Source: picture submitted by the author.

Doktor Zhivago [Doctor Zhivago]

Author: Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)

Years: 1957-1958

In November 1957, the novel Doktor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was published by Giangiacomo Feltrinelli for the first time anywhere in the world, becoming a bestseller in the emerging Italian publishing industry. Sergio D’Angelo, an Italian journalist for Radio Mosca was engaged by Feltrinelli to search for new works in the USSR and in 1957 brought Pasternak’s manuscript, which had not been officially published in the Soviet Union, to Italy.
Publication had been blocked in the USSR for political reasons, and, although the Italian left was divided over how to receive dissent from within the Soviet Union, Feltrinelli, at the time a member of the Italian Communist Party (the PCI), chose to publish the book despite Soviet disapproval and anger expressed by Italian communists. Khrushchev himself intervened, asking Togliatti to prevent the novel’s publication, with the result that Feltrinelli left the PCI. In the following two months, 30 editions of the novel were published.
The royalties were huge; the book was translated into several languages and adapted for a film, which was also a major success. Reviews of the work and debates in magazines and daily papers made Pasternak a well known name. However, behind the stereotypical images of the USSR and Cold War rhetoric, Italian politics and culture was influenced in deep and subtle ways by the publication of this novel from behind the iron curtain. Amidst reports about Soviet censorship and persecutions, editorial espionages stories, and accounts of smuggled transcripts and translations, the “Zhivago-Revolution”, besides making Feltrinelli significant profits, sparked a lively political and ideological debate in Italy.
The editors of “Novyi Mir”, condemned the publication by Feltrinelli and accused the author of anti-Sovietism, due to the “counter-revolutionary” contents of the novel.
Mario Alicata, who chaired the cultural Committee of the PCI, supported the Soviet position, judging the novel “inappropriate” after the 20th Congress and accused it of being “openly political”, and “frankly counter-revolutionary” in its tone (Alicata 1958: 4).  He believed the work’s publication was part of a “political and ideological campaign” promoted by the capitalistic world, “to transform the self-criticism of specific mistakes made at the 20th Congress into an attack against the socialist revolution and socialism as system” (ibid.: 7).
Conversely Gianni Toti, journalist and trades unionist, who had broken with the Communist Party following the Soviet invasion of Budapest, recommended the novel to all communist workers. “The Pasternak Case” certainly contributed to accentuating the divisions on the Left which had emerged after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956.
Carlo Muscetta, Italo Calvino and Cesare Cases,  three “Einaudian” communists, who had left the PCI between 1956 and 1959, in protest against events in Hungary criticized the novel for various mainly aesthetic reasons, considering it incomplete and marooned between the great narratives of the nineteenth-century and the deconstruction of the novel in European twentieth-century prose fiction. They did not deny, however, the value of the work, the significance of its critical stance towards Marxist ideology and aesthetics, and its rereading of the events of the revolution and developments in Soviet society. Alberto Moravia identified the “unbalanced” relation between man and history as a central component of the plot, concluding that the novel described lives that had been stunted and overwhelmed by a superior and hostile force.
Franco Fortini, considered the novel in the light of the complex problems of Soviet society, which, since a general realisation of Stalin’s crimes, had had the difficult task of reevaluating the meaning and importance of the revolution. Pasternak indicated a way forward: doubts about communism were legitimate, given the oppressive reality of Soviet society, and necessitated a rereading of Russia’s revolutionary history from the point of view of the present.
In liberal circles, debate centred on two questions: the first regarded Marxist reception of the work, which was accused of masking political and ideological arguments as aesthetic considerations, while the second concerned the anti-Soviet purpose of the novel.  Lionel Abel declared that although he didn’t much appreciate the novel, he considered it essential for its anti-Soviet point of view.
For Father Floris in “Civiltà Cattolica”, the anticommunism of the work was directly connected to a spiritual message.
Nicola Chiaromonte’s interpretation was more interesting and complex. An antifascist exiled in the USA, he challenged both those who supported an outright anti-Soviet position and intellectuals who claimed to offer “neutral” interpretations based on philological and literary principles alone such as Tommaso Landolfi, Guido Piovene and Pietro Citati who tried to separate aesthetic analyses from ideological questions. The “Pasternak case” is illustrative of the influence of dissenting works on historical and cultural events in Italy, at a time in which the reception of Soviet writers was framed by a nascent publishing industry.

Alessandra Reccia
[30th June 2021]

Translation by Diletta Bacci


Magazines and daily articles

  • Alicata M., Sul Caso Pasternak: un articolo di M. Alicata; una lettera del Novij Mir, Editori Riuniti, Roma 1958.
  • Calvino I., Pasternak e la rivoluzione, “Passato e Presente”, May-June 1958: 360-367.
  • Cases C., Dibattito sul Dottor Zivago, “Il Ponte”, 6 (1958): 850-854.
  • Chiaromonte N., Il “Dottor Živago” e la sensibilità moderna, in N. Chiaromonte, Credere non credere, Rizzoli, Milano 1971: 163-183.
  • Floridi U.A., Un messaggio di resurrezione dalla Russia cristiana, “Civiltà Cattolica”, 18th January 1958: 180-187.
  • Fortini F., Rileggendo Pasternak, in F. Fortini, Verifica dei PoteriScritti di critica e di istituzioni letterarie, Il Saggiatore, Milano 1965: 287- 309.
  • Landolfi T., Il romanzo di Pasternak, in G. Maccari (ed.), I russi, Milano, Adelphi 2015: 276-279.
  • Moravia A., Visita a Pasternak, “Corriere della Sera”, 11th January 1958.
  • Muscetta C., Gli eredi di Protopov, in C. Muscetta, Gli eredi di Protopov. Dissensi, consensi, indignazioni, Lerici, Roma 1977.


  • D’Angelo S., Il caso Pasternak, Bietti, Milano 2006.
  • Feltrinelli, Senior service, Feltrinelli, Milano 1999: 117-211.
  • Garzonio, 1958-i god – god Pasternaka. Ital’ianskie otkliki, in L. Fleishman (ed.), V krugu Zhivago. Pasternakovskii sbornik,Stanford 2000: 221-233.
  • GarzonioReccia A. (eds.), Paternak, 1958, Italija, Reka vremenMoskva 2012.
  • Mancosu P., Živago nella tempesta. Le avventure editoriali del capolavoro di Pasternak, Feltrinelli, Milano 2015.
  • Reccia, La matuška Rus’. Živago e la rivoluzione nelle prime letture degli intellettuali italiani, “Ospite ingrato”, 5 (2019): 54-57,, online (last accessed: 30/06/2021).

To cite this article:
Alessandra Reccia, The Italian reception of “Doktor Zhivago”, in Voci libere in URSS. Letteratura, pensiero, arti indipendenti in Unione Sovietica e gli echi in Occidente (1953-1991), a cura di C. Pieralli, M. Sabbatini, Firenze University Press, Firenze 2021-, <>.
eISBN 978-88-5518-463-2
© 2021 Author(s)
Content license: CC BY 4.0