#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. 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.