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

Masha Gessen, a prominent Russian-American journalist, author, and activist, has resigned from the board of PEN America in protest against the organization’s cancellation of a panel discussion featuring Russian writers. Gessen, who is known for her critical stance on the Russian government, expressed deep disappointment and concern over PEN America’s decision, which she believes compromises the organization’s commitment to free speech and supporting persecuted writers.

The panel, titled “Writing Russia: A Conversation with the Brave New Russian Voices,” was scheduled to take place during PEN America’s World Voices Festival. It aimed to highlight the work of several Russian authors, including those who have faced censorship and repression in their home country. However, the event was abruptly called off due to concerns about the participation of two controversial Russian writers, Dmitry Bykov and Anna Politkovskaya.

Bykov, a prominent poet and novelist, has been accused of supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin, while Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist, was murdered in 2006 after years of reporting on human rights abuses in Russia. PEN America cited security concerns and potential backlash against the organization as reasons for canceling the panel.

In her resignation letter, Gessen criticized PEN America’s decision, stating that it sends a dangerous message to both Russian and international writers that their work will not be supported or defended if it challenges political power. She argued that the cancellation undermines PEN America’s mission to protect freedom of expression and silences voices that deserve to be heard.

Gessen’s resignation has sparked a broader discussion about the limits and responsibilities of organizations like PEN America in promoting free speech and supporting writers in repressive regimes. Some argue that the cancellation was necessary to protect the safety of participants and avoid potential political manipulation, while others believe it is a betrayal of PEN America’s principles.

The controversy surrounding the cancellation of the Russian writers’ panel highlights the ongoing challenges faced by writers and journalists in countries with limited freedom of expression. It also emphasizes the need for organizations like PEN America to navigate these complexities while remaining committed to their mission of defending and promoting the rights of writers worldwide.