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US journalist resigns after Russian writers panel canceled


May 18, 2023

The event was scrapped as Ukrainian authors threatened to boycott it due to potential “repercussions” at home

Moscow-born US journalist Masha Gessen has resigned as vice president of the board of PEN America after two Russian writers were disinvited from the group’s event due to the complaints made by Ukrainians.

“I very much believe in the mission of PEN, but I had to step down from leadership in order to not be implicated in what I think was a mistaken decision,” Gessen, who writes for The New Yorker, said on Tuesday, as quoted by The New York Times.

As part of PEN’s annual week-long World Voices Festival, the Moscow-born journalist was slated to host a panel that involved two Russian writers, Ilya Venyavkin and Anna Nemzer. Both of them left Russia in the wake of Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine launched nearly a year ago, and were described in the West as “dissidents.”

According to organizers, the problem arose when Ukrainian writers and active-duty soldiers Artyom Chapay and Artyom Chekh, who were supposed to participate in a separate penal, had refused to attend the festival altogether as long as Russians were being involved. 

“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,” the PEN said in a statement, describing the situation as an “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, the soldiers could face an emergency situation involving significant political, legal and compliance repercussions and risks.

The organizers expressed “sincere regret” to the Russian writers and said they were ready to reschedule their event. PEN America later added that it was “saddened” by Gessen’s resignation.

PEN Ukraine, meanwhile, released a statement, arguing that it would have been “immoral and in contradiction with our values” to allow the Ukrainians to share a venue with the Russians.

Gessen, who left Russia 10 years ago, is a vocal critic of the Russian government and has condemned the military operation in Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials have repeatedly called for the broad “cancellation” of Russia-linked figures and the Russian culture in general. In early May, the Prima Vista literary festival in Tartu, Estonia had canceled the appearance of Russian-Israeli author and translator Linor Goralik after Ukrainian poets Olena Guseynova and Anna Gruver said they would pull out of the event.

Guseynova argued that it was “impossible to discuss the problems of Russian culture” while the Russia-Ukraine conflict is ongoing.