#100PENMembers No.49: Isaiah Berlin

Isaiah Berlin’s philosophy is often credited with reviving interest in political theory in the English-speaking world but his calm defence of liberalism and opposition to political extremism made him a valuable member and counsellor to PEN during the Cold War years.

Isaiah Berlin

Born in Riga in 1909, Berlin and his family had moved to London in 1921, where he undertook a distinguished scholarly career, becoming a key part of the British philosophical and literary scene. During the war he moved the America, working for the British Intelligence services, here he came into contact with writers and particularly persecuted writers such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova. Pasternak would, of course, be supported by PEN when Russian authorities censored his work and forced him into repeated exile, he also became an active and committed member of the organisation. Berlin had joined PEN in 1960 and also delivered the Hermon Ould Memorial Lecture of that year on ‘Tolstoy and the Enlightenment.’

Berlin’s most important work with PEN came through his involvement with Pasternak and, more specifically, his long-term amour, Olga Ivinskaya. Following Pasternak’s death in 1960 Ivinskaya and her daughter Irina were sentenced by the Russian courts for trading in false currency, Olga to eight years in a forced labour camp and Irina to three. The sentences scandalised Western writers and intellectuals and figures, leading several – including PEN members Bertrand Russell and Rebecca West – to form the ‘Oxford Committee’ to pressure the Soviet government for their release. PEN Secretary David Carver also swung into action, writing immediately to Alexei Surkov of the Soviet Writers Union asking for the trial proceedings of the two women to be made public. Surkov ignored the letter. This was in keeping with his fraught relationship with Carver and his long term dislike of Pasternak who he had banned from the Soviet Writers Union years before. Carver sent several telegrams begging for Surkov’s help andrelied heavily on Berlin’s advice. 

Berlin also acted as an intermediary with the Russian writers during discussions about Ivinskaya’s imprisonment. When a Russia delegation visited Britain in 1961, with the clear purpose of silencing the rising tide of protest about Ivinskaya’s imprisonment, Berlin played a key role in hosting and raising the issue with the visitors. Surkov’s discussions with Berlin during this trip, as documented in Berlin’s letters, are filled with misogynistic slurs on Ivinskaya’s character, as Surkov sought to undermine her character in the eyes of her defenders. 

Berlin and Carver were not taken in, particularly as before his death Pasternak had foreseen that the Soviets would punish Ivinskaya and her daughter. Berlin told Carver that, ‘I feel that a memorial addressed to them now, signed, if possible, by fairly left-wing writers and those they know -e.g. Maugham, Russell, Graham Greene, Moravia, Mauriac, and of course if you can get them Sartre, etc. just to ask what is happening and whether there is any hope of clemency could not do any harm.’ He warned against using the names of more obvious Soviet detractors such as Stephen Spender and Rebecca West. However he did mention that Surkov – apparently in an act of bravado which over-emphasised his own power in the situation – had promised him that Ivinskaya and her daughter would be released in a few months.

In November 1961 Carver appeared on the BBC’s Russian Service and accused Surkov of ‘vicious attacks on Mrs Ivinskaya’s morals’. Carver said that ‘the protestations of Alexei Surkov in speeches, conversations and letter that these women had been involved in illegal traffic in roubles […] has done nothing to shake the firm belief held here that the trial and condemnation of Olga Ivinskaya and her daughter is an act of sordid revenge.’ Carver’s outburst added to the rift between PEN and the Soviet Writers, but Berlin acknowledged that the points that he made were valid and hoped that the broadcast might help to further pressure the Soviets.

The two women were eventually freed in 1962. Berlin stepped back from the ongoing struggle between Surkov and PEN, which peaked in 1964 with a particularly vicious piece by Surkov in the Russian magazine Izvestia. Berlin viewed Surkov’s lashing out as evidence that PEN were doing their job effectively, as he wrote to Carver in 1964: ‘it does us nothing but credit’.

Carver continued to pursue the idea of a Russian PEN Centre through his fraught relationship with Surkov. Berlin was offered the Presidency of English PEN in 1969, but declined stating that ‘it is desirable that the President of P.E.N. should not be viewed with particular disfavour by any of the governments whose activities need to be attacked or criticised and whose behaviour it is desired to modify.’

#100PENMembers No. 48: Paul Tabori

Hungarian-Jewish author, novelist, journalist and psychological researcher was a long-serving member of PEN, a founding member of the Writers in Exile Centre and a pivotal figure during the early years of the Cold War.

Born in Budapest in 1908, Tabori received his Ph.D. in Economic and Political Science from Kaiser Wilhelm university in Berlin and between the wars worked across Europe as a foreign correspondent and screenwriter.

Tabori’s father died in Auschwitz in 1944 but the young man and his mother managed to escape Budapest, eventually arriving in London in 1938.

There he immediately became involved with English PEN, working with Storm Jameson and Hermon Ould on the PEN Refugee Fund, he also offered advice and support with publishing for refugees living in Britain.He even helped to found the Hungarian PEN Centre in 1946.

Due to his experiences in Hungary, Tabori foresaw the issues PEN International would contend with in the postwar world in 1949 and wrote presciently to the organisation asking: ‘I wonder how long the International P.E.N. will be able to avoid facing the situation of the Centres behind the Iron Curtain.’ He acknowledged the desire by PEN to keep its existence ‘for as long as possible in the totalitarian countries. But the fact is – and you must know it just as clearly as I do – that none of these Centres are true to the PEN Charter; that they endorse the violations of the basic liberties by their Governments and thereby lend the prestige of PEN to the suppression of free speech and free thought.’ He concluded that ‘We can, like Pollyanna, hope for the best and take a rosie view; but I am not sure whether we do not owe it to ourselves to bring it into the open.’

History was soon to bear this out, placing Tabori at the centre of PEN’s Cold War wranglings.

In 1956 he was integral to managing the organisation’s response to the Hungarian Revolution and its aftermath in which more than 1,500 Hungarians were killed as the Soviet government tried to quell the dissent. He helped to set up and organise a fund for Hungarian refugee writers arriving in Britain and even assisted them in finding writing work. He also organised and coordinated parcels and financial assistance for Hungarian refugees living elsewhere writing in 1959 in support of one Hungarian writer living in Austria ‘a talented poet and journalist, [who had] to hock [sic] his typewriter to eat.’

During this time, he was an outspoken critic of the Hungarian PEN Centre who he suspected of colluding with the oppressive Soviet regime. In 1956 he spearheaded a resolution at the Tokyo Congress accusing the Centre of being in breach of PEN’s charter and calling for the it to be suspended. In his speech in support of the Resolution, Tabori made reference to the expulsion of the German Centre in 1933, invoking the spirit of H.G. Wells as he urged that ‘the Hungarian PEN made no protest [on the murder of Endre Havas] – no record exists of their having voiced the smallest protest against the mass-arrests, torture and murders of scores of Hungarian writers and intellectuals.’

The Hungarian Centre – who had refused to attend – sent a telegram accusing Tabori and others of being ‘hostile to our country’. The organisation was divided, with Centres based in Communist or sympathetic countries voting against the suspension and the rest voting for. Without a 2/3 majority required to suspend a Centre, the resolution was defeated.

The Executive, in an effort to bridge the divide between Centres – those in Communist countries supporting the Hungarians, those in the West supporting the suspension – eventually arranged to have a ‘Committee of Five’ senior PEN Members from both sides of the Iron Curtain, who would investigate the allegations and decide on suspension. They eventually voted to suspend the Centre, though this remained under continuous review.

The Centre was readmitted on 22ndJuly 1959 at the Frankfurt Congress, after years of close monitoring by the so-called Committee of Five, who pronounced themselves satisfied that the Hungarian Centre’s efforts. Tabori’s voice is absent at the Congress, but the Hungarian writer George Paloczi-Horvath, representing the writers in Exile Centre, was broadly supportive of the move, provided the Centre re-doubled its protests to the Hungarian government over the cases of imprisoned writers.

Tabori remained active in the organisation and in the Writers in Exile Centre, though he was also a member of English PEN, until his death in 1974.

#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.

#100PENMembers No. 42: Bertolt Brecht

Today we feature one of the most surprising members in PEN’s 100-year history. While Bertolt Brecht needs no introduction as a writer, his political commitments probably make it unsurprising that for many years he stayed aloof from PEN, viewing it as a liberal talking shop. 

However, in the mid-1950s he became the President of PEN Germany, East and West, as it was called. He was active in liaising between the Soviets and International PEN with the hope of persuading the Soviets to participate in the organisation, and in proposing resolutions. 

In 1954, prior to the Congress in Amsterdam, Brecht liaised between PEN and Soviets Ilya Ehrenburg and Konstantin Simonov, who was Secretary of the Executive Committee of the Association of Soviet Writers. Simonov had proposed sending representatives to the Congress but had wanted information from PEN about its membership fees, past post-war resolutions and statutes. 

In the end, the Soviets did not attend the Amsterdam Congress, but Brecht was there and he sat on the International Executive Committee. There was some discussion of the Soviets’ desire to become PEN members, with delegates doubting whether they would be able, in any genuine way, to ‘sign the [PEN] Charter’. The Committee passed a resolution, however, welcoming the creation of a Russian Centre ‘with interest’. Brecht seconded a request by John Hewitt to change the word ‘interest’ to ‘sympathy’; but it was defeated. This was work that another playwright and #100PENMembers Arthur Miller would continue a decade later.

Along with his German, West and East, colleague Johannes Tralow, Brecht also proposed a controversial resolution, which asked for PEN to defend ‘freedom of circulation for all types of literature, insofar as they do not serve the inflammation of national hatred, racial discrimination, or militarism.’ 

In discussion Brecht and Tralow explained that the resolution sought to secure the free circulation of what they labelled ‘progressive’ books which ‘would benefit humanity’, but not books like Mein Kampf ‘which inflamed national hatreds.’

However, this attempt to drive a wedge between progressive and Fascist books, met with opposition in the Congress hall. Denis Saurat and Storm Jameson protested, with Jameson explaining that the Resolution implied it ‘would be proper to ban certain books’. She proposed an amendment to the wording such that it would read that PEN defended ‘freedom of circulation of all types of literature, while deploring works which serve the inflammationof national hatred, racial discrimination, or militarism’. 

This amended text was then agreed to. The disagreement, and the shift, captures a key cold war tension between Communist and liberal ideas of free expression, with the Communists arguing that there should be limits placed on the dissemination of Fascist speech, and Western members arguing that the individual right to free speech precluded the suppression of books on the grounds of certain kinds of content, Fascist or not. 

Brecht’s voice was also prominent at the 1955 Congress in Vienna, which he was unable to attend. He sent a message supporting the resolution on the atomic bomb, pleading with members to do everything that they could to ‘stop further tests with atomic bombs.’ Again, the resolution was controversial, centring on whether this issue was really within PEN’s remit. While the Japan centre supported it, the Americans opposed it. They argued that it was a non-issue, as, in countries which guaranteed freedom of expression, there were no specific restrictions on speech about the atomic bomb. 

Brecht’s short-lived participation in PEN, at the height of cold war tensions, suggests that there was also a short period in which Soviet participation in PEN seemed a genuine possibility; his interventions also capture key differences of opinion about free speech in the cultural cold war. 

#100PENMembers No. 25: Robert Neumann

Austrian writer Robert Neumann transformed PEN repeatedly, playing key roles in the evolution of its Charter, its remit and its politics during his fifty-year membership of the organisation.

Robert Neumann

A German Jew, Neumann first came to PEN when his works fell victim to the Nazi book burnings in 1933. He left his home in Vienna in 1934 and fled to Britain where he was the founder of the Austrian PEN Centre in exile in 1938.

During World War Two, he worked tirelessly on behalf of refugee and exiled writers in London, despite being interned as an ‘Enemy Alien’ himself for several months in 1940. Alongside English President Storm Jameson and International Secretary Hermon Ould he worked as a fundraiser for the PEN Refugee Fund and even provided a weekly drop-in session – as part of his role as an editor with Hutchinson International –  to give writers advice on how to publish or find work as translators in London.

After the war he helped to revive and became Honorary President of the Austrian PEN Club in 1947 and PEN Vice President in 1950. This membership and his history with the organisation gave him a unique platform to critique and influence PEN policy at every level.

A lifelong socialist, Neumann could be a vehement critic of PEN’s more conservative tendencies, particularly during the early postwar years.

Neumann’s experiences in Austria left him with a very personal and violent response to any indication of government interference in free expression. He had seen first-hand where such interventions could end.

In 1953, he lobbied the PEN International Congress in Dublin to add a very important element to PEN’s Charter. 

The contribution formed part of a raft of measures proposed by the French Centre to formally reassert PEN’s commitment to freedom of expression, to condemn censorship and the banning of books by governments. 

There were a number of these types of reaffirmations in PEN Press releases and meetings at the time, which reflected an organisation seeking to find terra firma in the postwar world and to ensure that the slide to fascism could not be repeated.

It was also a response to simmering Cold War tensions within the organisation, which was starting to become aware of the threats to free expression in Eastern European countries.

Neumann wanted to add in a clause which would stipulate that all national PEN Centres must report regularly on the state of intellectual freedom within their respective countries and ‘their own actions to combat victimizations and other Government and private interferences with that freedom. He wanted UNESCO to assist PEN in publishing these findings.

Issues were raised with the Amendment, among those PEN Centres in Iron Curtain countries who might find themselves having to report regular and humiliating infringements on their liberties but also among those in the West, who feared leaving potentially-infiltrated centres in the East to raise free expression issues. Neumann himself had long been wary of the domination of more centrist and right-wing politics within PEN, speaking out at the 1950 Congress about PEN’s internal Cold War under President Charles Morgan.

The debate marked a fissure which would rupture PEN policy and campaigning on free expression throughout the Cold War.

It also came to mark a crucial point in PEN’s history and its sense of the role of itself and its Centres in monitoring and reporting on free expression worldwide.

Most tellingly, this type of reporting would come to form a crucial element of PEN’s work with human rights charities and is now a routine part of UN monitoring of human rights across the world: Where a report is being compiled local PEN Centres are asked to provide information on attitudes to writers and writing, conditions of censorship, the imprisonment of writers, because – as Neumann so shrewdly recognised – the way a society treats its writers is hugely indicative of the health of its democracy.

Neumann continued to take a leading role in PEN until the end of his life, serving as a Vice President . In 1971, just five years before his death he was at the Congress in Yugoslavia, submitting an amendment on writers in Israel and Palestine and continuing his lifelong fight for free expression.

#100PENMembers No.11: Arthur Miller

The acclaimed playwright was the first American to hold the International PEN Presidency, following his unanimous election to the post at the 1965 Bled Congress.

Arthur Miller
Photo: AP Images

Arthur Miller’s term as President, from 1966 until 1969, was shaped both by the Cold War and by the explosion of racial tensions within PEN.

He entered his Presidency as PEN pulled itself apart over the implications for its Charter and its ethos of the Playwrights’ boycott of South Africa. In 1965 playwrights from across the world had begun to refuse to allow their work to be performed in South Africa because theatres were so strictly racially segregated, with white and black South Africans attending entirely separate performances. Often non-white South Africans were not allowed into theatres at all.

South African PEN – at that point a largely white organisation – protested vehemently to PEN arguing that the restriction of performances in South Africa represented an infringement of PEN’s free speech commitments, whilst not recognising their own complicity in a system which not only restricted the non-white population’s access to the arts but also censored their writing and voices at every level.

Among Miller’s early duties was an attempt to manage this dispute when the majority of PEN International centres voted in support of the boycott and to try to smooth tensions within the divided organisation.

Perhaps the most famous myth surrounding Miller’s Presidency was when, in 1969, he apparently helped free Wole Soyinka from prison. Soyinka, at this point a little-known playwright, had been imprisoned by General Yakubu Gowon’s government during the Biafran war. The story goes that, while many attempts by PEN to free Soyinka had tried and failed, and many letters of protest had been sent, Gowon, on receiving one signed by Arthur Miller asked if this was, in fact, the husband of Marilyn Monroe. On being assured that the letter had indeed been sent by that Arthur Miller, he had apparently released Soyinka immediately.

Soyinka, of course, went on to become one of the world’s most admired writers and to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986.

The problem with the story is that there is no evidence for it in the archives – though Miller did receive regular updates on Soyinka’s imprisonment and dispatched various members of PEN staff to Nigeria to further make his case. In fact, Soyinka himself rubbished the claims years later having, in his own words, ‘checked with the man who signed the release warrant.’ The story continues in perpetuity as one of PEN’s most compelling and oft-quoted myths, demonstrating perhaps the ongoing feeling within the organisation that its petitions and tireless campaigning was often ineffective with comparison to the harnessing of the star power of its more famous members and affiliates.

Nevertheless, Miller was no stranger to adversity and censorship himself – he was descended from Polish refugees and had himself been interrogated by the infamous HUAM (House Un-American Activities Committee) which sought to root out Communist sympathisers within American society. This witchhunt, which he later scrutinised in his work, most notably The Crucible, may have informed his desire to interact with Soviet writers.

His overriding ambition during his tenure as President was to establish a PEN Centre in the Soviet Union. In fact, PEN, from its very beginning, had wanted to create a centre in Russia. Along with International Secretary David Carver, Miller held many meetings with the Soviet Writers Union to further this aim. The Soviets were apprehensive about joining PEN, honing in on the organisation’s commitment to free speech over and above political affiliations, a stance they viewed as hostile to Soviet commitments to political ideas of free expression and socially-engaged literature. 

Nevertheless, Miller persisted. He invited the Soviet writers to the incendiary 1966 New York International PEN Congress. The Soviets did not attend, having been tipped off shortly before the Congress that a defector – the writer and PEN member Valery Tarsis – would attend and would denounce the Soviet regime and his treatment at its hands to the gathered international audience.

Miller and Carver’s progress with the Soviet branch was largely halted by this development, of which they had been largely unaware. There were a number of fascinating interactions between PEN and the Russians during Miller’s Presidency, much to the disgust of the large number of PEN branches exiled from Iron-Curtain countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia and Latvia. However, his hands-on style and his desire to encourage dialogue between all sides during this particularly fraught period of the Cold War was in some ways essential for holding the organisation together. 

Miller remained a PEN member and campaigned for free expression throughout his long life. The annual Arthur Miller Freedom to Write lecture stands as testament to his legacy within the organisation. It has been delivered by Christopher Hitchens, Hilary Clinton, Salman Rushdie,  Roxane Gay, Arundhati Roy and, of course, Wole Soyinka.