Johnson's Russia List
21 May 2003
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A CDI Project
The Electronic Telegraph (UK)
May 21, 2003
Obituary of Alec Flegon
Emigre publisher who won damages for libel after Solzhenitsyn claimed that
he had worked for the KGB
ALEC FLEGON, who has died aged 79, was a controversial London-based
publisher of samizdat literature and Soviet trade directories during the
An irreverent and irrepressible emigre from Romania, Flegon was the first
to publish Mikhail Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog and Alexander Solzhenitsyn's
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich; he later published four
Russian-language versions of Boris Pasternak's Dr Zhivago, including one
under a Moscow imprint, lest Russian buyers be accused of importing
anti-Soviet literature. He paid the authors no royalties but said he was
helping them by bringing their work to wider attention. Solzhenitsyn, for
one, saw things differently, and pursued Flegon in the courts for piracy.
In the early 1960s, Flegon also produced the first Soviet Trade Directory
(described by the Soviet Chamber of Trade as a "work of pure imagination"),
followed by Soviet Trade Techniques, Directory of the Soviet Engineering
Industry and Directory of Soviet Hospitals. More dangerously, he smuggled
out Soviet telephone directories to sell in London for pounds 100 a copy.
Although he maintained that his books were designed to promote trade with
the Soviet Union, he was asked to resign from the Society for Cultural
Relations with Russia in 1965.
Resented by some pillars of the Russian emigre community, Flegon also had
many admirers, including grateful readers and those who worked with him.
His remarkable success at repeatedly getting manuscripts out of the Soviet
Union led to the widespread view that he must have had contacts in the KGB;
but in 1987 he won pounds 10,000 libel damages in the High Court from
Solzhenitsyn over an allegation to that effect in the Russian version of
The Oak and Calf. Unable to afford a barrister's fees, Flegon conducted his
case himself, in faltering English.
On the issue of piracy, Flegon argued Solzhenitsyn had broken the copyright
laws of the Soviet Union by publishing the book abroad, so the copyright
"is not valid in any country which has diplomatic relations with the Soviet
Union". But the courts sided with Solzhenitsyn, and in 1971 granted an
injunction to stop Flegon publishing August 1914.
Previously a great admirer, Flegon became one of Solzhenitsyn's severest
critics, especially after The Gulag Archipelago, a history of Stalin's
concentration camps, which Flegon published under the imprint of the Moscow
State Publishing House, with the seal "approved by the Communist Party of
the Soviet Union and the Institute for Marxist-Leninism". To Solzhenitsyn's
fury, Foyle's bookshop in London sold Flegon's pirated version after the
official ones had run out.
Flegon subsequently went on the attack in his book About Solzhenitsyn
(1981), in which he vilified the Nobel prize winner and took him to task
for alleged inaccuracies in The Gulag Archipelago; Flegon based his claims
on correspondence with other survivors. "I'm as anti-Communist as he is,"
said Flegon, "but I don't believe you can fight one lie with another."
Oleg Flegont (he dropped the "t" after defecting in 1956) was born on
January 20 1924 in a village in Bessarabia, a region which was then part of
Romania. His father was in charge of local schools, his mother ran estates
for the local landed gentry. Young Alec made a point of switching school
each year, and in 1940, when the Russians invaded his homeland, he fled to
Bucharest. There he graduated in Literature from the Gorky Institute and in
Electro-Mechanical Engineering from the University of Bucharest, before
going to work for the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture. He was for some
time chief agricultural engineer on Romania's smallest collective farm,
which had one tractor. At the time of the Hungarian revolution, Flegon was
on holiday in Czechoslovakia and he asked that, to avoid the disturbances,
his tour party might return home via Vienna. There he seized his chance to
demand asylum. Planning to go to Canada to farm, he stopped off in London
and stayed. After a spell in a factory in Acton, he went to work for the
BBC's Romanian service.
In 1962 he set up Flegon Press in Greek Street, Soho, to publish a Russian
literary magazine, Student. After reading Solzhenitsyn's novella about life
in a prison camp in the Soviet magazine Novy Mir, he branched out into
books. "At that time Russian emigres wouldn't touch anything that had been
published by the official Soviet press," Flegon recalled. "They regarded it
as propaganda." A series of publishing coups followed, and in 1964 he
claimed to have discovered the underground bard Bulat Okudzhava, after
hearing a Soviet delegation whistling some of Okudzhava's tunes.
Solzhenitsyn was not the only author to allege breach of copyright by
Flegon. In 1967 Stalin's daughter, Svetlana, obtained an injunction to
prevent him from publishing her memoirs, Twenty Letters to a Friend, which
Flegon said he had bought for pounds 5,000 from an English businessman
recently returned from the Soviet Union. "He did not tell me from whom he
bought the manuscript, and I didn't ask." Besides his publishing
activities, which also included music and books about sex, Flegon helped
out with Russian trade delegations.
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russian publishers sprang up in his
mould. Beyond the Russian Dictionary, his lexicon of swear words, has been
regularly reprinted in Russia over the years, without any royalties being
paid to the author.
Alec Flegon's first marriage, to a Romanian, was dissolved after his
defection. He married secondly, in 1964, Iris Renner-Gee. That marriage was
also dissolved. He had no children.
In later years he suffered from Alzheimer's Disease. He died at Ealing
Hospital on May 15.