The Alexander Herzen Foundation against censorship in the Soviet Union

'...any citizen of any country should have under any circumstances at any time the possibility of expressing any opinion'. Karel van het Reve, 1969
When censorship and repression made life for dissident writers in the Soviet Union impossible in 1969, the Alexander Herzen Foundation was established in Amsterdam to publish Russian literature and texts that could not be openly published in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union

Picture postcard sent by Van het ReveWhen the sixties came to an end, international politics were still dominated by the controversy between western democracies led by the US and the communist peoples' democracies led by the Soviet Union. Tensions had somewhat alleviated compared to the situations during the Korean War (1950-1953), Berlin (1961), and the Cuba crisis (1962). In the course of the 1960s a cautious détente began despite the Vietnam conflict and the intervention of the Warsaw pact in Czechoslovakia in 1968. In the west the youth arose to rebel against the 'establishment'. Some of the activists were sympathetic to communism. Although in communist countries there was also a protest movement, its voice was smothered and weak. The right to protest was indisputable nearly everywhere in the west and press freedom was one of the central values of democracy.
In the Soviet Union and its satellites this was not the case. The media were muzzled, and daily news items, scientific essays, and literature all had to pass the censor. Individual dissidents were persecuted, banned from their profession, interned in psychiatric institutions, or banished to Siberia. As Soviet law officially allowed freedom of opinion and speech, the Soviet regime tried to prevent lawsuits as much as possible. Some people in the Soviet Union refused to comply with this situation and sought ways to publish and distribute texts without interference by the authorities. Being able to publish in the west was essential, as Soviet authorities could longer deny the existence of dissidents as long as they had a voice abroad. The work of the Alexander Herzen Foundation was crucial in this respect.


Jan Willem Bezemer and Professor Bruno BeckerThe Alexander Herzen Foundation was an initiative of Karel van het Reve, Jan Willem Bezemer, Frank Fisher, and his wife Elisabeth Fisher-Spanjer. Both Bezemer and Van het Reve had been in touch with the Soviet regime. Bezemer, professor of Russian history at the University of Amsterdam, and Van het Reve, professor of Slavonic literature in Leiden, had been Moscow correspondents for Het Parool in 1963 and 1967-68, respectively. Especially Van het Reve had become acquainted with Russian dissident circles. Probably his background - having been raised in an orthodox communist milieu that he left at the end of the 1940s - made him very well suited to contact dissidents. He knew the style of argumentation of communist authorities and had an elementary knowledge of such illegal practices as secret handling of manuscripts.
One important event was the 'Process of the Four' in January 1968. During this court case Yuri Galanskov, Aleksander Ginzburg, Aleksej Dobrovolsky, and Vera Lashkova were sued for anti soviet agitation and propaganda. The authorities allowed no one to enter the courtroom. Because the weather was bitterly cold and a demonstration in front of the court building was a worst case scenario, people were allowed to stay in the hall. There, secretly pictures were made of all those present. Next day the ceremony was repeated, probably because the pictures were of bad quality. Strong light bulbs had been substituted for dim ones. During this court case, Van het Reve met the young historian Andrej Amalrik and they became friends. In June 1968 Amalrik gave Van het Reve the manuscript "Thoughts about progress, peaceful coexistence, and intellectual freedom," which had been written by Andrej Sacharov. Het Parool was the first to publish the work in the west (6 and 13 July 1968).
In 1986 Van het Reve revealed that Emmy Verhey, violinist on tour in the Soviet Union, had unknowingly smuggled the manuscript from Moscow to the Netherlands.
The publication of Sacharov's text ruined the façade of unity in the Soviet Union. Someone from the heart of the establishment, an honored and much decorated man of science, "father of the Russian H-bomb", spoke out against the authorities.
Van het ReveBack in the Netherlands Van het Reve met Mr and Mrs Fisher-Spanjer in October 1968. They were very upset about the intervention of the Soviets in Czechoslvakia and wanted to organize aid for the repressed there. In this first meeting, the texts of the Russian dissidents already in the possession of Van het Reve were also discussed. Elisabeth Fisher-Spanjer was asked by Van het Reve to find publishers, and she proceeded tactfully and successfully. Her husband Frank Fisher took the initiative, taking care to use the auspices of an institution to promote these activities. Thus, the Alexander Herzen Foundation came into being in 1969.

Alexander Herzen Foundation

Elisabeth Fisher-Spanjer, Andrej Sacharov, and Alosha Bonner The goal of the Alexander Herzen Foundation, named after the Russian exile and writer Alexander Herzen, who had been forced by the czarist regime to live and work in London, was to publish dissident Russian texts. These texts had to be explicitly acknowledged and endorsed by the authors themselves. But their clandestine nature and the way they were smuggled into the West meant that they risked mutilation or possibly being returned to the East. The publications were funded by selling the translation rights in the West. The author received two-thirds of the amounts realized from the sale, and the Alexander Herzen Foundation one-third to fund further publications. Jan Willem Bezemer was the chairman, Van het Reve secretary-treasurer, and the British historian Peter Reddaway was the third member of the Foundation. Jozien Van het Reve-Israel was an unoffical fourth member.
Elisabeth Fisher-Spanjer became a very adept literary agent, as she was able to get 18 Russian manuscripts published within 10 years in many translations. Elisabeth Fisher, born Bep Spanjer, was a veteran of leftist movements. She knew the German chancellor Willy Brandt personally and did not hesitate to discuss the fate of the Sacharovs during a meeting with him.

Helsinki Agreement 1975

The Alexander Herzen Foundation at the Frankfurter Book FairRestraint towards the Russian dissidents grew in the first half of the seventies in the West, which was partially motivated by a combination of feelings of opposition towards western society, fear of the powerful Soviet-Union, and the sense that the partition of Europe was now irrefutable. Some people believed that the human rights situation in South Africa was worse than the situation in Russia, others gave priority to the recognition of the German Peoples' Republic. It was felt that criticizing the violation of human rights and the restrictions on the press would have an adverse effect on the Soviet Union. Also criticized was the unbridled arms race by the super powers. A process of détente was started that was hoped would lead to a safer Europe. Diplomacy, conferences, treaties, and declarations finally resulted in the Helsinki Agreement of 1975. Thirty-five countries from both power blocs agreed to cooperate in the field of human rights and in other areas.
A conference that included the ministers of culture from NATO and Warsaw pact nations in June 1972 in Helsinki determined what would be contained in the Helsinki Agreement. In an article by Van het Reve, presented here he reacted to this "pre-conference" of 1972. His contribution (published in Internationale Spectator, 8 April 1973), was discussed at the Atlantic Conference in The Hague (13 April 1973). The declaration of the ministers was criticized because Van het Reve feared that it would enable the Soviets to influence and put restrictions on the free press in the West. As it turned out, however, the Helsinki Agreement helped the Russian dissidents rather than harming them, but this does not diminish Van het Reve's analysis. It testifies to his unquestioning belief in the value of free speech.
Today, his standpoint would be deemed radical, as many of the discussions are now the same as in 1973, and freedom of the press must still be defended in many countries. Even in countries where it would not at first seem to be threatened, it is important to ensure that freedom of the press does not become vulnerable.

Text: Huub Sanders, april 2007


1. With thanks to Els Wagenaar for her kind help. Rob Hartmans allowed access to his biography of Elisabeth Fisher-Spanjer, Alleen in de wind. Een leven in de twintigste eeuw, to be published by Ambo in 2007. I am grateful to the heirs of Karel van het Reve and to the editor of Internationale Spectator for their permission to translate and republish this article.

2. Ger Verrips, Denkbeelden uit een dubbelleven. Biografie van Karel van het Reve (Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 2004)

3. Andrej Dmitrievic Sacharov, Progress, coexistence, and intellectuel freedom. Transl. by the New York Times. With introd., afterword, and notes by H.E. Salisbury.([London]: Deutsch, [1968])

4. Andrej Alecseevic Amal'rik, Haalt de Sovjetunie 1984? With an introduction by Prof.Dr.J.W.Bezemer (Amsterdam [etc.]: Elsevier, 1970)

5. Novoe Russkoe Slovo 27 and 28 March 1999: Report about the Process of the Four by Karel van het Reve.