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Writer, activist Masha Gessen to receive Wallenberg Medal

October 7, 2015
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ANN ARBOR—Masha Gessen, a Russian-American journalist, author and activist, will receive the 2015 Wallenberg Medal at the University of Michigan.

After the medal presentation at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3, Gessen will give the 24th Wallenberg Lecture in Rackham Auditorium. The humanitarian award honors Raoul Wallenberg, a U-M alumnus who saved tens of thousands of Jews near the end of World War II.

Masha Gessen, winner of the 2015 Wallenberg Medal

Masha Gessen

A prolific writer about political and cultural affairs, Gessen has covered the deteriorating human rights conditions in Russia. She is well known for her unrelenting opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, serving 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 the deaths of political opposition leaders provide context to understand the vivid realities of life in Russia. Gessen’s constant activism on behalf of Russians has created a stronger global awareness for human rights issues in her home country.

An author of 11 books, Gessen’s most recent title, “The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy,” focuses on the Tsarnaev brothers who were behind the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.

Gessen was born in 1967 into an Ashkenazi Jewish family in Moscow. Twice she has fled Russia, seeking a safe haven in the U.S. Gessen left as a child with her parents and most recently in 2013 when Russian authorities began to talk about taking children away from gay parents. She and her wife have three children.  

The Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program honors a humanitarian who reflects the legacy of Raoul Wallenberg, a native of Sweden who in 1935 graduated from the U-M College of Architecture.

Wallenberg became a Swedish diplomat and was sent on a rescue mission in 1944 to Budapest, Hungary. Over the course of six months, he 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. Wallenberg saved more than 80,000 Hungarian Jews.

For more than 20 years, U-M has awarded its Wallenberg Medal annually to a humanitarian who has devoted his or her life in service to others.

Gessen’s willingness to write and speak truth to power whatever the personal cost clearly follows in the footsteps of Wallenberg.

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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