A Scandal in Moscow

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were contemporaries, but never cared to meet. Turgenev and Dostoevsky hated each other with a passion. Much of Russian literature is the story of arguments between writers with wounded egos. All too often the Russian writer is childishly certain that the truth belongs to him alone. Perhaps for this reason the sixty-seventh International PEN Congress this past May was one of the most absurd events in the entire history of the PEN movement. A huge lie lay behind it. Although Russians are sometimes called master liars, in this case the Russian writers were too clumsy in trying to cover up their disagreements over the war in Chechnya, and the lie came to the surface right under the eyes of their surprised foreign colleagues.

Yet everything began with such pride and good cheer. The Russian PEN Club won the honor of playing host to the millennium 2000 Congress in Moscow. Despite a chronic lack of funds which has prevented any renovation of Russian PEN’s rather shabby headquarters, the Russian PEN Club managed to find from private contributors the money to provide their distrustful guests with Western-style comfort and safety, and all without dipping into the pocket of a dubious government. And when Putin’s wife indicated a desire to visit the congress, an invitation was tactfully not extended. An ordinary bureaucratic human rights event promised to become a celebration. But Moscow is a city of surprises, where any undertaking may take an unusual turn.

The well-restored center of contemporary Moscow, with its brightly lit streets and its rich boutiques, excellent restaurants, and frenzied nightclubs, was meant to provide major proof that times change for the better. The well-prepared program of the congress included serious discussions on the future creative sources of literature; a grandiose evening of poetry in twenty languages from English to Romanian; and even a comradely soccer match between the writers and a local professional team. (The writers lost by the dignified score of seven to eight.) The officiating general of the congress, the German Nobel laureate Günter Grass, danced Russian folk dances at a writers’ picnic held in the immediate vicinity of Boris Pasternak’s Moscow dacha.

The entire affair was ruined by Chechnya. Günter Grass’s introductory remarks at the opening of the congress (which were not without the expected German repentance for the past) began with concern over Chechnya. However, Russian PEN rose to the occasion. It had prepared such a forceful resolution condemning abuses of human rights there that even the war’s most irreconcilable opponents, the Polish and Finnish delegations (countries that have experienced Russian aggression firsthand), were pleasantly astounded. The Poles had brought a statement condemning the war in strong, if general, terms, and told the Russians that they would walk out if they weren’t allowed to have their say. They were immediately treated to beer and given the floor. Moreover, some European delegations didn’t want to come to Moscow at all, comparing Moscow’s policies to …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.