When Writer = Activist

A great writer is like a second government in his country. That’s why no regime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In 1966, the Soviet writer Andrei Sinyavsky was sentenced to seven years of hard labor for writings he had published abroad. In one of his stories, writers tore their novels into bits and “conscientiously flushed [them] down the drain every morning” only to have them caught in a “special dragnet or sieve underneath each house,” to be pieced together by the secret police and delivered to the prosecutor’s office.Surreal, yes, but not that far from Soviet reality. Writers who deviated from the party line were accused of decadence, “formalism,” or anti-Soviet propaganda. Their homes were bugged and searched; their manuscripts were seized and destroyed. Many writers ended up in the Gulag.

It is sometimes said that oppressive governments are bad for people but good for writing. In the Soviet Union, where more writers were imprisoned than in all other countries combined, a wealth of excellent, important literature was produced. Some of it was smuggled abroad, some was painstakingly typed for samizdat distribution, some was hidden “in the drawer.” Imprisoned writers like Solzhenitsyn, deprived of pen and paper, committed whole books to memory, to be written down after their release.

Writers in Solzhenitsyn’s time were isolated figures, not knowing whom to trust in a police state that rebuffed all outside criticism. Then, in the 1970s, the international human rights movement took shape, turning the spotlight on government repression, not only in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe but in other parts of the world where writers like Reza Baraheni in Iran, Jacobo Timerman in Argentina, and Wole Soyinka in Nigeria were imprisoned and tortured. Indigenous human rights groups formed and struggled to get information out. Writers often joined such groups, helping to compile reports on government abuse. Writers became activists and activists became writers.

Some writers also became political figures, like Vaclav Havel, who was censored and imprisoned under the Czechoslovak government, then rushed into the presidency by popular acclaim when the Communists fell from power. Havel assumed public office with reluctance: “I am a writer, not a politician,” he told me just one month before the Velvet Revolution began. “I would like being a kingmaker, but not a king.” History had it otherwise.In the past decade or so, digital technology and social media have transformed literary activism. Many governments have tried to censor the Internet, among them Cuba, China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam.Yet critiques of abusive governments appear regularly in online publications, in blogs, and on Facebook and Twitter. They spread around the world in the blink of an eye. Their authors may be arrested, but their writings are out there, forever.


The Hellman-Hammett program was established by Human Rights Watch in 1990, funded by a bequest from writers Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett and aimed at aiding writers in trouble. A committee of prominent American writers, publishers, editors, and human rights workers received applications and awarded grants. At first the awards went to literary writers, then the mandate expanded to include human rights activists penalized for their reporting. In recent years, musicians, cartoonists, bloggers and other contributors to social media were included. The awards offered a form of protection. Though the grants were small, they provided both material and moral support for writers and their families.

This magazine highlights some of the many accomplishments of the Hellman-Hammett grants over a 25-year span. Sadly, the funds ran out in 2015. The need remains as great as ever, as writers throughout the world continue to risk their freedom, and often their lives, by refusing to remain silent in the face of repression.


Jeri Laber describes the founding of Human Rights Watch in her memoir The Courage of Strangers: Coming of Age with the Human Rights Movement.

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