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Why Ukrainian writers refuse to share stages with Russian authors at festivals

by Kate Tsurkan May 19, 2023 12:21 AM 8 min read
Ukranian Writers at War, a panel with Artem Chapeye, Artem Chekh, Iryna Tsilyk, and moderator Phil Klay during the PEN World Voices Festival. (Photo: Beowulf Sheehan/PEN America)
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Since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, many Ukrainian writers have refused to participate in any cultural events that featured Russian writers.

Despite thousands of civilian casualties, billions of dollars in infrastructure damage, and countless stories of human rights abuses committed by Russian forces, Ukrainian writers keep having to make this point one year into a war with no immediate end in sight, and Western cultural managers keep trying to build bridges between Ukrainians and Russians.

At this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, a literary event organized by PEN America held from May 10-13 in the U.S., participating Ukrainian writers Artem Chapeye, Artem Chekh, and Iryna Tsilyk discovered at the eleventh hour that there would also be an event with three Russian journalists, including the Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen, about the “victims of tyranny.”

One of the conditions of the Ukrainian writers’ involvement in the festival, as voiced by PEN Ukraine during the festival's planning stages, had been that no Russian writers participate. The fact that Chapeye and Chekh are active service members in Ukraine’s Armed Forces added an extra layer of moral complexity to the situation.

“We simply informed the festival that we could not compromise our principles, especially considering that everything was discussed from the very beginning,” Tsilyk, who is also known for her work as an award-winning filmmaker, wrote on May 16.

PEN America and the festival organizers acknowledged their mistake and attempted to find a solution. Both the Ukrainian and Russian participants were offered the possibility of holding their events “outside the festival,” but neither side was in favor of this idea.

The Ukrainians were later informed that Gessen, the Russian historian Ilia Veniavkin,  journalist Anna Nemzer, and Chinese writer Murong Xuecun had decided not to hold their panel, and the Ukrainian event went on as planned.

However, Gessen revealed on May 16 that they had resigned as vice president of PEN America’s board of directors for how the organization had handled the situation.

Gessen’s resignation ignited a media frenzy.

Gessen told The Atlantic that they “weren’t blaming the Ukrainians,” but also said that it was “abundantly clear” that PEN America had been “blackmailed” by them.

The New York Times, the Guardian, the Associated Press, and other news outlets picked up on the story, shifting the focus to the “censorship” of Russians.

The Ukrainian writers and PEN Ukraine officials denied the allegation of blackmail.

Chapeye told the Kyiv Independent that it was unfortunate how the attention had shifted to the festival scandal and away from the Ukrainian writers’ message: their fight for Ukraine’s right to exist amidst Russia’s ongoing war and genocide of Ukrainians.

Responsibility to victims of Russian aggression

Some found it surprising that Ukrainian writers would refuse to appear in the same festival as Russian writers, including journalists like Gessen, who has done dispatches for the New Yorker from Ukraine and devoted much of their work to condemning authoritarian forces.

PEN Ukraine released a statement following the incident, explaining their stance.

According to PEN Ukraine, their position was not related to Ukrainian writers’ judgment toward specific individuals, their political views, or their actions.

Ukrainian writers appearing alongside any Russian writer, regardless of their background, would risk creating “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.”

PEN Ukraine emphasized the responsibility of its members to respect and honor those who have suffered and lost their lives during Russia's war of aggression.

“We respond to the thousands of people who died along with their dreams and hopes for the future. Each of them has a name. We know so many of those names,” the statement reads.

At the same time, they also acknowledged “that each of our members is free to determine his or her own stance on this.”

Chapeye told the Kyiv Independent that it wasn’t about “wanting” or “not wanting” to deal with Russians.

“It’s like in chess, where the knight’s horse can only move in an L-shape,” Chapeye said. “That was the case with us. A soldier cannot negotiate a ‘separate armistice,’ even one that is metaphorical in nature.”

More to the story

Tetyana Teren, the executive director of PEN Ukraine, added another layer of context to the behind-the-scenes events that was missing from the widely-shared article by The Atlantic.

According to Teren, PEN Ukraine received an invitation from the organizers of the PEN America’s World Voices Festival back in January for Chapeye, Chekh, and Tsilyk to attend.

“It was important for our American partners to invite writer-soldiers as it would provide an additional opportunity to draw attention to Russia's war against Ukraine, and because there is also a tradition of veteran literature in America,” Teren wrote.

Both Chapeye and Chekh are currently serving in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Chekh previously served from 2015-2016 following Russia’s invasion of Donbas, and Chapeye enlisted after the start of the full-scale invasion, once he’d evacuated his wife and children to safety.

During the meeting with her American counterparts, Teren and her colleagues at PEN Ukraine reiterated the point that the majority of Ukrainian writers have chosen not to engage with Russian writers since the onset of the full-scale invasion. This became the main condition for proceeding with any discussions involving Chapeye, Chekh, and Tsilyk in the festival.

Once an agreement was reached, the focus shifted toward the logistical aspects of planning the trip. All Ukrainian men who are eligible to serve in the military require permission to leave the country during wartime. In Chapeye and Chekh’s case, they also needed permission to obtain temporary leave from the military.

Chapeye, Chekh, and Tsilyk arrived a few days before the start of the festival only to discover on their second day in New York that the panel on “victims of tyranny” had been added to the festival featuring Gessen, Veniavkin, Nemzer, and Xuecun.

Teren wrote that PEN Ukraine had voiced their position “and the position of our authors when we received the festival invitation, and these agreements and trust among partners were violated and not respected.”

There was no “blackmail” nor were there any “ultimatums,” according to the Ukrainians. When they learned that the Russians had decided not to hold their event, they said they felt relieved.

Ukrainians labeled ‘cruel’

Censorship” became a prominent buzzword following the publication of the Atlantic article on May 16, with some debating as to whether or not the PEN festival situation was a free speech issue.

“It’s up to people whose country hasn’t been invaded, whose relatives haven’t disappeared, whose houses are not being bombed, to say there are certain things we don’t do — we don’t silence people,” Gessen said, as quoted by The Atlantic.

However, the wording of The Atlantic article was viewed by many in the Ukrainian literature community as misleading and manipulative.

The author of the piece, Gal Beckerman, wrote of the understandable “desire (of the Ukrainians) to be cruel” to Russians in the context of war.

Additionally, the opening sentences of Beckerman’s article portrayed Russian culture as under threat, existing on the margins of polite Western society since the onset of the full-scale Russian invasion: “Tchaikovsky would not be played. Russian literature was kept high on the shelf. Moscow’s famous Bolshoi Ballet was disinvited from touring abroad.”

Independent Russian media went for a similar angle, with TV Rain host Ekaterina Kotrikadze wondering how anyone could equate the actions of the Russian military with the entire Russian population. But during TV Rain’s live broadcast on May 17, Nemzer, one of the Russians invited to the PEN festival, took issue with the framing of the discussion.

Nemzer said that she had originally seen no reason to speak publicly on the matter until she had read The Atlantic article and the coverage that followed, which “really upset” her. According to Nemzer, she met with Gessen and Veniavkin “very quickly,” and all three of them made the “only right” decision not to hold the event when they learned of the Ukrainian writers’ opposition to their participation in the festival.

“I have a very simple position – if the Ukrainians don’t want to see me there, I’m out,” Nemzer said.

The Atlantic article also included factual errors that were repeated elsewhere, Nemzer told TV Rain. For example, Veniavkin was meant to be the moderator, not Gessen. It was also “ridiculous” to Nemzer that she and Veniavkin were referred to as writers, when they are a journalist and historian, respectively.

Neither Nemzer nor Veniavkin were asked by The Atlantic to comment on the article, according to Nemzer. She said it was “bitter” for her to read how Gessen’s wording in The Atlantic had been construed in such a manner that the reader would come to the conclusion that the Russian participants were the victims.

“What I really did not want was to be represented as the main victim,” Nemzer said, adding that a few minutes before she’d gone on the air, she’d heard the news of a child killed by Russian shelling in Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine not far from the front line, apparently trying to convey that Ukrainians were the real victims.

Finding their voices

This is not the first scandal involving Ukrainian and Russian writers at a literary festival and, given their frequency, will likely not be the last.

Ukrainian writers Serhiy Zhadan and Sofia Andrukhovych dropped out of the Norwegian Festival of Literature, which was held from May 30 to June 5 last year, when they learned that Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov and opposition leader Alexei Navany’s press secretary Kira Yarmysh would be in attendance. Ukrainian writers Kateryna Babkina and Lyuba Yakimchuk also turned down offers from the festival organizers to replace Zhadan and Andrukhovych.

The organizer of the Ukrainian event at the festival in Norway, when asked about the situation by New Eastern Europe, replied: “To me all good culture is international and universal, and thus people within the field of culture should try to cooperate.”

However, for many Ukrainian writers, it is impossible to “cooperate,” given that they have suffered firsthand from Russian aggression.

For example, Anna Gruver fled her home in Donetsk Oblast due to the Russian invasion that started in 2014, only to leave her new home, Kharkiv, when it came under heavy bombardment at the start of the full-scale invasion. Both she and Olena Huseinova dropped out of the Prima Vista festival which occurred in May this year in Estonia, when they learned that the Russian-Israeli writer Linor Goralik would also be in attendance.

In her open letter explaining why she and Gruver had dropped out of the festival, Huseinova wrote that it was unacceptable to share a program with participants who have “disregarded the views of the Ukrainian literary community” and that liberal Russians “support” for Ukraine has amounted to “a silencing of all our voices – as poets, as citizens of Ukraine, and as human beings.”

“It took me a few days and a few conversations with friends to write a cold, formal, and detached letter in which I explained nothing but merely pointed out that while Russian aggression continues, I cannot be in the same program as Russian writers,” Huseinova added.

Zenia Tompkins, one of Chapeye’s English translators, attended the Ukrainian panel at the PEN World Voices Festival. She told the Kyiv Independent that if anything positive could come out of such incidents, it was that they were driving Ukrainian writers to push back and find their voice.

According to Tompkins, Chapeye spoke during the panel about how before the full-scale invasion, he’d been a pacifist who even translated Mahatma Gandhi into Ukrainian. After enlisting, people like him had come to accept that the only solution for Ukrainians to protect themselves was by defeating Russia on the battlefield.

“I think that each interaction they have like this with Westerners drives home for them that they need to be louder and bolder in what they’re saying,” Tompkins said.

Note from the author:

Hi, this is Kate Tsurkan, sharing an important culture-related story from Ukraine. Due to Russia’s ongoing genocide, most stories about Ukrainian culture will, unfortunately, be related to war for years to come. But I’ve been working with Ukrainian writers in particular for years, and I’m proud to show you what they’ve done for their country.

Please consider continuing to support our reporting to see more pieces like this.

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