#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.’

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