Masha Gessen stepped down following the free expression group’s decision to cancel an event at its World Voices Festival after Ukrainian writers threatened to boycott.
The journalist Masha Gessen has resigned from the board of the free expression group PEN America, after a panel at the organization’s World Voices Festival featuring Russian writers was canceled in response to objections by Ukrainian writers.
The concerns were raised by Artem Chapeye and Artem Chekh, Ukrainian writers who are also active-duty soldiers in the Ukrainian army and who were set to appear on a panel about writers as combatants on May 13. After arriving in New York last week, the Ukrainians noticed that a separate panel — about writers in exile, to be moderated by Gessen — included two Russians.
The Ukrainians told organizers that they could not participate if that panel (which also included the Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun), went forward, citing prohibitions against Ukrainians appearing at events with Russians, according to Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America. After efforts to present the panel outside the festival failed, Nossel said, it was canceled.
Gessen, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said in a text message that they remained committed to the work of PEN, but could no longer stay on the board, where they served as vice president.
“I very much believe in the mission of PEN, but I had to step down from leadership in order to not be implicated in what I think was a mistaken decision,” Gessen said. Their resignation was first reported by The Atlantic.
Boycotts of Russian artists and culture have been a topic of debate across the cultural world since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year. But Nossel, who has spoken out against such boycotts, said the question had yet to fully reach PEN until now.
At last spring’s festival, she noted, Andrey Kurkov, a novelist and the president of PEN Ukraine, had given the annual Freedom to Write lecture, after which he had an onstage conversation with the Russian American novelist Gary Shteyngart. But there were no Russian writers in the festival, which was smaller than usual due to Covid concerns.
Ukrainian writers’ concerns about appearing with Russians had been raised earlier this year, Nossel said, when discussions about the festival began. But she said PEN did not realize until the Ukrainian delegation had arrived in New York that they would object to participating not just on a panel with Russians, but in a broader festival that included Russians in any of the nearly four dozen events.
Reached by email, Chapeye said he believed that “a Ukrainian soldier cannot be seen under the same ‘umbrella’ with Russian participants for political / public image reasons.”
Asked about consequences for appearing, he said, “I think the only consequence would have been my guilt before all the people murdered and tortured by the Russian army.”
Gessen, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union as a teenager in 1981 and holds both Russian and American citizenship, has been a prominent critical voice in Russia, where they returned in 1991 to work as a journalist. Their books include “The Man Without a Face,” a 2012 biography of Vladimir Putin, and “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017. In 2013, Gessen moved back to the United States with their family, citing growing persecution of L.G.B.T.Q. people.
The two Russians on the canceled panel, Ilia Veniavkin and Anna Nemzer, left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine. Both are collaborators on the Russian Independent Media Archive, a joint project by PEN America and Bard College, which preserves the past two decades of work by independent outlets, most of which have been shuttered or blocked by the Putin government. (Veniavkin and Nemzer could not immediately be reached for comment.)
In an interview, Nossel praised Gessen’s “tremendous contributions” to PEN America, where they have been on the board for nine years. “It’s a big loss,” Nossel said. “But it felt like a no-win situation.”
Gessen emphasized that they remained a member of PEN, and remained committed to the Russian Independent Media Archive, which they spearheaded. The decision to cancel the panel, Gessen said, “was a mistake, not a malicious act.”
“My objection is not to the Ukrainian participants’ demand,” Gessen said. “They are fighting a defensive war by all means available to them. My issue is solely with PEN’s response.”