“I Reserve the Right to Criticize My Friends: Roger Baldwin, the ICPP, and the Publication of Letters from Russian Prisons, 1925

Thursday, January 5, 2017: 1:50 PM
Centennial Ballroom H (Hyatt Regency Denver)
Stuart D. Finkel, University of Florida
Letters from Russian Prisons (1925) was the first major publication of the International Committee for Political Prisoners and by far its most voluminous. It comprised dozens of letters, protests, questionnaires, and other first-hand accounts from Russian political prisoners, primarily members of other socialist parties and anarchists, and their allies and intercessors. Compiled and translated by the well-known anarchist Alexander Berkman and the journalist Isaac Don Levine, this volume was issued by the primarily leftist leaders of the ICPP in part to demonstrate, as Roger Baldwin tried with increasing frustration to explain, that they were not afraid to criticize their “friends.” This paper will examine how the ICPP intervened on behalf of Soviet political prisoners and the sharp criticism that Baldwin and his colleagues faced from Communists and fellow-travelers in response. Particular emphasis will be placed on how the producers of Letters foreshadowed later human rights efforts, attempting to marshal international opinion through the engagement of sympathetic public intellectuals, in several important ways: the curious and provocative inclusion of 22 introductory letters from “well-known European and American authors,” including Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Sinclair Lewis, Rebecca West, and Thomas Mann; the painstaking process of securing affidavits to prove the authenticity of the documents included; and the important direct interactions of the ICPP with Ekaterina Peshkova’s “Aid to Political Prisoners” (also known as the “Political Red Cross”), including for a time helping to fund this Moscow-based organization. The result was an important early moment both in presenting the realities of Soviet political oppression, but also in showing the limitations in this regard after the controversies provoked in the aftermath of the book’s publication.