Russian journalist and activist Masha Gessen was awarded the 24th Wallenberg Medal on Tuesday night before a 250-person crowd in Rackham Auditorium.
Gessen has written 11 books and is known for taking a strong stance on the deteriorating human rights condition in Syria as well as her open criticism of Russian president Vladimir Putin. She is also an activist for gay rights in Russia. According to a press release, Gessen received the award for “her willingness to write and speak truth to power whatever the personal cost.”
The Wallenberg Medal is given annually to an outstanding humanitarian. The award was named for University alum Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary during World War II. After accepting the medal, Gessen presented a lecture on the current state of affairs in Russia.
Gessen focused on the ways totalitarian systems are formed and how she sees this playing out in Russia. She said it’s difficult for Western countries to accept the existence of totalitarian societies.
“It was very difficult for the West to talk about totalitarian regimes because they seem preposterous,” Gessen said. “Who could really believe that you could use these simple ideas like the idea that certain races were fated to do better would lead to the extermination of millions of people.”
Gessen argued that people need to take the repercussions of totalitarian regimes seriously, no matter how preposterous they seem, rather than risk the great tragedy that can occur if Western countries ignore them.
“We’re so rational we don’t like to believe in things that are preposterous, and it gives us a lot of satisfaction to feel more intelligent and just sort of sniff at things,” she said. “But it is so much better to have unjustified fear, to have let your imagination run wild, than to have let down your fellow human beings because you didn’t believe.”
Gessen spoke about how an entire country could be swayed by a single ideology. She said Russia’s past harsh rule has ruined the people’s ability to hold core values, and they are therefore susceptible to the shifting of ideologies. Totalitarianism, she said, not only sways public opinion, but renders people unable to form opinions in the first place.
Talking about Russia specifically, Gessen said Putin gained power by appealing to traditional values.
“The most important thing he did was back into an ideology,” she said. “He was trying to paint the protesters as others and when he started queerbaiting them, that’s when it worked. This idea of this traditional civilization presented itself, and the idea of the traditional civilization is a perfectly primitive and preposterous idea.”
Discussing what the West can do in response to Russia’s shift back toward a totalitarian state, Gessen said leaders should emphasize a system of politics based on morals rather than reason. Specifically with Russia’s position in the Ukraine, Gessen said it is important to take action from a moral standpoint, not a strategic one. She said the sanctions placed on Russia by the United States and Western Europe were logical, but predictably unsuccessful.
“It goes along with the idea that we have to be realistic and strategic and the only reason to do something is because it’s going to work,” she said. “What I’m suggesting is the reason to do something is not that it’s going to work, but that it’s the right thing to do.”
LSA senior Marion Berger said she found the talk very encouraging as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“As a queer person, it’s really inspiring to see another queer woman on the stage at a big event like this,” Berger said. “It’s really remarkable to have role models like Masha Gessen in the world and to see them be rewarded for the incredible work that they do, especially since this kind of work often goes unnoticed.”