(New York, NY) — PEN America today announces Vladyslav Yesypenko, a Ukrainian journalist imprisoned in Crimea, as the recipient of the 2022 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Yesypenko was detained in Russian-occupied Crimea in March 2021 and, like other dauntless journalists laying bare occupying forces’ encroachments on everyday life in Crimea and now throughout Ukraine, has been targeted by a methodical campaign to silence and crush a free press and open expression. After being tortured and forced to confess to baseless, politically motivated charges of espionage and weapons manufacturing, Yesypenko was sentenced to six years in a Russian labor colony. He will be honored at the 2022 PEN America Literary Gala at the American Museum of Natural History on May 23, where the award will be accepted by his wife, Kateryna Yesypenko.

Days before his arrest, Yesypenko had been working on a video report on the streets of Crimea, asking residents how life had changed in the seven years since the start of Russia’s occupation of the peninsula. The revealing conversations that resulted—about a conflict that has dominated the world stage since 2014—are at the heart of Yesypenko’s work, which has covered issues such as price changes and property confiscation; the lives of Crimean Tatars across the peninsula; and ecological crises and destruction brought on by the ongoing Russian occupation of the region.

Yesypenko, who was living with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, Stephania, in mainland Ukraine and commuted to Crimea for journalistic assignments at the time of his detention, was working with Krym.Realii Project, a Crimean radio program and news source run by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, when he was arrested on March 10, 2021 by the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation. Immediately before his detention, Yesypenko had been attending an event in honor of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Weeks later, Yesypenko described being tortured with electric shocks and forced to confess before his transfer to a detention center in Simferopol. Yesypenko’s lawyer stated that Yesypenko had been threatened with death and told it would be staged as a suicide while he was alone in his cell; Yesypenko was also deprived of medicine for a kidney condition.

The charges against Yesypenko are part of a longstanding push to limit any form of expression in Crimea that is unfriendly to the occupying Russian regime. His arrest, torture, and imprisonment is a grave reminder of the risks that Russian invasion poses for press freedom and human rights in all parts of Ukraine that may come under occupation. Yesypenko has spent nearly a year in detention; from captivity, he penned a letter with urgent, blistering frankness and even defiant dark humor (published by Krym.Realii), stating, “Nothing shows the ugly nature of the occupying power as the constant filling of the cells with new people who were detained on fabricated evidence… [Thanks to] the Russian FSB, which provided an unprecedented opportunity for a freelance journalist for Radio Liberty not only to become an observer in a pre-trial detention center in the occupied Crimea, but also to try their hand at their ‘investigation’ methods, which can either drive them crazy or put an end to them. It didn’t break me, but my hair seemed to turn gray.”

PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel said, “Since February, the horrors of Russia’s war on Ukraine have been laid bare for all the world to see. But Russia’s campaign to suffocate Ukraine dates back much further, and intensified in 2014 with the illegal occupation of the Crimean peninsula. Indomitable reporters like Vladyslav Yesypenko have provided a portal to enable the world to see Russian occupation for what it is, an exercise of force aimed to stifle the will of free people. Yesypenko’s case sounds a stark warning of what is at stake during the upcoming phase of the war, as Russian President Vladimir Putin musters his forces for an assault on Eastern Ukraine. As the world stands in awe of the courage and determination of the Ukrainian people, we are proud to honor Vladyslav Yesypenko, whose career has stood for fearless truthtelling in the face of grave and mounting danger and deception. This award is an emblem of PEN America’s solidarity with all of the writers, journalists, and people of Ukraine as they sustain the will to resist, speak out, and bear witness to what will stand as one of the great horrors and outrages of the 21st century.”

Vladyslav Yesypenko’s case has been among PEN America’s top advocacy priorities since his arrest in March 2021, after which PEN America released a statement demanding his immediate release. In the time since, PEN America has also issued a denouncement of Yesypenko’s sentence, and November 15, 2021 honored him at an Empty Chair Day (also known as the Day of the Imprisoned Writer) action, highlighting the injustice of his situation.

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is a powerful tool in PEN America’s year-round efforts to end the persecution of writers and defend free expression, serving as a springboard for PEN’s multifaceted advocacy for the writers it honors. Of the 51 jailed writers who have received the award since 1987, 45 have been released due in part to the awareness and pressure the award generates. The last time PEN America awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to someone from Ukraine was in 2017; filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was that year’s honoree, and the award and subsequent campaign generated significant pressure that helped win his release from Russian prison in 2019.

The 2022 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award will be given at the gala, a week following the 2022 PEN World Voices Festival, where the organization has given novelist and PEN Ukraine President Andriy Kurkov center stage to deliver the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture (May 13). In direct response to the invasion of Ukraine and other raging global humanitarian and political crises, the festival will also convene an Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers discussing solidarity, free expression, and the role of writers amid times of upheaval.

The 2022 PEN America Literary Gala, at once celebratory in spirit and urgent in aim, supports PEN America’s cultural programming and crucial advocacy work for free expression worldwide. Held in-person beneath the blue whale in the American Museum of Natural History’s majestic Hall of Ocean Life, the event convenes writers, humanitarians, thinkers, and other luminaries. The gala, which also recognizes world-renowned writer Zadie Smith as recipient of the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award and Audible Founder and Executive Chairman Don Katz as Business Visionary Honoree, will begin with a VIP reception at 6pm, followed by a cocktail reception at 6:30pm, and dinner and awards at 7:30pm. PEN America soon will announce the evening’s host, presenters, and the recipients of the 2022 PEN/Benenson Courage Award.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Press Contacts

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