Updated Wed., May 17 

(NEW YORK)— PEN America issued the following statement today:

We are saddened that Masha Gessen has decided to resign from PEN America’s board of trustees. They have served with distinction for nine years, championing our mission for free expression and values as an organization at every turn. We are deeply grateful for their innumerable contributions and service, including and especially relative to our work on Russia and Eurasia.

The events that precipitated their resignation began with an error on our part about what would be feasible within the parameters of our annual World Voices Festival of International Literature, which brings writers from around the world to the United States for conversations with U.S. and global counterparts. Working in partnership with PEN Ukraine, we had invited several Ukrainian writers to be part of this year’s festival and discuss their experiences as writers and soldiers.  Separately we had planned an event, to have included Masha, with Russian dissident writers who are now living in New York City on the theme of writing in exile from tyranny.  Two of these writers came to New York with PEN America’s support to help spearhead the Russian Independent Media Archive, a joint project of PEN America and Bard College to safeguard the work of Russian independent news outlets; that event was launched several weeks ago at an event including Masha and the Russian writers.

The Ukrainian writers who were invited are members of the military on active duty.  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. We deeply regret, and take responsibility for, this 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. PEN Ukraine strongly reinforced this message in communication to us, stressing genuine and compelling concerns for these individuals. 

We asked the Ukrainian and the Russian writers separately to consider proceeding with their planned panels, but with altered branding to lessen perceptions of the events being linked.  The Ukrainians declined, saying the permission they had to travel to New York was specifically tied to the World Voices Festival.  Masha Gessen told us in writing that the three Russian writers had conferred and “prefer[red] to cancel the panel.”  Because they chose to cancel, we never confronted the question of how to proceed in the event that they wished to go forward as originally planned notwithstanding the Ukrainian concerns.

Faced with the consequences of our mistake and without good options, we made the decision that the event with the Ukrainians should go forward, given their circumstances and the risks they face as soldiers, that they had traveled a long distance to participate, and that they came with a misunderstanding to which we had contributed. The Russian writers conveyed to us that speaking about writing in exile is difficult under the best of circumstances, and that these were not such. We understood their decision and made clear to Masha and the Russian writers our sincere regret, and readiness to reschedule their event at any point.

PEN America regrets the situation that ensued from the error. As we conveyed to the writers from Ukraine, it is elemental to PEN as advocates of free expression that the positions of governments not be projected on writers, whose essence lies in their independence of thought. We have been and remain deeply committed to ensuring that the independent voices of both Ukrainian and Russian writers continue to be heard in the context of this conflict.

We thank Masha Gessen for their support, dedication and friendship over the last 9 years.

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. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057