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.
PEN was launched into the heady world of celebrity and big-time money when Norman Mailer took the two-year term of office as its president with the promise that he would raise the necessary funds for an international congress in 1986 by putting PEN on the media map. Mr. Mailer was as good as his word. He not only raised the $800,000 needed for the congress, but also threw PEN into a higher gear, expanding its general fund raising and making the organization much larger. The budget has increased dramatically since that congress - from $294,000 in fiscal 1984 to a projected $715,000 this year.
For all the money he brought, Mailer's efforts also attracted some negative publicity that made the congress look more like what one board member calls ``a vaudeville show'' than a collection of serious writers wrestling with international problems. Rocked with angry debate over his decision to invite Secretary of State George Shultz as keynote speaker, as well as some remarks Mailer made about women, the congress became an instant media event.
Some members of PEN's board - among them author E.L. Doctorow and the book editor Ted Solotaroff (who resigned) - question the sudden growth of the organization and its association with the New York glitterati scene. Many observers, among them the editor of a prominent New York magazine, contend that what PEN is all about is society-page headlines and social climbing.
``What PEN is about,'' counters writer Susan Sontag, the current president, ``is eight or 10 people in an office in downtown Manhattan doing marvelous work. You don't hear about the telegrams we send to Pinochet.'' In addition, she mentions past PEN missions to Turkey and South Korea - as well as its continued attention to repressive regimes throughout South America and the Middle East.
She argues that, in the heart of the publicity whirlwind, the candle that lit Irina Ratushinskaya's darkness still burns.
``Nobody sees the organization as a source of profit,'' Joseph Brodsky says. ``It's an association of writers who congregate in the name of literature and in the service of literature. That's enough.'' It's enough too, apparently, for Norman Mailer, who has followed his highly visible presidency with low-profile committee work.
``Maybe what it comes down to,'' he mused in a recent telephone interview, ``is that writers are usually so self-absorbed. Our factory is in ourselves. Through PEN, we are obligated to concern ourselves with others. And I think that refreshes us. It takes care of that residual guilt that comes from being so self-absorbed. It gives us a sense of community we don't get at our desks.'' The epicenter of this ``community'' is PEN's spacious but not lavish, loft-style offices in downtown Manhattan. There, in an afternoon of conversations with staff members, one could see the world of trouble literature can get into. Two sheets of paper with numbers scribbled on them indicate how many prisoners of conscience or disappeared writers there have been from year to year around the world. The numbers have seesawed between 286 and 473 and back to 338 since 1981 - with no sign of a positive trend. Since this work goes on almost entirely in the dark - letters are confiscated, communications are shut off - PEN catches fragmentary but encouraging evidence that what it does makes a difference.
``When somebody like Irina Ratushinskaya says that PEN helped so much,'' American PEN's executive director, Karen Kennerly, muses, ``or when we get a letter saying, `I just got out of jail' or `I just got better conditions, you can't imagine how much PEN helped,' you think, I don't deserve that. What did I go through?''
``After I was sent to the labor camp,'' Ratushinskaya recalls, ``I learned that some American people were supporting me. My husband told me a lot of PEN members sent letters to him. The KGB wants people to think no one is struggling for them.
``But I knew very well that they were.''
Which may be why Joseph Brodsky joined the organization. Because of what comes out of all the heat and energy in this gathering of writers and citizens. ``It's a beacon,'' he says, ``one that shines an affirming light.''