Journalist Resigns From Board After PEN America Cancels Russia Writers Panel

Journalist Masha Gessen has resigned from the board of freedom of expression group PEN America, after a panel at the organization's World Voices Festival featuring Russian writers was canceled in response to objections from Ukrainian writers.

Concern raised by Artem Chapeye And Artem ChekhUkrainian writer who is also an active duty soldier in the Ukrainian army and will be appearing in panel about the author as a fighter on May 13th. After arriving in New York last week, Ukrainians noticed that a separate panel — on the writer in exile, which Gessen will moderate — included two Russians.

Ukrainians told organizers they could not participate if the panel (which also included Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun), stepped forward, citing a ban on Ukrainians appearing at events with Russians, according to Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America. After attempts to present a panel outside the festival failed, Nossel said, it was cancelled.

Gessen, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said in a text message that they remain committed to PEN's work, but can no longer stay on the board, where they serve as vice president.

“I believe strongly in PEN's mission, but I had to step down from leadership to avoid being involved in decisions that I think were wrong,” said Gessen. Their resignation is first time reported by Atlantic.

The boycott of Russian artists and culture has been a topic of debate across the cultural world since Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year. But Nossel, who spoke up against such boycottssaid the question had not fully reached PEN until now.

At the festival last spring, he said, Andrey Kurkov, a novelist and president of PEN Ukraine, had given the annual Freedom to Write lectureafter that he appeared on stage conversation with Russian American novelist Gary Shteyngart. But there were no Russian writers at the festival, which was smaller than usual due to Covid concerns.

Ukrainian writers' concerns about performing with Russia were raised earlier this year, said Nossel, when discussions about the festival began. But he said PEN did not realize until the Ukrainian delegation arrived in New York that they would object to participating not just in a panel with Russians, but in a wider festival that includes Russians in nearly four dozen events.

Reached by email, Chapeye said he believed that “a Ukrainian soldier cannot be seen under the same ‘umbrella' as the Russian participant for political/public image reasons.”

Asked about the consequences of performing, he said, “I think the only consequence is that it was my fault before everyone was killed and tortured by Russian soldiers.”

Gessen, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union as a teenager in 1981 and holds Russian and American citizenship, have become a prominent critical voice in Russia, where they returned in 1991 to work as journalists. Their books include “The Man Without a Face,” a 2012 biography of Vladimir Putin, and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won a National Book Award in 2017. In 2013, Gessen moved back to the United States with their family, quoting growing persecution LGBTQ people.

Two Russians on the canceled panel, Ilia Veniavkin And Anna Nemzer, left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. The two are collaborators at Russian Independent Media Archive, a joint project by PEN America and Bard College, which maintains the work of the last two decades by independent outlets, most of which have been closed or blocked by the Putin government. (Veniavkin and Nemzer could not immediately be reached for comment.)

In an interview, Nossel praised Gessen's “remarkable contribution” to PEN America, where they have been on the board for nine years. “It's a big loss,” said Nossel. “But it feels like a disadvantageous situation.”

Gessen emphasized that they remain members of PEN, and remain committed to the Russian Independent Media Archive, which they lead. The decision to cancel the panel, said Gessen, “was a mistake, not an act of malice.”

“My objection is not to the request of the Ukrainian participant,” said Gessen. “They are waging a defensive war by all means available to them. My only problem is PEN's response.”