January 18, 2017
The case of Svetlana Alexievich’s Russian PEN membership
by Kait Howard
Five days after Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich announced her resignation from the Russian PEN Center over its expulsion of journalist and activist Sergey Parkhomenko, the organization released a statement denying that Alexievich had ever been a member.
As the Guardian’s Paula Erizanu reported, on January 11 Alexievich published a statement saying she was resigning from Russian PEN, claiming that their “founding ideals were cravenly violated” with Parkhomenko’s ouster. The journalist had been expelled by the organization in December for “provocative activity,” which his supporters attribute to his outspoken defense of another activist, the Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. In 2014, Sentsov was convicted of terrorism in what is widely regarded to have been a sham trial, and is now serving time in a Siberian penal colony. In the statement quoted in English translation by Erizanu, Alexievich describes Parkhomenko’s expulsion as just one more step in Russian PEN’s shift from an organization championing free speech to one that represses it. “Putin will go, whereas this shameful page from the history of PEN will stay,” she wrote.
The strange twist came on January 16 when, as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, Russian PEN released their own statement claiming that Alexievich had never actually been a member of the organization, and therefore “her declaration of leaving sounds bizarre.” Parkhomenko responded quickly, posting “several screenshots from Russian PEN Center on Facebook as evidence that Alexievich was a member.” See, also, what appears to be a photo of Alexievich’s Russian PEN membership card, posted on the Facebook page of a group that purports to be a Russian PEN community page, though it’s unclear who runs it.
The whole thing is puzzling. While Alexievich is Belarusian and resides in Minsk, which has its own PEN Center, it’s hard to imagine why she would have falsely claimed Russian PEN membership, and her comments describing Russian PEN’s transformation into a “conciliatory, conformist, even in a sense servile” institution echo the statements of the dozens of writers who also announced their own resignations. These include poet Lev Rubinstein as well as the widely read mystery writer Boris Akunin, who criticized Russian PEN for “[fail]ing to defend persecuted writers.”
Meanwhile, PEN International’s executive director Carles Torner told the Guardian that they were “monitoring the situation,” noting that “while all centres are independent they must abide by the principles of the PEN Charter.”
Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.