Gessen resigns from PEN America board over canceled panel with Russian dissidents

NEW YORK (AP) — The author and journalist Masha Gessen has resigned as vice president of the board of PEN America, citing their unhappiness with the literary and free expression organization's cancellation of an event with Russian panelists.

Last week, PEN hosted dozens of events for its annual World Voices Festival, an international gathering of writers and other public figures. One conversation was supposed to include two Russian dissident writers, with Gessen serving as moderator. A separate panel was to feature the Ukrainian writers Artem Chapeye and Artem Chekh, active members of the Ukrainian military.

In a lengthy statement Tuesday, PEN acknowledged a "misunderstanding” led to the Russians being uninvited. Because of the Russian invasion last year, the Ukrainians had objected to the presence of any Russian panelists — a condition PEN believed applied only to the Ukraine event. After learning that Chapeye and Chekh didn't want the Russians at the festival overall, and failing to reach any compromise, PEN called off the Russian panel.

“They (the Ukrainians) informed us that they would be unable to participate, explaining that had both events proceeded, they could face being barred from returning to Ukraine or facing repercussions upon their return,” PEN's statement said.

"Faced with the consequences of our mistake and without good options, we made the decision that the event with the Ukrainians should go forward, given their circumstances and the risks they face as soldiers, that they had traveled a long distance to participate, and that they came with a misunderstanding to which we had contributed."

Gessen, whose decision was first reported Tuesday by The Atlantic, is a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin and an award-winning writer. They called PEN's decision a betrayal of its principles and said that PEN should not have tolerated guests being barred from speaking "because someone else doesn’t want them to.”

Gessen said they would remain a PEN member and continue to work with it on a journalism project, the Russian Independent Media Archive, announced in April. They will not attend the PEN gala Thursday night in Manhattan, the organization’s biggest annual event, “because it would be awkward and sad to go," Gessen told the AP.