Jerzy Giedroyc, Michał Heller. Maisons-Laffitte, 1989 / Sygn. FIL00547

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Mikhail (Michel) Heller – the “Polish Russian” of the Literary Institute


Michał Heller

Born: 31 August 1922 in Mogilev (now Belarus)
Died: 3 January 1997 in Paris
Pseudonim: Adam Kruczek, Michał Heller

This article, written by Jędrzej Piekara, was based on his bachelor’s thesis defended in June 2017. Source materials were consulted during researches in Paris (in the Archives of the Literary Institute; in the Mikhail Heller collection of the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine; and in the private archive of Leonid Heller). Information was also derived from a series of interviews undertaken in the course of the research.

The article appeared in print in the “Rocznik Instytutu Europy Środkowo-Wschodniej” (The Central-Eastern Europe Institute Yearbook), no. 15 (2017) Book 1, pp 89-113. During publication of this article it was discovered that the birth-date generally given for Heller in numerous articles and on the internet is incorrect: the date of 31 August 1922 should be changed to 31 July 1922. The cause of this error is a mistake Heller himself made in one of his documents.


This text is published with the consent of the author and of the editors of The Central-Eastern Europe Institute Yearbook.



I see a charming man – a sovetsky chelovek, with an authentic soviet passport, Mischa Heller, a Russian Jew, five years in the camps (!), a great connoisseur of Russian literature, a historian (with a diploma from Moscow), who came to Poland in 1956 to work in the Polish Press Agency (PAP) as a translator from Polish into Russian of its more important pieces (latterly conference speeches). He arrived here with his wife, a Polish Jew, and they are not going back. [1]

Charming and erudite, a scholar of literature and of Soviet history, it was no accident that Mikhail Heller came to the attention of Zygmunt Hertz, one of the co-founders of the Literary Institute. Soviet citizen and émigré, “he made”, in the words of Władysław Gomułka, “his choice and drew the wrong consequences from it”[2] , leaving the People’s Republic in a wave of Jewish emigration from Poland. In the latter half of 1968, he found himself in Paris, and this became his final place of exile. Seduced by the western academic freedom available to refugees from the Soviet bloc, he actively began work as an academic and journalist. This entailed his co-operation with the Polish émigré journal and fiefdom of Jerzy Giedroyć, the Paris-based “Kultura”. For almost thirty years, at Giedroyć’s request, he prepared monthly reports of what was being written in the Soviet press. He also submitted articles on literature and history, book reviews, and had three of his own books published in the “Kultura” Library. With the years he became one of the pillars of the Literary Institute based in Maisons-Laffitte, and gained a reputation as a leading Sovietologist and scholar of the history and ideology of the Soviet Union. His knowledge of the USSR could draw on two principal sources: the first, and probably most important, was the fact that Heller would have personally experienced, and gained understanding of, the Soviet system while he had lived in the USSR and the Polish People’s Republic. Secondly, there was his passion for reading, mediated through his training as a historian. These allowed for his skilful and insightful analyses of Soviet reality.

And yet before Heller became a world-renowned Sovietologist – and author of works such as Utopia in Power, Cogs in the Wheel, and the History of Russia and its Empire – he had travelled a difficult road which led him through two European capitals – Moscow and Warsaw. To get to know and understand the oeuvre of this Russian of Jewish origin, we first must consider his life history, which began in 1922 in a Byelorussian city numbering inhabitants in the tens of thousands – Mogilev.

Mikhail Heller was born on 31 August 1922, into an artisan family, the third son of Jacob and Gita (née Zisman[3]) Heller. The same year, in October, the Hellers moved to Moscow, to the Zamoskvorechye district[4]. Mikhail lived in a multi-family barrack in one of the courtyards off Great Tartar street[5]. His early childhood memories are principally of his family’s very modest and arduous living conditions[6]. When very young, Heller suffered a broken leg which had never knitted properly, and for the rest of his life had a limp, had to wear orthopaedic shoes and had problems walking. In the Soviet capital he attended primary and then secondary school, from which he graduated aged 18[7]. While his brothers had gone to work in factories, Heller got a university place. From 1940[8], he became a student at the Moscow State University (MGU) in the department of Philosophy, Literature and History[9], majoring in Soviet history and the history of international relations[10]. His studies of less than a year were disrupted by the outbreak of the German-Soviet war in 1941. He was denied enlistment in the army due to his problems with walking[11], which gave him no pleasure as he had fervently wished to join his brothers, who had been sent to the front. He could, however, come to the aid of his proletarian fatherland as a civilian. Between June and November 1941 his studies – likewise those of the majority of his fellows – were punctuated by building land defences and engaging in anti-aircraft defence.

At the beginning of November 1941, it was decided to evacuate the university and its students into the heart of Russia[12]. The MGU was first relocated to Tashkent[13], then to Askhabad, and then to Sverdlovsk[14]. It was there that the young historian was offered membership of the Party as part of a reward for his good academic progress[15]. Heller rejected the offer – not however because of any critical attitude toward the system. As he later explained in an interview, he rejected the offer as he believed he was not yet ready to enter the Party[16], although in a film made by Polish Television he went on to say that he just cannot remember exactly why he then turned down the proposition[17]. As the USSR’s military position in the war against Germany improved, it was time for the academic diaspora to finish, and the university returned to Moscow in 1944[18]. Just a year later the young, ambitious historian completed his studies. In the winter of 1945 Heller defended his Master’s dissertation on the subject of German-Japanese relations on the eve of the First World War[19].

The MGU did not just give Heller his academic education – for it was there in 1940 that he met his future wife. Eugenia Chigryn, a Polish Jew, who had also managed to get a place at Moscow University[20], was born on 29 September 1922[21]. Her family came from Słonim, which had been part of the Second Polish Republic[22] and occupied by the Red Army in 1939. It was there that she had completed her secondary education[23]. She and Mikhail Heller developed a remarkable emotional bond, and when the university returned to Moscow, they formally tied the knot. The wedding took place on 25 August 1944 in the Register Office of the Timiryazewsky district[24]. Next year, on 8 March, their son Leonid was born. Initially they lived with Mikhail’s family, but they quickly left there and moved to a university hall of residence. They subsequently lived in various public housing apartments.

Like her husband, Eugenia had studied at the Department of History, although she majored in the history of the Slavonic lands. On completion of her studies, she obtained a position as a speaker and editor for the Polish section of Radio Moscow[25]. In addition, she often led tours of Moscow for visiting Polish politicians, artists and journalists[26], among them Andrzej Wajda and Wiktor Woroszylski[27]. Mikhail, however, did not pursue a profession but was working on his doctorate[28]. In the years after the war he also made additional money in various ways, inter alia by preparing essays for students[29].

Heller quickly established working relationships with several academic institutions in the USSR. Between 1947 and 1949 he wrote articles for and worked with the Soviet “Diplomatic Dictionary” (Дипломатический словарь)[30]. At the same time, he was also working for the bibliographic and academic documentation department of the Publishing House of Literature in Foreign Languages[31]. In 1949 he began working on two fronts: the academic and the literary. For three years he worked with its general history section in preparing entries for the second edition of the “Great Soviet Encyclopaedia” (Большая советская энциклопедия)[32],and also with the Soviet literary journal published in foreign languages – “Soviet Literature”[33]. In the publications appendix to his English-language CV, there are over 50 entries listed to the “Great Soviet Encyclopaedia” on Russian history, Poland, and foreign relations, as well as over 30 articles in the “Diplomatic Dictionary” on the history of German-Soviet relations[34]. Additionally, he took part in the preparation and publishing of the collected works of Rosa Luxemburg[35], and was offered a post, which he declined[36], on the editorial panel of the multi-volume “History of the Civil War in the USSR”.

All this clearly indicated that in the period of his “freedom” in the USSR he was no enemy to the communist system. He was esteemed within the Soviet academic world, and did not harbour any critical feelings towards Soviet reality. His stance, both as a man and as a historian, underwent radical change after he was sentenced to 15 years in the gulag, which he commenced in 1952 after spending a year in a Moscow prison[37]. The reason for his arrest seems prosaic, but the subsequent punishment is astonishing. His sentence to a labour camp in Kazakhstan was for falsely appearing in the employee list of an academic institution – from which he earned no money nor carried out any work – and the time he thus gained he could spend on study and research[38]. The authorities, tipped off by a citizenly denunciation, uncovered this and the courts sent him to the Karlag (Karaganda Corrective Labour Camp) in eastern Kazakhstan. Throughout his father’s imprisonment, the seven year-old Leonid Heller was convinced that his father had gone to Kazakhstan to take up a teaching post[39].

Despite his initial fifteen year sentence to the gulag, Heller was freed in the summer of 1956[40]. He left the camp a changed man – not only was he now critical of the Soviet state, but he had also contracted tuberculosis, which troubled him for the rest of his life[41]. He owed his freedom to his wife, who had documented his bad state of health[42], and to the amnesty proclaimed by the new Soviet leadership after the death of Stalin[43]. He did, however, get a “paragraph 49”, which meant that he could not reside in any of the major cities in the USSR[44]. He was fortunate that at this time, after the 20th Soviet Communist Party Congress, a Repatriation Act was passed, which applied to Polish citizens born within the territory of the pre-1939 Polish Republic – which included Eugenia Heller. The couple decided to take this opportunity of leaving the Soviet Union[45].

The Hellers arrived in Poland at the beginning of January 1957[46]. Thanks to the contacts they had made while living in the USSR, here they could start life anew. They moved into a 30 sq. metre two room apartment at 29/5 Walecznych Street in Warsaw. Despite their departure to Poland they did not lose contact with their family in the Soviet Union – they both visited Moscow often, to see old friends and Mikhail’s family[47].

Heller got a position at the Polish Press Agency, where he had two roles: he translated from the Russian[48] and also wrote an internal bulletin about Russian issues[49]. In Warsaw, he also worked for the Telegraphic Agency and the City Archives[50]. He was not carrying out any historical research – his work was rather journalistic and editorial – and he had no plans to resume his career as a historian. In the 1960s, he sent his son Leonid to the Warsaw Polytechnic to study architecture. His wife Eugenia was also continuing her education, realising her passion for cinematography by studying the history and theory of film at the Warsaw Film School in 1958-61[51]. In the following two years she worked as a Russian language teacher at the Warsaw Pedagogical Institute[52], and then from 1963 to 1966 she worked for the Central Film Archive, managing the programme of the “Iluzjon” cinema[53]. Throughout the 1960s she actively collaborated with Polish film journals, such as “Kwartalnik Filmowy”, “Film”, “Kino” and “Kamera” (Film Quarterly, Film, Cinema, Camera)[54].

While in Warsaw Heller divided his time among work, reading and meetings in an intellectual milieu. In comparison with the Soviet world, his life environment had markedly improved. As he said himself:

Those were good years, indispensible, I would say, in my life. [ … ] For me, born in the USSR, Poland was something of a caisson, a decompression chamber. Here I came into contact with things up to then unknown, or scarcely known to me. I met a different type of person. Thanks to this, I was in some way prepared for life in the West[55].

One of Heller’s closest Polish friends, Wiktor Woroszylski, remembered those times. He reminisced inter alia of the surprise with which his émigré friend encountered the most ordinary aspects of a Varsovian’s life:

After his few years’ experience of that labour camp, and indeed of his whole life spent in that country without going abroad, he was somewhat bewildered by what seemed to him some measure of freedom. I remember his surprising reactions, for instance when he was dealing with some official formalities, and was amazed that there was no office making out passes, or guards barring entry. He wasn’t yet capable of spreading his sails with confidence – I think he was too easily pleased after what he had undergone in Russia, he was happy to have a job [ … ][56].

While in Poland, Heller moved among a wide range of people, both in Poland and internationally. In the 1960s he often travelled to the West – either on holiday, or for treatments at sanatoria – where he met the local intelligentsia. On one of these travels, he managed to smuggle out to the West Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales, which he had earlier received from friends in the USSR[57].

Nonetheless, having spent a decade in the Polish People’s Republic, his “delight” with the freedoms the country then had was gradually wearing off. Having taken advantage of the possibilities of observing the western world, he understood that he cannot – and does not want – to stay in a Poland which was, after all, communist.[58] Two events which influenced his decision were the antisemitic campaign initiated by Gomułka’s associates after the Six-Day War in 1967[59] and the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the armies of the Warsaw Pact in 1968[60]. He left Warsaw for Paris – as his wife had been encouraging him to do for years[61]. They arrived in the French capital, one after the other, in November 1968[62].

It appears that their departure was illegal – officially, the Hellers were on holiday, with Mikhail in France taking a cure. His letter to the Commandant of the Warsaw Citizens’ Militia dated 7 October 1968 has been preserved:


My request for a re-entry visa to Poland in respect of my planned holiday journey to France has been rejected by the Department of Visas and the Registration of Foreigners, for reasons not made known to me. Please could you re-consider my application, taking into account that I wish to travel to France to undertake a cure. I suffer from tuberculosis […][63]

In a further letter, probably from December 1968, Heller is writing to his employer, the Polish Press Agency, requesting an extension to his holiday. He wrote this in the knowledge that was going to settle in France. The reply, dated 6 January 1969, was in the negative – any leave taken after 22 December 1968 would be unauthorised[64].

All this indicates that Heller wished to keep his intention of emigrating to the West secret from the Polish authorities. His son, Leonid Heller, sheds more light on this:

My father kept his escape from Poland secret […] in case of potential complications he kept up the pretence that he is planning to return. His health reasons were a camouflage, he wished to leave as “legally” as possible so as not to create difficulties which might prevent my own emigration, as I had stayed behind in Poland. My parents wished to shield me from possible problems as their stay abroad became longer. I had stayed in Poland longer, my father left in October 1968, I stayed till March 1969[65].

The Polish authorities were probably also unaware that Heller had been invited to participate in a conference cycle at the Sorbonne, devoted to issues concerning Soviet poetry. These conferences took place between 15 November and 15 December 1968. He had received his official invitation by letter from Sorbonne professor Jean Bonamour[66].

Arriving in Paris in 1968, Heller – as Alain Besançon remembered years later – had all his worldly possessions “carried in his head”[67]. A close friend of the Soviet historian writes that the young émigré could be distinguished by four characteristics: skill in reading, insatiable curiosity, a love of truth for its own sake, and a repugnance towards communism[68]. Mikhail was determined to start life anew in Paris. Bearing witness to this are the letters Zygmunt Hertz wrote at this time to his friend, Czesław Miłosz:

Letter of 14-16 December 1968

I shall keep pestering you about […] Mischa, the fellow is brilliant, but not quite yet. His farewell to Poland: a baggage check at Okęcie airport by four customs officers – “body-searches in the gulag were nothing compared to went on there”, he was half dead the day after his arrival […]. After the check, the senior customs officer wrote a report (they confiscated 2.5 kg of written papers – his wife’s doctoral thesis and notes of his visits to Moscow […])[69].

Letter of 13 March 1969

My Mischa maintains great modesty and calm. “Well, so what – it probably had to be, I am starting life anew”. No curses calling them bastards and canaille, no curses that his son could not complete his polytechnic studies, or that he is an émigré[70].

In Paris, the Hellers received a warm welcome from their Polish and French friends. Thanks to the mediation of French Slavists, with Professors Jean Bonamour and Alain Besançon in the lead, Heller received an assistant lecturer’s post at the Sorbonne[71]. Zygmunt Hertz and Jerzy Giedroyc prevailed on him to take up journalism in collaboration with “Kultura”. From 1969 Heller worked on his doctorate while holding the post of lecturer in Soviet literature. On 26 February 1972 he defended his doctoral thesis[72], and on 7 June 1980 he received his habilitation[73]. In the course of his university work he also collaborated with the unit teaching and researching Polish studies[74]. He took part in and organised conferences, academic lectures and seminars[75]. At the beginning of the 1980s he also lectured at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he led a seminar series on modern history and Sovietology. In 1987, having attained the age of 65 –the mandatory retirement age in France – he had to go into retirement[76]. In 1988 he received the Silver Medal of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique for his lifetime academic achievements[77].

From the beginning of his stay in France, Heller sought to get French citizenship for himself and his wife. They were granted citizenship after six years of residence, in 1975. The official document was made out on 22 September, and published six days later in the “Journal Officiel”[78]. From the middle of 1975, the Hellers held dual nationality, Mikhail Soviet and French, his wife Polish and French. This situation persisted for eight years – up to the moment Yuri Andropov, then leader of the USSR, issued a decree stripping Mikhail Heller of his Soviet citizenship[79]. This order, numbered 10459-X, was published on 18 December, together with the last USSR body of legislation for 1983[80]. Heller was informed by letter, and requested to return his Soviet passport. Letters of 4 and 19 January 1984 retained by the Soviet embassy in Paris tell the story. In the first of these, the embassy – speaking for the collective – requests “Citizen Heller M.J.” to attend for a meeting during embassy opening hours[81]. We can surmise that Heller did not respond to this letter, as in the letter of 19 January the embassy once again informs “Citizen Heller” that his citizenship has been revoked and requests the return of his passport[82]. As this is the last letter on file, it appears that Heller subsequently returned the passport to the embassy.

The immediate cause of stripping Heller of Soviet citizenship was most probably his confrontation of the official history of the USSR – Utopia in Power – written jointly with Aleksandr Nekrich and published in 1982. This book quickly garnered acclaim, winning a prize from the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques, awarded on 14 June 1982[83]. Utopia was the first of Heller’s books to directly address the history of the USSR. Before that, he had only published his doctoral and habilitation theses, both commentaries on Soviet literature.

One should note that although Heller became known to the French and English reading public only after 1982, he had been familiar to Polish language readers very much earlier – every month, in “Kultura”, they could read his pieces written under the pseudonym of Adam Kruczek. Jerzy Giedroyc had invited Heller to write for “Kultura” the moment the Soviet émigré had arrived in France. In his letter[84] of 26 March 1969, he wrote:

I am a boring person, thus I would like to dot the i’s and cross the t’s on our recent conversation. I am counting on a Russian chronicle, taking in a wide range of topics, which I should like to appear in “Kultura” monthly. I imagine these pieces could be long or short, everything from book reviews to reports on political events or historical issues. I feel that this sort of chronicle will be of great interest and constitute a first for the world press.

Heller agreed to Giedroyc’s proposal, and the first instalment of his cycle “In the Soviet Press” appeared in the May issue of “Kultura”. And thus started a lasting, 27-year collaboration. Heller wrote for “Kultura” (267 articles in the “Soviet Press” cycle, plus 46 stand-alone articles), and also for the “Historical Notebooks” (7 articles). He signed most of his pieces with a pseudonym, which he explained only vaguely, by saying that he does not wish to use his own name for various reasons. As to his choice of alias, he admitted that he had pondered long in choosing it. He had borrowed the surname from Władysław Kruczek, the chief of the (communist) Central Council of Trades Unions, of whom he had read in “Trybuna Ludu”[85] (The People’s Tribune, a communist party mouthpiece). Having forgotten this prominent communist’s first name, he settled on the first man – Adam[86].

Heller’s journalism evolved in tandem with his role in the Literary Institute. Within a short time, his became one the more recognizable names appearing in the pages of “Kultura”, and he became one of its leading commentators, together with the “Londoner” (J. Mieroszewski) and the “Man from Brussels” (L. Unger). For Jerzy Giedroyc, however, he was not just a contributing journalist, but also the undoubted expert on all matters Soviet. One is tempted to conclude that in great measure Giedroyc’s – and thus “Kultura’s” – outlook on matters concerning the USSR was moulded by Heller. In support of this view, a very important source is the correspondence between Giedroyc and Heller. Thanks to Giedroyc’s practice of filing all letters he received together with copies of his letters sent, this whole correspondence is archived and can be found today in Maisons-Laffitte[87]. This collection not only traces the history of their relationship, but also constitutes a corpus of knowledge concerning the Institute’s relations with Russian émigrés.

Their correspondence includes discussions of absorbing problems and topics, of books and articles, of figures making a mark in the political and cultural worlds, as also requests from Giedroyc for help on a diverse range of issues. Additionally Giedroyc would impart by letter information on the progress of publications, or make specific, official publishing proposals.

It would be worthwhile to cite a few excerpts from Giedroyc’s letters to Heller, which shed light on this Soviet émigré’s importance to those around him:

Letter of 20 February 1969

[…] there is one issue which has interested me greatly: I have been informed that apparently there are two Solzhenitsyn manuscripts in the west – the Archipelago and the Gulag. Would you know anything about this? I just can’t tell whether this is true or not, and if true in whose hands these manuscripts are?

Letter of 12 November 1973

A great request: would you be so kind as to review the enclosed text of the Declaration of Human Rights in the Russian language? I have insufficient confidence in my own Russian-language skills.

Letter of 27 January 1974

In a spirit of friendship, I must advise you not to invite me to your home, as each visit only creates more bother for you. And so too this time. As you know I have long been babbling on about publishing a book on contemporary China […]. As I have not to date been able to identify an author to produce such a work, there remains the alternative – which you rashly suggested – of producing something in the way of an anthology in Polish of books about China and also, if we could find a Russian publisher […] also in Russian. I have no doubt that this may well bankrupt the Institute, but this something I very much want to do in the time I have left to me in what has already been a reasonably long life. I would dearly like to commit this venture to your care.

Letter of 6 July 1975

I am sending you a draft letter to Solzhenitsyn and ask not only for a translation, but also for your appraisal of it. I never know how to write such letters, always fearful of exaggerating one way or the other.

Letter of 2 April 1982

I am taking this opportunity to ask you for a great favour: namely, the Warsaw as also the Soviet press have recently been devoting an inordinate amount of space to “Kultura” and my modest self, making me out to be a “dangerous agent of the CIA”. I have no intention of engaging into a polemic, but instead would like to publish in “Kultura” a dry note dispassionately setting out all the leading communists in the USSR and the People’s Republics who have been executed as guilty of being agents of various European and Japanese intelligence agencies. I think such a list should be rather impressive. Hence my request, as you are expert in this subject – would you be willing to compile such a list?

Letter of 28 November 1983

Would you be so good as to talk to Gorbaniewska about undertaking the translation of A World Apart? I think that it would be indeed valuable for this book to appear in Russian.

The letters cited above are only a selection, a small fraction of the correspondence between Heller and Giedroyc, which numbers about 550 archived items. They make clear that Heller undertook many roles: literary agent, advisor on which books to publish and translate, expert in tracking down titles difficult to obtain, and unquestioned authority on matters Russian[88]. Also worthy of note, as Rafał Stobiecki aptly remarked:

This nigh on thirty year cooperation between “the prince of Maisons-Laffitte” and the Russian historian was exceptionally good-natured and harmonious. Taking into account the character of the first party, this was by no means a regular phenomenon[89].

The correspondence between Heller and Giedroyc is complete – if one can use the term – only in the first years of their acquaintance. In reading the later letters one can often notice threads breaking off or getting confused, as also quite often misunderstandings. But this is only due to the fact that from about 1975 they met and spoke on the phone much more frequently[90]. Even so, there were issues which Giedroyc preferred – or was obliged – to put on paper. The Giedroyc-Heller correspondence and the role played by Heller in the Literary Institute were aptly summed up by Wojciech Stanisławski:

The Giedroyc-Heller correspondence not only documents their editorial collaboration, but also grants us an insight into – if one can use the term – the “Anti-Gulag Archipelago”: the community of authors, chroniclers and activists, scattered throughout the world, who have applied themselves to documenting the crimes perpetrated by the system, and to seeking ways of peacefully dismantling it[91].

In a relatively short space of time, the Soviet émigré found himself simultaneously an important and also a controversial figure in Western Europe. His life, however, changed radically in the mid-1980s. He was touched by a tragic experience worse even than his imprisonment in a Kazakh labour camp. In 1986 his wife fell ill with cancer, which from all accounts very soon ended in her death[92]. Mikhail then lost not only a wife, but a life-partner, a kindred spirit, a person who had always cared for him and helped him through difficult times. It was thanks to her that Heller was able to leave the USSR. It was she who had examined all the possibilities of their departure from Warsaw to France, she who had helped him in his endeavours to get a teaching position at the Sorbonne. At the outset, she had translated his articles for “Kultura” into Polish[93]. In Paris she had worked in the Department of Slavic Studies as an assistant lecturer, and ran a film club[94].

People who had known the Hellers were concerned how he might cope after the death of Jeanie[95]. She had ensured for him all the warmth of hearth and home. Without her, he was not able to organise the simplest things – such as making a meal for himself. He even stopped inviting friends to his apartment, incapable of playing host on his own.

After Eugenie’s death, Heller’s close friend, that icon of “Kultura”, Józef Czapski, wrote to him[96]:

Letter of 4 November 1986

My dearest friend! I did what I could to write to you by hand, but today, now that my secretary is here, I was not fully able to decipher my own handwriting, yet I wanted to finish what I had started. In your considerable oeuvre, you entirely omit your personal life. And maybe now is the moment when you should write a book about yourself, which would be a book about both of you. For 45 years, despite 5 years in a labour camp, you were together and you are together. Those fragments which you related to me, those years living near the Chinese border, Jeanie’s (illegal) visits to you, then those two relocations, from Russia to Poland, then from Poland to Paris, all that bespeaks so much more than we know through your writing as Kruczek. Only yesterday a friend was telling me that he always starts reading “Kultura” from Kruczek’s piece. You have told me yourself, that you sometimes feel as if you were writing only for yourself. Toutes proportions gardées, but I wrote my own diaries only for myself, but now, as I return to those old notebooks, where I sometimes can’t even read what I’ve written, such a wave of memory comes back to me, and I even realise that my most intimate writings are of value to those who try to read me. Is it not time, that you should (for yourself) put in writing your life with Eugenie – this would be a treasure of great price for us, your friends, and maybe also for you a sort of magic wand which would bring back thousands of the memories which, with age, we forget. From the moment we parted, I was thinking what I could not put into words, the extent to which your presence here was a sort of grace for me which, after a fashion, helps me live. Don’t be angry that I dare to offer you advice, but I was incapable of stopping myself from writing these clumsy words to you.


I beg you, take care of yourself, (underlined J.C.), for you are needed by so many people starting with your little girl[97], whom you have promised to bring here, and ending with me and with so many people who love you[98].

After the death of his wife, Heller never regained his former sense of well-being. His outlook on life changed utterly. He said himself that he had been happy only as long his wife had been alive[99]. He did not, however, cease in his academic work nor in his journalism. And when communism in the USSR was thrown into transition, new possibilities opened to him. Together with an increased freedom of speech and of the press, publishers began wanting to print his books and publish his articles. He began being invited to academic conferences, and his works were even approved for use in senior schools by the Russian Federation State Committee[100]. Furthermore – and maybe more importantly – Heller could return to his native country, where he had left behind so many relatives and friends. Starting in October 1992[101] right up to 1996 he visited the Russian Federation many times[102].

He remained active right up to the end of his life. All of a sudden, unexpectedly, a few weeks before another academic conference, death took him. Mikhail Heller died of heart failure on the morning of Friday, 3 January 1997[103]. He had been suffering from this for some time, and had undergone two operations, in September 1978[104] and in 1983[105].

In writing his obituary for “Kultura”, Jerzy Giedroyc wrote that Heller “had died so suddenly and unexpectedly, that it is difficult to believe it”[106]. He also touched on his own friendship with Heller: “[…] Mikhail was one of my few friends”[107]. Three years earlier, for a documentary film being made on Heller he said that the Russian historian:

[…] is my personal friend and one of my closest collaborators, of whom I have not many, very few in fact, such as Czapski, Mieroszewski, […] Grudziński. He is one of the few people who are my close collaborators and indeed co-creators of “Kultura”[108].

He is the first person I have ever met who so penetratingly, so deeply understands Russian affairs, which I have always found fascinating – there and then I proposed his writing a permanent column for “Kultura”[109].

Moreover, in his autobiography, Giedroyc wrote:

My conversations with him were fundamental to my understanding of the Soviet Union; he knew the country from his own experiences, not from newspapers or books. […] We spoke regularly about everything concerning Russia. We made contact very frequently, we were very close[110].

Another of his Polish friends – Herling-Grudziński – wrote in turn:

Mikhail Heller became one of my close Paris friends. While his wife Jeanie was still alive, the three of us, Jerzy, Zosia Hertz and I, would go to them for dinner – she was an excellent cook and made superb Russian dishes[111].

And also:

The historian Mikhail Heller is a very important member of the “Kultura” team and of the Russian émigré community […]. A man of great intelligence and understanding of Russia. […]. A man of few words, not in the least effusive, and so on […]. He felt ties with us, with “Kultura”. It is a personal friendship, and simultaneously great admiration for his knowledge […] I read and hear with enormous pleasure that he is increasingly rising in esteem in Russia[112].

On Wednesday, 8 January Mikhail Heller was laid to rest in Montmartre cemetery by the side of his beloved wife[113]. Before his death, he had wanted to settle in some sleepy village, where he could write his books in peace[114]. He spoke of his own life in a film made by Polish Television:

In my life, I have had, as it were, three lives: three lives, because I have had to speak in at least three languages – each new language is really a new life, and I really lived happily up to the moment that my wife died[115].

In 2017, twenty years after the death of this outstanding Sovietologist, it is difficult to find any traces of this singular historian in Polish historical researches. If he is introduced at all, it is in the context of his work with the Literary Institute. In general, one comes across brief paragraphs just noting his existence. Up to now, as far as I have been able to ascertain, only two articles devoted to him have appeared. The first, by Rafał Stobiecki, is about his correspondence with Giedroyc. The second, by Wojciech Stanisławski attempts to present and analyse Heller the person, but only in the context of his collaboration with “Kultura”[116].

So now, on the twentieth anniversary of his death, it is a good time to start an academic discussion on his life and work – a discussion which, from a Polish point of view, is undoubtedly due.


Jędrzej Piekara was born on 4 February 1995 in Lublin. He is a graduate student at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, attending post-graduate classes with professors Rafał Wnuk and Mirosław Filipowicz. His principal areas of research are: the history of the Soviet Union, Polish and Russian émigrés in the 20th century, the history of economic theory, historical methodology. He is currently working on his master’s thesis on the Polish threads in the life of Mikhail Heller, and is the author of an interview with Leonid Heller (“Новая Польша”, October 2017; internet version: https://novpol.org/ru/Bk9KABQaW/Ryadom-s-Kulturoj).



[1] Zygmunt Hertz in a letter to Czesław Miłosz, 16-18 December 1968. from Z. Hertz, Listy do Czesława Miłosza 1952-1979 (Letters to Czesław Miłosz 1952-1979), Paris 1992, p. 287.


[2] From a speech by Władysław Gomułka given at a meeting with the party cadre in Warsaw, 19 March 1968.


[3] Archives of the Bibliothèque de Documentation Internationale Contemporaine (later: ABDIC), F delta res 928 (1)(1)(6), Permission for temporary residence in the Canton of Geneva, 18 April 1984.


[4] Archives of Leonid Heller (later: ALH), Mikhail Heller’s CV in English and French; М. Геллер, Двор, [in:] Вместо мемуаров: Памяти М. Я. Геллера, составители Л. Геллер и И. Зеленко, Москва 2000, s. 5. A Polish translation of this memoir by Mikhail Heller is available: M. Heller, Podwórze (The Courtyard), “Zeszyty Literackie” (Literary Notebooks), 2001, no. 2, pp 160-164.


[5] М. Геллер, Двор, pp. 5-6; Л. Зак, Штрихи к биографии-1, [in:] Вместо, p. 21.


[6] М. Геллер, Двор, pp. 5-10.


[7] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in English and French.


[8] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in French.


[9] Л. Зак, Штрихи к биографии-1, p. 21.


[10] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in French.


[11] Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, [in:] Вместо, p. 27.


[12] П. Бутягин, 514-я комната, [in:] Вместо, p. 33; Ю. Поляков, МИФЛИ и 56 лет после, [in:] Вместо, p. 51.


[13] Ю. Поляков, МИФЛИ и 56 лет после, p. 51.


[14] Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, p. 27; П. Бутягин, 514-я комната, p. 33.


[15] Interview by Ilona Kisz and Akosz Silada with Mikhail Heller, December 1996, Budapest, [in:] Вместо, p. 147.


[16] Ibid.


[17] Film Michał Heller – prawda o komunizmie (Mikhail Heller – The Truth about Communism), directed by Paweł Woldan, II Program TVP S.A., 1994; Interview by Ilony Kisz i Akosz Silada with Mikhail Heller, p. 147.


[18] Interview by Ilona Kisz and Akosz Silada with Mikhail Heller, p. 148.


[19] Л. Зак, Штрихи к биографии-1, pp. 21-22.


[20] Ibid., p. 21.


[21] ALH, Eugenia Heller’s CV in French.


[22] E. Sawicka, Dwadzieścia siedem lat na tratwie “Kultury” (Twenty-seven years aboard “Kultura”); R. Stobiecki, Michaiła Hellera i Jerzego Giedroycia rozmowy o Rosji (Mikhail Heller and Jerzy Giedroyc In Conversation about Russia), [in:] Dostojewski i inni. Literatura/idee/polityka (Dostoevsky and others. Literature/Ideas/Politics), ed. T. Sucharski, Katowice 2016, p. 381), “Rzeczpospolita”, 11 January 1997, electronic version.


[23] ALH, Eugenia Heller’s CV in French.


[24] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s and Eugenia Chigryn’s Marriage Certificate.


[25] Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, p. 28; ALH, Eugenia Heller’s CV in French.


[26] Л. Геллер, Человек, который почти все знал, или Набросок к книге Жизнь и мнения Михаила Геллера, джентльмена, [in:] Вместо, p. 100. There is a Polish translation of this text: L. Heller, Człowiek, który wiedział prawie wszystko (The Man Who Knew Almost Everything), “Zeszyty Literackie” (Literary Notebooks), 2001, no. 2, pp. 153-160.


[27] Ibid.


[28] Interview by Ilona Kisz and Akosz Silada with Mikhail Heller, pp. 152-153.


[29] Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, p. 29.


[30] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in English


[31] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in English and French.


[32] Ibid.


[33] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in French; ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in English, appendix re publications.


[34] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in English, appendix re publications..


[35] Ibid.


[36] Interview by Ilona Kisz and Akosz Silada with Mikhail Heller, p. 153.


[37] An account by Leonid Heller, 3 May 2017 – in the author’s collection.


[38] I. Obuchowa, Вместо мемуаров: Памяти М. Я. Геллера, Москва: издательство “МИК”, 2000, “Slavia Orientalis”, 2002, no. 1, p. 136.


[39] Л. Геллер, Человек, p. 100.


[40] Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, p. 30.


[41] Л. Геллер, Человек, s. 101.


[42] An account by Leonid Heller, 3 May 2017 – in the author’s collection.


[43] Interview by Ilona Kisz and Akosz Silada with Mikhail Heller, p. 154.


[44] Ibid.


[45] Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, p. 30.


[46] Ibid, p. 31; Interview by Ilona Kisz and Akosz Silada with Mikhail Heller, p. 154; B. Toruńczyk, Rozmowy w Maisons-Laffitte (Conversations in Maisons-Laffitte) 1981, Warszawa 2006, p. 192; ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in French; ALH, Eugenia Heller’s CV in French; ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in English gives a date of one year earlier.


[47] Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, p. 31.


[48] E. Sawicka, Michał Heller nie żyje (Mikhail Heller has died), “Rzeczpospolita”, 4 January 1997, electronic version.


[49] Л. Геллер, Человек, p. 100; ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in English and French.


[50] Л. Зак, Штрихи к биографии-1, p. 22.


[51] ALH, Eugenia Heller’s CV in French.


[52] Ibid.


[53] Л. Зак, Штрихи к биографии-1, p. 22; ALH, Eugenia Heller’s CV in French.


[54] ALH, Eugenia Heller’s CV in French, list of publications; Ж. Бонамур, Стойкость, [in:] Вместо, p. 70.


[55] Interview with Nikhail Heller, Historia czekania na cud (The History of Waiting for a Miracle), “Rzeczpospolita”, 29 October 1994, electronic version.


[56] Statement by Wiktor Woroszylski in the film Michał Heller – prawda o komunizmie (Mikhail Heller – The Truth about Communism).


[57] E. Sawicka, Odszedł współpracownik paryskiej “Kultury”. Pożegnanie Michała Hellera (A collaborator with the Paris “Kultura” has departed. A farewell to Mikhail Heller), “Przegląd Polski” (The Polish Review), 9 January 1997; R. Stobiecki, Michaiła Hellera i Jerzego Giedroycia rozmowy o Rosji (Mikhail Heller and Jerzy Giedroyc In Conversation about Russia), [in:] Dostojewski i inni. Literatura/idee/polityka (Dostoevsky and others. Literature/Ideas/Politics), ed. T. Sucharski, Katowice 2016, p. 381; An account by Leonid Heller, 3 May 2017 – in the author’s collection.


[58] Film Michał Heller – prawda o komunizmie (Mikhail Heller – The Truth about Communism); E. Sawicka, Dwadzieścia siedem lat (Twenty-seven Years ...).


[59] Л. Зак, Штрихи к биографии-1, p. 22; Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, p. 32.


[60] Interview with Mikhail Heller, Historia (History)


[61] Interview by Ilona Kisz and Akosz Silada with Mikhail Heller, p. 156


[62] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s CV in English and French.


[63] ABDIC, F delta res 928 (85)(3)(35), letter from Mikhail Heller to the commandant of the M.O. dated 7 October 1968.


[64] ABDIC, F delta res 928 (85)(3)(36), letter from PAP to Mikhail Heller dated 6 January 1969.


[65] An account by Leonid Heller, 3 May 2017 – in the author’s collection.


[66] ALH, Letter from Jean Bonamour to Mikhail Heller dated 14 October 1968


[67] A. Besançon, Czytając Michała Hellera (Reading Mikhail Heller), “Zeszyty Literackie” (Literary Notebooks), 1997, no. 3 p. 101


[68] Ibid. p. 102


[69] Z. Hertz, Listy (Letters), p. 287


[70] Ibid. p. 292


[71] On Bonamour’s role: A. Besançon, Czytając (Reading ...), p. 103; on Besançon’s role: W. Stanisławski, Archipelag Hellera (The Heller Archipelago), in: “Kultura” i emigracja rosyjska. W poszukiwaniu zatraconej solidarności (“Kultura” and the Russian émigrés. In Search of a Lost Solidarity), vol. II, selected and ed. P. Mitzner, Paris–Kraków 2016, p. 345


[72] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s doctoral diploma. He defended his thesis – Le monde concentrationnaire et la littérature sovietique.


[73] ALH, Mikhail Heller’s post-doctoral habilitation diploma; Ж. Бонамур, Стойкость, p. 71. Heller gained his habiliattion on the basis of his thesis Андрей Платонов в поисках счастья.


[74] В. Лосская, Памяти друга, [in:] Вместо, p. 69.


[75] An account by Leonid Heller, 3 May 2017 – in the author’s collection.


[76] Ibid. p. 68.


[77] The Silver Medal is in Leonid Heller’s collection. Some sources give different dates: 1989 – a table in Вместо мемуаров: Памяти М. Я. Геллера, составители Л. Геллер и И. Зеленко, Москва 2000; 1987 – vide: Л. Геллер, Человек, p. 105.


[78] ALH, Certificate of the grant of French nationality


[79] Reported inter alia in the newspaper “Le Quotidien de Paris”: no. 1276, Saturday 31, Sunday 1 January 1984.


[80] ABDIC, F delta res 928 (1)(1)(2), letter from the Soviet embassy in Paris to Mikhail Heller dated 19 January 1984.


[81] ABDIC, F delta res 928 (1)(1)(3), letter from the Soviet embassy in Paris to Mikhail Heller dated 4 January 1984.


[82] ABDIC, F delta res 928 (1)(1)(2),letter from the Soviet embassy in Paris to Mikhail Heller dated 19 January 1984.


[83] ALH, Diploma of the award from the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques.


[84] The entire correspondence between Jerzy Giedroyc and Mikhail Heller can be found it the Literary Institute archives, inder reference “ILK KOR RED Heller M.”.


[85] Heller has made a mistake – Władysław Kruczek only became the leader of the Central Council of Trades Unions in 1972.


[86] Interview with Mikhail Heller, Historia (History).


[87] See the detailed review of this correspondence in: R. Stobiecki, Michaiła Hellera ... , pp. 377-396.


[88] Wojciech Stanisławski details similar traits in his article: W. Stanisławski, Archipelag Hellera (The Heller Archipelago), pp. 348-350.


[89] R. Stobiecki, Michaiła Hellera ... , p. 392.


[90] Ibid. p. 383


[91] W. Stanisławski, Archipelag Hellera (The Heller Archipelago), p. 345.


[92] Э. Гессен, Штрихи к биографии-2, s. 26; М. Туровская, Миша + Женя = любовь, [w:] Вместо, s. 63; film Michał Heller – prawda o komunizmie (Mikhail Heller – The Truth about Communism).


[93] E. Sawicka, Dwadzieścia siedem lat (Twenty-seven years ...). Since 1979, his texts were translated by Julia Juryś: J. Giedroyc, Autobiografia na cztery ręce (Autobiography for Four Hands), Warszawa 2006, p. 239.


[94] В. Лосская, Памяти друга, p. 68.


[95] М. Туровская, Миша + Женя = любовь, p. 63.


[96] The close friendship between Heller and Czapski is also attested to by the well-known list do przyjaciela Rosjanina (letter to a Russian friend) written by Czapski and included in many of his publications. J. Czapski, Dzienniki, wspomnienia, relacje (Diaries, Memoirs, Accounts), Kraków 1986, pp. 219-227.


[97] Czapski is referring to Heller’s grand-daughter.


[98] ABDIC F delta res 928 (81)(1)(20-21), letter from Józef Czapski to Mikhail Heller dated 3-4 November 1986.


[99] Statement by Mikhail Heller in the film Michał Heller – prawda o komunizmie (Mikhail Heller – The Truth about Communism).


[100] J. Giedroyc, Michał Heller (Mikhail Heller), “Kultura”, 1997, 3/594, p. 152.


[101] M. Heller, Notatki rosyjskie (Russian Notes), “Kultura”, 1992, 12/543, p. 93.


[102] J. Giedroyc, Michał Heller (Mikhail Heller), p. 152.


[103] В. Амурский, Эхо памяти, [w:] Вместо, p. 96.


[104] J. Czapski, Wyrwane strony (Pages Torn Out), Warszawa 2010, p. 213


[105] An account by Leonid Heller, 3 May 2017.


[106] J. Giedroyc, Michał Heller (Mikhail Heller), p. 151.


[107] Ibid.


[108] Statement by Jerzy Giedroyc in the film Michał Heller – prawda o komunizmie (Mikhail Heller – The Truth about Communism).


[109] Ibid.


[110] J. Giedroyc, Autobiografia (Autobiography ...), p. 239


[111] Interview with Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, conducted 6 June 1998 in Budapest. R. Gorczyńska, Portrety paryskie (Parisian Portraits), Kraków 1999, p. 209.


[112] „Opowieść autobiograficzna Gustawa Herlinga-Grudzińskiego (fragmenty)” (An Autobiographical Story by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński – fragments), [in:] Z. Kudelski, Gustaw Herling-Grudziński i „Kultura” paryska (1947-1996) (Gustaw Herling-Grudziński and “Kultura” 1947-1996), Lublin 2013, p. 335.


[113] Pogrzeb historyka Michała Hellera (The funeral of the historian Mikhail Heller), “Rzeczpospolita” (The Republic), 9 January 1997, electronic version.


[114] А. Кольдефи-Фокар, Непредвиденная перспектива, [w:] Вместо, p. 95.


[115] Statement by Mikhail Heller in the film Michał Heller – prawda o komunizmie (Mikhail Heller – The Truth about Communism).


[116] R. Stobiecki, Michaiła Hellera (Mikhail Heller ...), pp. 377-396; W. Stanisławski, Archipelag Hellera (The Heller Archipelago), pp. 341-352.




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