THE cold in Irina Ratushinskaya's Soviet labor camp cell penetrated everything. But as she describes it today, from her home in Illinois, the dissident poet - who was sentenced in 1983 to the most rigorous punishment meted out to a woman political prisoner since Stalin's time - had at least one candle of memory to light and warm her darkness. ``When the KGB would come and tell me, `You are not a poet at all. Your so-called poems are simply anti-Soviet propaganda. They are not poetry,''' she recalls, ``I would remember: I am a member of American PEN.''
And to her that meant she was a poet, a writer accepted by the world community of writers.
American PEN is the United States branch of the international organization headquartered in London that champions the rights of writers who are censored, imprisoned, and otherwise persecuted for their writing. It engages in letter-writing campaigns, personal diplomacy, whatever will work to let governments know that the world is watching what they do to writers.
On the occasion of her imprisonment, PEN made Miss Ratushinskaya an honorary member, as it frequently does with writers in trouble.
``PEN has been very courageous in taking people under their wing when they show evidence of being a writer and their writing gets them in trouble,'' Nobel prize-winning author Joseph Brodsky, a member of American PEN's board, commented in a telephone interview recently. ``It gives them the notion that they are not alone. And that's not a small thing in such a big world.''
The size of this world may be indisputable; but the size PEN needs to be to look after the Irina Ratushinskayas in it has lately become a matter of controversy within and without the organization.
American PEN - a rough acronym for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists - has a membership of about 2,100. Founded in 1922, it led a sedentary and uneventful life for most of its early decades. In 1965, it got a boost when playwright Arthur Miller assumed the international presidency, attracting many respected American writers to the cause.