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Russian-American author Masha Gessen resigned from her position as vice chair of the board of trustees of PEN America during the World Voice Festival in New York over the organisers support of the Ukrainian delegation. Gessen resigned following claims that three Ukrainian authors being hosted at the festival had shown “cruelty and ultimatums” against Russian delegates. Ukrainian authors have a firm no-tolerance policy in regards to sharing events or participating with Russians, however, since the festival, Ukrainian delegates have found themselves accused of lacking empathy for the Russian position.
At the literary festival in New York there was a scandal because of the Ukrainians and Russians
For a long time, Ukrainian artists, with few exceptions, have been trying to avoid meetings, round tables and any joint events with representatives of Russia, no matter what their political views may be. But sometimes attempts to combine Ukrainian and Russian artists at one event end in scandals, as happened with the World Voice Festival in New York. What happened, told the edition of the BBC.
The festival itself, held by the public organization PEN America, ended on May 13. But soon there were reports in the press that Russian-American author Masha Gessen had resigned (they prefer a gender-neutral pronoun) as vice chair of the board of trustees of PEN America. And last but not least, because of the position of the festival organizers, namely, support for the position of the Ukrainian delegation, which did not want to share the site with representatives of Russia.
Three Ukrainian authors participating in the festival were accused of “cruelty and ultimatums” against the Russians.
What happened in New York
PEN America World Voices Festival invited Ukrainian authors through its sister organization in Ukraine – PEN Ukraine. In New York, they wanted to hear the voices of three Ukrainian authors – Irina Tsylyk, Artem Chekh and Artem Chapai. It is noteworthy that both Artyom are active military personnel. According to the executive director of PEN Ukraine Tatyana Teren, during the war between Russia and Ukraine, it was important for the American organizers to give the floor to the military.
PEN America sent an invitation to Cylyk, Chekh and Chapai back in January. Teren states that from the very beginning the organizers knew that the Ukrainians would not participate in joint events with the Russians and agreed with this position. They even provided PEN Ukraine with a list of participants for review.
But, having arrived in New York, the Ukrainians learned that the event “Escape from Tyranny: Writing in Exile” appeared in the festival program. The discussion was to be moderated by Russian journalist and historian Ilya Venyakin, and the speakers were supposed to be one Chinese representative and two Russians, including Russian-American author Masha Gessen.
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At that time, Masha Gessen was still serving as vice chairman of the board of trustees of PEN America.
To solve the problem, the organizers offered both the Ukrainian and the Russian-Chinese delegation to move their events outside the festival. Both delegations refused. In the end, the organizers decided to leave the Ukrainian event within the framework of the festival.
In response, Masha Gessen announced her resignation from her position as Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees of PEN America.
Reaction in the US
Masha Gessen called the cancellation of the panel with Russians a betrayal of the values of the organization and added that they could not look into the eyes of their Russian colleagues: “I felt like I was being asked to tell these people that because they are Russians, they cannot sit at the big table. They have to sit at a small table on the side.”
At the same time, Masha Gessen emphasized that Ukrainians are not blamed.
“I do not oppose the demands of the Ukrainian participants. They are waging a defensive war with all means available to them. My problem is solely related to the reaction of PEN,” Gessen said.
The Atlantic writer Gel Beckerman saw the festival as an attempt to “censor, boycott and hush up” Russian culture after the start of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Participant from Ukraine Artem Chapai excludes the following accusations: “We did not offer to cancel anyone, but explained the situation and suggested that the organizers look for a way out themselves.”
In July, Gal Beckerman will host an event titled “Imperfect Past: Making Sense of Ukraine and Its Difficult Jewish Heritage” with former Muscovite and now University of Pittsburgh professor Irina Rein.
In response to Masha Gessen’s resignation, PEN America released a statement deploring Gessen’s decision and indirectly claiming responsibility for the festival’s confusion. In particular, PEN America explained as follows: she believed that Ukrainians did not want to meet Russians within the framework of one event, and not the entire festival.
In the first version of the statement, PEN America generally wrote that it made a decision considering the alleged threat of a ban on the return of Ukrainian authors if they were seen at the same event with the Russians.
In a BBC Ukraine commentary, Irina Tsylyk said that she was unpleasant to find out.
“There was no talk at all about punishment when returning to Ukraine. And to emphasize that here is some kind of Ukrainian Gulag for Ukrainian authors is an obvious perversion of information,” the author says.
Artem Chapai, who has been defending Ukraine from Russian aggression for more than a year, expressed regret that against the backdrop of the scandal, the very discussion about the war within the framework of the festival went unnoticed. In order to come to this event, he had to obtain permission from the command.
“It is unpleasant that instead of talking about the history of my brother in the occupation, the Russians have drawn attention to their problems,” says Artem.
His brother, along with his family and children, spent a month under Russian occupation in the Chernihiv region. Artyom himself coordinated its removal, although by that time he was already in the army.
Chapai tells how terrible those days were when all thoughts were only about his own brother. However, he notes, this story attracted much less attention at the festival than the scandal surrounding the simultaneous participation of the Russian and Ukrainian delegations.
Another member of the Ukrainian delegation, Irina Tsylyk, calls such situations as at the festival in New York a shift in emphasis: “Increasingly, there is a discourse that Ukrainians, because of all their traumas, are cruelly incapable of empathy, that we are supposedly ready to scratch everyone one size fits all. Russian intellectuals are playing this game more and more often, louder and louder at various Western venues, pulling the blanket of victimhood over themselves, creating the image of some kind of victim.”
“I think this whole discourse sounds very dangerous and manipulative,” she adds.
Meanwhile, PEN Ukraine is continuing its discussion with its sister organization in the US about what exactly happened in New York. The statement of the executive board of PEN Ukraine is called “We are responsible to our people” and explains with examples why, according to its members, the participation of Ukrainians in common areas with Russians is not only out of time, but also an immoral idea.
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