We respond to our people: PEN Ukraine Executive Board statement regarding common events with Russian participants
We, the Executive Board of PEN Ukraine, would like to reiterate our position with regard to cultural events including Ukrainians and Russians.
Our position since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is to avoid participating in events under the same umbrella as representatives of Russia.
Our position is not related to our judgment toward specific individuals, their political views, or their actions.
As the war goes on, with countless displays of Russian cruelty and cynicism, we find it immoral and contrary to our values to imagine that writers or cultural figures from Ukraine and Russia can take part in the same event or share a platform. Doing so would create the illusion of openness to a "dialogue" between representatives of Ukraine and Russia before the Russian regime is defeated, its war criminals are brought to justice, and Russia faces the consequences of all the crimes it has committed in Ukraine.
For us, the driving principle here is that of responsibility. As the Jewish-French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, who spent a few years of his childhood in Kharkiv would put it, responsibility emerges from our response. To whom do we, the Ukrainian cultural community, respond in our actions today? For us the answer is clear: we respond to our people.
We respond to the Ukrainians who were killed in Mariupol, Maryinka, Bakhmut and all other Ukrainian cities and villages which were razed to the ground by the Russian army.
We respond to the families who were trying to flee from Bucha or Hostomel only to be shot dead by Russian soldiers.
We respond to the residents of the two five-story buildings in Izyum who, despite seeking shelter in basements, were killed by Russian bombs. Their bodies lied under the rubble for almost a month before they were buried in a mass grave in a forest.
We respond to the eight-year-old girl in the village of Bezruky who was killed outside her house while reading a book, and to more than 500 Ukrainian children like her.
We respond to our friends – from painters and cinema makers to engineers and university teachers – who lost their lives after volunteering to go to the front line and defend their children, their country, and our freedom.
We respond to the thousands of people who died along with their dreams and hopes for the future. Each of them has a name. We know so many of those names.
It is our belief that if we share the same cultural space with Russians during wartime it would be a betrayal to the memory of those who were senselessly killed by the Russian army. It would reflect a callous disregard for the suffering of those who were tortured or gravely injured, and a lack of empathy to those who lost their homes. We do not want to break the trust of those who are risking their lives on a daily basis by fighting on the front line. In short, it would be irresponsible, insensitive, and inhumane.
Sometimes, unfavorable remarks come our way regarding the stance we’ve taken. One Russian opposition leader said that he witnessed "outbursts of Nazism" among Ukrainians. One magazine misleadingly wrote about how "cruel" Ukrainians "blackmail" and "issue ultimatums."
Hearing this is outrageous. This war should not be reduced to a chess game or a series of cleverly-written articles in the press. It is about human lives – fragile, loving, warm, and irreplaceable human lives. Our responsibility to them, as well as our response to such situations, demands unwavering resolve.
As the leadership of PEN Ukraine, we believe that promoting any illusion of dialogue between Ukrainian and Russian authors at the same event is problematic and even immoral for as long Russian military attacks continue to claim the lives of Ukrainian civilians.
At the same time, we are a democratic organization, and we acknowledge that each of our members is free to determine his or her own stance on this.
We count on understanding from our partners. We call for transparency and openness in the planning of events involving Ukrainian participants. Ukrainian authors have a right to know whether Russian authors will be invited to specific events, and in which capacity. Last-minute changes should not be made to a program that goes against previous agreements, as it, unfortunately, happened during one such event. And the organizers should be aware of the fact that Ukrainian authors may find it infeasible to have any association with Russian authors.
Our position is driven by our responsibility towards our people. If it hurts someone else, this is deeply unfortunate. But ethics is always directed towards somebody. It is always a conversation – even if the people we talk to are no longer alive.
Marko Robert Stech
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