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to writers and scholars − the printed word published in a little magazine. Soon, the advantages and benefits of fighting oppression from a dedicated bastion of free expression became obvious to both sides, free and unfree alike.
Index, whose first issue appeared in 1972, declared that its aim was to ‘record and analyse all forms of inroads into freedom of expression’. Further, it would ‘examine the censorship situation in individual countries’ and would publish ‘censored material in the journal’. In the long and bloody history of the fight for intellectual freedom there had been many impassioned statements of principle about the writer’s role as a piece of grit in the engine of the state. No one, however, had ever thought to jam a whole toolbox into the machinery of power, and place a fully-funded institution (such as WSI) in direct opposition to the repressive intentions of despotic regimes. This was the unique and historic importance of Index. But its success was not a foregone conclusion. Spender, its founder, was fully alert to the potential for windbaggery and failure inherent in such a venture. There was, he wrote, ‘the risk that the magazine will become simply a bulletin of frustration’.
Actually, the opposite came to pass. Index became a clarion voice in the cause of free expression. The abuses of freedom worldwide in the 1970s were so appalling and so widespread that the magazine rapidly found itself in the frontline of campaigns against repression and censorship in Russia, Czechoslovakia, Latin America and South Africa. Alongside Amnesty International and the PEN Club, Index gave vivid expression to the truth that ‘censorship’ today takes many cruel forms: writers who are sent to labour camps, or blackmailed by threats to their families, or harassed into silence and isolation.
Perhaps the most important thing Index did, from the beginning, was to universalise an issue that was in peril of becoming a special interest: freedom was not ‘a luxury enjoyed by bourgeois individualists’. Along with self-expression, it was a human right, and an instrument of human consciousness that should be fought for worldwide.
uu 1977 – Czechoslovakia
Charter 77 (Charta 77), an informal civil initiative promoting freedom of opinion and expression, is drafted. Signatories include Czech playwright Václav Havel. The document becomes a template for future campaigns to support free speech around the world. grit in the engine
Historically, the classic polemical statement against censorship, John Milton’s Areopagitica, a pamphlet against the Licensing Order of 1643, had focused on the English Parliament’s threat to a free press. Milton, writing in the midst of Civil War, was less worried about blood than ink: ‘Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image,’ he writes, ‘but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.’ Three centuries later, Index would concern itself with both the breath of the oppressed writer but also the lifeblood of liberty, namely, free expression.
In an astonishingly short time, barely a generation, from 1972 to 1989, the magazine established itself as a force to be reckoned with. At first, it took up the issue that had inspired its beginnings: Soviet oppression. In defence of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Index published part of a long, autobiographical poem, ‘God Keep Me from Going Mad’, composed in 1950-53 while Solzhenitsyn was serving a sentence in a labour camp in North Kazakhstan, the setting for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. This was followed by a scoop in 1973, the unexpurgated text of an interview Solzhenitsyn had given to AP and Le Monde in which the writer revealed that ‘preparations are being made to have me killed in a motor accident’.
The importance of this document, one of the writer’s very rare accounts of his predicament, is that it described in horrifying and particular detail the true nature of the Soviet regime’s campaign against him, especially the constant surveillance and the unrelenting menace of the state’s agents. Solzhenitsyn was also able to draw attention to the persecution of Andrei Sakharov. In the bleakest depths of the Cold War, taking up the cause of Russia’s dissident community made the difference between international recognition and utter oblivion.
As the magazine grew in confidence, it began to focus on other, related injustices behind the Iron Curtain, notably in Czechoslovakia (as it was). It was among the first to publish the banned playwright Václav Havel in English. In 1976, a retrospective on Czechoslovakia eight years after the Soviet invasion of Prague described how Havel was being ‘constantly harassed and persecuted by the authorities’, the beginning (as it turned out) of a long assault on Havel’s liberty.
When Charter 77 was formed the following year, Index became a vital link in the chain of communication between the samizdat literary community in Prague and the wider world. The exiled Czech journalist George Theiner, who succeeded Michael Scammell as editor, strengthened this link. Context and continuity, the steady accumulation of a body of work and opinion, are vital ingredients in any effective campaign on behalf of oppressed writers. Index now provided both a sober and authoritative framework for its protest and