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Writers against Russia’s PEN-center

Russian writers are leaving the PEN-centre en masse — the international writers’ club has never before seen a conflict on this scale. Русский

Anna Kachurovskaya
12 January 2017
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Russian journalist Sergey Pakhomenko. Source: ru.wikipedia.orgOn the eve of the new year holidays, the executive committee of Russia’s PEN-centre expelled the journalist Sergey Parkhomenko for life. Parkhomenko, the founder of the Last Address and Dissernet projects. Parkhomenko was accused of “straying from the fundamental principles of the PEN-international’s charter” and for “provocative activities incompatible with the aims and remit of the Russian PEN-centre.” (link in Russian)

Furthermore, the leadership of the PEN-centre has suspended the membership of poet Grigory Petukhov for one year, and issued a stern warning to the writer Marina Vishnevetskaya for “distributing to the media tendentious texts and video recordings of the PEN-centre’s summit on 15 December 2016, which led to the misrepresentation of the nature of the centre by malevolent internet users and figures in mass-media.”

After it went into force, famous Russian writers began to protest the executive committee’s decision. Believing its acts to be unjustified, they began to leave the writers’ club. To date, over 20 people have written on their decision to leave the club — neither the international nor the Russian branches of the PEN-centre have ever before seen a conflict on this scale. oDR heard from current and former members of the PEN-centre, to find out what’s going on:

Denis Dragunsky, writer

This conflict is due to different understandings of the aims and remit of the writers’ club today. To behave decently to others is one of those goals — members of the PEN-centre have already asked  politely to be pardoned, so what’s the problem? Furthermore, what does the title “member of the PEN-centre actually mean?” It’s just a title. Why should somebody be barred from using it? If some pensioners wrote a provocative letter and signed it “pensioners Ivanov, Petrov and Sidorov”, who would tell them that they don’t have the right to speak on behalf of all pensioners, and then refuse to recognise them as such?

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Denis Dragunsky

The split happened at a public meeting where the centre’s charter was violated during elections of the president and executive committee. The thing is, there’s the actual charter, and then there’s a condensed and rewritten version as seen on PEN-Russia’s website. The elections violated the authentic charter which all PEN-centres are supposed to observe. As soon as they held elections, I, along with many other writers who were absent at the time, received a letter demanding me to vote accordingly. I didn’t even bother to reply — it was such nonsense. Even falsifiers of government elections didn’t go to such lengths. With their behaviour, they debased the very ideas of decency and of freedom.

Does the executive committee’s letter surprise you?

It’s the same old Soviet rhetoric: “there are destructive forces, we are tired of Parkhomenko…” Who else have they become weary of? It seems absurd to even talk about it. They want to bring back order, to return to good old Soviet discipline. Well, let them run the club that way. We’ll run it differently. I want to do things by the book, in full accordance with the charter, which should function according to the basic principles of law. To clarify: even if they passed a new charter which strictly limited members’ ability to influence the leadership, it would still be legally null and void.

Olga Romanova, journalist and human rights defender

This conflict’s been going on for a few years. It started when some of us, writers and journalists, invited Lyudmila Ulitskaya to join. A couple of years ago, the [administration] tried to expel us for violating the charter. I went to meetings at the Central House of Writers a few times… I hadn’t heard such speeches since my childhood days in the Komsomol!

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Olga RomanovaPEN’s Russian branch has become an anecdotal organisation — it’s as if you’ve travelled back to a meeting of the Congress of Soviet Writers, where Alexey Surkov denounced Pasternak. Luckily, things played out a bit differently for us, than it did for Pasternak. But in general, when you witness all this, you do start to wonder how you’ll spend your retirement. That’s a serious question, by the way.

What has membership in the club given you personally?

The sense of belonging to a big, international community. But since the club’s meetings have more than satisfied my capacity for deja vu [for the Soviet times], I gave up on the PEN-centre and stopped paying my membership dues. The only reason I haven’t quit fully is that I don’t want to go through joining it again.

Given current realities in Russia, what should the PEN-centre be doing, in your view?

We could be fighting for freedom of speech. Today, for example, a printing house refused to print a book by Sergey Khazov-Kassia  — for which the journalist and writer had raised his own funds. They refused, because they’re afraid. Those are the kind of reasons why PEN-centre exists; to ensure that such terribly truthful, honest books are printed.

PEN’s Russian branch has become an anecdotal organisation — it’s like you’ve travelled back to the Congress of Soviet Writers

It’s the PEN-centre’s duty to defend the Chechen writer German Sadulayev, who remains at danger due to his conflict with the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov. And it’s not important to me that my views differ from Sadulayev’s. It’s about defending the right to freedom of expression. Let’s not forget that Article 282 of Russia’s Criminal Code (“against inciting hatred against somebody or insulting their dignity”) can be used against anybody.

Aleksandr Arkhangelsky, literary critic, writer and television presenter

This conflict is all about a fundamentally different understanding of the Russian PEN-centre, what it is and what it does. Given the personalities of the people involved, it was unavoidable. Views differ. Some believe it to be simply a writers’ union with some vague commitments to defending human rights; for others, its key role is to defend our persecuted colleagues, regardless of their political views.

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Aleksandr Arkhangelsky

What has membership in the club given you personally?

From a day-to-day, consumer’s perspective — nothing. I just pay my membership dues. From the community’s perspective, it allows writers to make more public announcements, publish open letters, and somehow support our colleagues. The last open letter I signed was an appeal to pardon Oleg Sentsov. I guess we’ll have to take a different approach now.

How could Russia’s PEN-centre change for the better?

Ideally, it’d be great if the PEN-centre could bring together a wider range of diverse, often incompatible, people. Under a clever, considerate, and level-headed leadership, we could cover a lot of territory — some could react to the fate of Sentsov, others may prefer to raise awareness of the fate of pro-Russian journalists in Ukraine. We could all come together to oppose the persecution of our Azerbaijani colleague Akram Aylisli. Among other things. But it hasn’t turned out that way.

Natalia Sokolovskaya, novelist, translator, and member of the St. Petersburg PEN-centre

A few years ago, the Russian PEN-centre invited Lyudmila Ulitskaya to join its executive committee. As her name and work is recognised throughout the world, her membership would have done great things for the organisation’s image inside Russia. During her tenure in the executive committee of Russia’s PEN-centre, around 300 famous journalists, writers and bloggers joined the organisation, attracted by the idea of defending freedom of expression.

But life in Russia changed dramatically after 2014, and the PEN-centre was no exception. It was no longer possible to hide the internal differences. All these new members turned out to be too independent and proved very inconvenient for those who wanted to advocate for freedom of expression in a modest, quiet manner, trying not to upset the authorities. Among the ranks of the executive committee were some great writers — but they weren’t so great at upholding the central principles of the international PEN-centre’s charter, or at least not those concerning advocacy and defending human rights.

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Natalia SokolovskayaTo the surprise of many, the PEN-centre’s executive committee became extremely cautious given new political realities. As a result, many members began to make their own declarations in defence of freedom of speech. In 2015, the executive committee made moves to expel all the new members invited by Ulitskaya, who apparently had not been admitted as set out by the organisation’s charter. Outraged by the decision, some PEN-centre members wrote a letter to the executive committee and made the story public.

As a result, only eight of these “outcasts” remained in the PEN-centre, and due to our intervention, they stayed members. I wrote recommendations for them, as well as for many others. Essentially,  the Russian branch had stopped observing the PEN-centre’s international charter. This was fully confirmed when the executive committee refused to endorse an open letter in support of the jailed Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, which was signed by 64 members of the PEN-centre (link in Russian). When the executive committee issued a response, even their language harked back to the era of the Zastoi [Brezhnev-era stagnation], if not even to propagandistic editorials of the 1930s.” [editor’s note: Ulitskaya, then vice-president of the Russian PEN-centre, later resigned in protest in Autumn 2014]

What does membership of the PEN-centre mean to you?

The opportunity to make my voice heard, to come together with people who aren’t indifferent to what’s happening in Russia. I won’t leave the PEN-centre, but only because the St. Petersburg club is separate from the central Russian branch. Still, the people who are now leaving the central PEN-centre have become like family to me. There’s a remarkable sense of unity.

Life in Russia changed dramatically after 2014; the PEN-centre was no exception. It was no longer possible to hide the internal political differences

Writers whose names are known across the country are leaving PEN. It’s a pity that we can’t take them on, but sadly, the St. Petersburg branch can only accept writers from our region. I don’t know of any other PEN-centre in the world which has seen such a mass exodus of members.

What should the PEN-centre be doing?

Advocacy. Well, certainly not publishing books with presidential grants, tub-thumping about war in the Donbas or Transnistria. Because that’s an easy way to curry favour with those in power.

Sergey Kuznetsov, writer and columnist

In Russia and throughout the world, the PEN-centre must defend freedom of speech and of cultural expression. Since the 1990s, that’s what it’s been doing in Russia. Sure, it often offered purely moral support and didn’t try and influence politics, but still. Some writers don’t want to get into a conflict with the authorities and suddenly become “foreign agents”. Since that can happen to anybody, the PEN-centre’s executive committee has taken a very soft stance on anything concerning Ukraine and Oleg Sentsov, who is accused of terrorism.

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Sergey Kuznetsov

Due to the political differences between members of the executive committee, the charter was very poorly rewritten. Or more precisely, they interpret it quite freely — the once central commitments to defending human rights have become just decorative.

Will you leave the PEN-centre?

I still hope that the situation can change for the better. That there’ll be proper elections for the executive committee, with a normal nomination of candidates and tallying of votes — and that my voice can be of use. Furthermore, PEN is an international organisation and I wouldn’t want to leave it just because its Russian section has been taken over by people who are heavy-handed, to put it mildly. Steps are now being taken to somehow turn things around from within the PEN-centre — but if things continue in the same spirit as before then alas, I will have to leave.

Translated from Russian by Maxim Edwards

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