left by the time you wrote. The other contacts were all chance contacts for which there is no formula” (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Berlin 149, fols 166-7). This reply would make no sense if Berlin had enquired about the French students. It is obvious that Berlin was interested in making contact with Soviet students, rather than with the French students, and that is quite a legitimate wish given that he was planning to obtain first-hand reports from his visit on life in the USSR.

A different issue concerns the dating of the preparation of documents by Ivan Serov, head of the KGB, and by Shepilov. Hardy points out that the documents are dated August 24 and August 31, respectively, and thus after Pasternak’s conversation with Berlin, which took place on August 18. In her rejoinder, Stonor Saunders shifts the attention from the date of the documents to when they were prepared. She claims that the documents were weeks in preparation and she confidently asserts that the KGB informer “was most likely” a colleague of Sergio d’Angelo’s at Radio Moscow (his name was Vladlen Vladimirsky). In my book I said that it would be “ill advised” to venture conjectures as to who the informer was (and I explain why). For instance, Sergio d’Angelo’s conjecture is that it was the two Italian PCI officials, Robotti and Secchia, who informed the KGB. In short, we do not have precise knowledge of exactly when or by whom the KGB was informed. However, if the matter was thought by Serov to be so serious as to inform the Central Committee of the CPSU, it is hard to believe that he sat for weeks on this information. As for Shepilov’s memo (dated August 31, 1956), this was obviously written after the KGB memo, and a one-page memo does not take weeks to write (the accompanying enclosure by Polikarpov obviously derives from the review that had just been completed by the editorial board of Novy mir, and thus its being enclosed with Shepilov’s memo is neither here nor there as evidence for when the KGB was informed). I know very well the books And the Clamour of the Chase behind Me: Boris Pasternak and the Authorities, Documents of 1956–1972 (2001) and Ivan Tolstoy’s book Pasternak’s Laundered Novel: “Doctor Zhivago” between the KGB and the CIA (2009), to which Stonor Saunders directs Hardy. Regrettably, neither of the two books has anything decisive to say about the issue under discussion. Tolstoy’s allegation that it was Vladimirsky (whom he calls Vladimirov) who informed the KGB is not corroborated by any evidence. Moreover, had Vladimirsky been the informer, it would be surprising if it had taken the KGB from May 20 (the day of the visit of d’Angelo and Vladimirsky to Pasternak)  to August 24 (i.e. more than 3 months!) to report on it officially to the Central Committee of the CPSU. Perhaps the KGB was not a model of efficiency, but it was certainly more efficient than that. Thus, if one cannot categorically exclude that the KGB was ‘”noting” events before the conversation between Pasternak and Berlin, we also have no positive evidence that warrants Stonor Saunders’ assertion that this was in fact the case.

The case of the Ripellino quote is similar. Stonor Saunders unqualifiedly cites as Pasternak’s own words the following phrase: “to suffer as all true Russian poets have always suffered” (indeed, citing it out of context). Hardy objects that one cannot take these words, found in a letter from Ripellino to Calvino, as necessarily Pasternak’s own. Stonor Saunders retorts that Hardy is applying double standards: why is it fine to attribute to Pasternak a phrase when Berlin cites it and not when Ripellino cites it? (“If we can’t assume they were his own words, as reported by Ripellino, then how can we assume they were his own words when reported by anyone else – Isaiah Berlin, say?”) It seems to me that there is a difference in this case. In his “Meetings with Russian Writers in 1945 and 1946” and related articles Berlin is admittedly reporting conversations with Pasternak and thus, unless there are good grounds to question the faithfulness of what Berlin is reporting, we can safely attribute the reported words, or something like them, to Pasternak. But the context of the Ripellino letter is much more treacherous. First of all, the version of the letter we all worked with is the one I translated from Mangoni’s book Pensare i Libri (Einaudi 1999). Mangoni does not give the full passage and thus the citation in her book (and accordingly in my translation) is truncated after the words “to suffer as all true Russian poets have always suffered”.

Angelo Maria Ripellino (1923-1978)

Angelo Maria Ripellino (1923-1978)

Under the circumstances I would consider it imprudent to go on and attribute those words to Pasternak. For instance, how could we exclude the possibility that Ripellino might have gone on to say: “These words by Tyutchev capture Pasternak’s mood”?

As a consequence of the exchange between Hardy and Stonor Saunders I thought that having the full passage might help. Through a kind colleague in Italy, Chiara Benetollo, I was able to obtain the full context:

“E ora ai problemi editoriali. La storia del romanzo di Pasternak non è, come sai, di oggi. Pasternak cedette il testo a un certo D’Angelo prima degli avvenimenti ungheresi. Pareva allora che dovesse uscire anche in Russia. È ormai molto tempo che Feltrinelli giuoca con questo manoscritto. I polacchi lo avevano avuto direttamente da Pasternak, ma, nonostante la loro posizione polemica verso i Russi, avevano preferito non pubblicarlo, per non danneggiare l’autore. Ora le cose stanno così: la famiglia di P teme gravi conseguenze e preferirebbe che non uscisse, il poeta vacilla tra le preoccupazioni del dopo e il piacere di “soffrire come tutti i veri poeti russi hanno sempre sofferto”. I giovani che cercano nuove strade e lottano contro il conformismo temono ora per Pasternak e per la loro stessa battaglia. Si dirà: avete scelto a vostra insegna Pasternak, e Pasternak fa uscire in Occidente, proprio in coincidenza del 40° di ottobre, un romanzo “calunniatore”. Del resto, che cosa possiamo fare? L’editore s’è intestardito di farlo, dopo tutti i consigli, gli interventi, i telegrammi sovietici. Pasternak s’è pentito di non aver dato a me il ms, ma nello stesso tempo pensa che potrebbe derivargliene un’aureola di vittima. Insomma, per riassumere, è nella posizione di chi vuole e non vuole, incerto fra la gloria letteraria e le conseguenze politiche. Noi dovremmo, mi sembra, in questa occasione, rilanciare un po’ fragorosamente (non per me, intendimi, ma per la casa) il mio libro, insistendo magari sul fatto che il meglio di lui è pur sempre nella poesia”. (Cited in Benetollo 2014, pp. 79-80; original at Archivio di Stato, Torino, Fondo Einaudi, Incartamento Ripellino)

Unfortunately, the passage following “to suffer as all true Russian poets have always suffered” sheds no further light on the origin of the citation. What’s the outcome of all of this? It could be that the passage refers to something Pasternak said to Ripellino in Peredelkino (Ripellino had visited him in September 1957) but it could also be a citation from someone else. To repeat, the difference between this letter by Ripellino and the ordinary reports (such as those of Berlin) is that the ordinary reports are explicit about being a rendition of a conversation that took place. Here Ripellino does not say that. Thus, Stonor Saunders would be right in claiming that we cannot exclude the possibility that this is a quote from Pasternak, but she does not have sufficient grounds to make a firm attribution.

In her rejoinder, Stonor Saunders now grants that it was not a requirement for the Nobel Prize that the novel be available in the original Russian. I am glad she accepts this conclusion, which is the result of serious historical work in the Swedish archives by, among others, Fleishman, Jangfeldt and Tolstoy. I my book I point out that none of the actors involved in the Zhivago story ever claimed that one should speed up publication of the Russian text on account of some such requirement by the Nobel Prize Committee. The recently declassified CIA documents, as pointed out by Hardy, confirm this conclusion. Both my book and the book by Finn and Couvée explicitly report on the current state of historical scholarship on this issue. I thus wonder why (given that her article is, in some way, a review of these two new books), Stonor Saunders rehearses the old story about the (alleged) requirement by the Nobel Prize Committee without warning the readers that the most up-to-date historical research has debunked it. Just saying, as she does in her reply to Hardy, that up to Pasternak’s Nobel Prize the issue had never come up (“there was no exception to the formula”) is irrelevant to establishing whether people’s actions at the time were motivated by that assumption.

There is much of interest in Stonor Saunders’ original article and in the debate with Henry Hardy. Indeed, much more could be said about the issues they discuss, but I don’t want to tax the reader’s patience and I shall now conclude. It is true that much remains obscure in the Zhivago story but I think it wrong to jump, as Stonor Saunder does, to a conclusion about “the impossibility of drawing any safe conclusions as to what exactly happened”. What is required is careful scholarship and the rigorous elimination of old and new myths, even in matters of small detail. Here is an example. In her review Stonor Saunders says: “One is that the ‘first’ smuggled typescript – 433 closely typed pages held together by twine and wrapped in newspaper – was in the hands of Feltrinelli in Italy.” 433 pages? Where does that come from? Well, it comes from the new book by Finn and Couvée: “The manuscript was 433 closely typed pages divided into five parts.” And where does that come from? In their book Finn and Couvée thank Carlo Feltrinelli for having shown them the original typescript in Milan. Although I can’t be sure, here is a plausible hypothesis as to what happened. Finn and Couvée quickly looked at the last page and saw it was numbered 433. But that is only the last page of the fourth and fifth book (the fourth book starts at page 1). To that one must add 65 pages for part III, 109 pages for part II, and 177 for part I, all independently numbered. Total: 784 pages plus some unnumbered pages. This is only a small example of how false information starts going around. Of course, I do not object to the justified use Stonor Saunders made of this, as it turns out mistaken, piece of information. Rather, the general point is that a lowering of the standards of rigor immediately reverberates across the body of scholarship. And yet, this does not make me pessimistic about getting closer to “what exactly happened” and the reason why I oppose Stonor Saunders’ conclusion is that with proper care and scholarly work we can make progress in our understanding of the facts. The archival work of the last twenty years is the best proof of this.



Benetollo, C., Un’ipotesi di letteratura. La casa editrice Einaudi e la letteratura russa sovietica dal dopoguerra agli anni Settanta, Tesi di laurea, Università di Pisa, Dipartimento di Filologia Letteratura e Linguistica, 2014.

Malia, M. E., and Engerman, D., Martin Edward Malia. Historian of Russian and European Intellectual History. An interview conducted by David Engerman in 2003. Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 241 pages. 2005. Available on line here.