Bertrand Russell needs no introduction. The philosopher, mathematician, historian, writer and political activist was a central figure in twentieth century culture and politics. A sometime member of the Bloomsbury group, Russell is perhaps a surprising PEN member, as many of his fellow Bloomsbury writers, most notably Virginia Woolf, shunned the organisation.
However, Russell, a prominent pacifist, anti-imperialist and later anti-nuclear campaigner, was a founding member of PEN.
He attended the second PEN Congress in New York in 1924, along with May Sinclair, Anatole France and José Juan Tablada.
He was still participating in PEN many years later. His well-known name and his aristocratic background made him a popular choice to author letters to oppressive regimes abroad and to front campaigns closer to home. He was a central figure in protests made about the treatment of writers in the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
In 1966, International Secretary David Carver wrote to Russell requesting assistance with the case of two Soviet writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel.
The pair had published satirical writings on Soviet life abroad under pseudonyms, but both were arrested in September 1965.
Their trial marked the first notable show trial of writers convicted under Article 70 of the Soviet penal code for having libelled their country in works published outside the USSR, allegedly weakening and undermining its reputation internationally. It provoked global outrage from writers and PEN was among the first organisations to act.
The arrests led to the Glasnost rally in Moscow in December 1965 marking the beginning of the anti-Soviet demonstration and the growth of a civil rights movement in Russia.
The writers argued that the charge of libel could not be applied to literary works but their protests fell on deaf ears. Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years in a labour camp and Daniel to five.
PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee sent a telegram to Bresnev, who had taken over from Khrushchev as the leader of the Soviet Union explaining that they were ‘[d]eeply shocked by savage and unhuman sentences pronounced today on Sinyavsky and Daniel, we, the undersigned, representing thousands of writers throughout the world, members of International P.E.N., implore you as Prime Minister to exercise clemency and this restore confidence in Soviet Justice and humanity.’
The case became central to PEN discussions during this period, dominating the 1966 New York International Congress.
Carver wrote to Russell during this time asking him to use his ‘good offices as you did in the case of Madame Ivinskaya, when you wrote a personal letter to Mr Krusechev [sic] intervening on her behalf. I feel that a personal letter from you to both Mr Bresnev and to Mr Keaygin, on purely humanitarian grounds, requesting that International PEN be allowed to send help in either money or in kind.’
Admitting that there would be little that the organisation could do to help the writers themselves, Carver also asked Russell to plead for help for their families, who were starving and impoverished without any financial support.
The men themselves were, according to Carver’s source, in a camp which was ‘cruel and inhuman’ where they faced persecution by guards and other prisoners as ‘traitors’. Both Sinyavsky and Daniel were described as barely able to walk through ‘undernourishment and exhaustion’.
Russell agreed but his intervention was ignored. Daniel served the full term of his sentence and Sinyavsky six years.
Russell continued in his role of Vice President of PEN International until his death in 1970.