The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Vice-President of Writers' Organization (PEN) Resigns Because of Panel's Excluding Russian Writers

UPDATE: Added response from PEN.


A very interesting article in The Atlantic (Gal Beckerman):

[B]oycotts [of Russian culture] have only increased in intensity, and in ways that demonstrate how wartime assaults on freedom can ripple far outside the conflict zone—where the sound of war is not that of bombs detonating but of piercing silence. Now the impulse to censor anyone Russian has arrived in the United States, at a venue that is designed to—of all things—champion and promote freedom of speech and expression: PEN America's annual World Voices festival. It has also led, quite precipitously, to the writer Masha Gessen's decision to resign as the vice president of PEN's board of directors.

This past Saturday, as part of the festival, Gessen was set to moderate a panel showcasing writers in exile, two of them, like Gessen, Russian-born authors who had left their country in disgust. But a day before the event, ticket holders received an email saying that because of "unforeseen circumstances" the panel had been canceled. Their money would be refunded. No other explanation was offered and any trace of the event disappeared from PEN's program online.

A small delegation of Ukrainian writers, who participated in a panel planned for the same day as the canceled Gessen event, had declared they could not attend a festival that included Russians. Because two of the writers, Artem Chapeye and Artem Chekh, are active-duty soldiers in the Ukrainian army, they argued that there were legal and ethical restrictions against their participation. Chapeye, a writer whose short story "The Ukraine" was recently published in The New Yorker, texted with me from a bus on his way back to Ukraine. He didn't see himself as having boycotted the Russians. It was simply that their presence was incompatible with his. "The Russian participants decided to cancel their event themselves because we as active soldiers were not able to participate under the same umbrella," he wrote.

Chapeye said he didn't make distinctions between "good" Russians and "bad" Russians. "Until the war ends," he wrote to me, "a soldier can not be seen with the 'good Russians.'"

I don't fault the Ukrainian writers for simply not wanting to be on the panel; that's their call. (This having been said, I very much doubt that there's any "legal" obligation for Ukrainian soldiers to not even speak at a conference, in a foreign country, at which some other speakers are civilian citizens of an enemy country; and I find it hard to see it as an ethical obligation, either.) But I'm inclined to share Gessen's view that Russian writers shouldn't be excluded from such events simply because of the writers' country of citizenship, coupled with a demand by Ukrainian writers. And the organizers' opposition, which I share, to the war being waged by Russia shouldn't translate into such exclusion of Russian writers.

(Note that, as I understand the story, the event was canceled by PEN, not by the Russian participants themselves.)

UPDATE: PEN offers this response (note, for clarity, that Masha Gessen goes by "they"):

We are saddened that Masha Gessen has decided to resign from PEN America's board of trustees. They have served with distinction for nine years, championing our mission for free expression and values as an organization at every turn. We are deeply grateful for their innumerable contributions and service, including and especially relative to our work on Russia and Eurasia.

The events that precipitated their resignation began with an error on our part about what would be feasible within the parameters of our annual World Voices Festival of International Literature, which brings writers from around the world to the United States for conversations with U.S. and global counterparts. Working in partnership with PEN Ukraine, we had invited several Ukrainian writers to be part of this year's festival and discuss their experiences as writers and soldiers. Separately we had planned an event, to have included Masha, with Russian dissident writers who are now living in New York City on the theme of writing in exile from tyranny. Two of these writers came to New York with PEN America's support to help spearhead the Russian Independent Media Archive, a joint project of PEN America and Bard College to safeguard the work of Russian independent news outlets; that event was launched several weeks ago at an event including Masha and the Russian writers.

The Ukrainian writers who were invited are members of the military on active duty.  They informed us in advance that they could participate with us as long as no Russians were part of the "event." We mistakenly took that to mean their panel, not the entire festival, which included more than 40 events at multiple venues. We deeply regret, and take responsibility for, this error of interpretation. Once the Ukrainians arrived in New York and learned that the Russian dissident writers were part of the festival, they informed us that they would be unable to participate, explaining that had both events proceeded, they could face being barred from returning to Ukraine or facing repercussions upon their return. PEN Ukraine strongly reinforced this message in communication to us, stressing genuine and compelling concerns about these individuals' safety. We then sought a solution that would have allowed one or the other event to proceed as a PEN America-sponsored conversation – at the same date and time, in the same venue and with the same audience during the festival timeframe—but outside the banner of the festival. That option was declined by both the Ukrainian and the Russian participants.

Faced with the consequences of our mistake and without good options, we made the decision that the event with the Ukrainians should go forward, given their circumstances and the risks they face as soldiers, that they had traveled a long distance to participate, and that they came with a misunderstanding to which we had contributed. The Russian writers conveyed to us that speaking about writing in exile is difficult under the best of circumstances, and that these were not such. We understood their decision and made clear to Masha and the Russian writers our sincere regret, and readiness to reschedule their event at any point.

PEN America regrets the situation that ensued from the error. As we conveyed to the writers from Ukraine, it is elemental to PEN as advocates of free expression that the positions of governments not be projected on writers, whose essence lies in their independence of thought. We have been and remain deeply committed to ensuring that the independent voices of both Ukrainian and Russian writers continue to be heard in the context of this conflict.

We thank Masha Gessen for their support, dedication and friendship over the last 9 years.