Masha Gessen to Receive Wallenberg Medal

The 2015 Wallenberg Medal will be awarded to Russian and American journalist, author, and activist Masha Gessen on Tuesday, November 3, at 7:30 p.m., in Rackham Auditorium on the University of Michigan campus. After the medal presentation, Gessen will give the 24th Wallenberg Lecture.

Gessen is a prolific writer about political and cultural affairs in Russia, centered on the deteriorating human rights conditions in her homeland. She is well known for her unrelenting opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and serves as one of his most vocal critics, a role that has increasingly made her a target for persecution. Her accounts of political oppression, loss of rights, threats of persecution, and murder of political opposition leaders provide context to understand the vivid realities of life in Russia. Her constant activism on behalf of Russians has created a stronger global awareness for human rights issues in her home country.

Gessen is the author of 11 books, writing most recently about the Tsarnaev brothers behind the Boston Marathon bombing in The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. Her other recent books include Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot and The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin. An eloquent storyteller, Gessen weaves a narrative that exposes the oppressive social and political landscape created by Putin.

Gessen was born in 1967 into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Moscow. Twice she has fled from Russia, seeking a safe haven in the United States, once as a child with her parents and most recently in 2013 when Russian authorities began to talk about taking children away from gay parents (Gessen and her wife have three children). Considered one of Russia’s leading LGBT rights activists, Gessen was one of the only openly gay people in Russia when she returned to Moscow in 1991. Since that time, she has been a vocal activist for gay rights in Russia.

The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program honors a humanitarian who reflects the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg. A 1935 graduate of the University of Michigan College of Architecture, Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews near the end of World War II. In 1944, at the request of Jewish organizations and the American War Refugee Board, the Swedish Foreign Ministry sent Wallenberg on a rescue mission to Budapest. Over the course of six months, Wallenberg issued thousands of protective passports and placed many thousands of Jews in safe houses throughout the besieged city. He confronted Hungarian and German forces to secure the release of Jews, whom he claimed were under Swedish protection, and saved over 80,000 lives.

For over twenty years, the University of Michigan has awarded its Wallenberg Medal annually to a humanitarian who has devoted his or her life in service to others. Masha Gessen, in her willingness to write and speak truth to power whatever the personal cost, clearly follows in the footsteps of Raoul Wallenberg. She has repeatedly challenged the status quo in Putin’s Russia, whether directing her criticism at state politics or LGBT oppression.

Past recipients of the Wallenberg Medal include Burmese human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Ang San Suu Kyi; Paul Rusesabagina, a leader in the fight against the Rwandan genocide; and Auschwitz survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. A complete list of past recipients, along with video or transcripts of their lectures, can be found at the Wallenberg website.

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