The Forbidden Future: Literature and Journalism in Today’s Russia
Friday, May 13, 7:15–8:15 p.m. EDT
Via Zoom. REGISTER HERE
Russian dissident poet, novelist, and satirist Dmitry Bykov says societies need writers to help them imagine the future. But he says “the future is the most forbidden topic” in his country. Journalists, artists, and social critics are censored, silenced, and (in his case) poisoned for daring to envision a future that doesn’t simply recapitulate the past.
Join Bykov, a visiting fellow at Cornell’s Institute for European Studies and Ithaca City of Asylum’s current writer-in-residence, in a spirited conversation with literary scholar Mark Lipovetsky, director of graduate studies at Columbia University’s Department of Slavic Languages. The moderator is ICOA board member and Ithaca College associate professor of writing Barbara Adams.
This event is part of the Spring Writes Literary Festival. Learn more at SpringWrites.org.
By Jonathan Miller
Dmitry Bykov is a man of letters. He is also a man of words, sentences, verses, paragraphs, chapters and books – more than 80 of them, including novels, literary biographies and collections of poetry, criticism and essays. That’s not to mention his output as an editor, journalist, television and radio personality, teacher and globetrotting lecturer on topics ranging from Russian and Soviet history to Black American literature.
Sometimes his words get him in trouble.
Bykov is one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals. His satirical poems and political commentaries often take aim at President Vladimir Putin. Putin has not been amused.
In April 2019, Bykov fell violently ill on an airplane on his way to a speaking engagement in Ufa, Russia. He began vomiting uncontrollably and eventually lost consciousness. It would be five days before he emerged from his coma and another six before he was released from the hospital. There was no clear diagnosis.
The following year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny would experience the same symptoms, also on an airplane. Tests confirmed that he had been poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok. A 2021 investigation by the news outlet Bellingcat concluded that both men had been targeted by a secret “poison squad” of Russia’s Federal Security Service, as had several other well-known government critics. It is widely believed (although not proven) that Putin personally ordered the poisonings.
Bykov remained in Russia after the incident, in part to help care for his elderly mother. But it was much harder for him to work. He was banned from teaching at the university level and appearing on state radio or TV. Several of the media outlets where he had worked were shut down. He says spies attended his lectures and reported to their bosses on what he calls “my non-careful words.” Officials labeled him “an enemy of the people.”
He compares the atmosphere to that of the United States in the 1950s during the McCarthy era. “The bullying is really unpleasant,” he says. “Sometimes you feel yourself in exile in the motherland.” He continued to challenge the government, but he found it increasingly difficult to make his voice heard.
“The writer may be the only person who really needs political freedom,” he says. “To discuss serious problems and serious challenges, you must have no political restraints.”
In February, just days before the Russia invaded Ukraine, Bykov and his family left Moscow for Ithaca. Since then, he has been a vocal opponent to the war on social media and in interviews, lectures and other public appearances.
As a visiting critic in the Institute for European Studies, part of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, Bykov will be in residence for one to two years, engaging with Cornell faculty and students and completing several writing projects.
“The Einaudi Center’s work on democratic threats and resilience is a vital focus that unites scholars, activists and writers from around the world,” said Einaudi director Rachel Beatty Riedl. “Dmitry Bykov lives that spirit of democratic resilience, even under threat. He writes because he needs to reach people with his ideas and his words – this is the essence of freedom.”
Talk of the future taboo in Russia
Bykov says the war in Ukraine lays bare a larger conflict in Russian society over the direction the country is headed. Putin, he says, is obsessed with the past, or at least his version of it. “The future is the most forbidden, the most banned topic in Russia,” he says. “The past is always the field of battle. The future is discussed only by science fiction. And the image of the future is very gloomy.”
He claims Putin is paranoid (“he’s afraid of everybody”) and delusional (“yesterday he invents something, today he believes in it”) and accuses him of lying about everything from Russian history to Ukraine’s military capacity. “I write every day because I feel like my writing replaces all these lies, all these wrong words produced by Russian power,” he says.
Bykov did not leave Russia because of the Ukraine conflict. Last year, he was awarded a teaching fellowship from the Open Society University Network’s Threatened Scholars Integration Initiative, one of the international rescue organizations that works with universities like Cornell to find placements for fellows in safe locations. He was invited to Ithaca by Global Cornell, partnering with the local nonprofit Ithaca City of Asylum, which supports writers and artists at risk. He says he could go back home if he chose to; he has no intention of emigrating to the United States.
But there is “a professional danger” in remaining in Russia, he says: “First of all, when you’re frightened, you can’t work much, and you can’t work well.”
And fear has another, more pernicious effect.
“The most dangerous thing is not censorship but self-censorship,” he says. “Because when you begin to restrict yourself, and you feel yourself a coward all the time, and you’re editing your work and taking away all the sharp places, that’s a professional harm.”
Bykov says he is proud of his journalism and political activism, and he is honored to be called a “dissident.” Still, he says, “I would rather be known for my literary writing than for my politics or my poisoning.”
Literature is his greatest passion. He is an expert on Russian and Soviet literature and an avid student of American letters. Vladimir Nabokov, a Russian who spent more than 10 years at Cornell, is one of the authors he knows best.
He says he has never been tempted to settle on one type of writing. When he isn’t producing satirical poetry or journalism, he says, “I feel that I have forgotten my civic duty.” When he only writes journalism, “I’m afraid I have forgotten about eternity.” When he doesn’t teach, he feels he’s neglecting future generations. When he teaches too much, “I think that I’m too chatty and I should write in silence.”
“Every kind of work I do consoles me somehow psychologically,” he says, noting that one critic jokes that he only works in one genre: Bykov.
During his time at Cornell, he wants to write a trilogy of novels, which he predicts will be his masterpiece. He also wants to write a novel in English. (Only one of his books, the dystopic comic novel “Living Souls,” has been translated into English.) He also looks forward to engaging with students and speaking in public.
Bykov says he relishes the relative quiet of Ithaca. “I was editor-in-chief of a big newspaper,” he says. “I was famous, and I’m very proud of it. But you know, I’m not very fond of fame – and my safe life, and the safe life of my child, is more important for me than being well-known.”
And with safety will come words. “When I feel anxiety, I cannot write,” he says. “When I feel fear, I cannot write. When I write here, I am free.”
Jonathan Miller is a freelance writer based in Ithaca, and a member of Ithaca City Of Asylum’s board of directors
Dmitry Bykov is one of Russia’s best-known public intellectuals. He has authored more than 70 books, including novels, poetry, biographies, and literary criticism. Known for his wit, he is a popular lecturer and public speaker and has served as the host of numerous television and radio programs.
Hear Dmitry Bykov and ICOA board member Barbara Adams in conversation during the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival on Wednesday, March 23 at 7 p.m. Register here.
Bykov is also an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin. In April 2019, he fell ill while on an airplane flight and spent five days in a coma. An investigation by the news organization Bellingcat found that the symptoms were very similar to those suffered by opposition politician Alexey Navalny and that the same government agents who poisoned Navalny had also been following him.
Bykov remained in Russia after the incident, but he has been banned from teaching there or appearing on state television.
He has joined fellow intellectuals in publicly condemning the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. Still, he says he would rather be known for his writing and teaching than for his poisoning or politics. He is a four-time winner of the International Award in the Field of Fantastic Literature, a three-time winner of the Fiction International Assembly Award, and a three-time winner of the Bolshaya Kniga (Big Book) award, one of Russia’s most prestigious literary prizes.
He has taught literature at Princeton and UCLA as well as at universities in Russia.
The latest episode of the Peace Talks Radio public radio show and podcast looks at cities of asylum (also known as cities of refuge), communities that put out the welcome mat for writers, artists, journalists, and human rights defenders whose work puts them at risk in their home countries.
Guest host (and ICOA board member) Jonathan Miller interviews former ICOA artist-in-residence Pedro X. Molina, City of Asylum Pittsburgh co-founder Henry Reese, and International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN) program director Elisabeth Dyvik.
Molina is a political cartoonist who fled Nicaragua during a violent crackdown on dissent and came to Ithaca with his family with help from ICOA. He spent two years as a visiting scholar at Ithaca College. Today he is an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell University’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program.
Reese and his wife, Diane Samuels, heard Indian author Salman Rushdie describe the nascent cities of asylum movement in 1997, soon after he had come out of hiding after the 1989 fatwa issued against him by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran after the publication of the novel The Satanic Verses. They decided to renovate a run-down house they had purchased near their home in Pittsburgh and make it available to an exiled writer. Since then, City of Asylum Pittsburgh has grown into a major cultural institution, with six houses for at-risk writers, an event space and bookstore, and year-round programming that celebrates the freedom to create.
Based in Stavanger, Norway, ICORN is a network of more than 70 cities worldwide where threatened writers, artists, and journalists can live and work in safety. Elisabeth Dyvik has been involved in artist protection work for more than 25 years.
Ithaca, Pittsburgh, and Detroit are the only U.S. members of the ICORN network. Programs in Las Vegas, Virginia, and Arkansas also provide two-year residencies for writers and artists fleeing persecution.
Guest host Jonathan Miller is a writer and radio producer who has worked in more than 20 countries. He is executive director of the journalism cooperative Homelands Productions and founder and co-director of Story House Ithaca.
A feature article on the news site Documented describes Ithaca’s long history of sheltering and supporting refugees from around the world. Written by Meghna Maharishi, a student at the New York State School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the piece calls the area “a global hub for people fleeing oppression.”
“How Ithaca Became a Haven for Refugees” looks at the way citizens, organizations, government, and institutions in Ithaca have opened their doors to people fleeing violence or persecution in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Syria, and many other countries. Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA) is among the featured groups.
Maharishi tells the story of cartoonist Pedro X. Molina, who fled Nicaragua with his family in 2018. After two and half years as ICOA’s artist-in-residence, he became an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell University’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program.
“Molina said ICOA was the only organization willing to resettle his wife and two young children as well,” Maharishi writes. “He received offers from other international assistance programs, but none of them could accommodate his family. ICOA helped Molina’s children get settled into local schools and arranged English lessons for his wife.”
Pedro X. Molina, ICOA’s seventh writer in residence, has received the 2021 Gabo Award for Excellence from Fundación Gabo, the foundation created by the late Nobel Prize-winning writer and journalist Gabriel García Márquez. The award is one of the most prestigious in Latin American journalism.
“PxMolina’s work stands out for its visual delicacy and its deep reflection on events taking place in Nicaragua, Central America, and elsewhere, and hilarious irreverence,” the awards committee wrote. “His work has become a model for the genre of satire that adds value to the journalism profession and performs an important task of monitoring and criticizing power.”
Molina is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. He has won several major awards, including the 2019 Maria Moors Cabot Award for coverage of Latin America from Columbia Journalism School and the 2018 Courage in Editorial Cartooning Award from Cartoonists Rights Network International.
Thursday, September 30, 2021, 7–8:15 p.m.
Via Zoom; register here
The first job of a free press is to shine a light on those in power. The autocrat’s playbook is full of methods to keep journalists from fulfilling that mission, from intimidation and harassment to imprisonment and murder.
In recognition of Banned Books Week (September 26–October 2), our panelists will provide updates on the situations for journalists in Nicaragua, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Belarus, four places where attacks on the press have been particularly brutal. They will also talk about ways in which journalists and media organizations are working to keep the information flowing despite the restrictions.
Pedro X. Molina is a political cartoonist, illustrator, and journalist from Nicaragua. He is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. From 2019-2021, he was an artist-in-residence with Ithaca City of Asylum.
Min Ma Naing is a photographer from Myanmar who left Yangon soon after the military coup in February 2021. She is currently a visiting scholar with Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program. Min Ma Naing is not her real name, but a pseudonym that means “The King Cannot Beat You.”
Raza Rumi is director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College. A journalist, policy analyst, and outspoken critic of religious extremism, he became Ithaca City of Asylum’s sixth writer-in-residence in 2015 after surviving an assassination attempt in his native Pakistan.
Polina Sadovskaya is director of PEN America’s free expression program for Eurasia. A former radio correspondent, she has worked with UNESCO’s Division of Freedom of Expression and Media Development and other human rights organizations.
Barbara Adams (moderator) is associate professor of writing at Ithaca College. She is a journalist, writer, theater and art critic, and founding member of the Ithaca City of Asylum board.
“Shining the Light” is organized by Ithaca City of Asylum (ICOA), an all-volunteer project of the Center for Transformation. Founded in 2001, ICOA offers refuge in Ithaca, New York, for writers and artists whose works are suppressed, whose lives are threatened, whose cultures are vanishing, and whose languages are endangered.
Co-sponsored by the Park Center for Independent Media, Group 73 of Amnesty International, Cornell Southeast Asia Program, Cornell Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, PEN America, Tompkins County Public Library, and Story House Ithaca.
Tuesday, September 28, 6:30-8:30 p.m.
Via Zoom; register here
Join internationally acclaimed political cartoonist Pedro X. Molina for a workshop on expressing yourself visually by creating a cartoon. Gather paper and whatever you’re comfortable with – pencil, markers, watercolors, even a digital tablet. Drawing experience is helpful but not necessary. The event is organized by Ithaca City of Asylum and supported by the Community Arts Partnership of Tompkins County as part of the Spring Writes literary festival.
Pedro X. Molina was ICOA’s seventh artist-in-residence (2019-2021) and is currently an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at the Cornell Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. He has more than 20 years of experience working for media in Nicaragua and worldwide. His cartoons, caricatures, editorial illustrations, comics have been printed or published online and in many major publications, such as Politico, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and Courier International. His work is published on a daily basis in Confidencial.com.ni and appears regularly in the U.S. on Counterpoint.com.
He also contributed to various books published in the Gallimard/Cartooning for Peace collection. Among his many awards is a 2019 Maria Moors Cabot Prize from Columbia Journalism School and the 2018 Courage in Editorial Cartoon Award from Cartoonists Rights Network International.
Pedro X. Molina, an acclaimed political cartoonist and a leader in Nicaragua’s opposition-in-exile, will take part in an Amnesty International USA panel on censorship and press freedom on Tuesday, September 21, at 8 p.m. EDT. Pedro, who was ICOA’s seventh artist-in-residence, is now an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at Cornell University’s Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. Register here.
Here is the write-up from our friends at AI:
Each year during Banned Books Week, Amnesty International draws attention to people around the world who have been imprisoned, threatened, or murdered because of their writing, art, or other published work. In solidarity with the American Library Association (ALA) and organizations across the U.S. and around the world, Amnesty activists work to fight challenges to freedom of expression.
Censorship in the 21st century involves suppression of books, news, and social media. Around the world, governments are trying to control the internet through cyber-censorship and surveillance. Using sophisticated technology to silence, spy on, harass and track critical voices, there is an increase in governments targeting individuals and journalists.Join us and hear from an incredible panel of speakers, including: