Roselyne Chenu Talks to Nicolas Stenger about the Congress for Cultural Freedom in Eastern Europe*

Nicolas Stenger: How were you assigned to the so-called “Eastern” European programme?

Roselyne Chenu: In 1965–1966, [Michael] Josselson asked Jeleński1 to take the lead of the programme of seminars within the Congress, a task he gladly accepted (although it became “official” only in December 1967). In agreement with Pierre Emmanuel, he offered me to take over the activities of the Congress he organised under the banner of the Comité d’écrivains et d’éditeurs pour une entraide européenne (European Mutual Aid Committee for Writers and Editors), that is, the sending of books and subscriptions, as well as the management of travel grants.

NS: We haven’t yet talked about Constantin Jeleński.

RCh: He was a very perceptive man, generous with his time, brilliant and attractive –a man of great learning (he was fluent in German, English, French, Italian and Polish). Jeleński was blessed with a particularly sharp intelligence and was sensitive to new ideas and intellectual trends. I first met him in December 1963. […]

In 1953, he established a highly informal “Committee for Central and Eastern Europe” within the framework of the Congress. Its members included a dozen or so Polish, Romanian, Czech, etc. writers, artists and academics, all exiled in France. Its purpose was to help realise a 15–20 minutes long weekly radio broadcast in cooperation with Radiodiffusion française, in order to inform radio listeners in Central and Eastern Europe of important cultural events in Western Europe, which they could not hear of otherwise. In eight years, a material of over a hundred hours was broadcast this way. It enabled the audience to become familiar with the existence and activities of the Congress – a fact that prompted Ilya Ehrenburg to ask the French government to stop these broadcasts. Another task of the committee was to satisfy all requests of documentation or cultural cooperation coming from Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia and the Baltic countries. […]

NS: When and why was the European Mutual Aid Committee for Writers and Editors created?

RCh: It started as a somewhat informal group, with no legal status. It had only a list of names printed on letterheads. Initially, it was called “Books for Eastern Europe”. Then, following a conference organised by the Congress in Zurich in September 1956, it was renamed the “European Mutual Aid Committee for Writers and Editors” […].

NS: Originally, the Committee only dealt with sending books. How were they selected and financed?

RCh: Following the conference in Zurich, the Congress applied for funds to the Ford Foundation to this effect, and was accorded a special grant of 12,000 dollars (c. 95,000 euros). A year later, a German company gave a donation of 20,000 marks (c. 45,000 euros). These funds allowed the Congress to fulfil requests coming from writers and academics for French, English and German books, especially the latest literature in philosophy, contemporary literary history and criticism, sociology, political economy, avant-garde literature and contemporary art. […]

When I was assigned to this programme, in countries of Eastern Europe – regardless of the rigour of the political regime – the “bush telegraph” worked very well; a specific piece of information may have been spread, but many foreign books were not available: either they had not been translated, or were not imported, or were downright banned. People still heard about them and that is how we received requests. Besides, depending on the country and the circumstances, the journals that we regularly sent on subscription were then passed from hand to hand. They thus became topics of discussions and exchanges of views within restricted circles. On occasion, we also sent books to Party members in need of a good read. If someone had asked me for Marx’s Capital in English, French or German, I would have mailed it to them.

NS: How were these mailings organised?

RCh: In the beginning, the requested books were shipped by a bookstore in Paris called Libella, next to the Galerie Lambert – both founded by Kazimierz Romanowicz. Later it was handled directly by the Congress for several years through its publishing company called Liberté de la culture (Freedom of Culture). It was established in the early 1950s and enjoyed a 30 per cent discount at publishers. […]

NS: What kind of books were they?

RCh: Because of the relatively low annual budget available for this programme, we only sent the latest literature of high intellectual value, which was locally unobtainable. But from time to time, certain requests had to be refused in a diplomatic way. […]

There were also subscriptions to papers and journals (Le Figaro, Paris Match, Marie Claire, Le Débat, Critique, Newsweek, Times Literary Supplement, The Economist, and other titles), which reached their destinations with some irregularity. […]

NS: Did these books and journals cross the borders unhindered?

RCh: Sent in small packages and always by registered mail, they generally arrived smoothly. But on occasion they vanished with no explanation – maybe because of postal workers or customs officers hungry for books or seeking to make some money. In 1972, for the first time in many years, some books came back from Hungary (Hungary by Paul Ignotus, Histoire critique de la pensée [The Critical History of Thought] by Louis Jacot) and Romania (Tout compte fait [All Said and Done] by Simone de Beauvoir, Le Mythe de l’éternel retour [The Myth of the Eternal Return] by Mircea Eliade, La Conscience critique [The Critical Conscience] by Georges Poulet, Contre tout espoir [Hope Against Hope] by Nadezhda Mandelstam).

Sometimes we would get a notification in return, something like “Refused under Article 29 of the Tokyo Convention”. It stipulated that “Hungary shall not accept registered items containing tobacco, perfume, oranges and tangerines, as well as publications that jeopardise the political or economic interests of Hungary or its social order. For other publications or films, prior authorisation of the Ministry of Culture is required.”

NS: You were also entrusted with the management of travel grants. Did this programme represent a relatively considerable part of the budget?

RCh: These grants were intended for writers, scholars and artists, and were first awarded in 1959 to Poles and a few Hungarians. […] Save for some exceptions the sums were rather small, ranging from 300 to 1,500 francs (400– 2,000 euros). […]

If the beneficiaries received an exit permit to attend an international symposium lasting a few days, these grants allowed them to extend their stay in Western Europe and do some research in libraries or elsewhere. They could also meet some of their colleagues (which we were able to facilitate), go to museums, the theatre, the cinema. In short, to work, breathe and open their minds. But with time and the help of word of mouth, we received applications from individuals who came to France on their own and landed at Boulevard Haussmann unannounced to request financial support. […] The thing that struck me first was that many of them spoke in a very low voice; the fear of hidden microphones was omnipresent and followed them across borders. We gave them a grant application form to fill in and would evaluate them in a few days. […]

NS: Where did those future grant-holders wish mainly to travel?

RCh: At the time France and Pierre Emmanuel’s aura were so attractive that most of the applicants wanted to come to France. Then many of them took the opportunity to visit also Germany, the UK, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy or Switzerland. But they still needed visas and all the other necessary paperwork to be able to go to the countries of their choice. […]

Depending on the individual and his or her goals, these grants, which in some cases included travel expenses from the countries of origin as well, enabled one to stay for one to three or four weeks, sometimes even longer. […]

Sometimes people asked me for my opinion or advice on whether they should stay or go back. I was always very careful to avoid giving an answer one way or the other. We made it our principle to never, in any manner, encourage anyone to leave one’s country. This is a far too serious and personal question for an outsider to tell a person what he or she should do. To be in exile is always painful. Besides, we had no reason to discourage these grant-holders who could become the engines of an evolution in the political regimes under which they suffered. On the other hand, if someone had decided to emigrate and took that plunge, it was another matter: it was his or her decision, no doubt painful, and therefore we did our best to help.

NS: Let us go back for a moment to your connections with East European intellectuals. How were these contacts established – apart from obviously Poland, where Jeleński already had a network of relationships and contacts?

RCh: There were also, as a good example of complementarity, the contacts of Pierre Emmanuel in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, dating from the autumn of 1947. Besides that, we received requests and feedbacks from persons – emigrated or not – in whom we had full confidence and who were able to advise us on different matters: Jože Javoršek and Sreten Marić for Yugoslavia, Ioan CuȘa for Romania, Véronique Charaire, Ladislas Gara, François Fejtő and Gyula Illyés for Hungary. For Czechoslovakia, Jan Vladislav and Pavel Tigrid – who in 1967 gave us a list of eleven Czech and Slovak individuals to invite, among them “the most important playwright since Karel Čapek”: Václav Havel. We sent him an invitation but he did not get an exit permit.

NS: To have names of possible candidates for these grants, you also contacted some local people.

RCh: Naturally. In March 1971, for instance, I sent a circular letter (by registered mail, on blank paper, with my private address on it) to several of our trusted people in Hungary, Yugoslavia and elsewhere: “Could you recommend us a few people who would be suitable recipients of a travel grant to spend a few weeks in Western Europe? The grants we can offer are of 1,000 francs (c. 1,300 euros) – in exceptional cases they can be as much as 1,500 francs – and are meant to cover travel and accommodation costs. They are not meant for students but for intellectuals – professors, writers, etc. –, creators and artists who do not have the means to travel, in order to give them the opportunity to contact their European colleagues or to do some research.”

Over the years, a veritable network of confidence – sometimes of friendships – was gradually established. In 1974, my mailing list of Eastern Europe had something like four hundred names in it. I still have friendly relations with some of them – or their children – to this day. […]


NS: On 27 April 1966, the international edition of The New York Times published an article on the CIA which mentioned that, among others, the Congress was financed by the Agency. How did the International Secretariat react to this information?

RCh: The effects were rather short-lived – at least on the surface –, due to, among others, the vigorous denials in the American press, signed not only by the Congress itself (namely by Rougemont, the president of the executive committee, and Nicolas Nabokov, secretary-general), but also by J. Kenneth Galbraith, George Kennan, Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Schlesinger and others. And, within the International Secretariat, the reassuring words of John Hunt on his return from New York – where he went immediately – also helped to dispel the tensions. He explained that these articles had appeared in an atmosphere of growing unease in the United States vis-à-vis the Vietnam war. No one had a clear idea of the ins and outs of the government’s policy; intellectuals were strongly critical of their country’s not knowing where it was headed and they blamed secret agencies and organisations for this situation of confusion. This was the reason behind the attacks on all secret actions, including those of the CIA. The New York Times, which was particularly concerned about this “affliction” of American society, wanted the policy of the US to be more transparent and reduce secret actions. Hence the interest in philanthropic foundations, thanks to which the Congress came under the public microscope.

NS: Was Pierre Emmanuel shaken by these revelations?

RCh: Not really. Their inaccuracy was for him an evidence. At the international secretariat everyone forgot about the incident – except for Josselson and Hunt. Foreseeing the coming disaster but unable to discuss it with anyone – which for them was a veritable inner drama –, they worked very hard, like fire-fighters, to put out the fire. They managed to replace the grants previously coming from the Catherwood, Farfield Holmes and Hoblitzelle Foundations and the Miami District Fund – the five transmission channels through which the CIA allocated its funds – by those of the Ford Foundation alone, as John Hunt revealed to me a few years ago.

NS: The activity of the international secretariat thus continued as if nothing had happened. The New York Times however was not a medium with a habit of spreading rumours carelessly.

RCh: Yes indeed. But for us this information seemed so implausible that, once the initial emotion had waned, we forgot about it. Moreover, under the weight of our daily tasks we really had no time to dwell too much on seemingly unlikely rumours. […]

NS: Let us dwell a bit more on February 1967, when the affair came to light.

RCh: On 20 February, Pierre Emmanuel came to my place late in the afternoon. He was green: John Hunt had just informed him of the long articles that appeared in The New York Herald Tribune and The Washington Post of the same day, about the grants paid by the CIA through well-established American foundations. The Congress was listed among the indirect beneficiaries of these grants. This time the information seemed well-founded. […]

Pierre Emmanuel was devastated at the prospect of scandal and the possible and even likely disappearance of the Congress while there was still so much to do… But the following day I saw him, like a Phoenix rising from its ashes, pull himself together and regain his vigour, determined to fight and rescue the ship while part of the team was still in panic. “The moorings are broken but that is no reason to dismast”, he said to me two days later.

NS: In short, he was flabbergasted. And yet I suppose he was not naive.

RCh: No. But having lived with the Congress on a day-to-day basis for more than seven years, he knew what it was like to have absolute freedom, both in spirit and practice. He was completely free to choose which programmes to support. He had no strict guidelines to follow and did not experience any influence that would have aroused the least suspicion that there were orders or control coming from above.

NS: Once things calmed down, how did you adjust?

RCh: We led a sort of double life: we had to not only carry on with ongoing programmes as if nothing had happened but also to prepare an extraordinary general meeting which, on 13 May – the eve of Pentecost –, would have to decide about the lot of the Congress. Two days before the event Pierre Emmanuel, together with Josselson, had drawn up a text that was then put to vote by the members. It was adopted. Next Tuesday we met at his home, with Jeleński and Mercier, to take stock of what to do in the wake of the decision taken on 13 May: not to dissolve, but to reorganise.

NS: During this period, didn’t you yourself have any doubts? Did you think, like Pierre Emmanuel, that despite these revelations, you should carry on the work begun? […]

RCh: While doing my day-to-day tasks and acting upon my initiatives, I had never sensed or experienced the slightest “American control”. Moreover, most of the employees of the International Secretariat, if not all, were against the Vietnam war. But – and we thought this was normal, because of the financial support of American foundations –, Josselson had always sought to ensure that the Congress as such never took a public stance on the policy of the US. This, however, did not prevent individual employees or members of the executive committee from signing, in their personal capacity, texts published in the media that called the American policy into question…

NS: For instance?

RCh: A call for peace by French intellectuals, published in Le Monde on 30 May 1967 – just two weeks after the general assembly held on 13 May to decide on the future of the Congress –, who expressed their hostility towards “American imperialism” (sic). The signatories included Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Pierre Emmanuel, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pastor Charles Westphal. […]

NS: Did the scandal generate anti-American sentiments in Europe?

RCh: Yes and no. There were so many prestigious organisations – both cultural and academic – that, to a lesser or greater extent, benefitted from the grants coming indirectly from the CIA! […] Also, we should not forget that nobody has ever been upset by the fact that in France – as in many other European countries –, the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs finance cultural activities abroad. But the US, having neither a Ministry of Culture, nor a cultural section within the State Department, had only the CIA with the financial means to support cultural programmes outside its borders – and what’s more, without the control or conditions of the American Congress. This is how the American Democrats, who were as much anti-Stalinist as they were anti-McCarthyist, found a way to support organisations like the Congress. In reality – and this was a twist of fate –, the International Association for Cultural Freedom was less free in its choices of programmes when it was sponsored by the Ford Foundation alone than the Congress during the years between 1950 and 1966.


NS: There is an activity of the Congress that we have not yet evoked, namely the publication of anthologies of foreign poetry. You were directly involved in the project of the anthology of Portuguese poetry, which was finally dropped in 1971. Could you talk about it a bit, as well as about the other anthologies?

RCh: On 3 May 1966, Ladislas Gara2 came to see me in the morning. He brought with him a folder containing all the preparatory work on this anthology, as well as all his autographed copies of books by Pierre Emmanuel, and left them to my care under the pretext that his flat was being painted and refurbished. He did not want them damaged, he told me. A week later I understood: he had killed himself during the night of the 9th to the 10th of May. […]

Pierre Emmanuel, together with Gara, was co-director of this collection published at the Editions du Seuil. Therefore I wholeheartedly dedicated myself to this Portuguese project, started two years before, especially since it was Gara who entrusted it to me. And this country became very dear to me.

NS: How was this collection born?

RCh: In the post-war period, the Editions du Seuil, headed by Paul Flamand, had published nearly everything by Pierre Emmanuel. Gara, who for several years had been preparing a remarkable anthology of Hungarian poetry, asked Pierre Emmanuel to adapt a poem by János Pilinszky into French. That marked the beginning of the partnership with Le Seuil, which published this anthology in 1962. The following year Pierre Emmanuel and Gara signed a contract with the publisher, planning a collection of poetry anthologies of several countries that they would direct together. And as with the Hungarian anthology, the directors of the collection would agree with the Congress, and if necessary, with cultural organisations of the countries concerned, to meet expenses of the preparation of the manuscript. The manuscript would be given free of royalties or copyright, the publisher would take on only the costs of publication and circulation. The Congress, either alone or in partnership with the cultural authorities of the countries in question, would bear the costs of preparing the manuscript for publication, which amounted to around 30,000 francs (c. 45,000 euros).

NS: You also had to find good translators.

RCh: Translating was done in two stages. Gara already obtained word-for-word translations into French of the selected poems. They were done by some 20 Hungarians living in France, Belgium or England. Gara then gave them out to about 50 French poets, who had the original texts read aloud to themselves in order to have a feel of their rhythm and musicality and be steeped in them. They then produced poetic renderings based on the word-for-word translations. […]

At the most, half of the material was devoted to classical poetry up to the end of the 19th century, the rest focused on contemporary works. For the latter, choices had to be objective and the selection representative. The literary value of a poem was the only consideration, irrespective of whether the author lived in his or her country or emigrated and lived elsewhere, or whether he or she was appreciated or condemned by the political regime at home. […]


NS: After the events of August 1968, you went to Prague and Bratislava. This marked the beginning of a series of travels east of the Iron Curtain, not only to Czechoslovakia, but also to Hungary and Romania. Why?

RCh: I was very much expected everywhere: when you are confined, visits do you good. Besides, I came back with information that then helped us better address the respective situations and needs of the people we dealt with. […]

NS: In May 1972, you went to Hungary.

RCh: Yes, and my schedule was as packed as that of a minister or a dentist, with many people on my list to meet or see again: acquaintances Pierre Emmanuel made in 1947, 1964 and 1971, and those that I met through Ladislas Gara, as well as Hungarians who received a grant from us or attended one of our conferences. After I came back to Paris, the travel journal I kept there on a daily basis and in the utmost secrecy was read within the Association and by a few people close to it, among others by François Fejtő. When he sent the text back to me, he attached a message saying he rarely read anything that rang so true. It was reassuring.

NS: On this trip, you were received also by the Minister of Culture, György Aczél.3 Was this gesture part of the “détente” […] and a means of establishing an “openness” in the relations between the Association and Eastern Europe?

RCh: Not at all! This had nothing to do with this “détente”, then much in vogue. The meeting was arranged by Gyula Illyés’s wife or daughter, and György Aczél received me in a personal capacity, because of his liking for Pierre Emmanuel whom he had known for several years. The two men had mutual respect for each other, despite their respective functions and situations.

Before leaving Paris, I leafed through Aczél’s book, Culture and Socialist Democracy, published in France not long before. So we were talking about the Council for Cultural Development chaired by Pierre Emmanuel at length. We also compared, in a rather polite manner, the respective cultural policies of the two countries and talked about the young who, here as well as there, already knew what they did not want, but did not yet figure out what they wanted. And it was only in an aside that I mentioned the European Intellectual Mutual Aid Fund [created by the Congress in 1966] and expressed our wish to invite Hungarian writers and artists without them having to deal with problems of passport and exit permits. To this Aczél replied to me: “We are in favour of exchanges and travel, and the present situation is relatively easy in that regard.” He seemed to me a prudish man, concerned about public morals and the meaning one must give to one’s life. He was probably the only high-ranking Communist who dared to say that a work of art could have a value in and of itself – even if it was not meant to build socialist realism. […]


NS: When you left the Association in January 1975, how many people were working at the International Secretariat?

RCh: Eight, one of whom part-time. Various ad hoc tasks were being done by six external consultants, most of whom had been ex-employees. Except for the programme of the Mutual Aid Fund, which for three years was carried on at Boulevard Haussmann in the same spirit and with the same methods, our activities were gradually reduced to encouraging or supporting the studies, workshops and conferences organised by affiliated groups which managed to find additional resources. The Association no more had the means to realise the proposals made by the Steering Committee which, in my opinion, lost both its sense of reality and inspiration, and was unable to keep up with the evolution of the so-called consumer societies. He who grabs too much loses all…

NS: When did the Association disappear?

RCh: On 31 March 1978, like a ship in the sea. The same year – and I think it is symbolic – four of its original pillars also passed away: Michael Josselson on 7 January, Nicolas Nabokov on 6 April, Hans Oprecht on 21 June, Ignazio Silone on 22 August.

Only the European Intellectual Mutual Aid Fund survived, whose personnel, dismissed by the Association, was hired by the Fund itself, thanks to its status of separate legal entity acquired in 1966. It rented an office in the Bastille neighbourhood, and continued its mission thanks to a short-term grant of the Ford Foundation, then to the significant donation by Czesław Miłosz when he received the Nobel Prize in literature in 1980, as well as to the support of the Soros Foundation. This lasted until the events of 1989 and the reunification of Europe. It ceased operations in 1991, following a last conference, symbolically organised in Krakow.

NS: Fifty years later, how do you look back on your years in the Congress for Cultural Freedom?

RCh: With amazement. These years that brought successes and failures alike, gave the most important professional experience of my life: it was an adventure, a commitment with mind and heart, a learning process. Because I met, in Europe and elsewhere, women and men who were ostracised or sanctioned in arbitrary ways for the views they held. And I saw what punishments people who dared to think and act had to suffer: prison, torture, deprivation of civic rights, of books, of identity. Even of writing paper.

To paraphrase the Catalan writer Josep Maria Castellet, I would say that the Congress for Cultural Freedom opened the world to me. This experience was all the more important because in those days there was no clear dividing line between professional life and private life: these two worlds often merged or overlapped. Family and friends also became involved: they facilitated things and took action in different ways, or offered accommodation to scholarship holders or visitors from abroad.

And fifty years later, I am still in touch, in Europe and elsewhere, not only with those who are still alive, but also with the widows and children of the people with whom I worked together or whom we supported in their difficulties and their fights for the freedom of culture.

I still feel the presence of Michael Josselson, to whom Pierre Emmanuel wrote these words in April 1970 – words which I could have written myself: “Our friendship is based on the meaningful work we do together, which is full of rewards and which I am happy to have been able to do by your side. This work taught me a lot and improved me. Without it, I certainly would not have made the progress I was able to make. Know that I will always be grateful to you for it.”

During our conversations, it sometimes occurred to me that there was a certain similarity between Camus and Josselson. In a text on journalism Camus wrote in 1951: “Everything that degrades culture is a shortcut to servitude.” Josselson wrote to a correspondent in Chile in 1964: “The main danger will always be totalitarian countries because they abolish the right to think and write freely, which is the first step to complete slavery.”

It was Josselson who dreamt up the Congress for Cultural Freedom, at a time when Communist ideology had an enormous influence in cultural and intellectual circles of the Western world, including France. He conceived it and set it up with imagination and sensitivity, and developed it over the years according to the needs, the circumstances and the available means. He never accepted the Cold War as the raison d’être of the Congress. On the contrary, he strove constantly to condemn all forms of dictatorship and to create spaces where people were able to think freely. And when in 1954 he wrote that the “greatest danger will always be totalitarian countries because they abolish the right to think and write freely”, he paraphrased what Victor Hugo, then in exile, said in his speech of 1862 in Brussels: “Thought is more than a right – it is the very breath of man. Whoever fetters thought attacks man himself.”

* Excerpts from Roselyne Chenu: En lutte contre les dictatures. Le Congrès pour la liberté de la culture (1950–1978). Entretiens avec Nicolas Stenger. Préface d’Alfred Grosser. Éditions du Félin, 2018.

Translation by Orsolya Németh


1 Constantin Jeleński (1922–1987), a Polish émigré in Paris. He was an essayist active in Polish émigré literary circles. He led the Eastern European programme of the Congress for Cultural Freedom until 1966 and was a prolific contributor to the Association’s monthly publication Preuves.

2 Ladislas Gara (1904–1966), Hungarian writer, journalist and translator in Paris, was the editor and moving spirit of several collections of poety translated into French from Hungarian, most notably Anthologie de la poésie hongroise du XIIe siècle à nos jours, Paris, Seuil, 1962.

3 Although Aczél was the de facto head of the ministry, officially he was secretary of the Central Committee of the MSZMP since 1967, entrusted with the general control of cultural life. In 1971, he became chairman of the newly formed cultural policy working group of the Central Committee, and held his office until 1974.

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