Putin critic, gay activist to speak in Tucson

Masha Gessen
Masha Gessen

“Speaking truth to power” is a way of life for Russian-American Jewish journalist Masha Gessen. An outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch supporter of gay rights and a chronicler for the voiceless, the award-winning author will speak at four community events during “A Day With Masha Gessen” on Monday, Feb. 2. The day will culminate with Gessen delivering “Putin’s War Against the West,” part of the Shaol and Louis Pozez Memorial Lectureship Series, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

In addition to authoring several books, three of which are recommended reading for her Tucson visit, Gessen is a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard University and has written for the New York Times, The Guardian, U.S. News and World Report, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Granta and Slate. “The Myth of the Russian Oligarchs,” her most recent NYT Op-Ed, appeared on Dec. 10.

Gessen, 47, was born in Russia and emigrated to the Boston area with her parents and brother when she was 14. She is fluent in both Russian and English. Gessen’s seventh book will be on the Tsarnaev brothers, whose trial for the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing began Monday. She has reported from Chechnya, where the Tsarnaev family has roots. “The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy” will be published in April.

Returning to Moscow as a noted international journalist in 1991, Gessen left with her partner and children in 2013. “When Putin declared war on gay families, it was time to leave Russia,” she said. At the end of 2012 the Duma, or Russian parliament, outlawed the adoption of Russian orphans by U.S. citizens. Gessen is Russian but holds an American passport, plus her teenage son was adopted from a Russian orphanage.

Also in 2012, the Russian Parliament voted for a law banning “homosexual propaganda,” which was defined as the “dissemination of information that may harm the spiritual or physical development of minors, including forming in them the erroneous impression of the social equality of traditional and non-traditional marital relations” (www.slate.com, Aug. 26, 2013). “I came here [to America] as a Jew, left as a journalist and returned as a gay refugee,” said Gessen in Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper.

Steve Zupcic, a member of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project steering committee, was instrumental in bringing Gessen to Tucson. “I had a hunch that many Tucson Jews who aren’t involved with the Federation or are unaffiliated may be more progressive,” Zupcic told the AJP. “I wanted to take the word ‘inclusion’ and broaden it. It was a no-brainer [to bring] an internationally known Russian Jewish lesbian journalist here. I got on the phone and started networking.” Zupcic moved from Pittsburgh to Tucson four years ago with his partner of 27 years. He retired as assistant director of community relations at the University of Pittsburgh after 41 years.

On Feb. 2, an author lunch and community book read of Gessen’s “Esther and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace” (2005), will be held from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. Tickets are $20; RSVP by Jan. 26 to Suzanne Amador at 577-9393 or samador@jfsa.org, or visit www.jfsa.org/mashagessen.

“What Is It about Gays?” will be Gessen’s next event at 4 p.m. at the University of Arizona Hillel Foundation, 1245 E. Second St. “Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot” (2014), is the suggested read for this talk, which is part of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies Sally and Ralph Duchin Campus Lecture Series. A reception for Gessen will be held at a private home close to the UA from 5 to 6:30 p.m. for donors of $36 or more to the LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project. RSVP by Jan. 15 to Ed Leven at 577-9393 or lgbtinfo@jfsa.org.

At 7 p.m. Gessen will deliver the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies Pozez lecture “Putin’s War Against the West” at the JCC. “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin” (2013) is the recommended book. Putin’s popularity within Russia remains high at 85 percent, according to a recent Levada-Center poll. Gessen is one of his harshest critics.

“Putin’s stunning rise to power parallels how Hitler came to power, promising to make Germany strong again,” notes Zupcic. As for the plight of gay Russian refugees, “so many are living homeless on the streets of New York City but they’re better off than living under Putin’s regime. Wouldn’t it be cool if we in Tucson sponsored some of these refugees, just as we did with the refuseniks a generation ago? Some of the most outspoken gay people in Russia are Jewish.”

“A Day with Masha Gessen” is presented by the LGBT Jewish Inclusion Project of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and a large coalition of community partners. For more information, contact Leven at 577-9393 or lgbtinfo@jfsa.org.