Somewhere around the time of a total solar eclipse mid-month in May 1928 the world changed forever with a quiet flip of a switch as the first experimental television station began broadcasting in Schenectady, New York. A cultural force the power of which still remains unfathomable was unleashed. Information became the universal weapon in the ongoing struggle for survival of the human species. And so the stage was set for two very different boys to make their mark on history. That fateful month Jack Kevorkian and Igor Kon were born five days and two oceans apart in Michigan, USA and Leningrad, USSR.
For all the obvious differences in circumstance, they had one thing in common. Both excelled at studies. Kevorkian was fascinated by medical pathology and Kon, passing the university entrance exams at 15, applied himself to history and sociology. One was interested in an individual and the ways human body functions in critical conditions. The other explored community dynamics and ways in which people create their environments. They seemed content with quiet academic futures, except… their ideas were far from tame. In 1958 Kevorkian proposed that death row inmates should have the option of euthanasia with the clause of organ donorship thus igniting the controversy that defined his life and continues to rage more than half a century on. In 1966 Kon authored an article in the Soviet Pedagogy journal questioning role of sexual morality in sociology thus becoming Soviet Union’s principal sexologist by default. Communist ideology had to withstand the subversive power of human sexuality. Death and Sex got their reluctant spokespeople of the 20th century.
Kevorkian and Kon championed their respective causes quietly with research initiatives and much writing. Until the geopolitical upheavals of the 1980s and television technology boom of the 1990s gave their views an unprecedented platform and audience. Kevorkian called for a person’s right to end their life in case of terminal illness or other unbearable factors. He coined the term assisted suicide and proceeded to assist those who voluntarily requested his services until he was sentenced to eight years jail on second degree murder chargesin 1999. It was another television appearance and broadcast of the mercy act that led to his arrest. However the ensuing legal debate led to changes in many places around the world allowing euthanasia as a humane alternative to suffering.
Meanwhile during a 1986 televised exchange between American and Soviet women an infamous phrase was uttered by a Muscovite audience member: “There is no sex in the USSR!” Two years later Kon’s book “Intro to Sexology” shattered that myth. An edition of over half a million copies sold out almost instantly and had a Kinsey bomb effect on the nation. Three decades of regular media and public appearances and sixty books later, Kon has secured his academic and pop culture legacy. He shockedthe public and the scientific establishment by speaking up for early victims of AIDS epidemic and pointing towards education as a crucial means of prevention. Heraised concerns that in a country which ranks 112th in overall life expectancy, men further dovetail women by a dozen productive years. He launched a number of unprecedented in Russia research initiatives in gender studies, childhood and adolescence trying to understand and solve the problem. Perhaps most controversially, he was one of the first and remained one of the few adamant advocates of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Russia first calling for decriminalization of same-sex sexual relations and then openly supporting budding efforts for equality with his research and opinion.
For some they will remain nothing more than provocateurs, troublemakers, deviants. Others have already acknowledged their works as invaluable for evolution of social thought. Concerned with an individual, Kevorkian found that society’s influence is immeasurable when it comes to choices we make. While trying to focus his academic attention on society, Kon discovered that respect for individual’s freedoms is at the core of community building. Together they taught humanity a lesson in exemplary citizenship as we continue to wrestle with the mission of living and dying with purpose and dignity. Word of their death made television newscasts. Schenectady, included.