Last week, my colleague Masha Gessen announced their resignation from the board of PEN America, a group that advocates for free expression. The controversy began when two Ukrainian writers, both of whom serve in the Ukrainian Army, threatened to bow out of a PEN World Voices panel after hearing that Gessen was hosting a separate panel featuring two Russians. When PEN tried to move Gessen’s panel off the World Voices slate, Gessen resigned. Two days later, at a public gathering, Suzanne Nossel, PEN America’s chief executive, admitted, “As a free-speech organization, we must go to the utmost lengths to avoid sidelining speech or being seen to do so. We should have found a better approach.”
Gessen is a citizen of both the United States and Russia. For the past decade, after the Putin regime began harsh crackdowns on the L.G.B.T.Q. community in Russia, they have been living primarily in the U.S. Gessen’s work—including a number of books and many pieces for this magazine—has cast a harsh and critical eye on Vladimir Putin’s reign, and on the problem of autocracy more broadly.
Gessen and I recently spoke by phone. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed how the PEN controversy came about, why Gessen believes that cultural spaces should make more room for Ukrainian voices, and why—despite their decision to resign from PEN—Gessen believes the prominence of Russian culture in the West is problematic.
Why did you resign?
There were two reasons. One had to do with PEN as a free-expression organization, and the other had to do with my personal position in this predicament. I think that free expression is a complicated, broad, nuanced field, and I’m not a free-speech absolutist. We make decisions about speech and expression all the time, and that’s the job of a free-expression organization. The question of whether a festival should feature both Ukrainian and Russian writers is a perfectly legitimate one, and it raises all sorts of other questions: is it O.K. for them to speak in the same spaces, or for them to speak in different spaces on the same topic, or in different time slots?
But that’s not what happened. What happened was that both Russian and Ukrainian writers were invited. And then, when the Ukrainian writers arrived and said, “We can’t speak at the same festival with Russians,” the Russians were disinvited. To disinvite them is not just impolite, but it’s also basically saying, “Look, we thought your expression was legitimate and desirable until other people said it wasn’t.” That, I think, violates the principles of free expression. A free-expression organization can’t be in that business of saying, “We don’t want you to speak because someone else doesn’t want you to speak.”
The other reason was personal. I was the vice-president of PEN’s board of trustees, and I was put in a position of going to these two Russian writers, who are people I respect immensely and love, and are my friends, and telling them, as PEN, that this had happened. That’s an untenable position for me. So I felt like I had to resign.
It has been reported that there was some attempt to have the Russians speak in a different forum. What exactly was the conversation about that?
The Ukrainian writers, as I understand it, said, “Look, it’s a huge political risk for us, possibly even a legal risk for us, to be seen as speaking in the same festival with Russian participants.” Nothing personal, just the political risk. PEN said to them, “O.K., well, look, do you want us to change the banner? Instead of PEN World Voices, the banner that you’ll be speaking in front of will be PEN America.” The Ukrainians said, “No, you invited us to PEN World Voices. We don’t want to speak under a different banner.”
So then PEN came to the Russians and said, “How about we change your banner?” Same problem. We would never have any objection to Ukrainian writers saying, “We don’t want to have any interaction with Russians.” But to say that you can’t sit at the big table because Ukrainians are also sitting at the big table at a different time, because you were born in Russia, and you carry Russian passports—again, that feels horrible in my mouth to say.
Earlier, you said that there were legitimate questions about whether Russians and Ukrainians should be invited to the same event. Is that an interesting question? I don’t really understand the idea that people of Russian descent or people holding Russian passports should ever not be invited to an event simply because of something their country is doing. That actually doesn’t seem all that complicated to me. What am I missing?
I think you’re missing a little bit of context. This is an imperial war in a not-quite-post-colonial situation. Ukrainians are constantly confronted with Russian dominance in cultural spheres and in academia. People who purport to know something about Ukraine in academia are—in their plurality, and there are certainly exceptions, but, in their plurality—people who spend most of their lives studying Russia or the Soviet Union. Ukrainians, I think quite rightly, look at all sorts of cultural venues, events, and universities as scarce commodities and say, “O.K., Russians have taken up so much cultural room, so much vocal space, that we have to campaign. Just set it aside for a while and listen to the other voices in this vast space, because the empire has silenced those voices systematically.”
Maybe the distinction goes back to something you said earlier: that it’s one thing to decide how you invite people, and it’s another thing to invite people and then disinvite them after others make their displeasure known. And, in this case, there is a distinction between doing a panel on the invasion and only inviting Russians, or talking about Ukrainian history and only inviting Russians, and disinviting a specific person because of the passport they happen to hold.
Exactly. That’s a distinction.
One of the Ukrainians writers, Artem Chapeye, whose fiction we have published, told Gal Beckerman of The Atlantic, “The Russian participants decided to cancel their event themselves because we as active soldiers were not able to participate under the same umbrella.” The piece continues, “Chapeye said he couldn’t make distinctions between ‘good’ Russians and ‘bad’ Russians in this case. ‘Until the war ends,’ he wrote to me, ‘a soldier can not be seen with the “good Russians.” ’ ” What did you make of this argument?
What Artem actually said was that he does differentiate between good and bad Russians, but, as long as he’s on active duty, he can’t be seen even with the “good Russians.” [Beckerman had asked Chapeye whether he makes a distinction between Russians who actively or passively support the war and those who are anti-Putin, and Chapeye responded, “Of course. Nevertheless, until the war ends a soldier cannot be seen with the ‘good Russians,’ you can’t dig into everyone’s biography.”]
But let me unpack the trope. The phrase “good Russians” does not refer to people like me or the people who were going to be on this panel. “Good Russians” are people who actively participated in creating the regime and upholding the regime who then decided they were against the war. They are people who most loudly declare that they have no responsibility for this war, but often are heavily implicated in creating the conditions that strengthen the regime that made this war possible. So when people say “good Russians” they’re not necessarily talking about dissidents. They’re talking about people who they feel take up all the attention on the international stage. Because of their prior positions of power, they have a lot of connections, they have a lot of media exposure, and their voices talking about how much they oppose the war are once again louder than Ukrainian voices. So that’s what the phrase “good Russians” refers to.