#100PENMembers No. 47: Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak was the Nobel Prize-winning poet and novelist whose treatment at the hands of the Soviet authorities forced PEN to confront their Cold War divisions.

Pasternak in 1959

Pasternak is a towering figure in world literature and the subject of one of PEN’s most high-profile campaigns. 

It was Doctor Zhivago that first bought Pasternak to PEN’s attention. The book, which is a sprawling account of the impacts of Russia’s revolution and related events on the lives of a group of interconnected but ordinary Russians, has been repeatedly banned and censored in the Soviet Union, despite earning Pasternak the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.

While portions of the novel were published in Russia, Pasternak knew that it would not get past the censors. In 1957, a full manuscript was smuggled into Italy at the behest of the publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who published it in Italian translation. This led to a proliferation of translated versions appearing across the West, helped in no small part by the CIA who saw the book as an opportunity to get one over on the Soviets. It was widely lauded and was translated into several languages but it remained banned in the Soviet Union because of its depiction of the history of the revolution and its rejection of socialist realism, in which all literature must support the broader aims and interests of the revolution.

Pasternak was given the Nobel Prize in 1958 for ‘his important achievement both in contemporary lyric poetry and in the field of the great Russian epic tradition.’ Although he initially accepted the award, the Soviet authorities placed significant pressure on him and he was forced to decline it.

This is when he came to PEN’s attention. On 28thOctober 1958 International President Andre Chamson and International Secretary David Carver sent a telegram to the Soviet Writers’ Union stating, ‘International P.E.N., very distressed by rumours concerning Pasternak, asks you to protect the poet, maintaining the right of creative freedom. Writers throughout the world are thinking of him fraternally.’

Centres across the world from Denmark to India issued press releases to their local media and sent resolutions to Congress condemning the behaviour of the Russian authorities.

Within PEN these events caused a significant stir by drawing attention to existing fissures within the organisation between centres in the West and centres based in Communist countries. This came to a head in 1958 when Arthur Koestler publicly snubbed the Japan PEN Centre for, he felt, failing to offer their full support to Pasternak.

These issues dominated the Congresses of the late 1950s. In his statement to the Frankfurt Congress in 1959, Carver said: ‘The fight for the freedom of the Word has been a fight as for life itself. There are many ways of burning books, the Nazis did it with a match; the Soviet critics are seeking to burn Pasternak’s novel with scorching words. Fortunately the world can read this novel and judge for itself – which the Russian people at this moment are not allowed to do. Pasternak becomes, in our century, the living proof that the voice of the poet cannot be silenced; is destined, indeed, in Milton’s immortal words, to have a life ‘beyond life.’

But the German magazine Kulturspiegel wrote that ‘there are writers who ask themselves what is the use of our good old P.E.N. Charter if it is now full of holes, that is, if there are Hungarian Communists in the P.E.N., while in our midst all those who formerly saluted a certain flag are excluded from membership’ condemning the Charter as ‘the spiritual child of 1922 […] it was good then but it is not certain whether it will always continue to be as good as it was at the beginning.’

This was often compounded by the views of the Writers in Exile Centres, which were filled with PEN members who had defected from or been exiled from Communist countries for their criticisms of Communist ideology and governance. They believed that the Organisation should eject Centres who displayed signs of collusion with Communist governments and called for strict reprisals for those not supporting the Organisation’s commitment to free expression. The Centres which remained in Soviet countries and whose members were more sympathetic to their governmental regimes, repeatedly called for a return to PEN’s impartiality and, rather ironically in light of the violent treatment of writers by their governments, a return to the more genteel politics of bygone times. There was an immoveable wall between them and it was all that PEN’s management and more impartial centres could do to try to maintain some semblance of order.

Added to this heady mix was the sometime involvement of the C.I.A. in fermenting debates through organisations like the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the developing relations with the Soviet Writers Union, particularly around the formation of a Russian PEN Centre, and the organisation was being pulled in multiple directions at once.

The Times– very astutely – wrote on 24 March 1959 ‘Behind the façade of unity, there lies a deep rift among members of the club about the attitude the club should take toward the Cold War. This has resulted in a policy of “neutrality” and “coexistence”, to which the directors have given a distinct fellow-travelling tinge’ (The Times, 24 March 1959).

Even after Pasternak’s death in 1960,  the plight of his mistress Olga Ivinskaya would draw PEN once again into a dispute with the Soviet Writers Union, the Russian authorities and even its own members.

Case Study: Ken Saro-Wiwa

The case of Ken Saro Wiwa was one of PEN’s most high-profile and one of its most distressing.

Saro Wiwa was a Nigerian writer, television producer and environmental activist who was executed on 10 November 1995.

He had been instrumental in defending the land of the Ogoni, a minority people in Nigeria of whom he was a key member, from the environmental destruction caused by the excavation of crude oil by the Royal Dutch Shell Oil Company.

Royal Dutch Shell had struck oil on the Ogoni land in 1958 and since then an estimated $30bn worth has been extracted, but there has been no formal compensation of the Ogoni for the loss of their land or livelihoods.

The landscape has been devastated by spills, waste and acid rain, harming wildlife and making farming impossible.

After decades of poor treatment the MOSOP (Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People) was founded with Saro Wiwa as the President.

On 23 January 1993, Saro Wiwa gathered 300,000 Ogoni to take part in a peaceful protest to demand some compensation from the oil companies for the loss of their livelihoods and to help them to begin to clean up their land.

This marked Saro Wiwa out, leading to repeated spells of imprisonment until, on 27th May 1994, armed police came for him during the night and abducted him from his home.

Several other MOSOP leaders were taken at the same time, accused of the murder of several Ogoni leaders.

The Nigerian government then took control of Ogoni lands, terrorising villages and subjecting the people to mass arrest, rape and summary executions.

PEN, who had maintained a relationship with Saro-Wiwa throughout his earlier imprisonments, were on high alert and they worked with other organisations including Index on Censorship, Amnesty and even the Body Shop to try to secure his release.

PEN Rapid Action Network fax from the PEN international Archive. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

That day, the PEN Rapid Action Network informed its members of by fax  Saro Wiwa’s latest arrest and its circumstances:

‘The Writers in Prison Committee calls on the Nigerian authorities to clarify the reasons for the arrest of Ken Saro-Wiwa and to ensure that he be given immediate access to his family, a lawyer and any necessary medical care and that he be held in humane conditions.’ 

On the 2ndJune Mandy Garner Chair of the PEN Writers in Prison Committee wrote to Alhaji Abubakar Alhaji, Nigerian High Commissioner in London asking for a meeting to discuss Saro-Wiwa’s arrest. 

In a letter to the Times of London days later, PEN International President Ronald Harwood raises concerns that Saro-Wiwa, a PEN member, ‘is reported to be held incommunicado in leg irons and handcuffs. He is said to have been denied access to the medication that he needs to control his high blood pressure.’

A further R.A.N. update on 17 June describes that ‘[t]he [PEN] Writers in Prison  Committee believes that Ken Saro-Wiwa, a long-time and internationally-known advocate of peaceful protest, is detained because of his non-violent campaign on minority rights and environmental pollution, in violation of his right to freedom of expression, as laid down in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’. 

Whilst Saro-Wiwa had been in good health until his repeated imprisonments and the mistreatment that accompanied them, the stress and physical hardship was taking a toll on his body. He suffered a heart attack whilst in prison.

In June 1994 PEN negotiated with the Nigerian government for a doctor to visit him and a report on his health was sent to the English PEN office in London. It made grave reading. 

P.E.N. continue to write to the Nigerian government and its representatives. Members of PEN branches from across the world wrote to Saro-Wiwa in prison, pledging their support.

In August, English PEN received a letter from Saro Wiwa himself advising that they contact Shell International in London and its employees because ‘if Shell wants me released tomorrow, it will happen.’ 

PEN immediately stepped up its efforts on Saro Wiwa’s behalf, contacting Shell and the British government in September to make Saro-Wiwa’s case. Their protests and those of many others both within Nigeria and across the world, fell on deaf ears.

By October of that year, Saro-Wiwa was on hunger strike. However, as his letters indicate, even he himself believed that he would eventually be released. In one letter, smuggled out of jail in 21stFebruary 1995, he expresses his thanks to International PEN for its work on his behalf, saying that he is ‘in good spirits’ and that he hopes that ‘with your support I’ll survive my travails.’

Saro Wiwa and eight other Ogoni leaders were formally charged in January 1995. But human rights organisations around the world were deeply troubled by the legal process afforded to Saro Wiwa and his co-defendents. Article 19, the Law Society and the Bar Human Rights Committee reported in June 1995 that it was clear that ‘the trial is fundamentally flawed and there is grave reason to fear that its continuation will represent a gross injustice and an abuse of human rights. It went on that: ‘The tribunal established to hear the case is neither independent nor impartial.’

PEN Rapid Action Network fax from the PEN international Archive. Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.

In October 1995 Saro Wiwa and his colleagues were found guilty of murder. They were hanged on 10thNovember 1995.

The British Prime Minister John Major described the case as ‘judicial murder’. 

PEN continues to appeal to have the conviction over-turned. Shell continues to operate in the Niger Delta, organisations like Amnesty continue to lobby them to take responsibility for the environmental damage in the area.

PEN Case Study: Salman Rushdie

One of the most famous cases in PEN’s history of campaigning for free expression was the case of Salman Rushdie.

The case raised a number of serious issues around free expression and religious freedom, issues which would become increasingly important in the decades to come.

It concerned the publication of Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses (1988) which was considered blasphemous under Islamic state and religious law.

IMG_1324 1

Photograph courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, Austin.

As a consequence the religious leader of Iran –  the Ayatollah Khomeini – called for Rushdie’s death and  one Islamic group even went so far as to offer a financial reward for the killing of the writer.

Rushdie was forced into hiding, in fear of his life.

PEN’s intervention in the case was inevitable – the threat to Rushdie’s life directly contravened all of its policies on free expression.

PEN joined the International Committee for the Defence of Salman Rushdie and his Publishers, just six days after the Ayatollah’s pronouncement, beginning a long campaign to defend Rushdie.

By 2nd March 1989, writers around the world presented their World Statement of Writers in Support of Rushdie to governments, newspaper and the UN.

The statement was signed by more than 1000 writers including PEN members and Centres.

Vigils were held outside the United Nations in New York and at other key government buildings in other cities around the world.

Letters were sent to the Iranian government and to individual national governments by PEN Centres in countries as diverse as Argentina, India, Mexico, France,

PEN worked with organisations such as the Society of Authors, the Booksellers Association, the Publishers Association and Article 19.

However, the matter divided PEN itself, pitting national centres against one another and causing rifts within International PEN itself.

While PEN was united in its condemnation of the death penalty for any writer, many members were critical of the book and some Centres refused to support the campaign at all.

The Rushdie affair raised the issue within PEN and the wider world of how far free expression arguments could be supported if they involved the endangering of other freedoms, such as religious freedom.

It marked an extremely high profile engagement with issues of free expression for PEN and placed a great deal of pressure on the organisation to present a united front, which they did.

However, in terms of our research, it is fascinating to revisit the Rushdie files to explore not only the debates which took place behind the scenes within PEN itself, but also to view the case in light of more recent free expression events, such as Charlie Hebdo.

Indeed, the balancing of these rights and freedoms have become even more delicate in recent years, as free speech and free expression arguments have been employed to defend hate speech or incitement – as Rachel Potter will discuss in her forthcoming post on free speech and the Alt-Right.