PEN International © 2017
Terms & Conditions | Privacy Statement

Report on PEN's 2014 Sochi Olympics Campaign and Press Coverage

Friday 14 March 2014 - 1:04pm

Print14 March 2014

In January 2014, PEN International launched Out in the Cold, our Sochi Winter Games campaign. A continuation of the previous year’s work on free expression in Russia, the campaign called for the repeal of three recently-passed Russian laws that pose a particular threat to our fellow writers, journalists and bloggers. These laws are: the so-called anti-gay ‘propaganda’ law, the religious insult law and criminal defamation.

As well as protesting this troika of laws to the Russian authorities, our campaign sought to heighten public awareness of Russia’s increasingly restrictive free expression environment. There were three main categories of action:

  • An Open Letter published in the Guardian newspaper and sent to President Vladimir Putin, which was signed by PEN Centre presidents and numerous, world-renowned writers and Nobel Prize winners.
  • A Thunderclap social media action, the aim of which was to highlight the threats to free expression in Russia
  • Traditional PEN tactics: writing letters of protest, articles, blogs, interviews, creative work etc

Both the response from PEN centres and the impact in the media were even greater than we’d hoped for: seventeen PEN centres took part, and the campaign – in particular the Open Letter – was reported by over forty-five serious newspapers, magazines and other media outlets around the world. People read about PEN’s Sochi campaign in Russia, Australia, India, the USA, the UK, Finland, Canada, Germany, Estonia, Mexico, Iceland, Malaysia, Argentina, Italy, France, China, Cuba, Sweden, Denmark and New Zealand. President Putin’s presidential press secretary responded to our letter publicly (attempting to dimiss our concerns) in the Russian media.

Highlighted Press Coverage:

The GuardianLe MondeEl PaísThe Financial TimesSky News AustraliaThe Toronto StarHelsingin SanomatThe Sydney Morning HeraldKM.RURadio New ZealandSVT.SEPink NewsEtcéteraGay Star NewsDN.BOKMorganbladidIl MessaggeroIl GazzettinoRadio Free Europe Radio LibertyRussia Beyond the HeadlinesCorriere Della SeraLa StampaLa RepubblicaHindustan TimesThe New York TimesDagbladetLa RazónClarínThe Moscow TimesThe TelegraphBBC NewsLos Angeles TimesPostimeesCNNFrankfurter AllgemeineABC NewsThe Christian Science MonitorDiario de CubaThe Huffington PostSouth China Morning PostSin EmbargoEtelä-Suomen SanomatTurun SanomatEesti Päevaleht

PEN Centre Sochi Campaign Activities:

All PEN centre presidents who signed our open letter to President Putin are listed on our here.

Seventeen PEN centres actively campaigned for the repeal of the anti-gay propaganda law, the religious insult law and criminal defamation by lobbying, organising events, writing letters, promoting the campaign in their national media and getting creative:

  • PEN American Center: Wrote letters of protest to the Russian authorities and featured Russia-themed essays from Swedish PEN’s Dissident Blog on their website. They also signed two Human Rights Watch-organized open letters calling on Russia to respect human rights. This centre put together a creative ‘mash-up’ contest - PEN members were invited to select book covers and movie images into which images of President Vladimir Putin could be inserted, highlighting the absurdity of Russia’s free expression-strangling laws: #PutinsLibrary.
  • PEN Canada: Promoted PEN’s campaign on social media. They also re-posted a Canadian contribution to Poems for Pussy Riot and articles from the Dissident Blog.
  • English PEN: As well as urging members to write appeals to President Putin and the Russian embassy in London, English PEN persuaded writer and actor Stephen Fry, and LGBT activist Peter Tatchell, to promote Out in the Cold on social media. English PEN’s magazine featured an article on the campaign by Cathal Sheerin, the WiPC Europe Researcher and Campaigner. This centre also published articles on Russia in its PEN Atlas series.
  • Danish PEN: promoted the campaign on social media. Both Danish PEN’s board and individual members wrote protest letters to the Russian authorities.
  • Estonian PEN: Invited Iida Simes from Finnish PEN to be a guest speaker at their monthly literary café meeting. There was much discussion of Out in the Cold and the attendees reflected on current free speech concerns in comparison with those of Estonia’s soviet past. In addition to this, the campaign received great coverage in the Estonian media. Rein Raud, a member of Estonian PEN, spoke on national television about PEN’s campaign.
  • Finnish PEN: Promoted PEN’s campaign in the Finnish media and continued its recent campaigning against Russia’s laws curtailing free expression. Exploiting the Finns’ love of winter sports, this centre promoted the campaign from a sporting ‘fair play’ angle and linked the concept of ‘fair play’ with free expression. Finnish PEN also published articles related to free expression in Russia as part of their Vapaa sana (Free word) writing series.
  • Icelandic PEN: Promoted PEN’s campaign in the national media. Sjón, President of Icelandic PEN, was interviewed on TV and urged the President, Icelandic ministers and other officials who would be attending Sochi to officially support our freedom of speech demands.
  • Sydney PEN: Promoted our campaign in the Australian media

(It was very encouraging to note that a number of British student PEN centres also engaged with the campaign):

  • UEL PEN (University of East London): Hosted a joint poetry slam event with the university LGBT society. Members also wrote to LGBT NGOs in Russia.
  • York PEN: Wrote letters of solidarity to Russian NGOs and published a series of articles about the troika of anti-free expression laws on their excellent new blog.
  • Oxford PEN: Wrote a number of letters to the Russian government protesting attacks on free expression in Russia. They also wrote letters of support to Russian LGBT NGOs. Oxford PEN member Nico Hobhouse wrote an article on threats to free expression in Russia for the Oxford Student 
  • Cambridge PEN: Innovatively combined PEN’s protest with Valentine’s Day. At an event called ‘To Russia with Love’, members of this PEN centre wrote letters of solidarity to persecuted Russian journalists (Oksana Chelysheva and Jenny Curpen), NGOs and newspapers. Each letter was signed by 40 people. They also sent letters of protest to President Putin.

Other PEN centres that actively promoted Out in the Cold included: German PEN, Italian PEN, Norwegian PEN, Swedish PEN, PEN Center USA.

Articles by PEN Members:

As writers, a number of PEN members wrote articles highlighting the campaign’s concerns.

  • Miriam Cosic from Sydney PEN wrote an excellent article about Putin, free expression and the Sochi Games for ABC News in Australia
  • Kätlin Kaldmaa from Estonian PEN wrote an article about PEN’s protest for Eesti Päevaleht
  • Lucy Popescu, writer and Director of English PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee from 1991 to 2006 wrote about Out in the Cold for the Literary Review. 
  • Cathal Sheerin of the Writers in Prison Committee published four articles about Russia’s free expression problems, including an interview with a gay Russian writer who spoke about homophobia and criminal defamation in Russia.
  • Sarah Hoffman, the Freedom to Write Program Coordinator at PEN American Center wrote some very funny, parody lyrics based on the South Park song "What Would Brian Boitano Do?"

Social Media

  • Our Thunderclap action broadcast our message across the internet on 6 February 2014, reaching a social media audience of over 331,000.

Warmest thanks to the artist Maxine Young who created the Out in the Cold image and to all PEN centres that protested the anti-gay propaganda law, the religious insult law and criminal defamation.

PEN will continue to campaign throughout 2014 on these and other threats to free expression in Russia.

Cathal Sheerin
Researcher & Campaigner,
Europe Programme,
Writers in Prison Committee

To download a copy of this report please see: Sochi 2014 Campaign Press and PEN centre activities

For further details regarding the campaign or about PEN’s work on free expression in Russia contact Cathal Sheerin at the Writers in Prison Committee London Office:  PEN International, Brownlow House, 50/51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER UK Tel: + 44 (0) 20 7405 0338  Fax: + 44 (0) 20 7405 0339  e-mail: