#100PENMembers No.61: Masha Gessen

We’re marking International Trans Day of Visibility by looking at Russian-American journalist, author, translator, and Vice President of PEN America Masha Gessen, who identifies as non-binary and transgender. 

Masha Gessen Photo: Christopher Lane/The Observer

A Russian citizen, born in Moscow in 1967, Gessen moved to the US in 1981 as part of a refugee re-settlement programme. In 1991 they moved back to Russia to work as a journalist. 

Gessen joined the PEN America board in 2014 after two decades in Russia working as a journalist and campaigning for LGBT rights.

This experience as a refugee, as a Russian journalist and as an LGBT rights activist in a country famously hostile to both the media and to LGBT rights, informed their activism. 

Gessen’s tenure at PEN America coincided fittingly with the rise of the right wing in America and, significantly with the election of Donald Trump in 2016. 

Gessen became an essential advisor to PEN America and to activists across the United States because of their experience and the persecution they endured in Putin’s Russia. 

Soon after the election, as progressives in the United States tried to make sense of Clinton’s loss, Gessen stepped in with a piece in the New York Times entitled ‘Autocracy: Rules for Survival’. The piece criticised the acceptance of Democratic politicians and called for increased vigilance to defend ‘the laws, institutions and the ideals on which our country is based.’ 

This presence of mind – the result of hard-won experience – gained national renown. 

When Gessen gave PEN’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2017 they concentrated on these parallels.  In the lecture, they discussed language as a structure of power and the ways in which regimes in Russia and America used language to ‘pre-emptively discredit’ ideas of freedom and truth. 

Gessen described, to an audience of writers and their guests, the importance of language in enacting violence, enacting a Judith Butler-esque critique of the violence inflicted on language by authoritarian regimes like those of Trump and Putin – for example by undermining or attempting to redefine phrases such as ‘fake news’ and ‘safe space’. They raised a laugh among the audience about the fact that, as they shrewdly pointed out, ‘witch-hunts cannot actually be carried out by losers, the agent of the witch hunt must have power.’ Their point was serious and their discussion a masterclass in the techniques of authoritarian power from a writer who had experienced it first-hand. 

They continue to be active on free expression issues through PEN and also write regularly about LGBT and particularly Trans* rights in the United States and beyond. 

PEN itself is becoming increasingly active on LGBT and Trans* issues across the world, promoting the work of Trans* writers and speaking up for Trans* rights in countries such as Belarus, Hungary and Russia, as well as America

Gessen’s latest book, Autocracy: Rules for Survival – based on the influential New York Timespiece is out now. 

#100PENMembers No. 60: Vera Brittain

Author of Testament of Youth, her account of life as a nurse in World War One, Vera Brittain was a highly influential member of English PEN throughout her long life, working to assist refugees during World War Two and taking part in free expression campaigns for years afterward.

Vera Brittain

Brittain was also a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union, started in Britain in 1934 by Dick Sheppard to ‘renounce war and never again to support another.’ By the late-1930s, Brittain’s membership of the PPU would put her at odds with PEN policy.

In 1940, Storm Jameson and Hermon Ould, on behalf of English PEN, published a declaration in newspapers around the world entitled ‘To the Conscience of the World’. It urged ‘all those who have still the liberty to speak and to think’ to ‘make it clear to people in your country that we with our allies are not fighting only for ourselves but for the belief we share with every man of any race or religion, who holds that men should respect each other and minds should be free.’ It was signed by a number of influential PEN members including Storm Jameson, H.G. Wells, J.B. Priestley, Cecil Day Lewis, E.M. Forster, Rebecca West and Vera Brittain.

However, some PEN members who were also pacifists took exception to this stance. In November 1940, Ould wrote to Brittain, that another PEN member, a Pacifist named Horace Shipp, had protested the document at the recent English PEN Executive meeting, and suggested that Brittain supported him in this view.

He had, Ould explained, ‘told the Executive Committee that you had written to him in support of his attitude.’ Ould, ever diplomatically, writes ‘it would interest me, and I expect, that Committee, to know exactly what you did say, as I cannot imagine you signed an appeal without knowing what you were signing.’

Brittain admitted that she had been hasty in signing the letter and admitted that she had not agreed with ‘every detail’ but that she ‘was anxious to associate myself with PEN, which I regard as an influence for peace’.

Brittain’s error highlighted a major faultline in Engish PEN and, indeed, among most Britons and Americans in the late 1930s: Should Britain appease Hitler if it might somehow keep the peace in Europe or should it go to war to defend its Allies and values?

The statement made clear English PEN’s support of the war in a way that a founding member of the Peace Pledge Union could not possible countenance. Peace campaigners on both sides of the Atlantic weighed in to condemn Brittain’s involvement.

This marked a serious rift between Brittain and Storm Jameson, then President of English PEN. Jameson had been a pacifist and campaigned alongside Brittain earlier in the decade, but in more recent years, she had come to see war as an inevitable and necessary evil, to rid the world of Nazism. Jameson – typically hard-headed – put little stock in the protests of Shipp and Brittain ‘one of whom had signed the Appeal without reading it, and the other without agreeing with it.’ As she put it.

The ‘Appeal’ would not be revised or withdrawn. The organisation would not support the appeasement of Hitler, but it would support those affected by escalations in hostilities.

Brittain brushed over the incident, close enough in her friendship to Jameson to understand there was little chance of changing her mind. 

Nonetheless she donated generously to the PEN Refugee Fund set up by Ould and Jameson, and she organised, with Phyllis Bentley, numerous social events at her home for refugee writers which continued into the 1950s. The parties offered opportunities for the writers to meet each other, to form friendships and to make contact with British writers and publishers who might be able to promote their work.

She was also an active campaigner on a range of issues, from starving children in war-torn to Europe to her later work encouraging links between English and Indian writers.

#100PENMembers No.59: John Ralston Saul

John Ralston Saul is a Canadian writer, philosopher and political activist.

John Ralston Saul. Image by Gianluca Battista.

Highly active in the organisation for decades, he was President of Canadian PEN from 1990-1992, President of PEN International from 2009-2015 and is now President Emeritus, using his position to speak out on a range of issues.

Never afraid of controversy or of tackling difficult issues, Ralston Saul has been at the centre of some of PEN’s most important recent moments.

In a 2018 interview with the our team, he remembered a meeting with Mexican politicians about journalists in jail. Ralston Saul recalls: ‘Almost immediately [the Minister] said: “I don’t know why you are here to try to stand up for these, unprofessional part-time people who say they’re journalists. They don’t even have a journalist card.”

‘In other words, “you’re very grand people, what are you doing defending these miserable, unprofessional whatever…”

Ralston Saul simply responded:‘We represent every writer in Mexico from Carlos Fuentes to these unknown volunteer part-time journalists up on the border. Every one of them equally. And we can ask every Nobel Prize winner in the world to stand up for either Carlos Fuentes or for that part-time journalist. And they will stand up! That’s how we work.’

He was also part of the group who pushed for Chinua Achebe’s Presidency in 1989, believing – rightly, in retrospect – that it was time for an International President from Africa.

‘He was a great man and of course a great writer. […] So he didn’t quite win, but that was the first step in what were a series of very interesting politics which led to a series of big changes and the modernisation of PEN. 

‘A first step to becoming the kind of organisation that it is now – far more democratic, far more international. A lot of people worked very hard for 10-15 years to make that happen.’

This notion of internationalism is central to Ralston Saul’s work with the organisation and he describes how, in terms of the Presidency of PEN International ‘I was basically elected by Latin America, Africa, Asia – I’m simplifying. But people know that even though I am what I am, I was going to carry the cause of the real internationalisation of the organisation.’

With this came a determination to travel to PEN Centres across the world, from the most large, established and celebrated centre to the smallest and least know, often finding he was the first President to visit and that writers were amazed that he had come to hear their views and experiences.

It also underpinned his work – alongside Director of PEN International Carles Torner and his successor to the International Presidency Jennifer Clement – on linguistic rights within the organisation.

In his final speech as International President he said: ‘It has been a privilege to serve this cause – the cause of pen. I will now return in the ranks and, like all members, I will continue with them, to serve.’

We spoke to John Ralston Saul in 2018 about these incidents as well as about Facebook, privacy law and a writer’s responsibility:

Read John Ralston Saul Interview Part One

Read Interview Part Two.

#100PENMembers No.58: Marie Stopes

Marie Stopes was born in 1880 and was an author, scientist and campaigner for women’s rights.

Marie Stopes (Photo: Marie Stopes International, Australia)

Her links to English PEN may not be obvious but she became a member when leading British newspapers refused to run adverts for her books on sex and contraception because they thought that they were immoral.

Stopes became a key PEN case during these years, as PEN Secretary Hermon Ould offered help and advice whilst she fought censorship as she campaigned for women’s rights.

Stopes opened the first birth control clinic in Britain in but it was her sex manual Married Love (1918) which caused huge controversy in the press and beyond.

The book and the controversy around it brought birth control into the public discourse and proved groundbreaking in terms of women’s rights, sex education and access to family planning in the UK.

She went on to write a number of publications on birth control and sexual fulfilment for women and men including Sex and the Young (1926), Enduring Passion (1928) and Change of Life in Men and Women (1936). She also wrote poetry.

Stopes’ books as advertised in the PEN News publication

Stopes attended the 1941 PEN Congress, speaking about literature and life after the war but it was the organisation’s experience of running free expression campaigns that she really needed.

On 5thAugust 1947 she wrote to Ould asking for help providing documents to the Royal Commission on the Press, to raise issues of her treatment.

Addressing the Commission, Stopes argued that the restriction of her publications, which had been carried by the Times since the 1920s but had been recently omitted, was a free expression issue: ‘Considering the Freedom of the Press to be the very life blood of English Liberties, I lay the following verifiable facts before the Press Commission because I feel that they indicate that form some points of view the Freedom of the British Press is violated.’

Stopes’ activism had some more sinister undertones and was linked to eugenics and ideas of racial engineering which were gaining popularity at the time. However, in conversations with the editor, as she describes to Ould, it became clear that ‘birth control was the stumbling block’ and not racial politics, and that several of her works were regularly being banned and even burned in Ireland.

Stopes believed that she was being prevented from testifying to the Commission in person in order to impede her case.

They also refused to publish her testimony as part of making proceedings public and declared the issue concluded.

English PEN’s Executive Committee wrote to the Royal Commission in November 1949  but the Commission replied that Stopes’ committed her evidence too late and that, while it would be considered, she would not be asked to attend in person. They regarded the matter as concluded.

In January 1950 after many years of campaigning, the English PEN Executive Committee answered Stopes letter but only to say that they considered‘that such editors are within their rights, however prejudiced their decisions might be. They added that the President (Desmond MacCarthy) was anxious to convey his sense of the social importance of your work.’

The banning of these advertisements, they conclude, is a commercial decision, rather than a free expression issue.

Stopes disagreed responding ‘the PEN is eager to help the oppressed in other countries, why do they do nothing for me?”

Nonetheless the Stopes organisation was hugely successful in opening clinics offering birth control and contraceptive advice all over the world throughout the twentieth century. This work continues to this day. However, the legacy of Stopes’ racism and eugenicism has tarnished and undermined its legacy and it has since been renamed MSI International in an effort to distance the organisation’s good works from the deeply problematic views of its founder.

#100PENMembers No.57: Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is an award-winning novelist and committed member of PEN America.

Photo Credit: Dominique Nabokov

Her first novel, White Teeth won the Guardian First Book Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction and she has since enjoyed huge success with novels such as The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012) and Swing Time (2016).

A writer with a significant international profile and a reputation for her thoughtful interventions in contemporary debates, from feminism to race, English nationalism to literary culture itself, she is a frequent contributor to PEN Campaigns and activities.

At the PEN World Voices Festival in 2006 she spoke about how ingrained in a tradition of dead, white male authors she felt and considered the politics of being considered a postcolonial writer. Whilst admitting that many of her early influences were the famous white men whose work dominated her school and university syllabi, she mused: ‘When I first read Virginia Woolf I felt pleasure that she was a genius, but also great relief that she was a genius, because she was a woman.’

Smith also contributed to PEN America’s tribute to Toni Morrison New Daughters of Africa, in 2019. In the piece, she described the gradual impact of groundbreakers like Morrison on her own life and writing. She remembers her mother’s close friend the Ghanaian-born publisher Margaret Busby publishing Daughters of Africa in 1992, featuring writing by Morrison. She goes on: ‘A year after that, Morrison won the Nobel Prize. A year after that, I went to university to embark on a course of English Literature which included not a single daughter of Africa nor any sons either. Change was a long time coming, but Morrison stayed out front, leading us into the future, like a pilot light.’

She remembers this ‘pilot light’ as a school girl in London: ‘It’s hard now, in 2019, to recreate or describe the bottomless need she answered. There was no “black girl magic,” in London, in 1985. Indeed, as far as the broader culture was concerned, there was no black girl anything, outside of singing, dancing, and perhaps running.’ 

Smith admires Morrison’s strength to carry the burden of this expectation, of being the black female author, the one who stood as a beacon to all of those young black school girls all over the world. Movingly, Smith describes herself as not only a daughter of Africa but one of many ‘daughters of Morrison.’

In 2014, she joined other #100PENMembers Orhan Pamuk and Salman Rushdie in adding their name to a call from English PEN and PEN International to prevent the Turkish government from blocking access to Twitter and thus further censoring debate in the country.

Pamuk, the Turkish writer who had helped to coordinate the event commented at the time that the situation for writers in the country ‘is going from bad to worse and even towards terrible.’

She continues to campaign on these issues and to speak out. Ever industrious, Smith used the first lockdown to pen a collection of essays Intimations taking in a range of topics from racism to the inequalities highlighted by Covid. In the book she attacked UK and US responses to the pandemic.

Smith continues to be an active and vocal advocate on issues of free speech, race and inequality all over the world, both in her fiction and beyond.

#100PENMembers No. 56: Mothobi Mutloatse

Mothobi Mutloatse chaired the most significant experiment in the history of South African PEN during the apartheid years. 

Founded in 1927, South African PEN, which had two English centres, one in Cape Town, the other in Johannesburg, was the first branch of the new international association established in Africa. An Afrikaans affiliate also emerged in the 1930s, though it disaffiliated in 1967.

Despite PEN’s inclusive official membership rules, the South African branches remained almost wholly white, a perennially vexed issue which eventually led Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer to renounce their membership of the Johannesburg centre in 1971. 

After a period in the doldrums, when it was largely defunct, the centre was eventually revived under Mutloatse’s chairmanship in 1978. It had strong backing at the international level from Gordimer, Per Wästberg, the President of Swedish PEN, and Wole Soyinka, a key figure in the Union of Writers of the African Peoples (1975-89).

The new centre brought together members of the more radical writers’ groups that had previously kept their distance from PEN: the white-led Artists’ and Writers Guild, the anti-apartheid Afrikaanse Skrywersgilde, and a number of community arts groups in the black townships around Johannesburg, including the banned Medupe Writers’ Association and the Creative Youth Association of Diepkloof, Soweto. 

The new grouping was also closely linked to Staffrider (1978-1993) – co-edited by Mutloatse – the most adventurous and significant literary magazine of the apartheid era. The issue for March 1979 carried this note, detailing, among other things, the difficulties community groups, like the Creative Youth Association, faced and the high point of PEN’s solidarity with black writers in the apartheid years.

As a genuinely non-racial grouping, the revived Johannesburg centre represented a decisive break with SA PEN’s past, though, as Gordimer commented, the alliance was fragile. ‘It is such a delicate fabric that we have managed to weave crisscross,’ she wrote in a letter, ‘we are aware that a snagged fingernail could rip it.’ The ‘snag’ proved to be the wider political climate of the time that made co-operation across racial lines untenable.

This was, after all, not just the era of Black Consciousness in South Africa, but a period of intense state repression, following Steve Biko’s murder at the hands of the police in September 1977. In the circumstances, it was decided to disband the centre in January 1981.

The key black members, including Mutloatse, Sipho Sepamla and Miriam Tlali, then formed the African Writers’ Association, which was not aligned to International PEN. The only other non-racial writer’s group to emerge in the apartheid era, the Congress of South African Writers (COSAW), founded in 1987, also remained outside PEN.

A PEN membership form published in Staffrider (July/August 1978).

#100PENMembers No.55: Josep Batista I Roca

Josep Maria Batista I Roca was a Catalán writer, historian and activist who was a key member of Catalán PEN and campaigned against censorship in Spain under Franco’s government.

Born in Barcelona in 1895, he attended Oxford University cementing a lifetime affiliation with Britain. However the most useful alliance that he made during this period was in visiting Dublin where he became captivated by the Irish nationalist movement, an interest which underpinned his work as an early advocate for Catalán culture and independence.

Although he was active during the Spanish Civil War – hoping that it might culminate in a free and independent Catalán state – he fled to London in 1938, leading a band of refugees to the border where he wrote to Hermon Ould for aid.

English PEN scrambled resources to bring Batista I Roca and the refugees to England.

By end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 Batista I Roca was working as Professor of History at Trinity College, Cambridge where he investigated the historic links between the English and the Cataláns and founded the Anglo- Catalán Society. Throughout his time in Britain, he made the case to the English and other Europeans for a Catalán state. In 1940 he was secretary of the Consejo Nacional de Cataluña  and travelled to London under Carles Pi I Sunyer, the head of PEN Club Catalán to the PEN London Congress. He took a very active role in PEN throughout his life, making the case for Catalán independence through the organisation and fighting for Catalán writers persecuted and silenced under Franco.

He was a key organiser and activist for Spanish writers within PEN. He organised a Spanish writers’ boycott of the Pasternak protests in 1958 in order to draw attention to the plight of writers in Spain, which he felt were being neglected. As he put it, ‘the Spanish writers thought it made no sense for them to sign against the Russians for their treatment of Mr Pasternak when nobody has expressed any concern about the way they are treated by the Spanish Francoist authorities.’

The Catalán Centre followed up this protest by submitting a series of detailed reports listing the persecution of Spanish and Catalán writers by the totalitarian government in Spain. Writing to the International Executive Committee in 1959, they stated that ‘it is hoped that some practical expression of concern will ensue from this grave violation of the freedom of expression and of the rights of writers stated in the P.E.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, and the fundamental documents and resolutions of UNESCO and UNO, of which Spain is a member.’

The reports detailed the state censorship of all books and periodicals, with ecclesiastical censorship resulting in the banning of the philosopher Ortega y Gasset’s work as anti-religious. They described the licenses for which publishers must apply in order to print books and separate ones for retailers which may dictate where and how a writers’ work might be sold and displayed. They outlined the purges of public libraries by ecclesiastical censors and lists the hefty fines levelled at writers and publishers. They also outlined restrictions on the receipt of foreign books, even by private citizens. The receipt of foreign books could lead to a citizen being placed on a government watch list. The reports are supported by a resolution by Catalán PEN insisting that PEN International take action on behalf of their Spanish colleagues.

Batista I Roca returned from exile in 1976 and continued to work for the Catalán cause within Spain and within PEN International. He died in 1978 and his personal library was given to the Biblioteca de Cataluña (Library of Cataluña), in total he donated around 1400 individual documents about history, but more especially, the history of Cataluña.

#100PENMembers No.54: Nawal El Saadawi

Today we interrupt our #100PENMembers pay tribute to a very special PEN Member, Nawal El Saadawi the highly influential novelist, feminist, activist and doctor, who died this weekend.

Described by Simone de Beauvoir as ‘Egypt’s most radical woman’, El Saadawi wrote 40 books translated into many languages, which became best sellers across the world.

She founded the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and the Arab Association for Human Rights and viewed these two struggles as mutually informing.

Born in Egypt in 1931, as a child she suffered female genital mutilation. These experiences galvanised her lifelong pursuit of equal rights for women and her campaigning against FGM. However, her parents took care to educate all of their children and she went on to study medicine at the University of Cairo. Her studies and experiences became her first book Memoirs of a Woman Doctor (1958). She went on to become the Director of the Government Health Education Department.

In 1972 she published Women and Sex, which became a foundational text of Second Wave feminism and which pointed toward an intersectional understanding of women’s oppression, one which took in gender alongside class, race and imperialist oppressions.

It also marked one of the first critiques of FGM. 

Speaking to the Guardian in 2010, she said: ‘For me feminism includes everything. It is social justice, political justice, sexual justice . . . It is the link between medicine, literature, politics, economics, psychology and history. Feminism is all that. You cannot understand the oppression of women without this.’

The controversy around this highly influential text led to her dismissal from her post as Director of Health Education. She continued to publish both novels and critical work, laying out the field of postcolonial feminist theory as she went, setting her sights on the overlapping influences of capitalism, patriarchal oppression, imperialism, class struggle and racial discrimination on the lives of women in the Middle East and beyond.

El Saadawi herself, incidentally, contested the term ‘postcolonial’ arguing that ‘postcolonial is as if we are finished with the colonial. We are neo-colonial.’

In 1981 El Saadawi was arrested and imprisoned for crimes against the state, for her vocal critique of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

During this period, she wrote Memoirs From The Women’s Prison and formed the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association. She wrote with an eyebrow pencil on toilet paper, observing that ‘Danger has been a part of my life ever since I picked up a pen and wrote. Nothing is more perilous than truth in a world that lies.’

In 1988 Saadawi was forced to flee Egypt after threats by Islamists for her outspoken views. She taught for several years at universities across the United States. In 1996 she moved back to Egypt. 

Her work continued to shock, leading to several unsuccessful court cases, one to forcibly dissolve her marriage on religious grounds and one to strip her of her Egyptian nationality.

She delivered PEN’s Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture in 2009. During that lecture she recounted her time in jail, remembering: ‘in prison the jailers come in every day to my cell and they inspect my cell looking for a piece of paper and a pen and the head of them used to tell me: “if I find paper and pen, in your cell it is more dangerous than if I find a gun”.’

She told the audience of rapt PEN Members with characteristic verve and humour: ‘You see how writing, how the pen is important? How powerful if it is used against injustice against hypocrisy against lies? If the pen is used with responsibility, with freedom, then we can change the world.’

Her activism continued until the end of her life, despite frequent death threats, and threats of imprisonment. She was involved in the Tahrir Square demonstrations in 2011 and went on to address conferences across the world speaking about the events of the Arab Spring and feminism.

A huge influence on feminist thought, on human rights and a tireless campaigner for PEN and other organisations, Nawal El Saadawi was a definitive voice in her lifetime and a huge loss to the international community.

#100PENMembers No. 53: John Lehmann

John Lehmann, editor, publisher, writer was a central figure in British literary life and an active member of English PEN.

His sister, the writer Rosamund Lehmann was President of English PEN but John carefully avoided taking on official PEN duties, although he did serve on the Writers in Prison Committee.

Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Lehmann founded New Writingthe London Magazine and after a spell with Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, his own press, John Lehmann Limited. He also wrote poems and a number of memoirs. Perhaps the most intriguing and notable of his writings was his novel, In the Purely Pagan Sense (1976), a thinly-disguised memoir of the life of a gay man coming of age in early twentieth century Britain. Its unselfconsciously joyous account of homosexual love and lust, of sensual pleasure and the pursuit of true and lasting love through Berlin, Vienna and wartime London, makes it a little-known classic.

He was an attendee of the 1941 wartime congress in London, when almost 800 guests from across the world braved the conditions of London in the Blitz to demonstrate the solidarity of the world literary community in the face of Nazi brutality and censorship. As Lehmann himself wrote in his autobiography, it was ‘a demonstration against the Axis not merely because it was held in battered London and attended by so many distinguished writers from the free world, but also because the refugee writers from occupied Europe who were settled in England used it to send out their challenge to the military masters of their homelands.’

Lehmann was a regular contributor to the PEN Refugee Fund and even set up – as an offshoot of the hugely successful New Writing – a journal for refugee writers, the rather-short-lived Daylight which was integrated into New Writing after its first issue.

He also worked for the Ministry of Information in Britain, reporting back on his liaisons with Russian publishers and editors.

This connection to Russia also played out in Lehmann’s connection to PEN. Lehmann was part of the committee that helped to transferArthur Koestler’s Fund for Intellectual Freedom, designed to support anti-Communist writers in Soviet countries and to help them to publish in the West, over to PEN in the early 1950s. 

Lehmann was also a Vice President of another organisation, COMES Comunita Europea Degli Scrittori [European Writers Community] which was dragged into debates between PEN and the Soviet Writers Union in 1964. In this instance, Alexei Surkov General Secretary of the Soviet Writers Union and regular correspondent of David Carver, had accused PEN in a newspaper article of censoring and ostracising their Soviet members and of being ‘out-of-work Trotskyites, turncoats from Communist parties, renegades of every description, and suchlike rabble’, in league with the CIA to conspire against socialist countries. He cited COMES as his allies in this attack, quoting Giancarlo Vigorelli, the leader of the organisation, as telling his committee that ‘Anti-Communists are just as bad as fascists and Nazis’ and calling for them to be expelled from COMES. Lehmann, as a longstanding member of both COMES and PEN was called in to invigilate between the two organisations. He facilitated several meetings between the two which led to a closer relationship, particularly when it came to protesting the mistreatment of Soviet writers. Lehmann helped to coordinate, in this case, collaborations between the two organisations in the cases of Sinyavsky and Daniel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Lehmann remained an active PEN member until the end of his life.

#100PENMembers No. 52: Bertrand Russell

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. 

Photo: Yousuf Karsh (1949)

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.