Kelly Writers House and Perry World House, neighbors side-by-side on Locust Walk, are now connected by a writer-in-residence program for journalists who are under threat and working in crisis conditions. The partnership is expected to become an annual collaboration.
“More than proximity, we have something essentially in common: we are spaces devoted to gathering people from all corners of the campus and Philadelphia and beyond to come together for good, intense conversation about key current issues,” said Al Filreis, faculty director of Kelly Writers House and the Kelly Family Professor of English.
The inaugural writer-in-residence was Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats, editor-in-chief of the independent political weekly The New Times and the anchor of the independent radio station Echo Moskvy. The winner of several journalism awards and fellowships worldwide, she is the author of four books, including The State Within a State: KGB and Its Hold on Russia Past, Present and Future. Albats is also a professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
“Yevghenia Albats is the perfect first journalist-in-residence. No one is bolder in her country. No one has greater credibility as an opposition journalist,” said Filreis.
Albats is in danger in her pursuit of independent journalism in Moscow. The bolts on her car tires were unscrewed last year, and her mechanic once found plastic explosives under the hood. In the fall, a correspondent at her radio station was stabbed in the neck.
“I come from a very hostile environment. It is not very comfortable position to be opposition journalist in Moscow,” she said.
During her week-long residency at Penn in November, Albats spoke with groups large and small, public and private. She discussed President Vladimir Putin, the role of the Kremlin in the 2016 American presidential election and the reaction in Russia to the current United States administration.
At Perry World House, she had a conversation with PWH Director William Burke-White before an overflow crowd. At Kelly Writers House, she spoke with Philadelphia Inquirer foreign affairs columnist Trudy Rubin on one day, and on another with Dick Polman of Penn’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.
Albats also spoke one-on-one with students when she visited classes, including those of Kevin Platt, professor of Russian and East European Studies, and Monroe Price, a professor at Penn’s Annenberg School of Communication.
The writer-in-residence program, funded by a grant from the Provost’s Interdisciplinary Arts Fund, was created through conversations between Filreis and Burke-White, as well as LaShawn Jefferson, deputy director of Perry World House, and Jessica Lowenthal, director of Kelly Writers House."Our collaboration,” Jefferson said, “allowed us to do a deep dive around a series of critical questions related to sovereignty, attacks on elections and other democratic institutions, the weaponization of social media, the importance of journalism in the world, freedom of expression and other human rights in Russia and Russia's evolving role in the destabilization of democracies.”
Filreis said the team has a “long list of possible invitees” for next year.
“The goal ultimately is to emphasize the critical importance of a free press,” Lowenthal said, “in particular the conversion of journalism and international policy studies. We really want to engage students in the importance of journalism.”