This story was written by Michelle Ye Hee Lee, Emory Wheel
Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, a Russian human rights activist and a former political prisoner at a Gulag labor camp, will field questions from the audience during an interactive event on Tuesday at Emory University.
The event is being held in conjunction with Wednesday's opening of the traveling exhibit "GULAG: Soviet Forced Labor Camps and the Struggle for Freedom," which will run until February at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.
"We thought it was a wonderful opportunity for the Emory community to meet a man who is not a household name like the Dalai Lama, but he's really in the forefront of the fight for human dignity in the world," said Matthew Payne, director of the Center for Russian and East European Studies. "It's very rare that you get a chance to have such an intimate evening."
At Tuesday's event, Kovalev will be joined by Payne, Associate Professor of Russian Elena Glazov-Corrigan and Kovalev's son Ivan, also a former political prisoner.
Emory's Russian Studies students will recite famous Russian poems before Kovalev takes the stage. A reception will follow the event to allow audience members a chance to speak individually with Kovalev.
Kovalev is looking forward to speaking with a diverse group at Tuesday's event, Payne said, including members from the Emory community, Atlanta community and the Russian community in Atlanta.
"Kovalev is sort of a rock star for them," Payne said.
The King Center is one of six host sites for the two-year Gulag exhibit, which began in New York last year as a visiting exhibit from the Gulag Museum at Perm-36, a former prison camp site in Russia. Among the highlights of the exhibit are displays on the history of the labor camp system in the Soviet Union and the impact it has had on Russia, the everyday lives of prisoners and the human rights movement in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.
"[The exhibit is] to remember one of the central metaphors of evil in the 20th century, which is the Gulag," Payne said.
The exhibit focuses on detailing the individual experience by displaying the recreated concrete isolation cell that troublesome prisoners like Kovalev were put in, translations of Russian documents detailing the KGB's campaign against dissidents and the ways prisoners maintained human relationships outside the camp. The love letters that Ivan Kovalev received from his wife and hid inside his toothbrush are also on display.
"It gives a human dimension to what I think most people view as a historic era that mostly comes up in sort of black and white, in kind of cinematic colors and not as a human-lived experience," Payne said.
Kovalev was a scientist and a dissident of the Soviet era who was imprisoned for nearly a decade for opposing the government. When he was released, he became a part of the democratic opposition to the Gorbachev regime during the fall of the Soviet Union. He founded the Russian rights group Memorial, which honors political prisoners and victims of oppression.
Since then, Kovalev has been an advocate of human and civil rights, Payne said, as an elected parliamentarian of the Russian State Duma. He was instrumental in the adoption of the Russian Federation's protections on human and civil rights.
"As a Russianist, he'd be on my short list for the Nobel Peace Prize," Payne said.
Kovalev has criticized the Chechen war and the reported gross infractions of human rights by the Russian military, Payne said, and continues to be an "extremely acute" observer of Russian politics and Vladimir Putin's regime.
After the opening of the exhibit on Wednesday, Kovalev will speak at a panel discussion at The Carter Center along with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, former U.S. Ambassador to the Unied Nations Andrew Young and Executive Director of Amnesty International Larry Cox, about the Gulags and human rights issues.
© 2007 Emory Wheel via U-WIRE