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Masha Gessen Resigns from PEN America Board over Cancellation of Russian Writers Panel

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Image Credit: Facebook/Masha Gessen

We speak with PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel about the resignation of journalist Masha Gessen from the free expression group’s board following the cancellation of a Russian writers panel at the recent PEN World Voices Festival after Ukrainian writers threatened to boycott. “It’s unfortunate,” Nossel says, but notes Gessen plans to remain a PEN member and work on its project to archive Russian independent media.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, I wanted to go to a very different topic with Suzanne Nossel. I wanted to ask you about the Russian American journalist Masha Gessen, who resigned from your board, from the board of PEN America, after PEN America canceled a Russian writers panel at your World Voices Festival after Ukrainian writers threatened to boycott. I know this was a very difficult issue. Can you explain the decision?

SUZANNE NOSSEL: Yeah, look, yeah, I need to correct you, Amy. So, what happened was, we have this annual World Voices Festival. We had two separate panels, one of Ukrainian soldiers coming from the front who we’re putting together with American soldiers who are also authors. And so, that was one panel. And then we had a separate panel with Russian writers, including Masha and two other Russian journalists — one historian, one journalist, who we’ve actually brought here to New York to work on a project that was initiated by Masha and PEN America called the Russian Internet Archive, that archives independent media from Russia that was at risk of being destroyed once Putin cracked down on independent media so aggressively after the Ukraine war started. So we had these two separate panels.

The Ukrainians had told us they couldn’t be on stage in an event with Russians. Once they arrived here after the long trip from Ukraine, they made clear that they were not willing or able to be in an entire festival with Russians, even though it was a separate event, separate venue, that just the very fact that they were in the same festival posed a real problem for them. And it wasn’t just an ethical objection, but, rather, concern in terms of the visas that they had gotten that enabled them to get permission from the army to take leave and come here to the U.S. to bring their stories.

So, then we had a real dilemma about what to do with these two events that we very much wanted to host. And we proposed to both sides: Could we go forward, but rebrand the event, just call it PEN America instead of PEN World Voices, same venue, same participants, same time of day? That was our proposal, one approach that we took to try to resolve it. The Ukrainians felt that would run counter to the permission they had gotten to leave to be part of this big festival. I think the Russians felt and Masha felt that it — you know, they put it in an article in The Atlantic that it was sort of being at a lesser table, and that felt uncomfortable. And so they actually made the decision to cancel. And they put it, I think, poignantly, saying, “Look, it’s difficult to discuss writing in exile,” which is the topic of the panel, “under the best of circumstances, and these were not the best of circumstances.” So, you know, with regret, we accepted that decision, and that’s where things netted out.

And, you know, it’s unfortunate. Masha was a valued trustee of PEN America for more than nine years. We are grateful that Masha has indicated they will remain a PEN member and remain involved in this Russian independent media archive project, which is so important.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, as the award-winning writer Masha Gessen told The Atlantic monthly, “I felt like I was being asked to tell these people that because they’re Russians they can’t sit at the big table; they have to sit at the little table off to the side.” Suzanne Nossel, I want to thank you so much for being with us, CEO of PEN America, and Kellie Carter Jackson, professor, historian, author, professor at Wellesley College.

Next up, we go to Ecuador, where President Guillermo Lasso has dissolved parliament in order to avoid being impeached. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “The Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog. Opponents of Nebraska’s 12-week abortion ban and ban on gender-affirming surgery for minors sang the song together in Nebraska’s Capitol rotunda. The bill passed Friday afternoon.

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