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Gessen Resigns From PEN America Board Over Cancellation of Russian Writer Panel

FILE - Masha Gessen is interviewed by VOA in this undated photo. Gessen resigned Tuesday as vice president of the board of PEN America over the free expression group's cancellation of an event with Russian panelists.

Author, journalist and former Russian service chief of Voice of America's sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Masha Gessen resigned Tuesday as vice president of the board of PEN America over the free expression group's cancellation of an event with Russian panelists.

As part of PEN America's annual World Voices festival this past weekend, Gessen was set to moderate a panel with two Russian dissident writers.

A separate panel featured Ukrainian writers Artem Chapeye and Artem Chekh, who are also active members of the Ukrainian military.

Because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year, Chapeye and Chekh objected to the presence of any Russian panelists. PEN believed that condition applied only to the Ukraine event.

PEN then canceled the Russian panel after learning that Chapeye and Chekh didn't want Russians at the festival at all. In a statement Tuesday, PEN said a "misunderstanding" led to the Russians being uninvited.

"Once the Ukrainians arrived in New York and learned that the Russian dissident writers were part of the festival, they informed us that they would be unable to participate, explaining that had both events proceeded, the soldiers could face an emergency situation involving significant political, legal and compliance repercussions and risks," PEN said.

The two Russians on the canceled panel — Ilia Veniavkin and Anna Nemzer — left Russia shortly after the invasion of Ukraine.

"Faced with the consequences of our mistake and without good options, we made the decision that the event with the Ukrainians should go forward," PEN said. "PEN America regrets the situation that ensued from the error."

Gessen, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said PEN's decision to cancel the panel was a betrayal of the organization's values.

"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," the award-winning writer told The Atlantic Monthly, which first reported their resignation Tuesday. "Which felt distasteful."

"I can't look my Russian colleagues in the eye," Gessen added.

Gessen, who immigrated from the former Soviet Union as a teenager in 1981 and holds both Russian and American citizenship, is a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Now a staff writer at The New Yorker, they previously worked as director of the Russian-language service of VOA's sister network Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

PEN said that it was "saddened" by Gessen's decision to resign. "We are deeply grateful for their innumerable contributions and service," PEN said.

Gessen told The Associated Press that PEN should not have tolerated guests being blocked from speaking "because someone else doesn't want them to."

"It's up to people whose country hasn't been invaded, whose relatives haven't been disappeared, whose houses are not being bombed, to say there are certain things we don't do — we don't silence people," Gessen told The Atlantic. "We're a freedom-of-expression organization. I'm not blaming the Ukrainians for this."

Gessen said they would remain a PEN member.