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Russian journalist resigns from PEN America because they were removed from the literary festival because of Ukrainians18.05.2023
Russian journalist Masha Gessen resigned from PEN America over the cancellation of an event featuring Russian writers at The World Voices Festival.
The reason for the cancellation of the event was the refusal of Ukrainian writers Artem Chekh, Iryna Tsilyk and Artem Chapeye to participate in the festival, which is attended by Russians. This was reported by writer and director Iryna Tsilyk on her Facebook page.
According to her, the organizers of the festival did not inform Ukrainians about the participation of Russian writers in advance.
“At the invitation stage, it was clearly stated that we could not participate in the festival if Russians were also invited. I don’t see any point in explaining why, but, among other things, two of our three Ukrainian participants are military personnel (Artem Chekh and Artem Chapeye), and this is an additional factor in the impossibility of combining the incompatible. The organizers agreed with everything and promised that there would be no surprises,” said Tsilyk.
Initially, the organizers of The World Voices Festival offered Chekh, Tsilyk, and Chapeye to take their event outside the festival. The Ukrainian writers refused. Later they were informed that the Russian participants refused to hold their discussion.
“We didn’t blackmail or cancel anyone. We simply warned the festival that we could not afford to go against our principles, especially since everything was agreed upon from the very beginning,” emphasized Tsilyk.
In the end, the Ukrainian Writers at War event took place as planned, and the festival management apologized to Ukrainians for the situation.
The World Voices Festival is organized by the PEN America. Currently, the festival’s website has an announcement of an event with the participation of Ukrainian writers, and the PEN America website has an announcement of a canceled discussion with Russian and Chinese authors.
Russian-born writer Masha Gessen (who identifies as non-binary and uses gender-neutral pronouns) moderated this discussion. After its cancellation, Gessen resigned from the board of PEN America, where they served as vice president of the board of directors.
Gessen describes their attitude to the situation in the article by Gal Beckerman “Masha Gessen Resigns in Protest From PEN America Board. What happens when free-speech absolutists flinch” for The Atlantic. In particular, the article reads:
To Gessen, it was abundantly clear that PEN had been “blackmailed” by the Ukrainians. And while Gessen empathized with the Ukrainians’ position and their cause, the proposed “rebranding” of the event seemed absurd. “I felt like I was being asked to tell these people that because they’re Russians they can’t sit at the big table; they have to sit at the little table off to the side,” Gessen told me. “Which felt distasteful.”
The author also notes that Hesse commented on the situation as follows: “I could understand Ukrainians acting in this way. After all, the Ukrainians’ country had been invaded, hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens brutally murdered—the desire to be cruel to Russians was perfectly comprehensible.”
PEN America stated: “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.”
Iryna Tsilyk said that she plans to write a column that would cover the situation from the point of view of Ukrainian writers participating in The World Voices Festival. The column is to be published in one of the leading American publications that covered Gessen’s position.
Artem Chapeye said that The Atlantic changed his position to the opposite in one place of the article and for some reason did not correct it after three requests. Artem Chekh has not yet commented publicly on the situation.
PEN Ukraine’s Executive Director Tetyana Teren said: “At the first meeting with the festival management, I reminded them of the position of our organization and the position of our authors: that we do not participate in joint events with the Russians until the war is over, and asked to see the list of participants in this year’s festival. We read the list, our position was agreed upon… a few days before our event, we found out that the program had added another event at the last stage, about which we were not informed, a discussion of “victims of tyranny” with the participation of two Russian and one Chinese journalists and moderated by Masha Gessen.”
Image: PEN America
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