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Does Opposing Russia’s War Mean Opposing All Russians?
Anti-Putin writers canceled from PEN America event because Ukrainians refuse to share the stage with them.
IN RESPONSE TO RUSSIA’S CRIMINAL WAR in Ukraine, should the pro-Ukraine West shun all things Russian—even Russian critics of the war and of the regime waging it? The recurring conflicts over this issue generally reflect the heartfelt pain and anger of Ukrainians—artists, writers, activists—whose country and people are being unspeakably brutalized by Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship and by the Russian armed forces. But these incidents can also turn into a Slavic-inflected version of “cancel culture” that may hurt rather than help Ukraine’s cause in the public arena.
A case in point: last week’s scandal at PEN America, where journalist and author Masha Gessen resigned from the organization’s board of directors over the cancellation of a panel featuring expatriate Russian writers. (Gessen, who emigrated from the Soviet Union as a teen in 1981 and lived and worked in post-Soviet Moscow in the 1990s and 2000s, has been described in the press as the scheduled moderator of the panel discussion; however, one of the canceled speakers told a Russian-language YouTube program that Gessen was to be a panelist, and Gessen confirmed this to me in an email.)
The “Writers in Exile” panel at PEN’s big annual World Voices festival, scheduled for May 13, was scrubbed at the last minute after two Ukrainian writers appearing on a different panel the same day refused to participate if the festival included Russians—any Russians. Artem Chapeye and Artem Chekh, both active-duty soldiers whose panel was on the subject of “Ukrainian Writers at War,” cited their military status as a particular barrier to being seen “under the same ‘umbrella’ with Russian participants.” It’s unclear whether the Ukrainians regarded Gessen, who currently holds both Russian and U.S. passports, as one of the “Russian participants.” The other two, Anna Nemzer and Ilia Veniavkin (who would have been the moderator), had left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine and are deeply involved with the anti-Putin independent media. Both the Russian panel and the Ukrainian panel were offered the option of holding the event in the same location and time slot, but formally separate from the festival; both refused, seeing this as relegation to second-class status.
Gessen has repeatedly said that the issue was not the Ukrainian writers’ position but PEN’s decision, blatantly at odds with the organization’s strong stance on free expression, to cancel the Russian panel. But in a way, the Ukrainians’ stance put PEN in an impossible position: either cancel the Russians or tell the Ukrainians, citizens of a country victimized by a horrific war of aggression, to cancel themselves. PEN board president Ayad Akhtar—an outspoken critic of left-wing “cancel culture” on the Western literary scene—freely admitted to the Atlantic that “human considerations,” in this case, overrode principle: “Had we made the decision on the basis of principle, it would have meant a human cost that we certainly didn’t want to pay at this particular moment given what’s going on in Ukraine.”
The PEN America controversy went public on May 16 with the Atlantic article by Gal Beckerman. The next day, the executive board of PEN America’s Ukrainian sister organization, PEN Ukraine, issued its own statement reaffirming its policy of avoiding participation in “events under the same umbrella as representatives of Russia.” (Here, a language gap may contribute to the misunderstanding: in Russian and Ukrainian, a “representative” can mean simply any member of a particular demographic.) According to PEN Ukraine:
As the war goes on, with countless displays of Russian cruelty and cynicism, we find it immoral and contrary to our values to imagine that writers or cultural figures from Ukraine and Russia can take part in the same event or share a platform. Doing so would create the illusion of openness to a “dialogue” between representatives of Ukraine and Russia before the Russian regime is defeated, its war criminals are brought to justice, and Russia faces the consequences of all the crimes it has committed in Ukraine.
But it’s unclear how Russian and Ukrainian cultural figures on separate panels as part of the same literary or arts festival creates any illusion of “openness to a ‘dialogue.’” Strictly speaking, PEN Ukraine’s blanket prohibition (which, it should be added, is not binding for individual members of the organization) would mean that Ukrainians cannot participate in an event where a Russian investigative journalist presents a report with essential information about Russian war crimes in Ukraine. By this logic, Jewish American writers during World War II would have been within their rights to boycott an event featuring the exiled anti-Nazi writer Thomas Mann because he was German—or even, say, the heroic anti-Nazi pastor Dietrich von Bonhoeffer if he had managed to leave Germany before his arrest and eventual execution.
University of Tulsa professor Boris Dralyuk, a self-described Russophone Ukrainian (and a translator of Russian writers such as Isaac Babel), has a different take on the dispute on Twitter. Dralyuk believes that organizations should respect Ukrainian objections to sharing not only panels but venues with Russians (no matter how anti-Putin) and that, for many Ukrainians, this is a matter of Ukrainian culture finally having an opportunity—in terrible circumstances—to gain visibility and come out from under the shadow or Russian culture, whose unique greatness has been consistently affirmed even by dissident Russian writers.
On an emotional level, Dralyuk’s call for empathy makes sense. But calls to limit expression in the name of empathy are a slippery slope, as is the suggestion that Ukrainian voices cannot be amplified without excluding Russian ones.
Ironically, a move to exclude Russian writers can call more attention to the Russians and overshadow what the Ukrainians have to say—which is exactly what happened at the PEN America festival. The public relations problem for Ukrainians was compounded by the fact that PEN’s initial statement suggested the Ukrainian writer-soldiers at the festival “could face being barred from returning to Ukraine” if they participated in a festival with Russian speakers in it, or face other repercussions. (This is presumably how PEN’s leadership interpreted the Ukrainians’ claims that they would be “imperiled” by participation in a festival that also featured Russians.) In fact, Chapye later made clear to the New York Times that the only “consequences” would come from his own conscience—the perceived betrayal toward “all the people murdered and tortured by the Russian army.”
Such objections are not limited to Ukrainians who serve in the armed forces, or to Russians who are citizens of the Russian Federation. The Atlantic story on the PEN controversy mentioned a similar dispute a few days earlier in which a Russian poet was disinvited from a literary festival in Tartu, Estonia after two Ukrainian poets said they could not participate if she did. While the story arguably exaggerated the mistreatment of the Russian poet, wrongly claiming that she was “put on a plane and sent home”—in fact, she had a successful event in a venue outside the festival—it left out the most troubling part of that incident: the “Russian,” Linor Goralik, is a Ukrainian-born Israeli citizen.
Goralik’s apparent offense was that she worked in Moscow from 2000 to 2014 (before returning to Israel because of her opposition to the Putin regime) and published a literary almanac in Russia, making her part of the Russian cultural milieu and fair game for ostracism. While Goralik herself did not complain, Tartu University dean Roman Leibov told the Estonian website ERR that he was “extremely angry,” denouncing the cancellation as “outrageous” and the product of “moral panic.”
IN AN APPEARANCE LAST WEDNESDAY on TV Rain (Dozhd), the independent channel banned in Russia in the war’s early days and now existing in exile, one of the panelists from the canceled PEN America event, Anna Nemzer, expressed strong misgivings about the Atlantic article on the controversy. Her main objection was that it seemed to portray her and her co-panelists as victims of injustice or mistreatment. “It’s a difficult situation and I suppose it can be called unfair,” Nemzer told host Ekaterina Kotrikadze. “But honestly, in a situation where—look, two minutes before I went on, you were talking about a five-year-old killed [in a Russian bombing] in Kherson. So let’s talk about injustice. And I really don’t want to be the person who, right now, is going to compare her hurt feelings to what [Ukrainians] feel.”
This is, of course, the only decent position as far as any comparisons between Russian exiles who encounter anti-Russian prejudice and Ukrainians who suffer the horrors of war. TV Rain’s Kotrikadze readily agreed that “cancellations” of Russians in the West cannot be discussed “in the same context [as] the atrocious crimes of the Russian army and the Russian leadership in Ukraine.” But she also insisted that it is possible to talk about this “strange trend” as a separate issue—directing the criticism not at the Ukrainian objectors but at Western institutions, such as PEN America, which bow to the pressure.
These conversations are likely to continue in the coming months. Those of us who support Ukraine’s righteous cause but are also passionately committed to free expression and opposed to deplatforming will have to strive for a difficult balance between these two principles.