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Published: Thu Jul 1 2004
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Products of a reading of an English translation of Doctor Zhivago’s Italian publisher

After I had drafted the essay “Moscow to the End of the Line”, a Russian literature scholar, Brian Baer, called my attention to an English translation of a biography of Doctor Zhivago’s Italian publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (Feltrinelli: A Story of Riches, Revolution, and Violent Death, translated by Alastair McEwan, Harcourt, 2002). The biography was written by Carlo Feltrinelli, who is the late publisher’s son and has been running the publishing company his father had founded. The passages regarding the publication of Doctor Zhivago are a defense of his father’s and the company’s behavior, and also part of the biography’s emotional objective of wrestling with a question that has troubled many a son: Was my father a good person? Therefore the information provided in the biography and the interpretations this information is brought in to advance might be considered more suspect than, say, the view of the Russian professor recalled at the beginning of the essay.

Nonetheless, herewith a few observations and bits of “information” which readers intrigued by the Zhivago story may find of interest:

• There appears to have been not one telegram, but many telegrams and letters exchanged by Pasternak and Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, as well as at least one letter from Feltrinelli to Goslitizdat, a Soviet government-run publishing agency. Pasternak and his mistress Olga Ivinskaya also had many conversations with people either directly representing Feltrinelli or in touch with him. Pasternak’s written messages appear to have been contradictory, some urging publication and others requesting that it be delayed until the book had come out in the Soviet Union or until he had time to make further revisions.

• The Feltrinelli line is that the anti-publication messages were coerced, and thus that in going ahead with publishing the original text—ignoring any negative messages as well as the lobbying of members of the Italian Communist Party and others—Giangiacomo abided by Pasternak’s true wishes. This position is backed up by quotes from various apparent communications, including these words and exclamation points from a previously unpublished November 1957 letter from Pasternak to Feltrinelli:

Dear Sir, I can find no words with which to express my gratitude. The future will reward us, you and me, for the vile humiliations we have suffered. Oh, how happy I am that [you have not] been fooled by those idiotic and brutal appeals accompanied by my signature (!), a signature all but false and counterfeit, insofar as it was extorted from me by a blend of fraud and violence. The unheard-of arrogance to wax indignant over the “violence” employed by you against my “literary freedom”, when exactly the same violence was being used against me, covertly. And that this vandalism should be disguised as concern for me, for the sacred rights of the artist! But we shall soon have an Italian Zhivago, French, English and German Zhivagos—and one day perhaps a geographically distant but Russian Zhivago! And this is a great deal, a very great deal, so let’s do our best, and what will be will be!

• Of course Carlo may have stressed the volume and contradictoriness of the exchanges, including quoting at length from possibly self-serving translations of (possibly fabricated?) telegrams and letters, in order to downplay the significance of what Carlo refers to as the “extorted telegram” of late summer 1957. In this telegram Pasternak asks that the manuscript in Feltrinelli’s possession—the one Giangiacomo went ahead and published—be returned, saying that it was a “preliminary draft requiring thorough revision.” This telegram was followed up by a stronger communication from Pasternak, dated late October, just weeks before the book hit the stands in Italy and the letter above was written. In this communication, Pasternak wrote:

Your failure to reply [to the previous telegram] makes me think that, in spurning the direct instructions of the author and in spite of his clear and express wishes, you have nonetheless decided to publish the novel. . . .

Decency demands that the author’s wishes be respected.

Neither I nor any other writer from my country could allow his manuscript to be published against his will. This would be a clearcut and crass infringement of the rights an artist has over his work, a violation of his will and the freedom of that which flows from his pen.

• As his father before him seems to have, Carlo relies greatly on the idea that when the relationship with Pasternak was beginning, Giangiacomo had proposed that only messages—or at least only messages from Pasternak—that were written in French would be considered valid. Thus, for instance, knowing this, Olga—confident or hoping that Feltrinelli would ignore messages in Italian or Russian—might have allowed Soviet authorities to pressure Pasternak into sending Feltrinelli negative messages in such languages. (Carlo suggests but does not say explicitly that the “extorted telegram“ was in Russian.)

• Encouraging the idea that the publication in the West of Doctor Zhivago was in fact a plot of high-ranking Soviet officials, Carlo quotes from a letter from his father to a German scholar—“the whole affair was advised to me by the Soviet Union itself”, and from a 1961 letter from Olga to Khrushchev, “it was the Central Committee [of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] that…put us [her and Pasternak] in touch with D’Angelo”. (Sergio D’Angelo was an Italian communist bookstore manager who had come to Moscow to work on an Italo-Soviet radio program. He made the first contact with Pasternak, recommended Zhivago to Feltrinelli and acted as the principal go-between. After the book was published, D’Angelo’s good offices or cunning apparently led Pasternak to write to Feltrinelli asking that D’Angelo be paid well from out of Pasternak’s royalties. After Pasternak’s death D’Angelo sued the publishing company, unsuccessfully, claiming that in fact Pasternak had granted him half of all the royalties.)

• In general Carlo Feltrinelli’s account supports the view that history large and small is made by the wealth, status and security seeking of self-involved individuals. And thus a reader of the biography may find herself decreasingly impressed by the once-much-ballyhooed international political significance of the publication of Zhivago and by the efforts of those involved to wrap themselves in grand political and artistic causes.

• Although Pasternak and Feltrinelli used carefully picked couriers to convey their messages to one another, according to Carlo the Soviet Committee on State Security (the KGB) and the Central Committee had news even of the very first exchanges. Carlo encourages the suspicion that the informer was either D’Angelo or, as Pasternak’s family apparently thought, Olga Ivinskaya. In this regard it should be noted that the person who suffered physically as a result of the affair was Olga (that is, she was imprisoned), and that if the goals were to get Pasternak’s novel widely distributed and acclaimed, to earn various people money and Pasternak honors as well, while keeping Pasternak himself out of prison—these goals were rather well achieved, and perhaps thanks in part to some cunning “informing”.

• Some insight into Pasternak’s role or reputation might be gained from a KGB memo that Carlo cites, in which it is said that from 1946 to 1948 Pasternak had been working through contacts in the British Embassy in Moscow and his sister in London to create “for himself an aura of the ‘great poet-martyr’ unable to adapt to the reality of Soviet life”.

• It should also be pointed out that by distributing Zhivago Pasternak does not seem to have been fouling his own trough to the extent that some members of the Soviet nomenklatura claimed at the time. While, as the KGB memo also suggests, Zhivago does romanticize individualism and estrangement from Soviet life, it—or particularly David Lean’s later film version—also romanticizes Russia and the Soviet Revolution. If Zhivago on a deeper level—perhaps for this romanticism above all—remains a “blow against the revolution”, it seems hardly “a ferocious libel against the USSR” (a claim of the then Soviet Foreign Minister). In the midst of the uproar Giangiacomo wrote a letter to Goslitizdat in which, while alluding to the well-known fact that he was a member of and chief source of funds for the Italian Communist Party, he proposed:

For the Western public, the fact that this is a voice of a man alien to all political activity is a guarantee of the sincerity of his discourse, thus making him worthy of trust. Our readers cannot fail to appreciate this magnificent panorama of events from the history of the Russian people, which transcends all ideological dogmatism, nor will they overlook its importance or the positive outlook deriving from it. The conviction will thus grow that the path taken by your people has been for them a progressive one, that the history of capitalism is coming to an end, and that a new era has begun.

• Giangiacomo has been accused of trying to heighten the sense of controversy and of the political opposition to the publication of Doctor Zhivago—either to drum up interest in the book in advance of its publication or because he loved publicity and scandal. (The prototypical rich European communist, Feltrinelli—heir to one of the greatest capitalist fortunes of Europe—enjoyed hobnobbing with Fidel Castro and also expensive yachts, estates and sports cars. He died by accident or was murdered while trying to plant a bomb in a electricity tower outside of Milan.) However, it may well be that the publication of Doctor Zhivago was so contested and confused because of the dramatic and uncertain transitions then going on: the coming to power of Khrushchev and the concomitant capital punishment of the chief of the secret police, Lavrenti Beria, and the 1956 Hungarian uprising and its repression by the Soviet Army. This was one of the most uncertain and rapidly evolving periods in Soviet history, and it led not only to basic changes in Soviet policies and in the most visible leaders of the government, but also to changes in the status, influence and policies of many members of the nomenklatura. It was specific members of this class—the leader of the Union of Soviet Writers most prominently—who publicly denounced the novel and who lobbied to get Pasternak to revise the original text and to try to stop the original from being published in the West, and it was specific other members of this class—a certain cultural specialist on the Central Committee in particular—who more privately lobbied and schemed in the original draft’s favor. Khrushchev later admitted that he had never read the book, and I suspect that Feltrinelli at best read a few pages and a paid reader’s synopsis. (Carlo describes his father arranging to pick up the manuscript at a Berlin nightclub, dancing with two blondes there, and sending the manuscript off to an Italian scholar for an evaluation.)

• It seems that while the Soviet Union existed Russian writers enjoyed no copyright protection in the West. However, there was an “international” (Western) convention that stipulated that the first publisher to publish a translation of a Russian book in the West—if he published his version no later than thirty days after the book’s publication in the Soviet Union—had exclusive rights to the international market for the book (including, apparently, for editions of the book in Russian). If nothing else this was the basis on which, after the book’s publication in the West, Giangiacomo’s lawyers traveled the globe bringing suits against any others who tried to publish the book without the Feltrinelli company’s permission.


William Eaton is an award-winning journalist, novelist, and writer of philosophical essays and dialogues. Surviving the Twenty-First Century, a collection of his essays from Montaigbakhtinian.com, was published last year by Serving House Books. One of Eaton’s dialogues, The Professor of Ignorance Condemns the Airplane, was staged in New York in 2014. He is editor of Zeteo, an online journal for generalists. (updated 4/2016)

William Eaton has also published in AGNI as William Eaton Warner.

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