Ukraine wins the right to hold the PEN International Congress

Today, September 18, PEN Congress kicks off in Lviv. PEN is an international non-governmental organization that brings together professional writers, editors, and translators. It was created to promote friendship and intellectual collaboration of writers around the world. It highlights the role of literature in the development of mutual understanding and world culture, fights for freedom of speech, acts as a powerful force in protecting the rights of writers who are imprisoned and sometimes even killed for their views.

It is one of the oldest organizations fighting for human rights and one of the oldest international writers’ organizations. The name of the club – PEN – is an abbreviation of English words “Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, and Novelists,” which together arrange for the word “pen” – an instrument for writing. Now it also includes representatives of other genres, such as journalists and historians.

Why Lviv?

About 200 opinion leaders, writers, poets, translators, journalists, historians, publicists, and editors from 101 countries came to Lviv.

“We have long been hesitant about where exactly in Ukraine to hold the International PEN Congress. There were certain internal discussions: whether to hold it in Lviv, Kyiv, or Odesa. Finally, Lviv won. We believe that Lviv is a cultural capital, while Kyiv is a financial and political one,” noted Mykola Ryabchuk.

The PEN Club is a non-political, non-governmental organization that has formal consultative relations with UNESCO and a special consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.

The history of relations between the PEN Congress and Ukraine began in 1965, when from August 24 to September 4, when KGB arrested more than 20 representatives of Ukrainian intelligentsia in Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Lutsk, and Feodosia. Most of them were subsequently charged with “anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation” and sentenced. In the 1960s, under the influence of the Khrushchev’s Thaw, Ukrainian national life revived. The books written by some “forgotten” and repressed by the Stalinist regime writers came out; a new generation of Ukrainian writers and artists (the so-called Sixtiers) created their works; the 150th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko was celebrated.

Brylynskyi Yuriy Bohdanovych, Ukrainian actor, Honored Artist of Ukraine, remembers how his friends were arrested for their views on Ukrainian literature. Ukrainian artists created the Club of Creative Youth, where they held evenings of Ukrainian literature, informed their colleagues abroad about the situation in Ukraine and political persecution.

Ukraine officially joined the PEN Congress immediately after gaining independence. Yuriy Brylynskyi remembers how Ukrainian literary critic Hryhoriy Kostiuk, who initiated Ukraine’s accession to the PEN Congress and represented Ukrainian poets’ interests at the first PEN Congress in 1965 in New York, did not believe that PEN would ever take place in Ukraine.

In support of political prisoners

The topic of the Congress will be “Reclaiming Truth in Times of Propaganda.” Olha Mukha, curator, coordinator of the team of the 83rd International PEN Congress in Lviv, head of the office “Lviv – UNESCO City of Literature” noted that today Ukraine is the most appropriate country for a serious discussion of this topic.

“Holding the Congress in Lviv is another proof for me that we are steadily entering the literary map of the world. We have been recognized as a full partner,” noted Olha Mukha. “The Congress has a double format – diplomatic-political and literary-public. Therefore, there are two programs. The first program includes invitation-only events where representatives of different PEN clubs from around the world will have the opportunity to discuss serious issues, mostly political and legal. The second one is open for attendance.”

“This way, we express our support to Oleg Sentsov, who was arrested on May 11, 2014, in Crimea and has been kept in Russian prison ever since. We believe that we will soon be able to meet him in Lviv,” said the volunteers of the Congress and the participants of the flash mob. Oleg Sentsov is not the only one whom the participants of the Lviv congress are looking forward to meeting — there are many other writers, journalists, and public figures who are still suffering from the violations of the freedom of speech, but this year’s Congress is focused at Oleg’s story.

Traditionally, there will be Empty Chairs at the Congress this year, this time it is the chair of Oleg Sentsov.

How Lviv Congress will affect the image of Ukraine in the world

Former President of the Ukrainian PEN Center, Vice-Rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University Myroslav Marynovych emphasized that the Congress is, first of all, hard work of its participants. “For us, this is also an opportunity to influence the position of international PEN in the world. This is a huge responsibility,” he added.

Andriy Moskalenko, Deputy Mayor of Lviv on Development, specifies how the city is preparing for the PEN Congress. A lot of public initiatives are engaged in preparation which is very helpful for the city.

“PEN in Ukraine is a great social impetus to the country. It is important for us that the city and the country have well-educated people who set ambitious goals, work for them and succeed. The Congress will obviously help us in this,” said Moskalenko.”PEN in Ukraine is a unique format because our country is in a state of war and we want to show that Lviv is becoming a literary capital of the country, and Ukraine is becoming a country of literature.”

Unfortunately, not all Ukrainians understand that our state has received a unique opportunity, which, in fact, can be compared to the Olympic Games or the World Championship among writers. Even a little bit wider, because PEN is not only about literature, but also to a great extent about freedom of speech.