(NEW YORK)—Novelist, screenwriter and president of PEN Ukraine Andrey Kurkov delivered an impassioned defense of human rights and the power of truth and the written word to confront injustice and inhumanity in a speech at the PEN World Voices Festival, a gathering of writers from across the globe. He also used the occasion to honor the journalists who are sacrificing their lives to report the truth about the war.

Speaking directly about the impact of the war on his adopted homeland, he said: “I could not have imagined a situation in which I would decide not to write a novel. But it has happened. Reality is now scarier, more dramatic than any fictional prose. In this context, novels lose their meaning. Now it is necessary to write only the truth, only non-fiction. All those who can write are witnessing one of the worst crimes of the 21st century. The task of witnesses is to record and preserve the evidence of the crime. Yes, now I am a witness in a future criminal trial. And even if this process takes place later than I would like, my testimony, like the testimony of dozens of other Ukrainian writers and journalists, will be claimed by the judges.”

“Ukrainians are determined to win,” he said, “to defend the sovereign right to life in their own free and democratic country. Ukrainians in this war are united not only by a common enemy, but also by a common European vision of the future of their state. Ukraine doesn’t really have a choice. It will either win and remain an independent state, or, as President Putin wants, become part of the new Soviet Union or the new Russian empire.

Kurkov, author of 19 novels and 20 movie and TV scripts, and perhaps the best-known Ukrainian writer outside his own country, was born in Russia and moved to Kyiv with his family at age 2.

Delivering the Arthur Miller lecture as part of the festival, Kurkov referred to the American playwright’s defense of free speech, free expression and the freedom to write when he served as president of PEN America from 1965 to 1969 and through his life.

Kurkov said: “Arthur Miller has not been with us for 17 years, but his voice continues to resound in the world and continues to turn the thoughts of hundreds of thousands, and maybe millions of people back to the search for truth and justice. Because truth and justice cannot be separated. They are interconnected. A person who experiences the sharp pain of injustice, in whatever way, can become a champion of truth. Such a person is usually ready to fight for this truth and, if necessary, to die for it.”

Referring to the 20 journalists, including those working for U.S. news organizations, who have been killed since the illegal Russian invasion began in February, Kurkov said: “Journalism remains one of the most dangerous professions, and during the war, it becomes even more dangerous. The inscription ‘press’ on a bulletproof vest or helmet is to the Russian military, like a red rag to bull.”

He also paid tribute to the Ukrainian citizen journalists who are being persecuted and imprisoned in Crimea and Russia, with criminal cases fabricated against them.

“The level of journalism traditionally shows the level of democracy in society. We can see how independent journalism is being destroyed by the example of annexed Crimea,” he said. “For a writer and for a journalist, there is no more important freedom than the freedom to write. And if a journalist or writer continues to write, realizing that he can be repressed for this, this only speaks of the courage and dedication of such a person.”

This May 23, PEN America will present its 2022 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to Valadyslav Yesypenko, among the Ukrainian journalists imprisoned in Crimea. 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. His wife, Kateryna Yesypenko, will accept the award on his behalf at the PEN America Literary Gala in New York City.

Kurkov spoke in a personal way about Ukraine, describing the country as “the space of my personal freedom” where he has worked as a writer for 30 years “without censorship, without political control, without pressure.”

He continued: “Ukrainians do not accept diktats or restrictions on their rights, especially the right to freedom of speech or freedom of religion. For Ukrainians, freedom has always been more important than money, more important than living standards, more important than stability. In fact, there has never been stability in Ukraine precisely because freedom was a priority. Unlike the Russians, for whom it seems, stability is more important than freedom and all individual freedoms and rights.”

In conclusion, he said: “Ukrainian writers, regardless of the language they write in, will never give up the freedom to write what they think and what they consider important. Ukrainians, writers or not writers, cannot and will not learn to live without freedom. Without the freedoms that are included in the mandatory and inviolable ‘list’ of human rights.”

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.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057