Defending the Freedom of Speech and the Persecuted Authors. Mykola Riabchuk’s presentation at the jubilee session of the Romanian PEN Center on its 95th anniversary

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Riabchuk Mykola
Riabchuk Mykola
Honorary President

One may say, with a grain of salt, that Ukrainian PEN had two Godfathers. The first was Mikhail Gorbachov, the last Soviet leader, who liberalized the communist system to a degree that the official establishment of the Ukrainian PEN Centre in 1990 became possible. And the second one was, ironically, Viktor Yanukovych, the disgraced Ukrainian president, whose accession to power in 2010 woke up PEN Ukraine from the twenty-year-long hibernation. The speed and unscrupulousness with which he and his cronies dismantled or thoroughly subjugated very weak institutions of Ukraine’s fledgling democracy left little doubt that a Russia-style authoritarianism looms large and that PEN Ukraine should resume its statutory role in defending freedom of speech, persecuted authors, and increasingly marginalized Ukrainian language. The "Euromaidan" revolution of 2013/14 and overthrow of the rogue regime have made all these tasks less relevant but introduced quite a few new challenges. Russian invasion and occupation of two Ukrainian regions caused a mass exodus of refugees – nearly two million of internally displaced persons, including a few dozen writers – Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish, and Crimean Tatar, – who needed both financial and moral assistance. The situation of those who left under the occupation is even more dramatic as they are forcibly turned into "Russian citizens" and persecuted for a mere refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the takeover.

Mykola Semena, a Crimean journalist and PEN Ukraine member, is facing a six-year term for alleged "extremism" at the local kangaroo court. Oleg Sentsov, a writer and film director from Simferopol, serves a draconian 20 year term under a fraudulent accusation in "terrorism". Ilmi Umerov and great many other Crimean Tatar activists are regularly searched, harassed, intimidated; some are kidnapped, or arrested and falsely accused in "extremism" for what is considered normally a personal opinion and fully falls under the constitutional norm on freedom of consciousness.

The ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war, being formally undeclared, creates a lot of ambiguity that, in turn, highly complicates our decision making. In many cases, it is not so easy to figure out where the government’s legitimate right to curb the enemy’s propaganda and subversive activity ends and where the bureaucratic voluntarism and excessiveness begin. Where some journalists cease to be journalists and become paid operatives of a foreign intelligence. Where authorities are unable or, worse, unwilling to bridle the radicals who occasionally disrupt "inappropriate", in their view, exhibitions, performances, lectures, film screenings, or book launches. In 2010, Myroslav Marynovych, a philosopher, essayist, and long-term political prisoner of the Soviet Gulag, was elected the president of Ukrainian PEN to epitomize and reinvigorate, with the new team, an old tradition of dissident struggle for human rights and civic liberties. In 2014, when I assumed the presidency, the Ukrainian world ceased to be black-and-white; the clear line between "we, the people" and "them, the government" disappeared; a lot of nuances, complexities and ambiguities came to the fore, so that our activity became much easier in some terms but much more difficult in many other terms. I cannot say that my three-year tenure in the Ukrainian PEN was beneficial for my creative or academic writing. It was rather a civic duty that required some sacrifice and commitment to long-term goals, of which I still believe the strengthening of civil society institutions is the most important.

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